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Obituary: Molly Cusack Smith

MOLLY CUSACK SMITH was for several decades living proof that the world of Somerville and Ross was not yet dead in Ireland. Amid the "hard- riding country gentlemen" and to the echo of "porter-drinker's randy laughter", she epitomised Yeats's "indomitable Irishry". Whatever the poet of order and high courtesy might have made of her legendary abrasiveness, he would certainly have been immensely proud of her unassailable spirit.

Although she had been a successful couturier in London during the Second World War, it was as a horsewoman that Molly Cusack Smith was best known and admired. She was joint-master of the North Galway hunt for 38 years, from 1946 until she retired in 1984. She remained honorary master for the rest of her life.

Her fine horsemanship combined with a natural flamboyance made her a national figure in the drab Ireland of the 1940s. She nearly always stole the limelight at the Dublin Horse Show, and usually drew a standing ovation as she led the Galway Blazers into the ring at the Royal Dublin Society.

She hated the term "Anglo Irish" and never tired of pointing out that while she might have married into that particular strata of society, she came from one of the great Irish families - the O'Rorke of Breffni. And besides, she insisted, she could swear as fluently in Gaelic as in English.

She was born in Dublin in 1905. Her father, Charles Trench O'Rorke, owned a pack of harriers and hunted and farmed the wild and bare countryside of North Galway. The O'Rorke were one of many great Irish families who for centuries paid obedience to the Anglo-Norman monarchs largely in order to safeguard their succession rights, which was not possible under the Irish clan system.

A precocious only child, Molly was educated in England and France and started hunting with her father's pack when she was ten. But after a disagreement with him over horses, she left for Paris. She started to study music but diverted to dress designing and in London established herself as a successful couturier, specialising in evening dresses. In later years she always designed her own hunting outfits.

During the Paris years she became an accomplished cook, moved in artistic circles and had her portrait done by Augustus John. She met her future husband, Sir Dermot Cusack Smith, at a wartime cocktail party in London. They wed in 1940 but the marriage soon failed and Sir Dermot died while the divorce was going through. In a 1992 interview she said the match was a very suitable one. "He was very rich and had a title," she said. "We got engaged because it seemed a good idea. But, actually, it wasn't."

Back in Ireland she hunted with the Galway Blazers, founded by her ancestor John Denis O'Rorke in 1844, and - amazingly for the 1940s - became the hunt's first woman master. But she soon formed her own pack and kennelled them at her splendid Georgian home, Bermingham House, near Tuam, Co Galway.

Life at Bermingham House continued in the style of the Anglo-Irish gentry, most of whom had long been driven from their fine houses by IRA arson squads or the tax gatherers of the new Irish state. On normal days drinks started at 4pm in the summer house during which Cusack Smith would sometimes sing her favourite song, "The West's Awake". Dinner was always early. The social highlight of the year was the annual hunt ball - described by one guest as "the last clarion call of the stranded gentry" - which was always held on the first Friday in January and continued until this year.

Molly Cusack Smith, hunting horn at the ready, presided over this grand affair, encouraging reluctant diners to leave the bar with deafening blasts from her hunting horn.

Nimble of mind and sharp of tongue, she was known throughout Ireland for her strong language and her ability to scarify anyone foolish enough to cross her. Desmond Guinness recalls an occasion when the pack was pursued by an angry farmer who started to stone Cusack Smith and her horse. She ordered her companions to move on while she remonstrated with her tormentor. A member of the party who stayed to give her support was rendered speechless by the ferocity of her attack.

On another occasion, when she was giving luncheon to a party which included the President of Ireland, she is reputed to have told a senior ecclesiastic of the Church of Ireland, who had presented himself a minute or two before the appointed hour, that he had better "get to f*** out of here" so that she might complete her preparations.

To say that she was formidable is to do her an injustice. As with old Mrs Knox in The Irish RM, she directed her underlings with bluntness "while she herself pervaded all spheres."

Although she never denied it, in her old age she grew impatient of any retelling of an anecdote that had currency throughout the country and was told wherever enthusiasts of the turf or the hunt congregated. According to the story, when a groom remarked on the sweaty condition of her horse, Molly Cusack Smith, dismounting, retorted: "You'd be sweaty, too, if you'd spent the past three hours between my legs."

Michael O'Toole

Molly Adele O'Rorke, huntswoman and couturier: born Dublin 31 March 1906; married 1940 Sir Dermot Cusack-Smith Bt (died 1970; one daughter); died Galway 16 February 1998.