A pair of rabbits was stuffed with breadcrumbs, onions and herbs, wrapped in thick slices of bacon, and then packed around with parsnips and carrots, roasted in a big, black baking pot with red ashes heaped on the lid. It was the best of Christmas dinners.
Thousands of Irish families certainly thought so in Ireland before supermarkets and the EU ban on rabbits sold dead in their fur and anything not butchered in a pristine, licensed abattoir. You can still buy them sometimes, but headless and frozen and without their last breath of the wild.
Michael Conry of Chapelstown, Carlow, was a notable farming scientist. He has spent his retirement researching and writing revelatory books about life in a poorer rural Ireland.
His last book was Picking Bilberries, Fraocháns and Whorts in Ireland: The Human Story (2011). His new one, The Rabbit Industry in Ireland (€30 at conry-michael-books.com), again documents an abundant natural resource and its value to people living on subsistence farming. Between 1990 and 2014, he interviewed 900 people with memories of a time in which nothing was wasted. "Use it up, wear it out, make it do or do without" was the wide rural rule.
An unexpected revelation in the book is its detail of “progressive” farming leaders who conspired to bring the plague of myxomatosis into Ireland in 1954. A secret share-out of skin from a victim sent in the post from the UK was rubbed on rabbits around Leinster and, as Conry writes, “farmers flocked to Castletown to collect diseased rabbits”.
Guilty names and faces I leave to the book. The spread of “myxo” proved a saving, if cruel, attempt to check the rabbits’ grazing of meadows and seedling arable crops. Their disease was harmless to humans, but the image of blind and blundering rabbits put people off eating the animals’ meat for years – sometimes, it perhaps, still does. Many trappers, snarers and ferreting men did eventually go back to work: 120 rabbits, snared in a sugar beet field in 2002, fetched £1 each to feed the cheetahs in Fota Wildlife Park.
Ireland’s pre-myxo rabbit population was prodigious. Conry puts it at almost 40 million, of which perhaps half were killed annually, their export to Britain peaking in two wars. Their handling created a busy rural network. At the height of the boom in the 1940s, for example, the Castlemahon Co-op Creamery in Co Limerick was processing up to 2,000 rabbits in a night to be packed in wooden boxes.
What nourishes a vivid social history is the meticulous and place-centred chronicle of experience, tied to the book’s abundant images from family albums: how it was to catch and kill the rabbits, to cook and eat them in a dozen ways (their brains on toast, even), or sell them on for cash. They provided pocket money for the dance, a Raleigh bicycle on HP for a son to get to secondary school – even, for those in the professional big time, enough savings to put down on a farm.
Conry captured some great narratives: “His father controlled the ferret and ordered Pat to keep his ear to the ground. The minute his father let in the ferret, ‘you would think horses were thundering under the ground’ before the rabbits bolted into the nets.”
“Lamping” – dazzling rabbits to shoot – needed a strong and piercing torch-beam: “Travelling over rough ground with a battery on your back, running against the wind, crossing ditches and falling into gripes, trying to get out through little gaps here and there in hedges, getting hung up on barbed wire, running into a plough, a grubber or a harrow and yokes like that left on the headland by the farmer. Oh God it was quare hardship. . .”
A ferret, imported from England, cost 30 shillings. It needed muzzling when put down the burrow or it would stay below to gnaw on its prey and then go to sleep. Hissing at strangers, it could be kept in the coat pocket to warm a hand on a cold day, or let play with the dog on the kitchen floor. The milk a ferret left behind in its dish was a great cure for whooping cough, as everybody knew, and people would come miles to beg “the ferret’s leavings”.
Rabbits, says Conry, are now rarely thought a major pest. Loss of habitat, casual shooting, a rare return of myxo, now limit them, but they remain an important prey for Ireland’s predators. Ferrets, long released from duty, are now comfortably feral and widespread, with local concentrations in south Ulster.
The book takes a well-deserved place in Irish Wild Mammals, the newly updated guide to the scientific literature by Pat Smiddy and Paddy Sleeman, both of UCC. This covers published research, from badgers to killer whales and ancient wolves, and costs €30 from the online wildlife shop at birdwatchireland.ie.
Michael Viney's Reflections on Another Life, a selection of columns from the past four decades, is available from irishtimes.com/irishtimesbooks