How the Irish Word for Deer Masks the True Nature of These Mammals in Ireland
Last month we took a wide-ranging look at the various names held by the five species of deer in Ireland and found that these revealed a great deal about their true nature, uncovering evolutionary relationships that would not be guessed at from their outward appearances. For the next few months, then, it seems only appropriate to dig a little deeper into the nature of Ireland’s deer, although this time by concentrating on just the Irish word fia, as this means not only ‘deer’ but also ‘wild’. So, in Ireland, deer are linked deeply with a notion of wildness, but, as we shall see, they are not quite as wild as this name suggests.
All across the island of Ireland, you can find wild places that have names which derive from its deer. In the southernmost county, Cork, you have Keimaneigh, which comes the Irish céim an fhiadh, ‘pass of the deer’, while far in the north, in Co. Derry, you will find Drumanee, derived from druim an fhiadh, ‘ridge of the deer’. Annahilt in Co. Down in the northeast comes from eanach eilit, ‘marsh of the hind’, eilit being a female deer, while in Co. Kerry in the southwest you can stand at a greater elevation on sliabh an damh, the ‘mountain of the stag’, from which comes the name Slievaduff. Other high places on the island also have a connection to deer, such as the southerly locations of Knockanee in Co. Limerick, derived from cnoc an fhiadh, ‘hill of the deer’, or Knockanoss in Co. Cork, from cnoc an os, meaning ‘hill of the fawn’.
There are many, many more examples we could pick, some with very evocative names, such as Derrynanaff, Co. Mayo in the northwest of Ireland, derived from doire na ndamh, ‘oakwood of the stags’, or Cloonelt in Co. Roscommon, from cluain an eilit, ‘meadow of the hind’. But it is not only in place names that the wildness of deer is written in Irish culture.
One of the most popular names for a boy in Ireland is Oisín, which is a diminutive of the Irish os we encountered in the place name Knockanoss above, so Oisín means ‘little fawn’ or ‘little deer’ (os can also just mean ‘deer’, although it is usually used to mean 'fawn'). This name has very deep roots in Ireland, Oisín being a major character in the wild tales of the Fenian Cycle in Irish mythology, and the son of no less than the great Fionn MacCumhaill himself, whom we met in a previous blog on the Giant’s Causeway. Furthermore, the name of Oisín’s son, Oscar, is also derived from os, and this is another popular boy's name on the island.
But not to be outdone, a deer-related girl’s name has very recently surged greatly in popularity to become one of the most common amongst newborns in Ireland. Indeed, this name derives directly from the Irish word for deer, being Fiadh.
So, an association of deer with the wild can be found in many strands of the Irish consciousness – in the names the Irish have given to the island’s wild places, and in the personal names that evoke a wild, mythologised past or a newly-spun sense of freedom and wildness. But when we look at the deer as they really are, rather than how we suppose them to be, our idealised view of them begins to dissolve, and we realise that the picture of a free beast that is truly wild is more a product of the human imagination than it is of the real world.
This is most obvious, of course, when we look at the three non-native deer species, the sika deer, Chinese muntjac, and roe deer. The Oxford English Dictionary defines ‘wild’ in relation to animals as ‘living in a state of nature’, and it would be fair to suppose that this definition sees a wild animal as one that enjoys minimal human interference. However, the path of these three species on the island is not an open road but one bound and bent by human action.
To begin with, the very fact that the sika deer, Chinese muntjac, and roe deer are classified as non-native species tells us that there has been a human role in their arrival on the island, as a non-native species by definition is one that has been introduced to an area beyond its native range through human activity, whether deliberate or accidental. And, in the case of these three deer species, the nature of this human activity appears to be wholly deliberate.
Certainly, the presence of the two most recent arrivals in Ireland, the Chinese muntjac and roe deer, is highly likely to be due to deliberate human action. It is thought, for example, that the roe deer’s arrival in 2011 was the result of a deliberate introduction of a population to an estate in Co. Wicklow, most probably to be used as a game species for shooting.
Thus, it appears the roe deer’s arrival in Ireland this century may be for the very same reason it was introduced in the nineteenth century, the demise of this earlier group in the estate of Lissadell House in Co. Sligo having been caused by shooting, as we saw last month. Subsequent escapes or intentional releases have resulted in roe deer turning up in other locations in Ireland, with the species having been spotted in Co. Meath in central Ireland and Co. Armagh in the north.
It is clear, then, that though the roe deer can be found in the wild in Ireland, many are still captives, and overall the level of human interference in its arrival and existence on the island is far beyond what one would deem acceptable to define it as living in a state of nature. It is not, then, truly wild, and much the same can be said of the Chinese muntjac.
Like the roe deer, the Chinese muntjac may have been deliberately introduced to Ireland from Britain, and this introduction may also relate to their exploitation for hunting and shooting. Sightings of free-roaming muntjac were first recorded in Co. Wicklow in 2007, but they have since been spotted in a number of other counties, most importantly in Co. Down, and their presence in these areas is thought to be due to multiple releases.
However, their exact origin is unknown, and though they may well have been introduced from Britain, muntjacs are also known to be held in captivity in private collections in different locations in Ireland, and the recently spotted forms in the wild could also have escaped from these or have been deliberately released. In any case, there are too many grubby human fingerprints on the lives of the Chinese muntjac in Ireland than we would expect to see on a more pristine, truly wild animal.
Of course, the third non-native species, the sika deer, has also had a great deal of human interference in its arrival and subsequent existence in Ireland. Many of the sika deer on the island today can trace their origins back to the single stag and three hinds introduced to the estate of Lord Powerscourt in Co. Wicklow in 1870, which was, in fact, the first successful introduction of the species to a land beyond Asia.
From this founding population, Lord Powerscourt established a herd, and in subsequent decades, his sika deer were used to establish herds in a number of different locations across the island, from Down to Kerry, (although sika deer from Scotland were also used to establish one of the Kerry herds, at Landsdowne estate in Lauragh, in the 1890s).
However, it was only in the early twentieth century, when many deer parks on the island fell to rack and ruin, that escapees began to colonise the wider countryside, in the 1930s and 1940s beginning to spread even further across the island to the point that today they are found in many counties and have established four main populations: in Kerry in the south, in Wicklow in the east, and in Fermanagh and Tyrone in the north.
Thus, though many sika deer are found in the wild today, it seems that they all hail from recent ancestors that were captives in deer parks, and their initial spread across the island was clearly due to human action. The hallmarks of human activity, then, can be found all over their century-and-a-half of occupation of Ireland; from their arrival to their breeding and subsequent spread across the island.
It is, perhaps, unsurprising to see such a level of human interference in the lives of the deer species that are not classified as native in Ireland. However, as we shall see next month, if we turn to the two native species, the red deer and fallow deer, expecting to find beasts that are truly wild we will also come away disappointed. Like the three recent arrivals on the island, it seems these more ancient inhabitants of Ireland are not truly wild things.