Monday 21 January 2019

Country Matters: Easter rambles in old Kilkenny

HARE AWAY: ‘The Irish Hare’ by Pauline Bewick
HARE AWAY: ‘The Irish Hare’ by Pauline Bewick

Joe Kennedy

Easter weather seemed to be much more 'normal' in days of yore - at least in some pleasant rural places.

More than 150 years ago one man recorded "meadows smooth as silk" and "green as corn-grass" in Co Kilkenny. He was a schoolteacher from Callan named Amhlaoibh O Suilleabhain, who, with some pals, left town for Desart, "skipping like goats," (indicating a drop of the cratur to send them on their way!) This was in 1827.

The fields of wild flowering grasses formed an "exquisitely beautiful landscape with a gaseous exhalation from the sun" in the poetically named townlands of Graigveooly, Derrymore, Derreen and Oorachillen, visually far removed from the monotonous monoculture green vistas of today's countryside.

This lighthearted group were on a holiday outing and "bent steps" to a venue named Butlers of Ballgelly where "we got white baker's bread, fat pork, delicious mutton, whitish pudding and a drop of whiskey from a handsome hostess". Happy day!

A cracking good time was had by all before they made their way homeward through "Tullamaine and Knockreagh… on as fine an afternoon as I ever have seen," O Suilleabhain wrote in his diary.

More than 100 years later, me fein, and others now long deceased, had delightful experiences in similar rural venues also where a 20th century 'generous hostess' would serve up platefuls of bacon, spuds and cabbage before we took to the road, homeward bound - and very much later than the afternoon!

Most people celebrate the Easter holiday with a meal of roast spring lamb, or the aforementioned bacon, and share chocolate eggs of various sizes and contents.

There are choc bunnies also but not everybody realises that the Easter Bunny is really a hare or that it was associated with 'a hare's nest' and, therefore, birds of the air, or, rather, of the ground - or that Easter was originally a pagan celebration of the coming of spring.

The Venerable Bede, a learned medieval English monk of Northumbria, suggested that the Christian Easter was adapted from a spring fertility rite named for an Anglo-Saxon goddess, Eostre (sometimes spelled Ostara or Ushas, the Sanskrit for dawn). April was called Eostre-month or dawn-month when rites of spring were celebrated at the vernal equinox.

Eostra's favourite animal was the hare (Lepus timidus) and hares carried her lights as Goddess of Dawn - the leaping hare of the moon, dawn and Easter representing love, fertility and growth.

In Ireland there was little link with the hare - "an giorra" - at Eastertide, though I once saw a shop window display in Dublin of wood hares, some holding coloured eggs, among faux hay, twig nests and toy birds. The eggs and nests are from the hare's link with ground-nesting birds such as plover and lapwing near hare 'forms' or lairs where leverets hide and so evolved the folklore of a hare's nest with eggs.

Enjoy your Easter eggs then, and chocolate bunny, which, you now know, is really a hare, a beautiful animal still cruelly coursed with greyhounds in the EU part of Ireland, but banned in the North.

Sunday Independent

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