House of ‘pure coursing’

For 51 weekends of the year Sevenhouses is just a crossroads on the R697 a few miles south of Kilkenny; on the second weekend of January however, every year, it becomes a Mecca for the tight-knit coursing community, last-chance-saloon to qualify for the great annual National Coursing Meeting in Clonmel a few weeks later.

This year was no different and on Saturday last, from all over Ireland a huge variety of cars/vans/jeeps, most carrying a canine cargo, converged on the famous field. It’s a completely rural setting, entry is between two fine old piers, then in along the gravel roadway through the first field. There you are greeted by one of the two joint presidents of the club, the venerable Tom O’Shea, collecting the entrance fee and handing over the precious card, which lists the various competitions and runners.

“I’m here all morning every morning of the coursing, every year,” he says. “My father was on the gate the first year it started, 1922; 92 years later I’m still here.” An O’Shea manning the gate continuously for 92 years, surely some kind of record, but is it likely to be extended? “Well I have a few sons and they haven’t that great interest but I’ll keep pushing them!”

It’s a beautiful morning, frost on the ground which delays the start of coursing for 90 minutes to one o’clock, but with the sun beating down, no-one is complaining.

“We’re usually very, very lucky here with the weather but we’re hoping for a bumper year this year,” Tom explains.

The weather though isn’t the story in Sevenhouses & District Coursing Club, nor yet even their prized position in the calendar. It’s the club itself, the field, the facilities – surely among the finest in all of coursing.

“Carlow is a fine field, as is Johnstown,” says the judge, Tom Lawlor, “But there’s something about Sevenhouses – you can sense it as you drive in that gate. This is pure coursing.”

As ever, Tom is resplendent in red tunic and riding breeches, astride a magnificent white stallion loaned to him for the day by Sevenhouses hon secretary Pat Loughlin. The same Pat is in the bar under the stand with the second joint president, the giant Seamus Neary, and there a minor disagreement is under way over how the club came to own the fields.

“It was bought for a pound, in 1919,” says Seamus, a claim that had also been made early by another club stalwart, Andy Hughes.

“My grandfather was standing down at the gate with a few other lads,” said Andy, “And they looked up here, said ‘Wouldn’t it make a great coursing field!’ They went to the landlords, bought it for a pound. There was a ditch running across the middle of the field and it had to be dynamited out – the Army had to be called in to do it, the War of Independence was on. They took it out then with horse and carts.

Pat, however, is adamant. “No,” he says, “They got it for nothing, around 27 acres gifted to them by Lady Desart, who owned a lot of property around Kilkenny.”

Whichever way they got it (and it’s hardly going to be settled now!), they’ve made excellent use of it and in 1924, just a couple of years after the first coursing meeting, they erected the stand that is still in situ to this day. Underneath is a built-in bar and separately, the dining-room/kitchen.

Not the Ritz, understand, but functional – remember, these are coursing people, impervious to cold, wind and any other such discomfort.

If the creature comforts for the bipeds are pretty basic, the same definitely cannot be said of the facilities for the hares – state of the art, a source of pride for all concerned with the Sevenhouses club, and justifiably so.

Tom O’Shea: “We always have the best of hares here and that’s the secret. And we treat them well – we spent €6,000 recently on upgrading facilities and that’s what you have to do, keep investing. I haven’t seen a hare killed in years but we really look after them. We inject them, feed them well, care for them.”

Brian Kennedy, Waterford native but long domiciled in Kilkenny, conducts the brief tour. “The hare park is over two acres, plenty of cover from the bad weather so you don’t have to worry about them. You can see the sheaves of oats hanging from the trees — this year the hares ate 180 sheaves.

“In the buckets (spread out among the trees) then we give them whole oats, 18 bags from Red Mills. On top of that we gave them sallies, 14 trailer-loads, which they strip, and we also spread some fodder in the fields.”

How many hares? “You could have 100 hares in there and you wouldn’t see one!!” laughs Andy Hughes. For this meeting there are 90 – more than enough, says Brian.

“We have 60 courses on Saturday, 58 on Sunday and the regulation is you have must have ten hares more than the number of courses, so we’re well in excess of that.”

Unique to Sevenhouses, they also have two extra hares, two who aren’t coursed. “We also have two white hares that we first caught last year; we ran them up together before the finals and the crowd loved it. They’re inseparable, do everything together. They’re always together in the hare park, they’re the first out every morning to be fed, do absolutely everything together.”

After the delayed start on Saturday the coursing itself went as smoothly as could be, not a hare knocked all day, slipper Brian Doyle doing a superb job giving hare and hound every chance.

Over the weekend one event with a real international flavour was the ‘English Invitation Stakes’, lots of interesting accents cheering on the various contestants.

Overall another successful meeting for another successful coursing club. With only Macroom to go this week, the excitement is building for Clonmel, almost every box ticked. Less than three weeks now, and counting…


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