Living Landscapes

Labhraidh Loingseach has donkey’s ears

Years ago in school we had a nature table. It was an unused cupboard really, where we crowded around to learn about nature. Every once in a while our teacher would take us outside to search for bits and pieces, inspiring in us an interest and love of plants, leaves, and trees. We collected frog spawn (please don’t do that now, it’s protected!) and did leaf rubbings, gathered conkers and watched out for ladybirds. The sound of the cockoo heralded the start of summer.

We loved the time just before the summer holidays when the school timetable was a bit more open to change and good weather meant more time outside watching frogs, making daisy chains and catching a glimpse of butterflies floating from flower to flower.

Learning about our native trees and animals brings us closer to nature and to our ancestors. They had a bond with nature too, probably more so than we do today. They understood and celebrated place names linked to nature and sang songs and told stories about the magic of trees and plants.

Long, long ago there lived in Leighlinbridge, Carlow a troubled king. This king’s name was Labhraidh Loingseach. He had a terrible secret. He had the ears of a donkey! To hide his awful secret, he let his hair grow very long. However, he had to get his hair cut every year. To keep his donkeys ears a secret he had the poor barber killed. One year, a widow's son was chosen to be the unfortunate barber. The boy's mother pleaded with the king for her son's life. The widow's tears melted the king's cruel heart. The king promised to save the boy's life if he kept the secret. After the boy had cut the king's hair, he became very ill. His mother took him to a druid. He told the boy to tell his terrible secret to an oak tree. The boy did this and immediately felt better. At the same time the King's musician was looking for a new harp. He went out and had a tree chopped down from which he made a new harp. That night, the king asked his bard to play on his new harp. The bard started to play but the song that came out was "Labhraidh Loingseach has donkey's ears! Labhraidh Loingseach has donkey’s ears!"

Older generations also respected the weather and appreciated the way trees had survived the cold winters. They considered rag trees as special and would tie a piece of cloth from the branches, hoping that an illness would be cured. They watched the birds and animals and learned the best places to find wild berries and fruit.

Not all learning has to be classroom based. A simple walk outside links our landscape with scenery, history, mythology and folklore and brings to life the ancient paths our ancestors walked.

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