Farm Ireland

Tuesday 24 April 2018

Horses... Masters of the hounds

An influx of new talent is helping rejuvenate the Irish Masters of Foxhounds Association, the country’s oldest field sports body

Ahead of the pack: The Tipperary Foxhounds are the only pack in Ireland to hunt four days a week.
Ahead of the pack: The Tipperary Foxhounds are the only pack in Ireland to hunt four days a week.
CONOR DWYER Island huntsman Conor Dwyer and whip Myles O'Connor with champion doghound Buster at Stradbally Hall See copy Siobhan English

Siobhán English

Sound knowledge of horses and hounds, common sense, and a good relationship with farmers are among the most valuable assets of any huntsman.

In the past century Irish hunting had the services of some of the finest huntsmen and huntswomen to ever cross country, and names such as Isaac Bell, Olive Hall and Arthur Pollock are well documented in hunting books in many sporting households throughout Ireland.

While few of us alive today will have hunted alongside these legends of the hunting field, all of us were reminded of their valued contribution to the sport as the memorial cups and trophies were awarded to the winners of the 105th Irish Masters of Foxhounds Association (IMFHA) National Hound Show held recently at Stradbally Hall in Co Laois.

Throughout the past century, the IMFHA has continued to acknowledge the hard work and dedication of these huntsmen and huntswomen by recognising the best hounds, which in turn, ensure that this long tradition is renewed with vigour each and every season.

Founded in 1859 — making it the oldest field sports body in Ireland — the IMFHA oversees some 44 packs of foxhounds across the 32 counties, with five of those based across the border.

Together these 44 packs are the largest single employer amongst the associations which represent hunting with hounds - foxhounds, harriers, foot harriers, beagles, minkhounds and staghounds.

Many hunts such as the Scarteen in Co Limerick have been in the same family for generations, but the same can be said for hounds whose bloodlines can be traced back as far as the hunt’s founding itself.

One such pack, the Island Foxhounds, dates back to the 1700s, but with a recent influx of young blood, Conor Dwyer, has given this Wexford hunt a new lease of life. The accolades collected at Stradbally is testimony to the hard work shown by the 22-year-old in recent months.

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Never before in the history of the show had a hunt taken a clean sweep of all six classes for dog hounds, but Dwyer, as one of the youngest huntsmen in Ireland, set a new record by doing so. He then went on to claim both the championship and reserve titles with his hounds, Island Buster and Island Paragon.

It was quite an achievement for the Laois native who, by his own admission, had gone to Stradbally with little expectations. “We were hoping to maybe win one or two classes, but when we won the first two straight we were overwhelmed.”



Like many of the other ‘rookie’ huntsmen around Ireland, Dwyer has ridden horses from a young age and learned the skills for hunting hounds from his peers.

Growing up in Ballacolla, he spent many seasons hunting with the Laois Foxhounds and assisting huntsmen Jim Quinlan and James Pearson in an amateur capacity in between school days. “I learned a lot from them but then had to step back when studying my Leaving Cert. From there I went to Athlone to study business and law but I only lasted a year.”

It was during this time that the IMFHA were offering bursaries for young men such as Dwyer, and through his contacts there he was fortunate to have been offered the position of huntsmen at the Island to replace Billy O’Connor.

The hounds had previously been hunted by Mark Ollard for two seasons and Billy Connors for a remarkable 28 seasons.

Dwyer’s job offer had come on the recommendation of Laois joint-master and IMFHA vice-chairman David Lalor, who had seen his potential during his teenager years. ”I suppose I was still thrown in at the deep end though, so it was either sink or swim,” Dwyer said.

That was in 2013, and Conor Dwyer is now looking forward to starting his third season hunting this popular pack of hounds which covers a vast area of land between Gorey, Ferns and Enniscorthy.

“It has been a great learning curve but I have enjoyed the challenge and I am lucky to have two great lifebuoys in Billy and also George (Chapman).”

As master of the hunt and former chairman of the IMFHA, Chapman has a wealth of experience in hunting and also shares his knowledge in producing young horses by judging at various shows across the country.

Like his fellow huntsmen around Ireland, Dwyer’s commitment to the pack involves hard work throughout the year and not just during the hunting season over the winter months.

Just as preparation for the hound show ended, mid-July heralds the start of a busy few months getting hounds fit and ready for hunting three days a week. “We have 36 and a half hunting hounds and another 11 and a half to enter so it’s busy. At the moment we are doing a few miles on the bike, but that will gradually build as time goes on.”

‘Cubbing’, or autumn hunting, usually kicks off in August to prepare the younger hounds for the hunting field, with the majority of hunts in Ireland hosting their opening meets in early November.

One young man who has the October Bank Holiday Monday firmly marked in his diary for the opening meet is 23-year-old Gavin Shorten.

Earlier this year the Co Limerick man was announced as successor for Derry Donegan who retired as huntsman of the Tipperary Foxhounds after nine years in service.

Having served as whipper-in to Donegan for three seasons, Shorten had gathered enough knowledge of the hunt country to be deemed as the ideal replacement. “Derry was a great man to learn from and I was surprised and sad to see him go,” Shorten commented. “But I am looking forward to taking up the role even though I have big boots to fill. Having been here for a while gives me the upper hand knowing the farmers and being able to build on a good relationship with them. Without the farmers whose land we cross there would be no hunting.”

Having previously hunted with the Co Limerick Foxhounds and Stonehall Harriers while growing up in Askeaton, he also spent a season with the Galway Blazers under the guidance of their long-serving huntsman Tom Dempsey.

As one of the most popular hunts for attracting visitors, given its long history, the Tipperary Foxhounds are the only pack in Ireland to hunt four days a week, thus justifying the 56 and a half couples currently in the kennels at Tullamaine, just outside Fethard.

With such a large number of hounds, in addition to a full yard of hunt horses, Shorten has a busy time ahead, but has an excellent whipper-in this year in Padraig Moynihan from Kerry.

Also just 23, he too brings fresh ideas to the hunt, an asset that IMFHA chairman Rupert Macauley believes is crucial to the success of hunting in Ireland.

“Through the Michael Morris Memorial Bursary Scheme we have seen several young men such as recent graduates Shane McGillick and Keith Ormond learn from some of the best huntsmen in Ireland.

“This is the aim of the IMFHA, to introduce young people to hunt service and ensure they get a good grounding. To see so many young men as Conor Dwyer and Gavin Shorten taking up the hunting horn is truly encouraging for the good of fox hunting in Ireland,” Mr Macauley said.

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