On Annie's Bar the man down from Belfast was close to tears. "Could anybody tell me," he asked passionately, "how it's possible to lose a gold Rolls-Royce in a bloody town as small as this? Where's me lovely Rolls gone?"
" 'Tisn't real gold at all," said Patsy Browne out of the corner of his mouth. " 'Tis one of them fancy finishes. His brother went off in it a coupla hours ago with that black-haired girl from the bank. Don't say a word."
Browne, a small wizened man in a cloth cap, 68 years old and very much the senior bookie at the National Coursing Meeting at Clonmel, Ireland, sat back to enjoy the crisis. But the lament of the Rolls owner was cut short by a loud cry from the corner. "Ye're all the best men!" yelled a wild-eyed sportsman, rising to his feet, then slowly keeling over like a shot stag. Willing hands caught him before he hit the floor and laid him out respectfully.
"Too much rum and black currant," Patsy clucked reprovingly. "The man is in bad order. But he's me first cousin, and we can't leave him here. Though nobody'd pick his pocket, not in Annie's." As we lugged Patsy's cousin out into the frosty night, a frightening sobriety overcame a man in the corner of the bar. "I'm goin' to tell you somethin'," he said to the company in general. "I'm terrified of the mornin'."
It was Wednesday night, the final night of the meeting. For three days, on the racetrack at Powerstown Park in Clonmel, we had watched the fastest greyhounds in Ireland course hares, a sport that is a combination of hunting and racing. Each night winners and losers had been honored in the pubs with a fervor that made you think The Irish Times had announced that the solar system was scheduled to become a supernova before the end of the week. And now a vision of passionless, boring, hungover normality had assailed the man in the corner. Acting fast, he ordered another whiskey.
But there was still some time before the cold dawn. Sharply polished stars glittered over the little Tipperary town as our cortege, bearing Patsy's cousin, weaved out into the night to where Patsy's youngest son sat patiently reading in a parked car, awaiting, as he had done all evening, such a contingency as this. On the air hung an aroma typical of small country towns in Ireland, a coming together of beer fumes, cow dung, smoldering turf and the smell of flowing water, in this case the swollen River Suir, now shouldering its way so violently under the town bridge that the old stone buttresses looked as if they would never last the night. The roar of the Suir itself couldn't match the pulsing uproar to which every pub in town was contributing: Annie's, the Clonmel Arms, the Greyhound Inn, the Minella and the close on 100 other establishments that capably cater to the inhabitants of Clonmel in normal times, but which are under deep stress at the National Coursing Meeting.
It is a riotous, bucolic festival of racing, hunting, boozing and betting that has been run at Clonmel since 1925, but which in essence goes back to man's earliest roots. In a cave at Gabillou, France, there is a Paleolithic drawing that was perhaps meant as a magical aid for hunters of the hare, and if any of the hard-betting men who assemble at Clonmel each year knew about it, it would be odds-on that they would charter a flight from Shannon for a quick rub of it before the meet.
In its modern form, coursing is a fierce, sophisticated game that is currently under attack in Ireland by opponents of blood sports (in Britain it is close to being outlawed altogether). Heavy money is involved—a single bet of �20,000 on an individual course between two dogs is not unknown—and there is more than a degree of skulduggery. The scene can be very wild, even hysterical, but somewhere at the bottom of it is the national love of the chase, of the greyhound, even of the hare. It is not an aristocratic sport like horse racing, but a rural one, dating back in Ireland to the time when every small farmer had a hunting dog. Once the heavy work on the land eased in the late fall, he would be over the moorland, hunting the hare. The season still adheres to the farming pattern—from the start of October to St. Patrick's Day.
"It is a gallant sport," wrote George Turberville, an Englishman, in 1575, "to see how the hare will turn and winde to save hyrselfe out of the dogges mouth. So that sometimes even when you thinke that your greyhounde doth gape to take hyr, she saveth hyrselfe by turning, wrenching and winding until she reach some covert and to save hyr life...."
At the national meeting, before the "park," or formal coursing, starts, it is customary to have a day's traditional, "open" coursing in the countryside near the town. And in essentials open coursing has changed little since Turberville's day, except that old George's meets probably didn't include a pipe-opening session at the pub before the start.