They are not a fashionable pack, the West Waterford Hounds. No dukes hunt with them and no rich Americans underwrite their expenses. Nor do they meet on a pedigreed lawn in front of a stately manor. There are few stately manors in West Waterford's farming country 35 miles northeast of the city of Cork and, besides, the West Waterford's members prefer to meet in a pub.
There are several reasons for that preference—all good ones: Joint Masters Tom and Elsie Morgan share drinks with the farmers nudging the bar at 11:30 a.m. as a sporting gesture. Nick Trigg, hunt secretary, likes meeting in a pub because he is a sociable man with an insatiable appetite for neighborhood news. These are individual preferences; there are also group motives. One group—a small one—likes meeting in a pub because it affords shelter from the rain, although sometimes only just. These pubs are old and drafty, and while the roof is generally sound, the heating is never adequate, and the facilities are marvelously straightforward. When an American woman asked the proprietress of the pub in Millstreet where the Ladies' was, she was told to look outside in the yard where a sow was rooting perfunctorily. "Out there, sweetie," said the pub-woman, "and it stretches the whole 50 miles to Cappoquin." And there is a final contingent—not quite so small and consisting largely of visitors—whose reason for meeting in a pub is more urgent than any of the others: these people need courage.
Courage is usually required in hunting country, but there are different types of courage, and bravery, like horses, must be suited to the kind of country one has to face. Boldness is perhaps paramount in the country north of West Waterford across the Galtee Mountains that is hunted by the famous Scarteen Black and Tans. There banks are broad and protected by yawning ditches up to eight feet deep. A good horse boldly ridden will get across this country because fields are big and fairly free of hidden traps, and once a horse is up on Scarteen bank he can check himself and decide where to jump down. But there are few broad banks and deep ditches in West Waterford. Farmers and regular followers simply do not rebuild worn-down obstacles. When banks erode or ditches fill, farmers put up wire or stack blackthorn and briars against a low place in a wall. The resulting fences are as varied as the imagination of the Irishmen who build them and to try to clear them at a gallop is to insure a horrid and sanguinary end of a day's sport.
The card says the West Waterford Hounds will meet at 11:30 a.m. and when Elsie Morgan takes up her corner position in the pub of the day, they can fairly be said to have met, even though the hounds are still outside, locked up in a trailer, and nothing is going to happen before 12 noon when Elsie will slip out of her green parka and into her pink hunting coat. It is like a judge taking off his topcoat and putting on his robes. Court is now in session.
The half hour in the pub is true charity on Elsie's part, because she doesn't need the courage found in the bottom of a shot glass, and she drinks her single glass of port mainly out of courtesy. She doesn't have her husband's facility for chatting with farmers—he mends more fences in half an hour in the pub than in three days with pick and shovel—and she doesn't really seem complete until she is on her horse and clucking instructions to her hounds.
But if Elsie does not need the time to supplement her courage, other people do. The Galtees in the north are steep, and water sluices off the slopes into innumerable gorse-covered canals that complicate the going. In the southern part of the country, near the sea around Youghal, the government is draining the vast bogs, and some of the new ditches that have been cut rival in terror potential anything presented by the country to the north; ditches can swallow up a horse and rider without anybody taking particular notice.
Perhaps the worst rider for the West Waterford country is the competent coward who refuses a drink and knows too much to let the horse have his head. Instead, he will ride cautiously at the rear of the field and when he gets to a big bank it will be partly collapsed under the passage of 20 horses, and the wire that ran low down on the far side will now stretch across the gap at neck level like the ambush in an Autry film. The dry rider is in deep trouble at this point, because unless he gets out of the field quickly he will be abandoned, and anyone who has not experienced it can imagine what it's like to trot about in a pasture surrounded by six-foot banks, hearing only the cawing of crows and the sodden squish of the hooves of a horse you can't hold. West Waterford regulars still frighten newcomers and small children into keeping up front by telling the dreadful story of the death of Major Burke. Burke lagged behind one day while hunting in County Meath. His horse stumbled into a ditch, and by the time anyone noticed that Burke was missing and went back to look for him he was dead—drowned in a few inches of water.
So the wise coward drinks, watching the clock out of the corner of his eye like a fat boy in a tough neighborhood who knows the heavies down the block are talking about him, and when Elsie puts down her glass and begins to pull on her gloves, it's time to pray you won't have to make a scene to get a final double whisky before word is passed to let the hounds out.
The hounds come to the meet in a slatted-wood trailer. Letting down the tailgate is like breeching a cofferdam. A torrent of dogflesh immediately pours out, its enthusiastic constituents purling happily and making for Elsie when they hear their names. Hounds have very little individual personality and they all look alike—one of the characteristics of a good pack. So it isn't easy to put a name to every face as it emerges from the back of the trailer, especially when there are names like Guilty, Manager, Plunder, Rubicon, Pleasant, Garnish, Globule, Gaudy, Dora, Dorcas and Plastic. But Elsie gets them all, and they huddle round the feet of her horse obviously pleased that someone knows them.
These hounds are the achievement of an American, Isaac Bell, whose influence on hound breeding was as great as that of Clausewitz on warfare. Bell was one of the great huntsmen of his time in addition to being a prodigious student of the pedigree and conformation of foxhounds. In 30-odd years of hunting Bell was master of three packs, beginning in 1903 with the Galway Blazers. By the early 1930s he was so badly crippled by arthritis that, after a brief stint riding sidesaddle, he surrendered his mastership of the South and West Wilts. He turned to ocean racing and quickly became a celebrated yachtsman, famed as the builder of Bloodhound, which eventually was purchased by Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip.