Farm Ireland

Wednesday 22 November 2017

Easter eggs and a hare's nest

MORE than 50 years ago, I faced the novelty of a supper of jugged hare in a Meath farm kitchen -- to pay for my sins. Earlier, I had killed the poor creature as it crossed the road.

Food was not thrown out. A half bottle of port was added by the generous hosts to a dish that was new to me and, I recall, somewhat heavy going -- the meat being much darker than rabbit.

In the province of Alentejo in Portugal, on dry plains of scattered holm and cork oak, black pigs forage where people have lived for centuries on land that would not support thin cows in Ireland.

In quiet villages, narrow, hilly streets rise to churches with great white stork nests on roofs and belfries.

Small family-run restaurants are proud of their cooking. The food is simple and substantial, with potatoes and beans and cress from an adjoining garden and a meat dish which might be a casserole of leverets: young hares.

How had they been captured, the question occurred to me. To my local hosts, the meat could have been pigeon breasts, another meal ingredient taken from the wild.

I considered this might be a seasonal dish as the 'Easter bunny' of folklore was really a hare, although this, I thought, was a tradition more from northern Europe than the Iberian peninsula.

In a Dublin shop window, I've seen German-made wood toy bunny-hares, some holding toy eggs, in an Easter-theme display. There were also small nests of eggs in faux hay and twigs, linking hares and birds.

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In northern Europe, this is of the tradition of 'Osterhaus' to mark spring fertility, from 'Eastre', an Anglo-Saxon goddess for whom the rites of spring were celebrated at the vernal equinox.

The nests are from associating the hare with ground-nesting birds, such as lapwing and plover, which build nests near the 'forms' or grassy lairs where leverets crouch during daylight until the mother hare returns to let them suckle her at nightfall.

The birds' nests look similar to the 'forms', so the tradition of the hare's nest, with eggs, grew from this. German immigrants took this to America -- as we transplanted Hallowe'en -- and 'Osterhaus' spread throughout the US.

Folklore in Ireland about Lent and Easter certainly involves eggs and chicks -- but bunnies play a somewhat secondary role.

This used be a time of strict fasting and once Easter arrived, there were processions of celebrating butcher boys 'whipping the herring' through the streets. The fish, tied to poles, were eventually thrown into the river or harbour, to cheers and cries.

There were serious economic reasons for this. As recently as 1920, market porters and slaughter-house workers used to collect money from the public on Easter Monday to compensate for loss of earnings during the lean Lenten weeks.

In an older Ireland at Easter, hard-boiled eggs used to be painted by children and rolled down slopes. All were eaten; some saved for 'egg feasts'.

Many old customs were collected by the eminent folklorist Kevin Danaher.

Today's Easter is a world of exotic chocolate, including moulded bunnies filled with sweet surprises. But the real hare sits contentedly, never having been part of the Irish festive table.

Sunday Independent