The Irish Hare
Irish and Celtic myths and legends, Irish folklore and Irish fairy tales tales of Ireland
A Mystery to this day
Hares in Ireland have long been seen as mysterious creatures, deeply connected to the otherworld and the subject of legend, song and story. Their association with the realms of the fairies and good folk led the old Druids to capture and release them in a place with many openings, such as a stone circle, to see which way they would run. Then the Druids would have an answer to whatever question they had in mind.
The mighty warrior Oisín was out hunting one day and he happened to injure a hare with his throwing dart, so he followed the creature through dark hedges and misty glades until he came to an old Dún. In this ancient mound was a doorway, so quick as you like he sprang down it after the blood trail.
And what did he find but a beautiful young woman sitting in a rich hall, nursing a bleeding wound on her leg! For the hare was the preferred form the women of the Sidhe took when they changed shape to visit the world above, which the wise know as our world. From that day forward Oisín swore never to eat another hare, and now you understand why it was forbidden to eat hares in old Ireland.
Hares were also sent by the dwellers in the hill to warn mortals if they trespassed too closely into forbidden places, or sought to damage or destroy the old mounds. So if you happen to be in the wild places of Ireland when the moon waxes full above and see a hare looking at you steadily from the tall grass, look out!
And most enchanted of all were the rare white hares, touched by primordial spirits, hunted by tribes of old for their magical powers...
In the lowland of Creggan, there lives a white hare
As swift as the swallow that flies through that air.
You may tramp the world over but none can compare
With the pride of low Creggan, the bonnie white hare.
– The Creggan White Hare, a traditional Irish folk ballad
Saint Melangell became the patron saint of hares when she fled from Ireland to escape an arranged marriage after taking a vow of celibacy. She went to a secret place in Wales and lived there alone for fifteen years, until Prince Brochfael passed close by, hunting hares with his dogs. He finally managed to drive a hare into the undergrowth, and so chased after it until he burst upon Saint Melangell with the hare hiding in the folds of her dress.
When Brochfael heard Melangell’s story, he gave her land to build a monastery, which she did on the condition that not only people could find refuge there, but all gentle creatures who were being pursued. Hares are still called St. Melangell’s Lambs by some.
Hares, the heralds of spring, differ from rabbits in that they are bigger and run faster, for longer, and do not dig burrows but have their young, called leverets, in a grassy nest called a form.
They are among the few native Irish mammals remaining, and have been here since before the ice covered the land, although their fur no longer goes white in the winter. In March they go a bit mad and have boxing matches and arguments with each other, hence the phrase, "as mad as a March hare"!
The hare was even immortalised on the Irish thrupenny piece. And yet for all their long habituation in Ireland, there can be few other animals about which so much is known but which still remains a mystery. Those who study hares may know some of what hares do, but they are far from knowing why they do it.
Perhaps the old people of Ireland could have helped them with that!
The hare is still celebrated in Creggan, and you can learn more at An Creagán Visitor’s Center, marked on the map below.
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