LET’s face it… the opening meet of the Laois Foxhounds is always special and this year’s event did not disappoint. I couldn’t say how many Laois opening meets we have attended but I can vouch that last week’s renewal was up with the very best.

On arrival the lounge of the very sporting Abbeyleix Manor was awash with well-polished boots, yellow waistcoats, properly tied stocks and, of course, the riders to go with it. Looking just a trifle anxious was incoming huntsman Michael Comerford who had always shown good sport in his days as huntsman of the neighbouring Golden Vale. Who can blame him for opening meet nerves, the first day for an incoming huntsman can be a fraught occasion. He had taken the helm in Laois on the retirement of Dermot Hanniffy who had given sterling service to the hunt.

No hunt gathering would be complete without Mary Blundell and the ever-dapper Bill Lanigan who trains nearby. As always hunt chairman Lionel Foot was on hand to welcome visitors and ensure the smooth running of the day. Sadly missing was hunt secretary Frances McEvoy as she has just had a baby and wasn’t quite ready for the fray. Her dad JJ assured me she is raring to go and as soon as possible and will rejoin the field on her good coloured horse.

Hospitality was being dispensed by Alex Kent and his staff who were under pressure. Missing was his sister April, who is currently playing with the Ladies Polo tour in Argentina. It was great to meet our old hunt chase colleague John Rowley out for the day as was Jill Browne, former master of the Carlow Farmers, both on hand to offer support.

Just as we were warming to our work, senior master David Lalor looked knowingly at the hotel clock and sounded the saddling bell. As well as being senior master of the Laois, he is chairman of the IMFHA and works tirelessly to ensure the future of hunting. The extensive rear car park was chock-a-block with horses, hounds, onlookers and those so glad to get back in the hunting field after the Covid lay-off.

With just a touch on the hunting horn, our huntsman brought his smashing pack of Old English round to the front door where David Lalor thanked previous huntsman Dermot Hanniffy, who was on hand for the consistently good sport he had shown during his tenure. He went on to welcome all and thanked the local farmers and landowners for the welcome the hunt received after the Covid- enforced lockdown. David was on his new horse, a home-bred by Garrison Royale. Despite being a seven-year-old, it was his first proper day out and the horse performed immaculately.

Dash of colour

David was flanked by his two joint-masters, Marcus O’Loughlin and Mrs Verity O’Mahoney from Portarlington who has only joined the mastership just last season. Drivers passing on the old Dublin Road were amazed to see the dash of colour brightening what might otherwise have been a non-descript midlands Wednesday. Likewise, his brother Joe was out on a novice but one who was well-schooled and performed accordingly.

The whippers-in would not have looked out of place with the Beaufort, young Harry Lalor, who has really settled into his role with incoming whipper-in Colm Gainey (riding out his whippers-in claim at 70), resplendent in a gleaming scarlet hunt coat, produced by Vincent Neville of the Pike of Rushall. Colm, a Curragh farrier and a former NH jockey, has been hunting with the Laois since Arkle won the Gold Cup. Making up the quartet were Shane Barry, a member of An Garda Síochána, and young Jock Thompson whose father David, formerly hunted the Laois.

Physicist Dr Pat Meehan, who is a research fellow in UL as well as being a pedigree Aberdeen Angus breeder, was on his well-schooled coloured. His claim to fame is that he hasn’t missed a Laois opening meet for 35 seasons! Tomas Murphy didn’t have too far to travel from nearby Durrow where his brother Seosamh runs the Castle Arms.

Always beautifully turned out in a topper with a smile that would light up a meeting of the Green party was local sporting artist and Horse and Hound columnist Liam Clancy, tipped by many as the natural successor to Lionel Edwards.

Horses and hounds crossed the main road and hacked on by De Vesci estate, now owned by Ireland’s newest tech billionaires, the Collinson brothers from Limerick.

First draw were the Black Hills, formerly part of the old De Vesci estate but now owned by Danny Cass who farms extensively in the area. Sadly, it was blank, and hounds went on to draw the lands adjacent to the kennels at Beechfield which hosts a really decent bank. With our photographer in place, the field gave it their best and weren’t found wanting.

Naturally hunt staff, led by our huntsman, skirted over it closely followed by David Lalor acting as field-master on the day whose new horse performed like a pro.

Veteran Ritchie Mooney from Roscrea on his warmblood, at 84, gave it a clear pair of heels, closely followed by Joe Lalor on a young horse. John Nealon accounted for the bank well as did Dermot Hanniffy’s wife Emily on her stylish bay.

Venery at its best

Hounds went on to draw Warren Allen’s after jumping a serious tributary of the nearby Nore. While not on horseback, the Allens, father and son, are serious hunt supports and all round field sports-men and were out on their quad. It was Symbol and Racey, two outstanding bitches that had a fine dog fox afoot, and took hounds into Liam Dunne’s dairy farm. Here the field met a really stiff hedge with a decent drop, but after about 20 minutes, Reynard found refuge in a Nore-side earth and was given best.

Our huntsman then took hounds across the road to draw Andy Doogue’s beet field which is five-star accommodation for our quarry. It wasn’t too long before a whimper became a crescendo as hounds hunted through the beet.

Our huntsman takes up the story. “I’ve never seen a pack of hounds to perform like them. They never deviated from the line,” and he added self-deprecatingly, “they even made me look good.”

Reynard however knew exactly where he was going and was marked to ground just a couple of fields away. The field and foot followers were treated to a show of venery at its best.

With marvellous hound work and plenty of jumping, with more than a few dirty coats, the huntsman decided to blow for home.

It was a happy group that returned for the hospitality at the Abbeyleix Manor, as always generously provided by the Kent family.