Share the tribal language and you will always find a welcome

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It is 1.15am in a small town in the west of Ireland. The inhabitants of County Galway have celebrated the festive season with oceans of Jameson and Bailey's, everyone has gone to Mass, local children affect to believe in someone called "Santy", and carols play redundantly over the Tannoy in the clothes store, days after everyone has grown tired of the whole jovial business. The weather has been foul, the rain persistent, shading into malevolent.

It is the turn-of-the-year interregnum, a time for calm reflection with mature and philosophically-disposed associates. Which is why we find ourselves in this pleasant bar, 10 of us, at 1.15 in the rainy night-time. Michael the accordion player - having beguiled the company with "Spancil Hill" and "Lovely Letrim" and (rather a change of pace, here) Elvis Presley's "Wooden Heart" and the national anthem (everyone in the bar stood up and glared at my still-seated form; this would never happen, I am fairly sure, in Dulwich) - has gone home, but this does not stop the chap beside me singing "Mursheen Durkin" with a kind of brutal hilarity. It is at this moment that Martin, the weather-beaten, seen-it-all-barman, rushes into the lounge.

"Quiet," he commands us. "The guards are outside." Yeah, yeah. This is an old barman's threat, as old as the crumbling Norman castles that dot the Atlantic shoreline. But it might be true. After-hours drinking is still illegal, even here. The landlord could be fined or lose his licence. The carousers would then become the object of public obloquy for being responsible for the loss of his livelihood. Nobody wants to see Martin and his hearty, welcoming wife pitched out of the parish. So, for the moment, Tom stops singing. One of the ladies turns slightly pale, like a novice nun caught in a speakeasy, and knocks back her modest brandy and soda as if it will incriminate her. And in comes the majesty of the law.

Against all the odds, the bloody Garda Siochona are outside. We now have a cop in our midst, with his peaked cap and businesslike bustle. We sit, as red-handed as Macbeth, with six pints of Guinness, whiskeys, port-and- lemonades and assorted drinker's paraphernalia in front of us, as he moves around taking in the scene. He walks urgently across the bar, his forensic sobriety contrasting with our shame-faced fuzziness. We are all for the high jump. What can we do? I am reminded of a Flann O'Brien playlet called Thirst, where a group of after-hours topers try to persuade a policeman to drink with them by talking to him about sand dunes, palm trees, the Gobi Desert, the pitiless sun. I'm afraid this will not work here. The guard surveys the scene one more time - our embarrassed faces, our table groaning with alcohol - and says, "I'm awful sorry to be disturbin' ye all". Can he be serious? Is he being ironic? I look at Tom and Frank and the others and suddenly see how they might be causing the law a few problems. For they represent, between them, two headmasters, the local vet, two teachers, one ward sister and the pillar of a dozen local committees.

If the policeman ever wants to get his children into secondary education, have his dog cured of distemper or his old Mum successfully relieved of a grumbling appendix in the Regional Hospital, it might be wise to practise lenience with this bunch. But how can he do so without seeming to falter?

He looks round the bar a last time. Then he speaks. "Caith siar iad," he says, and departs. My Gaelic is rusty, but I believe this means only "Throw them back". He has let us off, and done so by the silkiest of means, by saying it in Irish - forsaking the letter of the law and the language of the old oppressor for the language of the tribe. There is a silence after the closing door. "Now Frank," says one of the teachers. "Can you still do `Take These Chains From My Heart'?"

Monday evening, we clamber into tuxedoes and waistcoats for the annual Hunt Ball in Oranmore. The Galway Blazers is just one of three hunts in the region, but has the reputation of being the hardest-riding, the toughest, the most intrepid. Few people can remember much trouble from saboteurs in the last couple of years, since an incident in Ardrahan, when a girl of 11 was pulled off her horse by protesters attempting to persuade her of the ills of hunting. The saboteurs were set about with ashplants and their video cameras smashed and dumped in the nearest bog.

But since fox-hunting has been such a hot topic in England all through the autumn, one looks for signs of concern among these dedicated houndsmen that an Irish equivalent of the Foster Bill may seek to outlaw blood sports here in the West. One looks in vain. Hunting is lodged deep in the Galway psyche and is an accepted way of life for local farmers, rather than being the rebarbative hobby of a few homicidal aristocrats, as the anti-hunting lobby sometimes likes to sell it in England.

Ireland is stiff with horses. There are 32,000 thoroughbreds in the stables of the Republic. Within a 10-mile radius of the town where I'm staying, 120 horses are currently in training. No one is going to deprive Galwegians of their headlong gallop across the flat meadows and dry-stone walls of the county. Talk to Jerome ("Min") Mahoney, the Blazers' charismatic chairman - a ramrod-backed, noble-browed Irish Squire Allworthy - and you realise they've quite enough to worry about if the British Bill becomes law. The sporting horse market is worth a cool pounds 100m to the Irish economy, and would suffer drastic wounds. So would the network of point-`to-point meetings which the National Hunt organises. The ethics of slaughtering dear, inoffensive little foxes is the last thing they worry about. "It's not a question of different opinions about hunting," Mahoney told me. "It's about different cultures. The urban population in England have no idea how much a rural population like ours feels under threat." He has been lobbying every MP in the House of Commons to persuade them to oppose the Bill on 8 March, urging that they should devote their energies to supporting "rural development", in the form of heritage centres and tourist treks, rather than to interfering in the traditions of red-coated minorities.

Which would be all very well if the established hunts showed any sign of accommodating outsiders. They don't. When it comes to allowing strangers to ride with them, they're as exclusive as a St James's club. Tell me, I asked a grog-blossomed huntsman - if the Quorn and Pytchley discovered themselves unable to chase foxes any longer after March and asked if they could link up with the Blazers, would you let them in? Over my dead body, he replied with vehemence. But surely (I persisted), if Prince Charles and Camilla Parker Bowles fancied a bit of a run from Cartymore, you'd welcome them, wouldn't you? "Arrah," he said, with old-fashioned distaste. "They'd be more trouble than they're worth."

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