For what it is, well, over the past three days, more than 30,000 people converged on Clonmel for the annual National Coursing Meeting, the All-Ireland finals of coursing.
Young, old, middle-aged, male and female, well-heeled, high-heeled, wellingtoned, woebegone, rural, urban, we were all there. From every corner of Ireland, every character you've ever seen caricatured from Synge to Hollywood musical, there we were, and many more besides, personalities with more theatre than would ever fit inside mere walls.
It's only representative now, a hand-me-down from ancient Ireland, but there is still something elemental about coursing, and the thousands who jammed Clonmel yesterday, finals day, enjoyed their sport, hound on hare, just as much as Cuchulainn, Fionn Mac Cumhail, would have enjoyed the same sport thousands of years ago.
One of those present was Wexford senior hurler David 'Doc' O'Connor: “I grew up in the countryside, but this is my first time here. I'd be used to fox-hunting, that sort of thing, but this is a fantastic rural experience, takes things to a different level. I didn't realise it was so big, that it was such a social occasion, as well as being a sporting occasion.”
Why didn't Doc realise how big it is? Because for the last twenty years or more, Clonmel has been shown, when it's been shown at all, for what it isn't. Coursing is NOT about the kill, never was (in fact, with muzzles compulsory, there are few, if any kills, anymore), it's about the chase, the hunt, the sport. For generations dogs have been bred, bloodlines established by breeders big and small; for generations they have been trained, by trainers big and small; for generations they have been owned, by owners big and small. The field is where they are measured, against each other, against nature, represented by the hare, their natural quarry; no field is more testing than the racetrack in Clonmel, no meeting more colourful, more electric.
Yet, there they were again yesterday, those who came to show coursing for what it is not. Top of the field, long lens, wait, and wait, and wait, course after course, for that moment when a hare is knocked by the dogs, then pounce, SNAP. And this morning, ladies and gentlemen, there it will be, in colour, the snapshot that's meant to represent a sport older than any, a sporting people more in commune with nature than most.
Ollie Moran, another hurler, former Limerick captain, was in conversation with Vinnie Jones, former Wimbledon FA Cup-winning footballer; this is part of that conversation.
“Vinnie: Look around you, people eating out of the back of cars, picnics everywhere (it was during a break in coursing), this is superb.
Ollie: I've been coming here for years, it's a great way to meet people from all walks of life. Everyone has something to say for themselves, everyone is comfortable in each other's company, it's very laid back, probably more so than any other major event in this country, which is probably the best thing about it.
Vinnie: Everyone is on the same level, aren't they?
Ollie: Yeah, the more you come, the more you want to keep coming back, you just get to know so many good people, it's a real cultural occasion.
Vinnie: It's infectious, isn't it? You come once, you want to keep coming. This and the Irish Cup they're the Cheltenham and Ascot of dog-racing, fantastic occasions.”
Huge occasions also, and yet, as Doc O'Connor pointed out, you'll only be aware they're happening if there are a handful of protesters outside the gates, as happened earlier this season at a meeting in Sevenoaks. A few thousand inside the wire, enjoying the coursing, a dozen or so protesters outside, who got all the publicity?
Anyway, what it was yesterday was glory all the way for a fortunate few. The afternoon of the third day, after three o'clock, is when it all comes to a head. Starts off with the consolation prizes for the bitches and dogs beaten early in the Oaks and Derby, the two big events of the meet, four at 2,500 each, enough to ease a lot of disappointment. Then we were coming into the big money, and courtesy of their brilliant bitch Caoimhe's Cindy, the Mee family went back to Kilfinane ten grand better off, doubly happy because they had bred the dog themselves. Come the Classics Club Champion Stakes, for all-age dogs, and Vinnie Jones had extra reason to be happy, as his dog, Boavista made up for the disappointment of the Derby semi-final loss last year, beat out another Clare dog, Anthony Daly's Murty Blaze, in a thriller. “He's after proving himself now,” said Bridget Curtin, sister of trainer Pat, trusted assistant. “He was unlucky last year, but he's done us all proud now.”
Pat and Brigid also had a finalist in the Oaks, a superb training job, but had to give way to Mountain Guest, owned by Harry Findlay, trained in Skibereen by Denis O'Driscoll. €35,000 for Harry, as winning owner, but that was just a fraction of what this most colourful of characters picked up. “I backed it to win about 30,000 at the start, but I've won about fifty (thousand) on her, I backed her again this morning at 5/4 after the first course.” But that was only the start, for Harry. “The short-odds guys (on-course, bet on every individual race) got it terribly wrong this year, and I made them pay for it. I haven't backed a loser all week at the short odds, broken all records, won a six-figure sum at least. A great, great week financially, bang in form, I can't seem to do anything wrong.” Most credit, of course, to the trainer. “Denis is fantastic. The first coursing dogs I ever had were with Denis, back when he was a young lad, no-one had ever heard of him, but we went so close to winning the Oaks with Jade's Dilemma (1998, beaten by Dunsilly Pride in the final), then won the Derby the following year with Big Fella Thanks. I can't thank Denis enough, he's a great guy, a great friend, and now he's proved what a great trainer he is. Don't forget too, with Jade's Dilemma and Big Fella Thanks, Denis also entered five big cups the following year, and won five cups, so he's some trainer.”
Final event of the day went north, to Newry (via Glin, in Co. Limerick, home to co-owners Conor Sheehan and John Barrett), legendary trainer Brendan Matthews picking up yet another Derby, with a dog, Bexhill Eoin, that was favoured from start to finish.
Overall, a brilliant day's sport, lit up a dull day, brightened up a dark winter, lightened the lives of the tens of thousands who came, saw, soaked up the atmosphere. That's what it was, that's what it always is, that's what it should always be.