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The Truth About Hare Coursing


John Martin goes behind the scenes at Newcastlewest to investigate the controversial sport of coursing

THESE are changed times in what was once a nondescript county Limerick hamlet.

Now Newcastlewest, like all the best towns, is twinned with the chic French-sounding resort of Cannes-sur-Somethingorother: one of the few places to have more letters in its name than Newcastlewest.

For some unscientific reason, the country's coursing strongholds take a long time to type . . . Castletowngeoghegan and Borris-in-Ossory, for instance.

Con Houlihan will carry to his grave a belief that Castleisland is not spelled as one word. But in coursing terms, it is; as are all the others that I cannot be bothered typing.

Ditto for Newcastlewest. One word and, peculiarly, just An Caislean as Gaeilge.

Mind you, it has not changed utterly. Certainly, Islamic fundamentalism has yet to take hold.

For example, pick up the coursing card on Saturday, the first session in the two-day fixture, and you are hit by the political incorrectness of some of the greyhounds.

The public address intones: "Now going to slips for the first brace in the John Kelly Memorial Perpetual Cup are Saleen Lark and Manic Koran".

I kid you not. Talk about giving a dog a non-pc name.

Coursing in Newcastlewest has survived all the tribulations which are the sport's lot (the Irish Council Against Bloodsports, the Animal Liberation Front et al) . . . and one is confident that they will come through any jihad, too.

Organised coursing in Newcastlewest is comparatively young, although there is written evidence of an embryonic club forming a committee in Condon's haybarn in 1927.

The club moved to their present location when the local nob, a Captain Curling, bequeathed his demesne to the townsfolk.

The County Council maintain it to a high standard, to such an extent that the approach to the coursing field is by newly-tarmacadamed road and past the tennis club, and the soccer pitches which once echoed to the enthusiasm of League of Ireland football.

There is a certain incongruity here: coursing happily conducted alongside other sports . . . and in the town's centre, too . . . and signs which implore greyhound owners not to walk their dogs on the pitch.

It has always been thus in Newcastlewest where the club have occupied the demesne lands since 1948 and have the comfort of a 99-year lease.

However, it was not always the well-marshalled unit that it is now under chairman Nicholas Dowling.

Whether one supports the sport or otherwise, it has to be accepted that it is a modern-day phenomenon.

The netting of hares yielded 90 of our furry friends which have been held for seven weeks. Immediately after this fixture, the local steward Aidan Supple released the same 90 hares, their contribution in this age of muzzled coursing done.

Supple is paid for his part by the sport's authority, the Clonmel-based Irish Coursing Club (ICC).

Those who catch the hares, and mind them and monotonously train them to run in a straight line from one end of the field to the other by repeatedly tracing and re-tracing the hare path, get nothing for their endeavours.

Nor do those who act as stewards and flagmen and sell programmes. One would need to go to the lowest under-age level in football to witness such selfless dedication.

Now it is different, but Newcastlewest was once run in a sort of post-Christmas haze. It was a glorified drinking club.

Why, even as they waited for their turn to go to slips, dogs had green chartreuse spat down their throats by owners anxious to keep their charges warm.

The current chairman insists that it is now the pioneers club among the coursing fraternity, but there are simply too many pubs in the town to bolster that claim.

Still, the turnaround has been remarkable. Many moons ago, an owner asked me to drop in to where the draw was taking place for the coursing at Newcastlewest. He wanted his dog to get into the Derby Trial Stake.

He gave me a bottle of Powers to take along "just in case the draw has already taken place".

Right enough, by the time that I arrived, the draw had been made.

I proffered the bottle of whiskey which an official placed at his feet and announced: "Feck it, lads, we're going to have to re-draw the Derby Trial Stake again".

Now the tipple most associated with Newcastlewest is Ballygowan; and the frost of January has given way to the rains of December when the meeting is now run.

That is the other wonder of coursing. It always takes place. A field in Nenagh may be flooded; but, at the drop of a hat, the whole shebang is moved to a dry spot in Borris-o-somethingorother.

It is a raw weekend in the Munster countryside, the wind whistling through trees at the top of the field where the judge sits astride his horse.

For the uninitiated, there are two greyhounds in every course or race. One wears a white collar, the other has a strip of red around its neck.

They are released by the slipper a few hundred yards down the field and climb upwards in pursuit of a hare which has been given an 80-yard head start.

The winner is the dog which is first to turn the hare. This is determined by the judge and signified with the waving of a handkerchief of the appropriate hue.

