Sunday 21 January 2018

A hare's nest of Easter eggs

Child with Easter eggs
Child with Easter eggs


Many years ago in pastoral Meath, a neighbour used to ask each Easter for a fresh egg laid by one of my colourful flock of hens on Good Friday.

He would then carefully mark it with a cross and have it for breakfast on Easter Sunday. He never asked for extra eggs for his children, just the one.

This was a special tradition for him which he explained was within his family from wherever his parents or grandparents had sprung.

Like myself, he was not a local man.

In an older Ireland, eggs used be gathered by giggling children from henhouse raids, then hard-boiled, painted or marked and used in racing games down inclines. They were saved for later feasts to see who could eat the most!

Easter brought relief from the strict Lenten days of fasting when, up to about 100 years ago in towns, the butchers' boys wildly celebrated, carrying herrings tied to poles which they flogged through the streets with whips marking the return of beef-eating.

The flayed remains of the fish would be dumped in a river or harbour to much cheering and blowing of horns.

This was a serious event for meat porters and slaughter-house men who were often reduced to penury after seven weeks of zero trade. On Easter Monday, street cash collections for them were generously supported. Bills had to be paid, families fed.

Amhlaoibh O Suilleabháin, a teacher and shopkeeper of Callan, Co Kilkenny wrote of an Easter outing in a memoir of the early 19th century when he and some friends, "skipping like goats", left the town heading for Desart, passing through "an exquisitely beautiful landscape".

They "bent steps" to Butler's of Ballygelly where they got "white baker's bread, fat pork, delicious mutton, whitish pudding - and a drop of whiskey from a handsome hostess."

They later returned homeward through Tullamaine and Knockreagh, he wrote, "as fine an afternoon as I have ever seen". Was it the weather or the repast? Perhaps both.

In Alentejo in Portugal I once had a simple but substantial meal of potatoes and beans and cress from the garden served with a casserole of leverets, young hares, with fine soft bones.

I wondered how they had been captured but I didn't learn. It would not have been easy as I was the only foreign visitor present! I considered it was seasonal, as the Easter bunny is really a hare, though from a more northern European tradition. In Dublin, believe it or not, I have seen German-made wooden toy bunny-hares, some holding faux eggs, in an Easter-themed shop window display. There were also nests linking hares and birds.

This is in 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 lapwings and plovers, which build near the forms or grass lairs where leverets crouch by day until their mothers return at dusk to nurse them. The birds' nests look similar to the forms so the tradition of the hare's nest with eggs grew from this.

Irish folklore includes eggs and chicks, but bunnies are secondary, though they are widely seen in chocolate moulds and can be filled with delightful surprises.

Sunday Independent

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