WHAT a way to start a hunting day, with breakfast sandwiches with the filling coated with honey. The host was Gary O’Neill, proprietor of the popular Fincourt Bar, Restaurant and Guest House in Oldcastle.

The entrance has changed since I was last there with the addition of his daughter Ciara’s shop, where you can treat yourself to tasty snacks and all varieties of mouth-watering sweets and ice cream especially for those with a sweet tooth! Ciara and her friends Ellen O’Connell, Rebecca Farrelly and Carolina Shykhantsova, who is from Ukraine, were making sure the hunt followers were suitably nourished before it was time to get mounted.

Later I was introduced to a group of Ukrainian refugees who are staying with Ballys’ hunt follower Sinead Hyland which she brought out to follow a typical day’s hunting in the Irish countryside and experience some normality from the lives that they just left behind. The youngest was Nakita whose name means, very appropriately, People of victory, and he is only five years of age. I gave him a copy of my Dublin Horse Show book as it is packed with pictures and he could hardly balance it in his tiny hands.

Having grandchildren of that age I wondered what he was thinking in his child’s mind given the war-torn state he has come from and the frightening dangers he witnessed just getting to Ireland. What type of evil regime would target families like these and innocent children?

Sinead told me that they are the most delightful people who do their own cooking and cleaning, and the previous night invited her to join them for dinner of their native dishes. But it was refreshing to see the smiles on their faces as hounds were on song going away from Liss Bog, a sharp contrast to the sound of Russian missiles targeting their homes.

Huntsman and masters

Huntsman Kevin Donohoe is in his 24th season hunting hounds, following in the footsteps of his father Barry who hunted the pack for 27 seasons as did his grandfather for 33 seasons. When you add his grand- and great-granduncles, the Donohoes have hunted the Ballymacads for well over 100 seasons, a remarkable record. Kevin produces top hunters and eventers through Donohoe Sport Horses that are exported to Europe and the USA.

Field-master Paul Keogan and his son Alan also are prolific horse producers and Alan’s wife Edel is a superb horsewoman. Recently they welcomed baby Miss Ava to their family. Top show jumpers Nicky Galligan and Alexander Butler are keen followers also of the Ballymacads. Whipping-in are Maurice Quinn and Bobby Kellett who not alone are talented horsemen, but even more importantly, have a very close relationship with landowners in the area. Rachel Gilsenan is their hard-working honorary secretary who carries a large workload, and is a very important part of the team. The masters Gary O’Neill, Michael Bevan, Brendan Cosgrove and Martin Farrell were hunting on the day.


Hunting is a sport that binds rural dwellers, and while most people do not look forward to winter months, the hunting fraternity welcomes it with open arms. The huntsman’s wife Joanne and their daughter Aoibhinn, out on her pony Bud, were hunting with friends Sarah Brown and the huntsman’s goddaughter Katie Murray. Eileen Farrelly was riding her sturdy 21-year-old cob that has hunted for 16 seasons and her husband Ambrose ensures he is kept in tip-top condition.

Following also were Thady Lynch whose father Dr Finian Lynch was joint-master of the Westmeath Foxhounds. Also out were Kate Hyland, Eoin Sheridan, Jamie O’Rourke whose father Paul hunted the Fingal Harriers and his grandfather ‘Speedy’ whipped-in to John Henry Snr in the Meath Foxhounds.

On horseback also was Niall O’Regan and his daughter Maisie whose grandfather Marc was following by car. Richard Bevan recalled hunting with international show jumper Diana Conolly-Carew. Also out were John Bonham of the Lakeland Beagles, Lorraine Brown whose daughter Sarah was hunting, Alan Masterson and his wife Adele and children Noah and Pippa, Martin Smith from the Westmeaths and Philip Sheridan. Donal Gilsenan, whose brother Rory was a well-known show horse producer, was following as was Nobbie Halpin and Brendan Tully who made sure the country was secure.


It was wonderful to see the Ballymacads move off from the Naper Arms Hotel in the town centre of Oldcastle which is the crossroads to Virginia, Castlepollard and Mount Nugent, a tradition dating back to the foundation of the Ballymacads in 1797. The hunt country is also unique as the Ice Age 30,000 years ago played a major part in creating its undulating hills and valleys, providing a comfortable home for both the fox population and other wildlife species.

The first draw was at Uitley where a brace were soon on the move, hunting down the woodland with wonderful hound music in Liss Bog and turning back towards the Cavan Road beside McEnroe’s and Smith’s. But with so many cattle still out, the huntsman stopped the pack.

The car followers had a great view of the hunt from Cooneys Bridge on the old abandoned railway line that ran from Navan, Kells, Athboy and Carnaross. Here I met Declan Smith who remembers his grandmother sitting him on the wall of the bridge when the last train passed in 1963. Declan’s father Paddy trained point-to-pointers on the cinder surface of the disused track on a stretch that ran from Cooneys Bridge to Foley’s Bridge. Declan trained horses on the flat in New York and worked for Ennistown Stud and for Dr Herbert Schnapka who owned Eddie Macken’s famous show jumper Boomerang, who initially hunted with the Kilmoganny Harriers.

The famous horse is buried at Rafeehan Stud which I passed on my way to the hunt. Former master Thosh Kellett, who was on business during the day, managed a stop for a few minutes to see the pack that he was master of for 25 seasons.

Hounds found again in Betty Porter’s and a slow hunt ensued for about 20 minutes, but followers did not have much time to view it as there were some serious ditches to cross, and there were plenty of empty saddles. As hounds checked, the huntsman moved on by the point-to-point course, and the car followers were on queue parked along the road at the Boolies where the field jumped out on the road. It is an awkward jump as your horse is taking off much lower than the road over a stone wall, but there were no casualties.

Important for business

It was interesting to see how traffic slowed down as the drivers waved, passing the horses on the road, which just goes to show how integrated the hunt is with the local community, and they appreciate the contribution it makes to business in the area.

At Patrick’s Hill, the huntsman put hounds in from the road on the lower side of Balinvalley, and they struck a line straight away running towards the furze on top of the hill. From there they ran to Slieve na Cailleach (The Hag’s Mountain) which is dotted with landmarks dating back to the fourth millennium. There the followers had a nice spin but the heavy going during the day started to tell, so the huntsman blew for home after an action-packed day.

Garry O’Neill’s Fincourt Bar & Restaurant again provided refreshments for the band of enthusiastic followers, who despite all the interruptions to their sport in the last couple of years, have a very busy hunting, point-to-point and hunt ball programme ahead.