Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin - On Lacking the Killer Instinct

In Brief:

This poem demonstrates the process of memory very clearly.  One thought calls forth a memory and then sparks off another and another. The dramatic photo of a hare being chased by greyhounds in the newspaper reminds the poet of an encounter with a hare on the road near the hospital where her father was dying.

She then thinks of her father as a young man, running from the enemy in the Irish War of Independence and his ‘clever’/crazy idea to chance an ‘open kitchen door’, a risk that saved his life.

Stanza by Stanza:

The poem opens with the image of a hare ‘sitting still’ in the middle of the path on which the poet was walking, a memory from a few years previously. She had ‘fled’ the hospital in which her father was dying obviously struggling with the ordeal of seeing him waste away.

She was reminded of this memory by a striking photograph of hare coursing in the morning newspaper:
Two greyhounds tumbling over, absurdly gross,
While the hare shoots off to the left, her bright eye
Full not only of speed and fear
But surely in the moment a glad power,

She sees fear in the eye of the hare but also the thrill of survival, ‘glad power’ in her ability to outrun the ‘stupid dogs’. This sparks the memory of her nineteen year old father being chased by the Black and Tans during the War of Independence in 1921 and how, like the hare, he gave them the slip: 
And he was clever, he saw a house
And risked an open kitchen door

About the incident he commented ‘never/Such gladness’ as ‘he came out/ Into a blissful dawn’ the following morning.  Both the hare and her father felt excitement and joy in surviving a near death experience. 

The poet thinks that neither should ever ‘have been coursed’ as it should not have been necessary for a boy to fight for his country’s independence at such a young age and hare coursing is now regarded as a barbaric activity. She concludes the poem by admitting she ‘should not have run away’ from her father’s deathbed and remembers that she subsequently  ‘went back to the city’ to face up to her own challenges.


A ‘Killer instinct’ is ‘a ruthless determination to succeed or win’. Both the hare and the poet’s father exhibit this instinct as they escape their hunters whereas the dogs and soldiers, who let their prey go, do not.  The poet too, in fleeing her father’s deathbed, seemed to lack the courage to endure her own fear at such a moment.

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