Staying the course in Clonmel

A greyhound ready for action at the National Meeting in Clonmel

Coursing’s National Meeting isn’t something that pulls in much mainstream media attention, but over three days it draws as many as 40,000 people to the Tipperary town of Clonmel.

It’s a sport that passes most people by, though those that take an interest generally adopt a passionate position on one side of the argument or the other — for or against.

Animal rights activists want coursing banned outright, saying that it’s cruel to both the dogs and the hares they chase. For others it’s part of a rural way of life, an expression of cultural identity and an important social outlet.

There are 80 clubs spread across the four provinces of Ireland and there are dozens of smaller meetings during the season, which runs from through autumn until the early springtime. The culmination of this is the National Meeting, held on the last weekend in January or the first weekend in February annually.

At the Powerstown track at Clonmel Racecourse 64 dogs contest the Oaks for female greyhounds and 64 chase the Derby for the males, starting on Saturday and finishing up with the finals on Monday. Each carries a top prize of €40,000 with a total pot of €200,000 on offer.

Hundreds of thousands of euro are gambled, countless pints are downed and local legends are made.

“We’ll have 30,000–40,000 people here over the three days and there’ll be nothing like it here on the last day; it’s some occasion. Anybody that comes always comes back,” said Berkie Browne, a Listowel-based bookie who makes the annual pilgrimage to South Tipp.

“There’s people here until next Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, it’s a big weekend for Clonmel and the town is hopping!”

Mary Whelan has a welcoming smile for punters

DJ Histon, Chief Executive Officer of the Irish Coursing Club (ICC), reckons that the whole carnival is worth upwards of €16 million to the town of Clonmel and surrounds and certainly it seems that every hotel, pub, B&B, restaurant, carpark and chipper is jammed to the rafters.

In some ways this is an everyman and everywoman sort of sport, but at the top end the best of dogs can changes hands for as much as €50,000 and those with winning pedigrees command major stud fees.

Of course, you can’t talk about coursing and not talk about animal rights.

The object of coursing isn’t to kill the hare, it’s for one of the two dogs chasing to ‘turn’ the hare — make it change direction. Since 1993 the greyhounds have been muzzled in Ireland, meaning very few hares get killed now, but there was always a rate of attrition and some still do get hurt or killed.

“When you talk about a ban, it’s a very shortsighted view,” insisted Histon. “All you have to do is look to the UK, where the department of agriculture undertook a study following the banning of hare coursing and they concluded that there is very high hare poaching and a decline in the hare population.

“All that happens is it becomes a forgotten species and the people who are against coursing just move on to the next issue that they’re unhappy with.

“Coursing is not about killing the hare. The hare is presented with nothing it can’t handle, both physiologically and genetically. The hare is one of the most successful prey species and it is because of its ability to evade capture that it’s so prolific in Ireland.

“Genetically, they have 360 degree vision, stereophonic hearing, they can make a turn in a single stride and they have tremendous speed, stamina and agility as well.”

A bookmaker’s bag and board at Powerstown

This isn’t how animal rights activists see it and protests are regular features outside the big meetings.

Dr Andrew Kelly, CEO of the Irish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ISPCA) said: “Our policy is very clear — we are apposed to live hare coursing and we would like to see a change to drag coursing, where a lure is used, as is practiced elsewhere.

“We are also opposed to an industry here large number of animals are subject to wastage. A lot of the pups bred for coursing won’t make it and those that do are often discarded after their careers. Every year we have large numbers of greyhounds left at our centres to be euthanised.

“We don’t find it acceptable that in modern society that 7,000 hares can be taken annually to be chased in a field by a dog, muzzled or otherwise. Hares are often hit by muzzled greyhounds which can cause injury and even death.”

The hares are trapped by the clubs around the country and kept in penned fields for use in coursing.

For each race, known as a course, one is held and then released from behind the shed the dogs start from. Once it has a 100-metre-or-so headstart the ‘slipper’ the red-coated official who holds the greyhounds, lets the dogs off the leash.

The judge waiting for a course to start — he’ll decide the winner

They then chase the hare up the 400 metre track and the first to turn the hare is declared the winner by the judge, another red jacketed official who follows the race on horseback. One dog wears a red collar, the other a white one and the judge raises a corresponding coloured flag so that everyone knows who’s through to the next round.

The 64 dogs that qualify for the Oaks and Derby go head-to-head over six knockout rounds to decide the winner. Each contest lasts about 30 seconds and most of the hares make it to the end of the track and under a barrier where their pursuers can’t follow. A few are trapped by the dogs and have to be rescued by course officials.

There is a crossover between many of the fans of coursing and track greyhound racing and some trainers are involved in both disciplines, but there is a big difference between the dogs used in each.

“The dogs are from different bloodlines; the coursing dog tends to be much bigger than a track greyhound — they wouldn’t work on the track because they’re too big,” explained Histon, who is presiding over the 92nd annual National Meeting, which concludes on Monday.

Calls for coursing to be banned and protests at meetings will continue, though the sport’s committed following will at the same time continue to turn out in huge numbers and it’s for everyone to decide which side of the argument they stand.

A packed grandstand in Clonmel

All photographs and video shot on iPhone 6+, edited on Macbook Pro. This story first appeared on rte.ie/sport in January 2017.

One clap, two clap, three clap, forty?

By clapping more or less, you can signal to us which stories really stand out.