with Horse and Hound

Looking For Something to Read?

Now? This instant? Free of charge and legal? Something by a world-class author?

edith somerville on tarbrush.wikicommonsEdith Somerville, MFH, West Carbery Foxhounds riding Tarbrush. She was the first female MFH in Ireland, an author and artist as well, and, with her cousin Violet Martin, wrote some of the most hilarious and literate books on Irish foxhunting ever published. / Wikimedia Commons photo

Something perhaps by Somerville and Ross, G.J. Whyte Melville, and other brilliant writers of foxhunting stories as well as classic works of English literature. Many are in the public domain and may be downloaded and freely reproduced.

In 1971, Michael Hart, a student at the University of Illinois, conceived the most wonderful notion. He had access to a computer that was part of the government sponsored research network that ultimately became the Internet. He set himself a goal to make the ten thousand most consulted books available to the public digitally by the end of the twentieth century. He plucked a copy of the Declaration of Independence from his backpack, and it became the first Project Gutenburg e-text. Hart named the project after the German printer Johannes Gutenburg, who revolutionized the printing press.

Today, there are about forty thousand texts in the Gutenburg collection. For most works you have the option to download the full text as an epub to be read online (even with images); you can download Kindle files with or without images; or simply download plain text.

Lauren O’Neill writing for the National Sporting Library talks about Somerville and Ross in this issue—the two cousins who had to start their highly successful literary careers by signing their manuscripts as men. It was not for ladies to meddle in commerce! Their foxhunting books may be read over and over, and the pleasure of their humorous tales of the Irish hunting field and Irish ways will never fail to amuse no matter how many times you read them. Start with Some Experiences of an Irish R.M. and, upon finishing, go immediately to Further Experiences of an Irish R.M. (An R.M. was a Resident Magistrate—an official authorized by the English Crown to adjudicate local disputes in the Somerville and Ross years through the turn of the twentieth century before Irish independence.)

I envy you if you have not yet read Somerville and Ross, for you have the most delightful and uproarious literary surprise in store. Let me tell you how I came to discover this pair of Irish writers. (But in truth you should really just go on, click on the links and discover them yourself.) Here’s my story.

My wife Joan and I would hunt for a couple of weeks every year in the “wesht” of Ireland—first in the stone wall country of Co. Galway, then we’d move south to the ditch and bank country of Co. Limerick. In the Galway country, we stayed at Bermingham House, home of the late Lady Molly Cusack-Smith. Molly’s direct ancestor John Denis was an early Master and huntsman of the Galway Blazers, she took over and hunted the Blazers during most of World War II, and in the period when we stayed with her she was Master and huntsman of her own Bermingham and North Galway (now the North Galway).

One morning at breakfast as we prepared for a day with her hounds, something in the conversation reminded her of the Irish R.M. stories. I must have had a blank look on my face.

“You have not read Somerville and Ross?” she enquired of me disbelievingly.

“No,” I replied.

“We must fix that right away,” and with that she dialed her bookseller in Dublin.

“Please put the Irish R.M. books on the first train to Galway for me,” she ordered.

We went hunting shortly after that, and when we returned the books were waiting for me on a table in the foyer. I devoured them, and within a few years I had no less than thirty Somerville and Ross books on my library shelf at home. They’re still there and periodically reread!

Posted April 11, 2020