by ehistoryadmin on July 18, 2014

Canine carnage as train slices through hunting pack

By Liam Kenny

The unnecessary killing of animals by humans arouses strong emotions. The outcry over the apparent killing of a cat on RTEs standout crime thriller “Love/Hate” was instructive even if was quickly apparent that the feline lost not a whisker in the filming of the scene.

There was no such sensitivity for the readers of the local press a century ago at the beginning of winter each year when the columns of the Kildare Observer newspaper were full of reports from the hunting fields of the county and adjoining districts. However even the passing of a century does not ease the disturbing reality that more often than not the hunts ended with blooded foxhounds tearing shreds through a cornered fox.

The centrality of the hunt to the power structures and social lives of the upper crust in local society was apparent in the almost breathlessly enthusiastic reports of foxes being chased across the countryside. The hunt was much more than an opportunity to pursue an unfortunate animal across hill and plain.  It was also a social club for the mounted elite of the county where titled aristocracy rubbed saddles with ambitious social climbers.

It acted too as a form of matchmaking at the gallop. Prominent among those listed as attending the hunt meets were the daughters of the country houses and the single army officers from the cavalry stations  at the Curragh and Newbridge. Indeed the officers seemed to fit their military duties into a life of hunting rather than the other way about. And it is this picture of a society at play which gives some value to the study of the historical reports. Useful for the historian too are the references to place names and the names of landowners in the accounts of the hunt meets.

The reports take on a different character in the early 1900s as the almost unfettered freedom of the hunt to gallop across fields and jump hedges and ditches begins to be constrained by modern innovations on the landscape. A hunt report in 1912 laments the fact that the riders had to circumnavigate barbed wire around a property outside of Naas. And a hunt meet in late October 1913 encountered an altogether more powerful kind of horse on the landscape – the “iron horse” or railway locomotive.

The incident occurred during the cubbing campaign of late autumn 1913 as young dogs were being blooded so that they would be at their most tenacious when the hunt season proper opened at the end of October. The cubs and huntsmen had set off from near Rathsallagh on the Kildare/Wicklow county boundary. The dogs flushed a fox out of the gorse near Ballintaggart and chased across the track of the Tullow to Sallins railway line. But disaster was coming down the line as the cubs attempted to pin down the fox in a trackside hedge. According to the matter-of-fact Kildare Observer report: “ Very unfortunately the 11 o’clock train from Tullow was due and it dashed through the dog pack causing considerable damage.”  One can only imagine the squeals of pain as the flanged train wheels crushed canine bone and tissue . The most lamented casualty was a hound named “Tomboy” who had won a prize at the hunt puppy show while another prizewinner “Dustman” was rendered useless for further hunting. Yet the hunt correspondent did not seem too upset describing the carnage as being merely “a piece of very bad luck.”

Indeed the writer’s only note of regret was that the kill rate of the cubbing season had fallen short of the previous year: “Although the number of kills did not reach the record of 15 brace (30 foxes) it reached the goodly total of 11 brace (22 foxes) …”.

The writer did have some critical words for two-legged hunt club members who were not walking puppy hounds and training them in the arts of the pursuit. He wrote: “There are many people in Co Kildare who should walk hounds but don’t preferring to leave this undoubtedly troublesome work to those who get less sport out of hunting.” 

Such lack of co-operation apart all was well when the first meet of the hunt for the 1913/14 winter took place at the customary venue outside the Johnstown Inn. There was praise for the huntsmen who worked from the Kennels at Jigginstown west of Naas. The first whip was Will Jacklin and it was said that the “hounds reflected the greatest credit on his unceasing care.”

The larger four-legged animals were also in the best of fettle courtesy of “King, the stud groom” who had the large stud of new hunters looking “in the pink of condition.” Indeed when the Master of the hunt with the inevitable double-barrelled name, Captain Talbot-Ponsonby, opened his third season in charge of the hunt everything was in first-class order. His hunt was led off by 56 couples of hounds of which 18 couples were first season hunters and, presumably, survivors of the accident when a Sallins bound train had sliced through the pack of young dogs in pursuit of their first blood. Leinster Leader 29 October 2013, Looking Back, Series no: 355.


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