Tally ho! A Jolly Good Show! … Foxhunting and Ascendancy in Co. Cork

Violet Florence Martin by Edith Anna Oenone Somerville, 1886, Oil on Canvas, The National Portrait Gallery London

Violet Florence Martin in her riding habit by Edith Anna Oenone Somerville, 1886, Oil on Canvas, The National Portrait Gallery London

A recent wintery walk at beautiful St. Barrahane’s Church in Castletownshend led to the discovery that it is 100 years since the death of Violet Florence Martin (11 June 1862 – 21 December 1915). Using her pen name, Martin Ross, she wrote both funny and poignant stories and novels about Anglo-Irish life at the turn of the century with her cousin Edith OEnone Somerville (1858-1949). Any readers familiar with Major Yeates, the Irish R.M, will know that a dominant leisure time occupation of his set was foxhunting, an activity very appropriate to write about at this time of year.

Somerville and Ross did a wonderful job of conveying the excitement of the hunt, along with its rigors. Their story ‘The Pug-nosed Fox’ about an attempt by Major Yeates, as temporary ‘Master of Hounds’, to have his photograph taken in full regalia with the dogs about him in mid-summer, does a superb job of conveying these rigors, along with giving us passages of text written in a colourful, thick, West Cork accent. When the hounds decide to follow the scent of the pug-nosed fox from Templebraney, rather than have their photograph taken, Major Yeates and the whip Michael Leary have to chase them across the countryside in sweltering summer heat. When the pair become separated the Major has to find out where Michael and the hounds have gone, he asks an old woman in her garden:

““Did you see any dogs, or a man in a red coat?”

“Musha, bad cess to them, then I did!” bawled the old woman, “look at the thrack o’ their legs down thro’ me little pratie garden! ‘Twasn’t but a whileen ago that they came leppin’ out o’ the wood to me, and didn’t I think ‘twas the Divil an all his young ones, an’ I thrun meself down in the thrinch the way they wouldn’t see me, the Lord save us!”

My heart warmed to her; I would also would have gladly laid down among the umbrageous stalks of the potatoes, and concealed myself for ever from Michael and the hounds.

“What way did they go?” I asked, regretfully dismissing the vision, and feeling in my pocket for a shilling.

“They went wesht the road, your Honour, an’ they screeching always; they crossed out the field below over-right the white pony, and faith ye couldn’t hardly see Michael Leary for the shweat! God help ye asthore, yourself is getting hardship from them as well as another!”

The shilling here sank into her earthy palm, on which she prayed passionately that the saints might be surprised by my success.”

Far more hilarity ensues when Major Yeates arrives at Templebraney House where he finds Tomsy Flood, the best man at a wedding in the house, sewn in to a feather mattress. And the hounds then proceed to eat the wedding breakfast.

Violet Martin’s writing partner, Edith Somerville, was also an artist, farmer, suffragist and Master of the West Carbery Hunt. It is in this capacity that she may have met Dorothy Bell of Fota House. Mrs. Bell rode with the United Hunt of Middleton, the South Union Hunt of Carrigaline, the West Waterford Hunt, and with the West Carbery Hunt, Skibbereen. Mrs. Bell wore a full riding habit and always rode side saddle. This image of her, from the Fota Collection, tells us that she was Master of the South Union Hunt.

Dorothy Bell as Master of the South Union Hunt

Dorothy Bell as Master of the South Union Hunt

In Patty Butler’s wonderful writings about Fota there is account of what Mrs. Bell did when she came home from a hunt. She would enter the house calling the names of the servants “Mary! Patty! Peggy! Russell!’ and dump her small lunch basket inside the front door. She would then proceed up the stairs shedding her riding gear, throwing off the skirt of her habit, her hat and her whip as she ascended. These were duly picked up by her ladies maid, Mary Wixon, as she followed along behind to help Mrs. Bell change into her day clothes.

Mrs. Bell and any guests who had also been out hunting would have tea, hot toast and boiled eggs served to them in the library. As hunting is a winter sport there would always be a fire burning. The talk of the days sport would be loud and lively. As Patty Butler recounts “you could hardly hear yourself clearing the table above the chatter. “Jolly good show …!” could be heard in loud English accents and they laughed a lot as they looked back over the day’s events.” If the experiences of Major Yeates are anything to go by, they had much to laugh about.

Excerpts taken from:
Edith Somerville and Martin Ross, The Further Experiences of an Irish RM (Longmans and Green, 1908)
Patty Butler, Through the Green Baize Doors, Fota House (Carrigtowhill, 2011)

Danielle O’Donovan, Irish Heritage Trust, 2016