IRISH SEASON-EXTENDER AS MUCH ABOUT THE CRAIC AS THE BIRDS
Dougal Paver of leading PR agency Paver Smith samples the delights of Irelandâ€™s Castle Howard shoot.
The sun sets in the west of Ireland forty minutes later than London.Â In the wider scheme of things, you might imagine that that doesnâ€™t amount to much.
Unless of course, youâ€™re an Irish pheasant, in which case it matters a great deal. For starters, the game season will commence a month later.Â ButÂ â€“ and this is the bit that piqued our interest over in Blighty â€“ itâ€™ll also finish two weeks later.
So, if youâ€™re after a sneaky extension to your season, you should head west.
This anomaly was pointed out to me via a good pal on twitter; Kildare-based shooter @robertmehigan, who was keen for me and some pals to experience what is a rarity in Ireland: driven pheasant shooting.
Thereâ€™s plenty of walked up shooting, typically where groups of farming friends have laid down a hundred birds across shared boundaries and who head out every now and again with their spaniels to bag a few each for the pot.Â Far more common is driven and walked-up woodcock and snipe shooting and itâ€™s this, we were to discover, that Irish Guns obsess about.
Having sampled it I can see why, but thatâ€™s for another article: weâ€™re here to learn about high bird shooting in the beautiful Wicklow hills on the stunning Castle Howard estate, once the weekend bolt-hole to the owners of its famous Yorkshire namesake and now the home of legendary Dublin Solicitor Ivor Fitzpatrick.
My team of Guns was drawn from the Liverpool and Manchester business communities, each with strong familial and business ties to Ireland that were betrayed by their names: Oâ€™Brien, Sloyan, Murphy, Downes, St. John and Lynam â€“ to a man looking like they were fresh off the bogs. Â Â And it was this ease with all things Irish, that saw our original purpose â€“ revelling in some of the highest birds weâ€™d ever shot â€“ almost overtaken by that greatest of all Irish distractions, the craic.
Weâ€™d arrived in the stunning Vale of Avoca the evening before and holed-up in Irelandâ€™s oldest hotel, the Woodenbridge.Â We had no sense of its stunning setting â€“ that was to wait until daylight â€“ but its conviviality was in no doubt, so we headed straight for the bar only to lose one of our number at the first hurdle; he having spied that there was rugby league on the TV.Â It was showcasing St Helens and their sparkling new stadium, which he had developed, so whilst he was glued to the screen assessing his latest product, we set about assessing Irelandâ€™s most famous of all â€“ the one thatâ€™s black and creamy and comes in pint pots.
Our hosts, Robert Mehigan and shoot captain Gerry Merrick duly arrived, as did a party of Guns from the north of Ireland and time flew by as we fell happily into discussion about all things shooting, either side of the Irish Sea and the Irish border.Â Yours truly took the knock early â€“ at a respectable 3am â€“ but others amongst our number remained hard at it until 5am.Â Ireland does that to you.
The restorative qualities of an Irish fry-up are well known and we arrived at Castle Howard at 9am in remarkable nick.Â And, as seasoned imbibers of Bibendumâ€™s bounty the early and continuous supply of â€“ in no particular order â€“ champagne, sloe gin, claret, cider, poteen, cheese and chocolate had only a positive impact on our performance.Â â€œAiming juice,â€ Robert Mehigan called it.Â â€˜Darned hospitableâ€™, we thought.
The estate sits amidst heavily wooded, deep valleys with great truncated spurs, each fronting the Gun like a flat-faced Colossus and daring him to try and gain height up its rocky midriff.Â Charles Stewart Parnell had his home here and we looked across the valley to the great manâ€™s lodgings as one stratospheric bird after another was put our way.
Whoops and hollers of satisfaction were to be heard throughout the day as we were challenged to reach for our personal shooting limits. Eaglesâ€™ Rock presenting yours truly with a particularly satisfying seventy yarder that took an age to land and whose thud on doing so could be heard by Parnellâ€™s ghost.Â I took it on the head with 32g of sixes provided by Gerry, proof that you donâ€™t necessarily need shells that would dislodge your fillings to deal with high birds.Â That said, Castle Howard attracts Guns of mixed abilities, so Gerry showed us a number of milder drives, too, each a joy in this most lovely of settings.
Amidst the scenery was banter of the highest order as beaters, guns and pickers-up gathered for a gentle ripaste after every drive.Â The demarcations you find on many shoots in Britain werenâ€™t apparent and that suited us just fine as the mickey taking flowed from beater to Gun and back again.Â We didnâ€™t mind: Liverpudlians, like Irishmen, are no respecters of rank â€“ just ability.Â After a slow start tuning in to the specs in the sky we had started to acquit ourselves well and gave as good as we got.
Keeper Alan, a giant of a man with a previous career in the Irish army, explained that hunting and rough shooting were hugely popular across Ireland, but that driven game shooting smacked of the old days of the Anglo-Irish gentry, made famous in The Irish RM, and had never garnered the following it had in Britain.Â To his knowledge there were just six driven game shoots in the entire Republic.
Talk turned to our after-shoot drinks and we scoffed at the notion of spending the entire evening in the shooting lodge.Â This was Ireland, after all, and there were pubs full of weekend revellers to be chatted up.Â â€œSure, youâ€™ll be wanting a gentle gargle at least,â€ said Mehigan with a twinkle in his eye. We nodded politely and exchanged glances.
We then discovered that Carlsberg do, in fact, do shooting lodges.Â Or if they did, then this would be it.Â No superlative can do it justice; no canter through the lexicon of delight, nor any PR manâ€™s effusive exhortations can justify the marvel that is Castle Howardâ€™s shoot room.Â It is another order of magnitude from anything you may yet have experienced.Â And thatâ€™s not the Guinness talking.
After a cold and damp day we headed up the outside stairs of an old Georgian stable block to enter a plush and cosy space, lit up by a giant ingle nook fireplace in which roared, spat and crackled a log fire and around which were a cluster of suitably comfy and battered armchairs. Paraphernalia of the sporting variety dressed the walls and there, behind the generously stocked and free bar, stood Oonagh, waiting to serve us simply the finest Guinness weâ€™d ever had, plus a choice of premium Irish whiskies that even this seasoned connoisseur had yet to discover.Â Oh, be still our beating hearts.
Off the lounge at right angles lay a sumptuously set dining table, the Claret open and breathing in readiness for the feast ahead, with Oonaghâ€™s equally delightful sisters there to attend to our needs.Â We finished shooting a little before 4pm and they had to kick us out the lodge at something past ten thirty, to loud objections and protestations of undying love (the latter for the lodge, of course, not Oonagh, who is pledged to the extremely jammy Alan.Â Weâ€™re far too gracious than to steal the object of another manâ€™s affection, especially the man who had put some of the finest birds ever over our eager and happy heads).
The rest of our trip was lost in a mist of Guinness and Irish malt and our stamina the following morning was sorely tested as we rose for our second full Irish of the trip.Â We made Dublin just in time to watch Liverpool play Manchester Utd and took up a row of seats at the bar of the legendary Doheny & Nesbitt public house, ready for one last gargle before our boat back to Blighty.
Imagine the barmanâ€™s surprise when he received an order for eight pots of tea and a cheese and ham toasty.
If youâ€™re there long enough, Ireland does that to you.
Issued by Dougal Paver of Paver Smith.Â Further information on 0151 239 5000.
Image from www.gunsonpegs.com