The Fortunes of the Hare

There was an old man whose despair
Induced him to purchase a hare:
Whereon one fine day he rode wholly away,
Which partly assuaged his despair.

(Edward Lear 1872)

We have been writing this Journal pretty regularly for five years now: to date we have published 460 posts – roughly half by Finola and half by me. It’s December, and at this time of the year we review what we have written and it’s always interesting to see the topics have been most popular amongst our readers. We’ll be exploring all that as we lead up to Christmas, but today I have been reviewing our post titles over the years to see what has appealed to me personally during our lives online.

John James Audubon – Northern Hare, 1843

I have a long held passion for the hare – a creature which has inhabited the world unchanged for millions of years: we know this from fossil finds. We can therefore safely conclude that this beautiful animal is perfectly adapted to its natural environment, and hasn’t needed to evolve in any way.

In July 2015 – about halfway through our blogging career – I penned an article, Hares in Abundance, inspired by an exhibition held at the Heron Gallery in Ahakista. I was delighted to see so many images of hares by a number of artists: there were drawings, paintings and prints; ceramic sculptures and ceramic ware; jewellery, felt-work and even cushion covers. I would happily have kitted out the whole of our house with work from this exhibition, but long ago Finola declared we had ‘enough’ hares around the place, so I have to keep myself under control (although, it has to be said, hare imagery here at Nead an Iolair does seem to increase year by year).

Illumination from the 14th century Macclesfield Psalter, now in the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge

As I mention in that post from 2015, I have kept a ‘hare calendar’ during our time in West Cork, and any hare sightings are recorded. There is definitely a downward trend in the numbers I have spotted. In 2017, for example, I have recorded only one and a half hares (the half was the backside of an animal disappearing into a hedge, which I felt sure was a hare), whereas in past years I have recorded five or six. Back in the 1990s, when I stayed regularly with my friends Danny and Gill in Ballybane West –  just over the hills from here, I saw relatively large numbers of them. Something is surely amiss – and I don’t think it’s my eyesight.

The Irish Hare was portrayed on the Irish Three Pence coin: the design was by the artist Percy Metcalfe, and the coin was continuously produced between 1928 and 1969

On a recent visit to Finola’s cousin in Mayo we were introduced to (and immediately purchased) a new book: The Way of the Hare by Marianne Taylor. If you are in any way inclined to hare adulation, I thoroughly recommend this book as being the most readable and comprehensive study of all aspects of the animal’s place in the world: history, biology and folklore. To my delight, the author even suggests that, in terms of creature relationships:

…we humans are more closely related to hares than we are to cats, bats, dogs, elephants, whales, sloths and most other mammals on earth…

Left – the new book by Marianne Taylor and right – one of the author’s wonderful photographs, showing the ‘mad’ springtime behaviour of two brown hares in the UK

Perhaps unsurprisingly, one of my very first posts on Roaringwater Journal was this one – Two Hares. Written back in November, 2012, it tells of an encounter with two Irish Hares in Ballybane West. Irish Hares – Lepus timidus hibernicus – are peculiar to this country but closely related to Mountain Hares that are found in Scotland, Scandinavia and Northern Europe; they are said to be Ireland’s longest established indigenous species of mammal. They are probably outnumbered today in Ireland by the Brown Hare – Lepus europaeus – which is not indigenous: Brown Hares were brought to Britain by the Romans and then exported to Ireland to be hunted by the owners of large estates.

This new book has crept onto our shelves (it was a present from Finola) Brown Hares in the Derbyshire Dales, published by Vertebrate Publishing: it is beautifully illustrated with photographs by the author, Christine Gregory

The Irish Hare is a protected species under EU Directive 92/43 Annex V (see page 104), but, curiously it can be hunted and coursed at certain times of the year. On June 23 2016 (on the same day as the UK Brexit referendum) a private member’s bill was brought before Dáil Éireann by Maureen O’Sullivan to ban hare coursing in order to protect this ‘protected’ species. It was heavily defeated – most TDs voted in favour of hare coursing, including your own local TDs (bear that in mind when an election comes around again). Out of 164 TDs attending the debate only 20 voted in favour of a ban. The general argument by the coursing supporters was that coursing is “a regulated sustainable rural industry”. So economics apparently outweigh animal welfare. The whole debate is available online here.

