Bell was primarily concerned with the performance of hounds in the field, and years of observation convinced him that very often the best performers were not the best lookers, when judged against the prevailing standards of beauty. Those standards emphasized massiveness and bone at the expense, Bell believed, of pace, drive and concentration. Bell was living in Lismore, the center of the West Waterford country, when Tom and Elsie Morgan arrived in 1949.
The Morgans were fresh from Germany, where Tom Morgan had been stationed as a captain in the British Army. In the middle of the Nazi collapse, a German cavalry unit surrendered to Morgan's artillery battery, and he had put 50 of the most likely troopers on the same number of the best horses and led them nearly 900 miles to a town near Aachen, which was in British hands. Elsie, who had spent the war in Wales, eventually joined him, bringing some hounds with her. For two years the Morgans hunted over most of northern Germany, taking occasional leaves for periods of show jumping and, in Elsie's case, racing. They took over the West Waterford in 1952. When Bell saw Elsie Morgan hunt the pack, he recognized a challenge. "Do what I say," he told her, "and I will breed you a pack of hounds worthy of your talent."
It took Bell two years of breeding and picking and choosing before he presented the Morgans with a foundation pack. Those hounds were an epitome of his thinking. Today's descendants are lighter—both in color and weight—and smaller than their pure English counterparts. They are primarily Fell, or mountain, hounds bred from a stock provided by the College Valley hounds in Northumberland. College Valley is the only other pack that hunts Fell hounds from horseback, the usual practice being to take the pack up a mountain, release them and follow their progress with binoculars. If common sense entered into the fox-hunting equation, it would be a good idea to hunt the West Waterford pack this way, because these hounds are, above all, fast. But Ikey Bell bred his pack for Elsie Morgan to hunt from horseback, and as long as she can keep up, native temerity and strong drink will continue to produce at least a handful who will try and follow her.
It is hard to convey an idea of how fast hounds are because their speed depends so much on the kind of country they are running in. The Scarteen Black and Tans are generally considered to be a fast pack—some say the fastest in Ireland—and on the one occasion, in 1963 at Dirk House, Tipperary, the two packs hunted in a joint meet, the West Waterfords got away from the Tans as soon as the run moved onto a hill. Thaddeus Ryan's family has owned the Black and Tans for more than 200 years, and he hunts the pack today. He loves his hounds as much as any man could, but he is above all a truthful man. "It was astonishing," he recalls. "They went across the fields head to head, my hounds singing the bass and the West Waterfords taking the treble." When the fox ran to earth the West Waterfords were a field ahead of the Tans. The first rider to arrive on the scene was Elsie Morgan.
Elsie Morgan seems to glide across country. She finds an opening on the left if there is none on the right but she never appears to waste time with lateral movement. Elsie wears glasses, and when it rains she can't see, but she still goes through places that appear impenetrable. She has ridden for Ireland in international competitions, and she is known to be willing to ride almost anything. In one continental competition she got a special prize for "the bravest rider of the craziest horse." The horse was named Rooney, and whenever he saw a jump he would race at it, paying no mind to efforts of the rider to stop him. Elsie tried hunting hounds from Rooney for a while, but that activity, in addition to requiring a willingness to go, also demands an ability to stop. Admitting, finally, that she couldn't implant this concept in Rooney's head and hunt the hounds, Elsie gave the horse to Tom, whose responsibilities include managing the field, or followers. As field master, Tom is supposed to be first, and Rooney makes sure he is. If, through inadvertence, another horse gets past Rooney between fences, Rooney leapfrogs him at the next barrier. Tom makes no effort to stop him because he's convinced Rooney can jump anything.
In addition to being a first-rate horsewoman, Elsie Morgan has developed to a rare degree a second talent, one that is indispensable if a horseman wishes to be a huntsman. That is an eye for country. Great generals are supposed to have it, and the British Army still encourages officers to develop their eye by hunting. You don't develop it by following the man in front of you but by going off on your own, spotting shortcuts, taking advantage of gaps, conserving your horse where possible. A well-developed eye for country will tell you, for instance, that the highest part of a bank is often the best place to jump: farmers will rely on the bank to keep livestock in and won't be so likely to string wire across the top. A good eye for country knows that the greenest part of a field is likely to be a bog and he can spot the quickest way across a glen in a second. If you have a good eye, you don't get lost. If you don't have the eye, you had better stick close behind someone who does. But don't choose Elsie Morgan.
Hunting may be divided into three separate phases: the draw, the run and the kill. The proper name for the first phase is "drawing the covert" and it means waiting while the hounds are sent through a wood or copse of trees that foxes are likely to haunt. You continue to draw different coverts until hounds strike the trail of a fox. This is usually the best time to watch hounds work since, even in Ireland, there is only minimal danger of falling off while your horse is standing still.
Once a fox is found, the hunt enters on phase two, the run. In heavy country or if scenting conditions are poor, a run may be little more than a walk. If the ground is too cold or too hot, hounds have trouble with the scent, and it is one of the abiding frustrations of the fox hunter to see a fox bolt from cover without the hounds' knowledge. But if the scent is right, the hounds take off as if shot from a goose gun, running in a tight cluster and singing their song.
When the West Waterfords break from cover and start across the tortuous countryside, it seems about even money that at least one neck will snap before the thing is through. This does not usually happen, but in one meet last season in a field of 23, two riders finished up concussed, six fell from their mounts and, when the fox finally ran into a forestry project, only the Morgans and two others were there to collect the hounds. Even Elsie, herself, had a fall.
The life the Morgans have lived since they took over the West Waterford has not been easy. The entire budget for the hunt is in the neighborhood of �1,000, which means that the Morgans do most everything themselves. Tom keeps the hounds fed by collecting carcasses of dead cows or aged horses from surrounding farms. He brings them back to the kennels and skins them, hitching the hide to a tractor and peeling it off. Elsie finds the time to cook, keep house and help one groom exercise the nine horses each day.