Con Houlihan: Twists

Con Houlihan

As a small boy I couldn't believe in the Ice Age. It was hard to imagine that there was no life in this island. And now it seems that I was right. The remains of a small boat found in the Shannon Estuary about 15 years ago caused the scientists to revise their beliefs radically. It delighted me that sometimes the romantics are right.

There is an old belief that certain species managed to survive the Ice Age. They probably found caverns here and there that gave them heat and air and they came out when the ice had receded. There is a tradition that the ancient Irish were a small, dark people. Cu Chulainn became a symbol of that.

The old Irish cattle were dark and small as the Kerry cattle are today. And then there was the belief that a species of hare had survived. I have proof of this. One day when we were coursing hares about five miles north of Castle Island, a small black hare sprung up. He was so small that we gave him extra yardage of leave. And even then you were afraid that the hounds might catch him quickly.

But the small dark hare was a master of twists and turns and often went around full circle and tormented the two dogs. Time and again he appeared to be captured but by sheer elusiveness he kept the contest going until at last he reached a farm yard where he went under the lowest bar and escaped.

One of our members estimated that the course had lasted three minutes. This was hardly true but when the two dogs came back, they looked bewildered and they were certainly exhausted.

That day, long ago, I was in the company of about 12. Most are gone to another world. A few who are alive are in another country. We never saw the small dark hare again nor did anybody see him -- the species is probably extinct.

What we call the Irish hare has big ears, a long slender body and powerful hind quarters. It was a miracle how he survived because he always lived in the open. Some hares live in woodland but when the rain comes, they get away from the droppings of the trees and will live inland even on a bare field.

The hare has no hiding places. He makes a kind of a form usually of grass. He has total vision and very clear hearing and great power of scent -- even so, it is a miracle that the Irish hare has proliferated. And they are getting bolder.

The young hares are born with their eyes open and a slight fur. They are defenceless and at the mercy of their natural enemies, the stoat and the fox. The old people claimed that the young hare has no scent and that is probably true. The mother usually brings three into the world and she deposits them far apart from one another. This is a help and we are told that when she is coming to see after them, she doesn't run the last one hundred yards but makes a series of leaps and bounds to break off the trail. I have never seen this but it makes sense.

There are all kinds of legends about the hare. Some of them are true. You will be told about a Game Hare: he lives in much the same place for most of his life. He is not extraordinarily fast. He is a little bigger than a normal hare and can be very hard to run down. He is very tricky in his twists and turns and usually he gets away clearly.

There was a Game Hare in my locality for about 10 years. He seemed to take pleasure in playing with the greyhounds. Eventually he was killed by a shepherd dog in the snow.

Some hares have an escape route. It is called a "run". It may consist of many factors to thwart the greyhound: it could be a bush in the middle of the field around which the hare will go full circle while the hounds go flying; it could be a stile over which the hare can skip where the hounds must struggle; it could be a narrow passage under a fence; it could be a gulley; it could be below the lower rung of a gate. One thing is certain: when a hare gets on his "run", he is almost impossible to catch. When, however, he doesn't get on his "run", he has to use all his pace and trickery to avoid capture.


Other hares live on the mountain. They are the same species but they are endowed with enormous stamina. When the mountain hare escapes the first two or three minutes, he will race away until the hounds come back to their base looking puzzled and weary.

There is another species of hare found in this island: the English hare. He is bigger and more rounded than the Irish hare. They are now nearly extinct in this island.

The Irish hare is a great swimmer and will travel several miles to some island or other in the breeding season. The hare's fur is waterproof. And this is a help to survive cold weather.

In recent years the Irish hare has proliferated despite all his natural enemies. Obviously he is very intelligent and we are glad to have him with us.

It is legal to shoot a hare but any man who does so will not be a hero in the sporting community. They are a noble animal and though they stand up on their backsides like boxers and fight at the breeding time, it was never known for a hare to kill another hare.

A famous woman called Mrs Beaton published the bible of cuisine. Her recipe for cooking a hare became a classic. It consists of only four words: "First catch your hare."

Fogra: In the new issue of the Irish Runner you will find a very interesting piece by Feidhlim Kelly and Dermot McDermott on the new wave of Irish athletes.