Dean Wolstenholme – Greyhounds coursing a hare – c1800

In February 2013 I wrote another post which mentioned hares in Ireland: Hare Heaven.  This was more optimistic in tone, and was an opportunity to describe the wonderful Sherkin Island Marine Station, run by the indefatigable Matt Murphy. Doubtless hares will feature in future Roaringwater Journal posts and – perhaps – in future Dáil debates. I will hope for a better outcome next time around.

Licking the Lizard – or The World Turned Upside Down

…Nothing was more natural than the desire to have a ‘last fling’ just before the beginning of Lent. On the Continent of Europe this became a public, communal revel, the carnival, but generally in Ireland the Shrove Tuesday celebration was a household festival with the family and their friends gathered about the fire-side, when the surplus eggs, milk and butter were used up in making pancakes, and even the most thrifty housewife did not object, as otherwise these perishable foodstuffs might go to waste. Some people kept the Christmas holly for the fire which baked the pancakes…

That’s my old friend Kevin Danaher again, reporting on the seasonal customs which we will be celebrating this week, described in The Year in Ireland Mercier Press, 1972. As he points out, the ‘last fling’ in Ireland is tame by comparison with Carnival in other countries, where it really can be the case of A World Turned Upside Down – authority is despatched to the sidelines while fools, mock kings, mock abbots and ‘Lords of Misrule’ conduct the proceedings. Hence the illustrations above, where malevolent hares get their own back on human hunters – and men lay eggs! Both of these are from the marginalia of thirteenth century manuscripts which are teeming with such anarchic visions.

Above – role reversal, a popular feature of carnival customs – and contemporary political upheaval which seems carnivalesque

An 18th century chapbook carries a remarkable and wonderful series of illustrations: The World Turned Upside Down or The Folly of Man, Exemplified in Twelve Comical Relations upon Uncommon Subjects. Here we find ‘the cart before the horse’, ‘children caring for their parents’ and many other thought-provoking reversals.

Back to Danaher:

…In Skibbereen, County Cork, after the fall of darkness on Shrove Tuesday evening the boys of the town amuse themselves by discharging home-made firecrackers. These were made by wrapping gunpowder in paper with a short fuse attached and enclosing the packet in a tight covering of the lead-foil lining of tea chests. Some, even more dangerous, were made from a short length of lead pipe stuffed with powder. These miniature bombs were thrown about the streets, at groups of people, when the sight of the glowing fuse flying through the air was the signal to scatter and run. The bang from these fireworks is said to have been very loud and when thrown at a belated wedding cavalcade, usually caused the horses to bolt, much to the public danger. Towards the end of the last century this custom was finally suppressed by an active police official… (ibid)

amorous hareJohn Dunton, an English writer and bookseller, visited Ireland and described various customs he encountered, in Teague Land: or A Merry Ramble to the Wild Irish (1698). Here’s one he observed in Naas, Co Kildare:

…The inhabitants of this place and the neighbourhood have a custom (how begun I could not learn) on Shrove Tuesday to meet on horseback in the fields, and wherever they spy a hare in her form, they make as wide a circle as the company can and the ground will permit, and someone is sent in to start poor puss, who cannot turn herself any way but she is repulsed with loud cries and so frightened that she falls dead in the magical circle, though sometimes she breaks through and escapes; if a greyhound or any other dog be found in the field, it is a thousand to one she loses her life; and thus after they have shouted two or three hares to death they disperse…

Hardly surprising, then, that the hares in the 13th century manuscript marginalia should want to get their revenge… And, unhappily, an evolution of this same barbarous sport, now under the name of ‘hare coursing’ is still permitted in Ireland! We live in a topsy turvy world, indeed.

