I am writing to you because all National Hunt jockeys are very concerned about your attempt to ban my hunt, the Ward Union.
Every Friday in winter, I miss racing to hunt with the Ward Union. Why? I need to keep my eye in.
Thanks to the wonderful generosity of north Dublin and Meath farmers, I get up on a race horse each Friday, November to February, and we're off, hounds out front. Way up ahead there's a wild Irish red deer stag, and he's out there jumping and towing us across huge hedges, cavernous drains, deep ditches and through the beautiful lush green Irish countryside.
So, when it comes to the Grand National and I am coming to Becher's Brook, I see the tension in the English jockey's shoulders. I sense his fear. He doesn't realise it, but he is holding his horse just a gnat's tight and we're seven strides out, galloping, 40 miles an hour, to a deadly drop. Suddenly you are there. The moment of truth, and I know in my head, I know I jumped bigger following the stag the previous month.
I kick on, I hear the brush of the top of the fence and we're heading down and down, and the horse lands, I adjust my balance and I feel his lungs fill, his head comes up and we are galloping on. Out of the corner of my goggles I see a flailing body, the English jockey is gone and I look around and there are just a few of us in contention now, Barry (Geraghty), Ruby (Walsh), and this year, coming on the behind me, is Puppy (Robert Power), all regulars hunting with the Ward Union.
Minister, I appreciate that you are on record as saying you dislike horse racing, but have you ever wondered why Ireland is to horse racing as Brazil is to soccer, or as New Zealand is to rugby? It is because we have hunting, because we have the likes of the Ward Union. How come all the big jump races are being won consistently by Irish jockeys? It all starts with brave kids hunting bold ponies. Hunting is what gives us our bottle.
And now, Minister, acknowledging you have no reason based on animal welfare, you believe you have grounds not to renew our licence, because a wild Irish stag jumped into a school yard in Co Meath last January. I say, lucky children. From the safety of their classroom they saw the real thing, a real wild Irish stag.
But the city folk now living in Meath say their children "might" have been traumatised by the experience. Apparently, city life was much less traumatising for their kids, despite the joyriding on the estates and nightly terrorising of elderly neighbours, just for "sport", or the drug dealer on the corner. Better to stay indoors and watch driller-killer videos.
The incident was seized upon by those who want to stop hunting, horse racing, live exports, beef farming, meat-eating, etc.
They claim the stag is stressed and exhausted at the end of the run, but omit to say that, unharmed, it is returned to the reservation and is only ever hunted once a year. That one day's hunting for the stag is what keeps these almost extinct, original, indigenous Irish red deer wild.
Under your Department's stewardship of the deer in Phoenix Park, they are regularly hit by cars, and if it's at the weekend and they are in awful pain, I understand they are not put down until Monday, when the civil servants are back at work.
Minister, when the Dail resumes on September 26, please read into the record of the Dail the numbers of deer your Department has culled around the country since 1996. The Ward Union doesn't kill any stags, but you are concerned that, on the one day a year a deer is hunted, it may be exhausted. For an animal, exhaustion and stress are different from pain and suffering.
With respect, Minister, I know animals, you don't. I ride horses, you ride a bike. Exhaustion is exhilarating, pain is debilitating -- don't mix them up. I can feel a horse going lame from the moment of its first twinge, but I also sense the sheer energy of a horse defying exhaustion, pricking its ears and racing on.
Are the thousands of pigeons taken from Dublin every weekend to France and who fly, non-stop, 10 hours back to their lofts, not completely exhausted, and maybe a bit stressed, looking for home? Minister Gormley, are you going to ban pigeon racing? This is getting ridiculous.
Puppy went on to win this year's National on Silver Birch. And I remembered a day, two months earlier, when Gordon (Gordon Elliot, trainer of Silver Birch) was jumping beside me with the Ward Union on this very brave but small horse. In the pub afterwards, I asked where he got the horse. He told me: "We bought him in Doncaster, I am aiming him for the National." I turned, and probably laughed into my vodka and Red Bull.
Silver Birch was a failed English steeplechaser. He, too, had got fed up, as I would if I didn't have my Fridays, and gone sour, running around in circles at race tracks.
But Gordon took him back to Ireland, and by hunting him in open country with the Ward Union, the little horse recovered his zest for life. He remembered he was born to run, jump and chase, and now he was ready for the biggest chase in the world, the Grand National.
Minister, I know you don't look at horse racing but I am going to forward a video of this year's National and I want you to see that horse walking into the winner's enclosure at Aintree on his toes, ears pricked, his proud eye, and Gordon and Puppy being interviewed by the BBC and thanking the Ward Union, saying, in their great moment of victory, it was having a unique, fast hunt like the Ward Union that rehabilitated this great, now champion horse. Is that not the type of animal welfare we should be rewarding?
I don't understand city life, and they probably don't understand us in the country. But I do know why, when people visit a farmer's cottage near Garristown, he'll boast about his new hip, force his visitor to join him on a walk down to a big hedge, three fields in from the road. It is now a foot taller and a yard wider in summer, but he's not going to kill a good story. "You see that hedge, that's where Silver Birch, the Grand National Winner, jumped last January." Yes, that's why the vast majority of farmers open their farms so generously to hunts. They love being involved.
Every farmer in Skryne, Co Meath, welcomes the hunt the week before Christmas, because they know, without fail, that before the legendary Micheal J Kinane flies to Dubai in January for the new season, he will be out hunting, just to keep his eye in. He'll be there jumping the ditches alongside the kids from the local pony club. For a farmer, for that day, his place becomes a Croke Park.
In the countryside, stag, fox, hare and hound, jockey, farmer, point-to-point, pony club, shooter, angler, hunter, fish, fur, flesh and feather are all magically, magnificently intertwined and interdependent. A move against the Ward Union by the Green Party will be seen clearly as a move against the entire countryside.
Let's look at the facts. A stag jumped into an empty school yard. We deserve a serious reprimand. We should, through the licence process, be made to demonstrate all the precautions we have taken to reduce the risk of such occurrences.
But, to be banned after 150 years, to put at risk the future conservation of a unique herd of wild Irish red deer, to bring about the end of a pack of unique stag hounds? Now that, is overkill. We should be given grants by your Department's heritage fund for maintaining our deer, not be subjected to a nonsensical ban.
Minister, on page 22 of your election manifesto, it stated your party's intention to end all hunting and curtail horse racing by reducing its funding. So we know where you are coming from, although it is a mystery to me why your party is so against horse racing and the tens of thousands employed in the industry.
But Minister, please allow your officials to make the decision based solely on the veterinary and scientific evidence, and, if we avoid political interference and agendas in this process, I am confident Silver Birch will have other days out with the Ward Union.
National Hunt jockey,
Ward Union hunt member