"Joe, summer's in," Seamus Heaney wrote on the flyleaf of my copy of Wintering Out. He chuckled, "unsigned books will be more valuable", as he patiently signed his name for respectful admirers. It was his birthday, an event where the country schoolmaster, as he described himself, talked and read. I was with another poet over whose scribbling crouch by a cottage door a hare had once jumped.
An Giorra, the mad March hare, boxer and dancer, a lanky, bony fellow, is the true Easter bunny. The fluffy rabbit of merchandising is a cuddlesome cod, although a chocolate figurine is usually pleasantly acceptable.
The hare at Easter is a creature of mystery favoured by ancient gods, or, rather, one particular goddess. And, curiously, a Christian monk, the Venerable Bede, cast light on such pagan origins in the 8th century at his Benedictine retreat in Northumbria.
Bede wrote that the name 'Easter' had been adapted from that of an Anglo-Saxon goddess named Eostre, or Ostara, or Ushas, the Sanskrit for dawn. April was Dawn Month. Shades here of St Brigid of Kildare!
Ostara's favoured animal was the hare, Lepus timidus, which carried her lights as Goddess of Dawn. The leaping hare of moon, dawn - and Easter - represented love, fertility and growth in a new beginning.
In northern Europe the tradition of the Osterhaus celebration of the rites of spring at the vernal equinox (March 20 this year) still lingers and in some parts of Germany there are stone symbols in homage to Ostara, although many were toppled by church authorities to discourage 'pagan practices'.
There is no tradition in Ireland linking the hare with Easter, though I have seen shop window displays of hares among faux hay, twigs and toy birds. The eggs and nests are from the hare's link with ground-nesting birds such as lapwings and plovers, sadly now depleted in numbers and of high conservation concern, and which laid their eggs near grass 'forms' or lairs where leverets (young hares) lay awaiting a mother's return to feed them at nightfall - unlike rabbits, hares have no burrow protection.
The 'forms' and bird nests are similar - and so the folklore of a hare's nest with eggs evolved. In Ireland, there used to be strict fasting and abstinence from meat during Lent and fish and eggs comprised the main meal ingredients, apart from Sundays. Nearing Easter, eggs were 'saved' by children for 'feasts' and egg-rolling. They were hard-boiled and decorated.
Old customs linger: I remember when I kept poultry, a family sought eggs laid on Good Friday which they marked with crosses and ate on Easter Sunday. Today, there will be lamb served after curtailed religious ceremonials - with perhaps chocolate bunnies saved from earlier unrestricted shopping forays, as a surprise.