better hunting haresAmhlaoibh Ó Suilleabháin, the schoolmaster of Callan, Co Kilkeeny reported a similarly unsavoury Shrove Tuesday custom in  1831:

…To-day is the day when cocks were pelted. It was a barbarous trick. The poor cock was tied to a post or a stone by a hard hemp cod, and sticks were thrown at it. He who killed it became owner of it. A penny was wagered on every shot. Recently this custom has receeded. I have not seen it for thirty years. It was an English custom…

Good to know that we can at least blame the English for that! Cock-throwing was also noted in the three volume Guide to Ireland published between 1841-1843 by Samuel Carter Hall (1800-1889), and his wife Anna Maria (1800-1881) …The day for this sport was Shrove Tuesday, a day which is still dedicated to games and amusements far less cruel and irrational… They went on to describe and illustrate pastimes more familiar to us.

hall's shrove tuesday

…The family group – and the “boys and girls” of the neighbours – gather round the fireside; and each in turn tries his or her skill in tossing the pancake. The tossing of the first is always alloted to the eldest unmarried daughter of the host, who performs the task not altogether without trepidation, for much of her “luck” during the year is supposed to depend on her good or ill success on the occasion. She tosses it, and usually so cleverly as to receive it back again on its surface, on its reverse, in the pan. Congratulations upon her fortune go round, and another makes the effort: perhaps this is a sad mischance; the pancake is either not turned or falls among the turf ashes; the unhappy maiden is then doomed – she can have no chance of marrying for a year at least – while the girl who has been lucky is destined to have her “pick of the boys” as soon as she likes…

We had better finish off with a pancake recipe – and who better than Monica Sheridan to provide a traditional Irish one?

Oh! Do I hear you asking where Licking the Lizard comes into all this? Here is Kevin Danaher to round things off:

…There was a common belief that to lick a lizard endowed the tongue with a cure for burns and scalds; this was especially effective if the lizard was licked on Shrove Tuesday…

hare with dog

Hares in Abundance

exhibition poster

“And now, Sir Hare, good-day to you. God guide you to a how-d’ye-do with me…” (from the Middle English poem – Names of the Hare – translation by Seamus Heaney)

You may know that I am a Hare fanatic. Every day as I travel along through West Cork – driving, cycling or walking – I am scouring the fields and hedgerows in the hope of seeing one of these shy and elusive animals: very occasionally my watchfulness is rewarded. Last year I kept a Hare Diary… on the last day of December I counted up: I had seen only six, and two of these were in other parts of Ireland. Yet, when I first visited Ballybane West – just over the hill from here – back in the early 1990s I saw them on most days; one early morning then I looked out of the window and there was a whole luck of Hares running around the field beyond the house – at least ten of them.

felt hares

A luck of Hares by Christina Jasmin Roser, feltmaker

Where have all the Hares gone? I can’t answer that, but I can tell you that there are a whole lot of Hares in the Heron Gallery, Ahakista at the moment: Annabel Langrish and her husband, Klaus have mounted an excellent exhibition of art and craft works based around images of the Hare.

The exhibition brings together the work of several artists from the West of Ireland: paintings, drawings, feltwork, fabrics, papier mache, jewellery and ceramics. The whole makes a really attractive assemblage, but any one of the works on display – all of which are for sale – would be an elegant addition to your own art collection! I would readily bring them all here to Nead an Iolair but – as we already have numerous images of Hares around the house – Finola has put an embargo on further Hare imports (just for the moment).

Robert talking

Yours Truly was asked to say a few words about Hares at the exhibition opening: a wonderful portait of William the Hare by Sylvia Parkinson looks on

All the works in the Heron Gallery show bring out the magical qualities of this special animal. Mostly it is Lepus Timidus Hibernicus which is depicted: the Irish Hare. This belongs to the Mountain Hare species, related to Arctic Hares. Irish Hares don’t turn white in the winter but they do moult to a paler colour, and sometimes they have white patches then. There are also Brown Hares in Ireland: these were imported from Britain to add to the game stock on landlord estates from medieval times onwards.

