Protesters turn out to run with the hare but condemn coursing with hounds

 

“ABSURDLY MACHO” was how a columnist in The Spectatorrecently described hurling. Britain’s right-wing weekly should have dispatched a correspondent to Clonmel yesterday for the coursing, such was the level of testosterone in the Powerstown Park air.

For the uninitiated, coursing involves greyhounds chasing live hares in speed trials which aficionados find hugely exciting.

Fans include Dublin hurling manager Anthony Daly, who explained its attraction in an Irish Timesinterview last week. He said he loved “the thrill of the chase” and “watching a hare making an eejit out of two greyhounds”.

His advice to sceptics was: “If you can twist a day sick or something, go to Clonmel, go up into the stand and just watch the atmosphere.”

Thousands, including Daly, were in attendance for the final day of the annual three-day “national meeting” of the Irish Coursing Club. Founded in 1916, the club now stipulates that “all hares must be released back to the countryside after each coursing meeting”.

They say “it is not the object of a course to kill the hare” and remind critics that the “muzzling of greyhounds was introduced to coursing in 1993”.

Outside the venue, a small group of about 25 protesters from various animal rights groups held posters and banners deploring the event. The Irish Council Against Blood Sports issued a statement saying they found it “incredible that in this, the year 2010, in a so-called civilised country, such a barbaric activity, having its origins in the Roman amphitheatres, still prevails”.

Inside, a crowd estimated by gardaí­ at 13,000 (and 30,000 over the three days) was having a whale of a time. Among them was well-known developer (and master of the Ward Union Hunt), Mick Bailey, who sipped hot Powers whiskey from a paper cup and observed that hunting was one of the traditional freedoms “our grandparents fought for”.

“There’s no cruelty here,” he said.

Hare coursing has been banned in Britain since 2005, so the Irish meetings attract a strong contingent from across the water. In the shadow of Slievenamon, there was a noticeable stream of “estuary English” among the babble of Irish rural accents.

Greyhounds revel in the most splendid names: Mucky Eamonn, Cushie Cher and Begorragh, to name but a few, were among the shooting stars in races which last about 13 seconds. The overall champ, and Derby winner, was Adios Alonso. All the hares seemed to escape.

Behind the stand, a makeshift souk did a roaring trade in cod liver oil for dogs, DVDs of Big Tom and The Mainliners and mugs decorated with colourful coursing scenes. T J O’Donnell from Newcastle West, Co Limerick, was selling the latest “must-haves” for doggy men – jacuzzis and “endless swimming pools” for greyhounds.

The crowd wasn’t entirely male. Enough women follow the sport to justify the inaugural “best-dressed lady competition”. The winner, Heather Kent (30) from Waterford, a “regular” coursing goer and a Bord Bia farm inspector, received a voucher entitling her to a spa day worth €500. The sponsor, Elaine Byrne, who runs a health and beauty clinic in Naas, appealed to men to avail of treatments and acquire “hands that won’t ladder” women’s tights.

She appeared to have her work cut out. The male dress code was farmyard catwalk. Wooly hats, of a type popularised by Benny, of TV’s Crossroadsfame, seemed to be de rigueur.

A new organisation, Rise! (Rural Ireland Says Enough!), which is campaigning in support of “traditional field sports and rural pastimes”, claimed it had collected thousands of signatures.

Willie McCann from Enniscorthy, who has been attending the event every year since 1986, said he was “here to totally enjoy” himself.

Eileen Healy-Mulvihill, a schoolteacher from Glin, Co Limerick, was there to “follow in the footsteps” of her late father who attended the Clonmel meeting for more than 50 years. “Long may tradition be followed,” she said.