The call of the Huntsman in the winter of life
As we remember our loved ones gone before us this month of November, Fr Jason Murphy recalls the sound of Huntsmen from his youth and the echoes of times and people past in his new column 'Let the Busy World Be Hushed'...
The sound of Huntsmen on a late November day is akin to the cry of the curlew in summer meadows of long ago; rarely heard these days and, as with the curlew, the huntsmen too are fewer and fewer.
But to hear the beagles after the scent of a fox, running through the frost bitten fields is a sound beyond all telling, the lonesome howl re-echoing across the drumlins, as they chase along the headlands and fields. They dart through gaps in holly and hawthorn bushes in the dying moments of the winter sun, which dances on the ice covered bottoms, flickering through the bare sally trees to bid a fond farewell to yet another day of traipsing. Oh to hear the huntsmen calling their beagles for home in the dying duskish of that winter’s day is for a huntsman, adrift from the crowd, like sweet music to his ears.
So it was on winter evenings that huntsmen gathered in after a long days trek o’er hill and flaggin’ bottom, walking home with their hounds behind, through the fields down near Folias bridge along the River Erne and the grass yards there. Piling into the lounge of the Dublin Bar, which would fill with the smell of the crisp frost air as the door opened into the heated room and the cold of the evening crept in around the ankles of men in hunting boots. As they threw off their winter coats and the steam rose to mix with the smoke of the Sweet Afton cigarettes, they congregated around the bar for hot whiskeys and rum and blacks and any half one going that might warm their souls; mediums and pints of stout and bottles of McArdle’s, the orders coming thick and fast.
Men still in peak caps aclad leaned over each the other, waving five and ten pound notes to grab the attention of Frank Corrigan who stood behind the bar with his wife in tow, the plates of egg and onion sandwiches carried through on arms stretched high the big hands of starving men, straining to reach the refreshments to quieten the roar of their hungry stomachs. Lying up, each in turn, against the radiators until their frozen bones had thawed and there the voice of a huntsman, unique in its tone, a shrill breaking the talk of men could be heard from the lounge below, as a hush went round the bar, ah the Youths of sweet Redhills and My lovely River Finn.
Their faces, I remember them still, etched by the passing of time, faces that are now part of folklore: Jemmy McCabe and Gerry Fitz who bought an ass at Carrigallen mart and brought it home on the back seat of his car and poor auld Sonny Maguire, names that were familiar twixt the hills of Derryerry and Derryarmush and along by Wattlebridge where they met with men of their own kind to buy a bottle of plum poitín for callers of a Christmas day, in a time when people called.
I found my thrill on Blue berry hill; Bob Reilly who lived in a caravan along the river Erne in which big men gathered of a Wednesday night around a paraffin lamp, to play cards, as he teetered on the edge of his stool at the end of the bar singing with both eyes closed, imagining how it might be aloft on that hilltop where blue berries grew in the heady days of his youth as the men laughed and cheered and sent him down a pint of Smithwick for telling of his imaginings. Gerry West from Treehoo cross in the corner of the Bar ‘if ya ever go to heaven’ as the cheers went up from all who gathered in on that November evening on Belturbet’s steepest hill.
Once a huntsman is always so, it’s in your very bones. The cry of the fox in the still night air reminds you that those fields have not yet being traversed and, there with the call, you learn to travel life’s paths, through bog and ditches over hill and whins on wet days and bright sunny days, in the early winter and come the spring before the birds begin to nest. Huntsmen who knew what it was to stand aloft upon a hill, their lungs filled with air and look beyond at all that lay before them or know too what it was to get caught below in a mucky gap without the strong outstretched arm of another to pull you up, lessons for a lifetime, learned by one generation after the next.
And there through those fields and in that lounge bar we shared these precious hours, hours I oft times revisit in my mind’s eye as I light a candle in a darkened church in these late November evenings and recall their faces before me, men who laughed and sang and were as full of life as I am now yet now, like all the others gone before, are but names etched on headstones in graveyards around. Eternal rest grant unto them Oh Lord, as the lonesome call of the huntsmen re-echoes in my mind as I look on the flickering candles setting the shrine aglow; the shrine of remembrance in a time when all things remind, a time to stop and think on faces that once were, when all around recoils and yet another year breathes its last. No wonder they gathered together and cheered to their hearts content on November days, singing songs to distract the mind and carry them beyond... beyond the veil of our leave - taking.
Remember them Lord, each and every huntsmen alike who traipsed these fields before us and let perpetual light shine upon them and forever may they rest in peace.