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Country: My kingdom for a horse

Country Matters
Never go back, they tell you - and almost always it is better to steer clear of places you have loved in the past. But when an invitation came to spend a weekend in Co Tipperary, where we lived for a spell 20 years ago, how could we refuse?

We heard in advance that Ireland is now awash with money; that new capital has been pouring into Dublin as financial businesses put down roots there, that 10,000 new cars are being registered every month in the city alone, that Euro grants have transformed the main highways that radiate out into the country from the capital, and put new life into towns and villages. Even so, we were hardly prepared for the weight of traffic that choked the M50 - Dublin's answer to our M25 - on a Friday evening.

Within minutes of touching down we found that the price of land has become astronomical - pounds 4,000 or pounds 5,000 an acre for ordinary farm land, twice the rate in England. We heard of one man who bought a cottage, with a few acres, for pounds 45,000, and had been offered pounds 90,000 for the property before he had even moved in. "Didn't I slip the auctioneer a grand and tell him to get on with it?" he confided. "But sure, that was neither here nor there."

Heading south west down the N7, we found splendid new bypasses, not least round the town of Portlaoise, which used to be a killer. Everywhere brand- new bungalows gleamed from plots of land in which the earth was still raw, and in many a village a new walkway or courtyard or bench was graced with a notice proclaiming that the innovation owed its existence to some Euro grant or other.

Yet as we headed out into the wilds of North Tipperary, everything seemed more and more the same: the hedges wild and woolly, the fields hairy with rushes, makeshift signs saying "POISON LAID", the magical tang of peat smoke drifting in damp air. Above all, the talk was still dominated by the same topic: horses - or, as they are usually described in those parts, "harses".

I am never sure, in Ireland, whether one should talk about the number of acres per horse or the number of horses per acre. Appearances are deceptive, for canny owners keep their potential Grand National winners tucked away in back barns or dark sheds, and you do not see that many out in the fields. Yet the animals are there all right, in amazing numbers.

Nostalgia drew me irresistibly back to the Georgian house that we had rented. For years it has been standing empty, and the last time I saw it, black mould was growing on the inside walls. Now it is still empty but extensively modernised, and it is up for let, unfurnished, at a mere pounds 25,000 a year.

For me, though, the point was that I found Sean, the farm manager, miraculously unchanged, his voice flying up into an inimitable falsetto whenever he became indignant - as when he told the story of a farmer competing in a point-to-point. "Going the finest, he was," Sean cried. "And didn't there have to be a pig in the grass! And sure, didn't the harse have to hit the bloody pig, and that was the finish of him." Nothing, it seemed, had changed since the days of Somerville & Ross.

Our hosts for the weekend were John and Cherylynn Lang, an English couple who recently moved over from Kent. There John had his own building firm, and was driving 1,000 miles a week. Cherylynn was (and still is) a postmistress. Fed up with the overcrowding in south-east England, and by the ever-increasing difficulties that beset fox-hunting there, they threw everything over and decamped to the hamlet of Aglish. Now, as John puts it, they not only have no post code: they have no post office, either.

Already, on a previous visit, they had been out with the Ormond Hunt. After one day Cherylynn vowed she would never to ride to hounds again - only follow on foot - but she felt that, in Ireland, she had come home. John also was in his element, and now they have bought Ballycormac, a rambling old farmstead that they have converted into an excellent guesthouse designed to cater for visitors who want to hunt, shoot or fish. Already, by building stables, buying horses and selling horses, they are adding fuel to the equine fire all round them.

We soon discovered that Cherylynn is an outstanding cook, and this is something of a miracle, because for the moment she cannot taste anything. Why so? You guessed - it was a horse that did it. Three months ago she fell off a youngster she was schooling and got a bang on the head, which somehow put paid to her sense of taste and smell. The second has returned, and she is devoutly hoping that the first will as well.

The Langs had a horse running at the Ormond Hunt point-to-point, so we went along with them on a dank, windy afternoon. Lorries and trailers rolled in from far and wide, and a huge crowd gathered on a slope that commanded a view of the course, set out round a series of fields. So many runners had been entered - 100 for one race alone - that the stewards declared a limit of 20 in any contest; thus several races had to be divided into four or five, and the action continued until nightfall. Everyone kept remarking how standards have risen in recent years: many of the entrants were professional racehorses, brought along for a trial, and the course was immaculate, its grass far too short to give sanctuary to any pig, no matter how stumpy its legs.

Like many other aficionados, the Langs are convinced that the future of hunting lies across the water. Roads, traffic, barbed wire, antis, hostile councils - the difficulties in England are increasing all the time, and even some of the sport's most stalwart advocates fear that sooner or later it will be made illegal.

If that happens, the pressure on Irish hunts will be enormous; already many of them limit the number of strangers allowed out on any one day, and it is not clear how they could cope with the flood of immigrants that would inevitably follow a ban.

John and Cherylynn Lang are at Ballycormac House, Aglish, Borrisokane, Co Tipperary, Eire (00 353 672 1129)