The judge here is Walter Dick, a colourful character in his own right.

The late Pat Holland, a Corkman like Dick and one of the most genial of greyhound officials, once put it thus: "We pay judges to give the decisions, 99 per cent of which we could have given ourselves . . . and then we vehemently disagree with him on the other one per cent".

Walter Dick is the Graham Poll of the code, never afraid to make decisions that are unpopular and controversial.

The sport will be so much poorer when he retires. Unfortunately, the weather is such that he is not decked out like a Christmas card in his hunting red, but instead he covers up with a waterproof mac.

His sympathies are with the pursued rather than the pursuers. "Get around, me girlie," he cries with a tallyho voice to direct the confused bunny to the escape under which it, but not the dogs, can duck.

There are no official speed ratings in coursing. There are clockmen who are employed by the bookmakers.

One man near the slipper's hut at the bottom of the field drops a flag and the dogs are timed from here to another point closer to the top. With most courses taking less than 10 seconds, we are talking fractions.

On such intelligence do bookmakers like Bruddy Bourke make a comfortable living.

Bourke is another charismatic character, more Dickensian London than downtown Castleisland, as he places his snuff delicately on the back of his right hand and advocates the dubious properties of the stuff before putting it to his nostrils.A prospective punter surveys Bourke's prices. No newfangled computerised odds here. Just chalk and blackboard.

The prices are hardly attractive. Musical Time is just 4/5 to win the Munster Cup, the meeting's main event.

Bourke offers a little persuasion: "Have a go . . . your mother won't know . . . and I won't tell her . . . "

I suggest that 4/5 is not going to be much of a lure. "If I put up even-money, they will ask for 5/4," reasons the bookmaker. "It they complain about the 4/5, I give them evens."

Bourke and his bookie buddies will never go hungry. Then again, those on the other side of the divide are in it for the sport and not the money.

A good job, too. I put it to Seamus Neary, a cattle dealer and stalwart of the Sevenhouses club in Cuffesgrange, Co Kilkenny, that he has plenty of money. "Yes, and I have found the best place to lose it," he says, reflecting on another less-than-successful season.

Moving down the field, the voice of Mrs Patricia McElligott grows even louder.

Mrs McElligott's quietly-spoken husband Patrick used to do the job before he passed on and now Mrs Mac whips the owners into shape. She mentions one errant trainer and broadcasts: "You've been called!"

I cannot say what she did away from the coursing field, but my money is on 'school ma'am'. "You're very slow coming to slips today," she says for all to hear with an understood 'can do better' in the comments column.

This is a regimented and properly organised sporting event. And at the end of the field is the man who holds the successful running of the whole thing in his hands: the slipper.

Richard Quinn is a dynamo, small and compact, with a low centre of gravity and wrists of steel.

Coursing greyhounds weigh up to 100lbs, 50 per cent more than their track brothers.

The slipper releases the greyhounds at intervals of less than three minutes.

The hare is depending on him for a fair lead that could save his skin; the owners are depending on him for a level start and an honest course.

Nobody is to be disappointed: 90 hares went out and 90 hares came back.

As for the owners and trainers, they cover a wonderfully wide spectrum.

The Munster Cup is duly won by Musical Time, owned by Patsy Byrne who is a millionaire Surrey builder who has given a lifetime to preserving coursing and with a first prize of just �2,700 is hardly in it for the money.

The trainer of Musical Time is Kevin Barry who has a famous address: Rosegreen, Co Tipperary.

Barry joined Vincent O'Brien in the same year as The Minstrel and was there in the era of King's Lake and Golden Fleece.

Now he spends his summers working for Aidan O'Brien and his winters on the coursing circuit.

Local meetings such as this are all a lead-up to the Classics in Clonmel in early February.

Barry also sends out Doonard Rahela to lift the Oaks Trial Stake for Tarbert's Eleanor Coolahan, while Nenagh's John Kelly trains the well-named Chasing Glory to take the Derby Trial Stake for the Happy Kids Syndicate made up of Ryan (10), Tianna (7) and Jack (5) Maher from Claremorris.

For Billy Keogh and family from Tournafulla, there was defeat with No Charge in the first round of the Surplus Stake, the poorest event on the card with just �150 on offer to the eventual winner.

If son Liam, who was catching No Charge, was fed up with the length of the slip or the judge's decision or simply the weather, well he was certainly not showing it.

In fact, his smile was brightening up a winter's day: a true sport among fellows.
 

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