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A Wily Fox


As featured in The Irish Times Magazine, Saturday July 5th 2008.

AN EPIPHANY is defined as the sudden realisation or comprehension of the essence or meaning of something. Quite when Irish huntsman Robert Watson had his epiphany is uncertain. It may have occurred in the wake of one of his many falls.

Perhaps it was the one where he broke his leg crossing a fence in Gorey, Co Wexford in 1862. But more likely it was that strange afternoon of January 30th, 1879, when his horse fell at a hazardous fence and broke its neck. What was strange was that the whip’s horse, jumping next, met precisely the same fate, while a third horse dropped dead just as it reached the fence. At any rate, Bob Watson’s epiphany was that he would one day be reincarnated as a fox.

Bob Watson probably counted foxes to get to sleep. His bloodline was as thickly fox-hunterish as you get. His grandfather is credited with killing the last wild Irish wolf at Myshall, Co Carlow. His father co-founded the Tullow Hunt and was Master for an astonishing 62 years. His uncle was master of the Cotswolds. His brother went to Australia and became master of the Melbourne Hunt. His son John was a famous international polo player and master of the Meath Hounds. And Bob himself was master of the Carlow and Island Hunt for 32 years.

If you were convinced you were going to be reincarnated as a fox, what would you do? Bob Watson took no chances. At the time, his family lived at Larchill in Co Kildare. Bob designed a knobbly grass-covered mound, shaped exactly like a foxes’ earth, and whacked it bang in the midst of Larchill’s beautiful Arcadian Gardens. He pitched a rough semi-columned temple on top and ensured the mound was full of useful escape tunnels, each one carefully tapered so that a fox could zip through, but a slightly bigger hound could not.

Bob Watson died aged 86 in 1908 and was buried at Fenagh, Co Carlow. At his funeral, the mourners were instructed to shout the hunter’s cry “gone-away gone-away”. It is assumed that Bob the fox then made his way to Larchill, where he now roams the water meadows and perennial borders, mingling with frogs and dragonflies, dining on wild duck and breathing in the aroma of herbs and wildflowers. Bob the fox does not fear the hunters’ horn. In his last will and testament, Bob the man banned fox-hunting, in perpetuity, at Larchill.

© 2008 The Irish Times