If you’re making plans to travel to Ireland to foxhunt for the first time, perhaps I could offer a little advice.
As a descendant of a long line of horse-loving County “Kilkenny-ans” privy to priceless stories told by my infamous grandfather, Sean Patrick McMahon, who followed his own hounds into his 90s,
as well as my own Irish riding experiences, I have gained valuable insight into the differences between the Gaelic and English foxhunting languages.
To begin, don’t be fooled into thinking this is the same kind of ’chasing you’ve been enjoying in Virginia. Or Massachusetts. Or Illinois. Or even Texas, where pursuing coyote provides its own unique brand of excitement. And, should anyone tell you hunting on the Auld Sod is similar to hunting in the States, you’ll want to take note how fast their nose grows.
Before accepting a leg-up, first-time foxhunters in Ireland would be well advised to take note of certain disparities in the Irish and American sports. First and foremost, you must understand that while foxhunting may be just a sport in America, in Ireland it is a religion. And, well it should be, since prayer is an integral part of following hounds over there. This, however, in no way requires the Irish to be 100 percent truthful describing their beloved pastime to “furriners,” (anyone born and bred outside what Sean Patrick called “the loveliest island the Lord ever created for horse and hound.)” But, not necessarily for the rider.
Since uninformed visitors commonly misinterpret Irish “hunt speak,” they are all too frequently left unprepared for the genuine Gaelic foxhunting experience. Following their first outing with an Irish pack, however, which often includes a crash course in the vernacular, visitors quickly learn to refer to the “regional dialect” or “creative colloquialism” of Irish “hunt-speak.” Some, however, once they regain consciousness, simply refer to it as bold-faced prevarication. In its most imaginative form, of course.
Hence, before actually mounting up and riding out across the Irish countryside, I sincerely advise visitors to familiarize themselves with the literal Gaelic meaning of a few familiar foxhunting phrases, thus learning to decipher what is meant from what is said.
MFH welcome: “Faith and we’re all so very pleased you could join us this grand afternoon. Having informed us you are experienced foxhunters, we welcome you to join us in finding sport in some of our most challenging country.”
Translation: We’ll be collecting the cap fee up front. Dealing with your estate could prove too complicated.
MFH description of country: “We have a grand sweep of meadows and woodland, with a dozen or so well-placed panels.”
Translation: Give or take 150 post and rails, stone walls, barbed wire pastures, seven-foot banks and ditches that can swallow a horse and rider whole.
Guest horse descriptions: “This handsome big gelding has a bit of age on him, but he knows his job, and has his own unique style of covering our countryside.”
Translation: He has more miles than an Edsel and moves like a rhino among the gazelles.
And: “The old mare carries her head a bit high, but don’t let it concern you a bit.”
Translation: You won’t be able to see where you’re going. Ever. But, from the looks of the way you sit, that could be a blessing.
Also: “Oh, you’ll need no spurs on that fine wee mare. She has enough lovely forward movement on her own.”
Translation: You’ll need a seatbelt at a check.
Or: “Don’t mind if she gives a tiny hop or two when we’re moving on. She’s been know to be a bit of a minx at times.”
Translation: If she can’t buck you off, she’ll roll over on you.
Also: “This horse is a little keen in the field. He takes a little hold on a run and has been known, on rare occasion, to get a wee strong over fences.”
Translation: This horse will kill you.
Position in the field: “As a guest, you are welcome to ride towards the front, but, please be so kind as to note when the pack is working, for I confess I will be a bit cross if you happen to interfere with my staff or hounds.”
Translation: I will kill you.
And: “Faith, why I’d be honored, sir, to have the Joint Master of the Skittlegrits Hounds from America join me up nearest the action.”
Translation: If I were a cat, you’d be my hairball.
Also: Ah, madam, how vibrant you are today. And would those lovely hues be your traditional hunt colors?”
Translation: It looks like a pinata exploded on top of your horse.
Appropriate tack: “This darlin’ little cob goes very well in a simple snaffle.”
Translation: As long as it’s wrapped in razor wire.
And: “I think it best you exchange your forward seat for one of our own saddles today, in the event we encounter some ditches in the high country.”
Translation: We “encounter” ditches in our paddocks, and while the forward seat is grand if you enjoy flying, it plays the devil when you’re landing.
Weather prediction: “You might take notice there’s a few high clouds in the west.
This indicates we could encounter a smattering of wet weather today, in which case, there’s the chance we’d head in earlier than usual.”
Translation: They’re predicting a monsoon by midday, but we’re staying out till the fox goes to ground if we have to do the backstroke over fences. Any pantywaist who wants to come in early better bring enough rainproof breadcrumbs to find their own way back.
Length of time hunt is out: “As a rule of thumb, we’re generally back at the kennels in time to enjoy a bit of cheer before supper.”
Translation: Once, last season, we got back before dark, but that was only because the snow drifted up over our saddles. We carry our cheer in our flasks.
Approaching a stone wall: “There’s a little stone wall ahead. Feel free to go around it if you’d prefer.”
Translation: This wall is 5’6″ if it’s an inch. If you’re uncomfortable jumping it you should have stayed in South Carolina. You can get around it if you don’t mind detouring into County Galway.
The ground conditions: “It’s been stormy of late, and the going could be a bit wet in places.”
Translation: This ground has as much traction as a luge course.
The bog: “Mind you tread carefully across the bog. It sometimes proves a little soft.”
Translation: I don’t know, they were here a minute ago!
Should you have an accident: “We are equipped to handle any unforeseen incident that may occur.”
Translation: Just try not to fall off during a hard run. If you do, please have the courtesy to drag yourself out of the way so as not to impede other riders. Someone will be back to get you. Sooner or later. But, just to be on the safe side, keep your flask with you at all times.
Along the way: “View halloa! We’ll be going over this wee rocky rise now, so mind your step”
Translation: Lean forward, grab mane and hope your nose doesn’t start to bleed before we reach the top.
Also: “Go on, now, it’s as safe as jumping over a wee hillock.”
Translation: Or out of an airplane with an umbrella.
Or: “Our horses get quite thrilled hearing those notes on the huntsman’s horn.”
Translation: I don’t know. They were here a minute ago.
For those left upon the return to the kennels: “It is always one of our greatest pleasures to offer a group of ‘Yanks’ a day of sport they’ll never forget.”
And that needs no translation.