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The Irish For: As we celebrate St Patrick's removal of snakes, what other animals have come and gone from Ireland?

Darach Ó Séaghdha looks at the stories behind some of Ireland’s most famous animals

Darach Ó Séaghdha Writer

A STORY WITH a feel-good headline did the rounds online recently when it was revealed that the pine marten (cat crainn, literally a tree cat, in Irish) was partially responsible for a surge in the numbers of the native red squirrel (iora rua). The idea of furry friends looking after each other is adorable; you can just imagine the tough but sensitive pine marten giving a squirrel the pep talk he needs to get the courage to ask another red squirrel out. 

This isn’t what happened, of course: the assistance from the pine marten came in the form of preying upon lots and lots of grey squirrels. The grey squirrel (iora glas) was introduced from Canada to these isles as recently as 1911 (as part of a wedding gift, I’m told), interrupting the delicate ecological balance of our woodlands by carrying diseases fatal to the smaller red squirrel, as well as competing with it for food and nesting space.

However, because the red squirrel is smaller, it can escape from a pine marten onto tinier branches which neither the predatory pine marten nor the hapless grey can reach. So it goes; a single change can lead to a critical reversal of fortune for a species in Ireland.

shutterstock_746369935 The Pine Martin, or 'tree cat'. Source: Shutterstock/Paul A Carpenter

Díothú – The Irish For Extinction

Saint Patrick’s Day is unusual in that we celebrate the extinction of a native Irish species on foot of a mysterious visitor to these shores. What were the long-term ecological ramifications of the loss of snakes? Did the rat population spiral out of control? 

For the month that’s in it, let’s take a look at the arrival of other beasts to this island and consider what traces they left on the language and folklore.

Francach (rat) - the Irish word for a rat is the same as the word for a French person. This is an abbreviation of luch francach, which literally means a French mouse. The theory was that rats first arrived on French ships with the Normans.

Sionnach (fox) - the fox is long-established in Ireland – arriving in the post-glacial period – and widely present our folklore. They even turn up in traditional medicine: a fox’s tongue was prized for being the best way for extracting thorns from the flesh.

shutterstock_1381030982 Source: Shutterstock/Sandra Standbridge

Traonach (corncrake) - along with the cherry blossom, this native bird was long considered the herald of summer, with papers in the West of Ireland noting where and when it had first been heard that year (usually in April). As it nested on the ground of meadows and cornfields rather than on trees, it was extremely vulnerable when combine harvesters were introduced. It is now very rare.

Coileach (rooster) - Lady Gregory noted in her writing that it was widely held belief in the Irish countryside that hens and weasels were left in Ireland by the Danes. When a rooster woke them in the morning, it would be remarked that “it is for Denmark they are crowing; crowing to be back in Denmark”.

Frog/Niút (frog/newt) - The entry for frog in O’Reilly’s foclóir of 1864 notes that the amphibian was not found in Ireland before the reign of William the Third, whose Dutch troops first introduced it. As for other amphibians, the newt had a particularly terrible reputation, gathering the nicknames “the Dark Luachra” and “the Man Creeper”. The fear was that if you fell asleep near where newts gathered, they would climb into your mouth and crawl into your stomach. 

Nathair (snake) - there are some attention-seeking sceptics to say that Ireland never had snakes and Saint Patrick’s alleged removal of them was just a metaphor for his removal of paganism. 

Faoileán (seagull) - finally, the reintroduction of the wolf (faol, among other names) has been one of the more surprising recent election issues in Ireland, with some voters seeing a possible downside to living near large predators. However, they could hardly case more trouble than their near-namesake, the faoileán (literally, wolf bird). While the gulls are native to these shores, their increased presence and interference with elegant city living by stealing food and soiling passers-by has been attributed not to a lack of a natural predator, but rather to over-fishing by humans of their natural food supply. Remember that the next time one of them pinches your burrito.

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About the author:

Darach Ó Séaghdha  / Writer

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