Three ceramic Hares by Annabel Langrish, from the exhibition

Although the Irish Hare has been ‘legally protected’ since 1930 – and is listed as a protected species under EU legislation – it can be hunted under license, and Hare coursing is still permitted. This seems anomalous to me: those who support Hare coursing claim that the animals do not suffer. They are captured from the wild, caged (usually for several weeks), and released onto a course where they are chased by muzzled Greyhounds. After this they are put back into the wild. As their name would suggest (Lepidus Timidus), Hares are nervous animals and there can be little doubt that they do suffer stress through the ordeal. Many die before being released. Coursing has been banned in the UK since 2005. There have been moves to have Hares fully protected in Ireland.

The Hare’s Revenge: Dean Wolstenholme’s painting of Greyhounds coursing a Hare (right), while in the medieval woodcut (left) a Hare plays a tabor. The tabor is the forerunner of the Irish bodhran: I am reliably informed that the best skin to use for a bodhran is that of the Greyhound!

bugs_bunny_by_nightwing1975The Hare is a most ancient animal. Fossils have been found dating from Pleistocene times showing that the Hare has not changed or developed in three million years: presumably it is just so perfectly integrated to its environment. It also occupies a prime place in our own mythology. Hare is the archetypal Trickster figure in many cultures – helping to create the world, to bring fire to humans, generally being mischevious and getting into hopeless scrapes, but always coming out on top: just like Warner Brothers’ Bugs Bunny in fact – who is, of course, a Hare! Bugs (my favourite cartoon character) is loosely based on the Br’er Rabbit stories by ‘Uncle Remus’ – collected in the 1870s by Joel Chandler Harris from the oral tradition of the plantation slaves in the Southern United States. Br’er Rabbit (in America Hares are known as Jackrabbits) has his origin as a Trickster figure in African folk tradition.

I have gleaned most of my Hare lore from this much thumbed edition of The Leaping Hare by George Ewart Evans and David Thomson – published by Faber – which I acquired when it first came out in 1972. If you have an evening or three to spare I will happily regale you with tales of Hares gathered from far and wide and recorded in these pages.

pendants

Jewellery by Alison Ibbs

When I lived in Devon, on Dartmoor, I was fortunate to have around me many examples of a symbol known as The Tinners’ Rabbits. Chagford was a Stannary Town – a place where refined tin was assessed, coined, and sold and there was a story that the symbol was a badge of the tin miners. It depicts three Hares (not Rabbits) in a circle: each Hare has two ears, yet there are only three ears in total. A bit of a riddle, perhaps – but one which has been found all over the world, as a project carried out by Chris Chapman reveals. In Chagford’s medieval church (and in several others in Devon and elsewhere) there is a roof boss carved with the image.

There doesn’t seem to be any real evidence to connect the Tinners’ Rabbits symbol to the tin miners – however, there is a surviving superstition in Cornwall and in Ireland that if you meet a Hare while on your way to the mine (or, in some places, when you are going fishing) you turn around and go home!

Some of Annabel’s Hares in the exhibition (left) and (right) our own view of the Hare in the Moon seen from Nead an Iolair last week

Part of the universal folklore of Hares reminds us that it’s the Hare in the Moon we are seeing above us, not the Man in the Moon. And… I know you thought it was an Easter Bunny that brings the chocolate eggs – in fact it’s the Easter Hare! The Saxon spring festival of Ēostre celebrated a hero-Goddess who had a Hare as a companion… Well, that’s one of the many interpretations you will find of this moon-based festival.

Hare eggs and Hare ceramic by Etain Hickey

It’s not Easter now – it’s July – but you can go and see this exhibition on the Sheep’s Head for the rest of this month, and enjoy the beautiful gardens there as well. If, like me, you are a Hare fan, then don’t miss it!

Looking on