Where furry friends run free – An Irishman’s Diary about the ‘Hare’s Corner’
I don’t know whether, in the era of combine harvesters, farmers anywhere still leave a “hare’s corner” when cutting crops. It would be nice to hear that this animal-friendly practice has not become extinct. But if nowhere else, the concept lives on in language.
The Hare’s Corner was a 2008 album by trad musician Colm Mac An Iomaire. It’s also the name of a restaurant in Mountmellick (where, naturally, hares are never on the menu).
And I was reminded of the expression again this week because it also featured in the Twitter account of writer Robert MacFarlane.
The author of Mountains of the Mind and other books, MacFarlane is a farmer of language: collecting and preserving expressions – many of them now rare or threatened – relating to the landscapes of Britain and Ireland. On Tuesday, “Hare’s Corner” was his phrase of the day.
Humankind has had an odd relationship with the hare, more often than not an uneasy one. Most infamously, and still also preserved in language, was the notion that cleft palates – “harelips” – could be blamed on the animal.
It was folk wisdom for centuries that a pregnant woman meeting a hare would have a baby so afflicted, unless she immediately counteracted the spell. The approved remedy involved tearing her undergarments in three places. A 1579 almanac went so far as to recommend that expectant mothers at risk of hare encounters should leave parts of the clothes unstitched for this purpose.
But the belief survived into modern times too.
The Penguin Guide to the Superstitions of Britain and Ireland records a 20th-century version from Cavan, in which the responsibility for mothercare was switched to hunters.
After shooting a hare, they were advised to cut its tail off, to protect any mothers-to-be they met on the way home.
When not providing hares with corners to roam freely in, humans were often doing the opposite, and not just for sport.
The animals also had a reputation for shape-shifting, or more specifically of being the shape witches assumed during undercover work, including the unauthorised milking of other people’s cows.
For this reason, folklore abounds with stories of hare hunts in which the animal is cornered in the negative sense.
The Penguin collection includes a tale from Herefordshire in which the suspicions of a pursuing party are confirmed when a small boy shouts at the hare: “Run, grannie, run, the hounds be after thee!” That’s an unusual plot-twist in the genre. More typically, the denouement occurs when the quarry is captured and turns back into the witch.
Luckily for the oppressed hare, it has never been popular as food. Even the French don’t eat it much. And again, there have been some fanciful ideas at work here.
When Jonathan Swift had a character declining hare with the excuse “No, Madam, they say ’tis melancholy meat”, this was not a critique of the taste.
Hares were long presumed to be melancholic animals (except of course in March, when they hit the other end of the bipolar spectrum). Both Shakespeare and Dr Johnson thought so. And it was feared that anyone eating them would be similarly downcast.
An exception in the literary depiction of hares was William Cowper, the 18th-century poet, who kept them as pets. He had several, but the most famous was “Tiney” who, upon expiring aged 13, provoked him to write Epitaph On A Hare.
In this the poet gently chides the deceased – “surliest of his kind” – for never having appreciated his luck. But he also writes: “I kept him for his humour’s sake,/For he would oft beguile/My heart of thoughts that made it ache,/And force me to a smile.”
Poor Cowper needed cheering up. Despite being the most popular English poet of his time, he suffered severe bouts of depression and at least one of outright insanity.
But getting back to hares, their reputation for otherworldliness clearly lingers. Earlier this year there was a short-lived sensation, on social media and in newspapers, arising from pictures of a hare at Dublin Airport, apparently smoking a cigarette. On closer inspection, the “fag”, emerging at a jaunty angle from its lower lip, turned out to be a fang, a grossly enlarged tooth.
That misfortune aside, the animal was an example of a phenomenon I’ve noted here before: the proliferation of hares in and around the airport, from the long-term car parks to the airfield itself. Maybe nowhere else in intensively-farmed Fingal is now so friendly to the species. But most of Dublin Airport, at least, is a Hare’s Corner.