Tuesday, 17 February 2015

Pangur Dubh

I got home from the hardware store and opened the yellow sachet. The bait was wheat seeds impregnated with poison. It was a lurid green colour. I put it in dishes at either end of the loft. The rodents loved it; every night I could hear them scurrying above my head. The row was very disturbing, I couldn’t relax and sleep. I tried earplugs, they helped a little. Each morning I refilled the dishes and looked carefully around the loft. But apart from the eaten bait there were no signs of them. I imagined the rodents were under the insulation, sleeping off their nocturnal exertions.

This was war. I decided to escalate. I went back to the hardware store and bought four traps. The woman advised me to bait these with something sticky that the rodents couldn’t steal without activating the mechanism. She suggested I use peanut butter or chocolate. I put both on all four traps. The next morning I eagerly went up the loft ladder to see if there had been any success. None at all, I was crestfallen. The rodents were avoiding the traps but kept eating the bait in the dishes. They were smart, but not smart enough. After a week or so, the scurrying and bait eating had stopped. No trap had ever been sprung.

I looked around the outside of the house to see if I could find the holes that they might have come in through. I found nothing. Perplexed I asked a neighbour who was a builder for advice. He told me that mice can get through tiny holes. ‘If you can put a biro through it’, he said, ‘then they can get through too’. Apparently mice semi-dislocate and flex their bones to do this. Mice are also great mountaineers; with their sharp claws they can climb vertical walls. Getting into the loft of a pebble-dashed bungalow would not present a great problem. He told me to check the edges of door and window frames as these were likely places for small holes. I spent two hours going around the house investigating holes with a biro. I found three tiny holes high up above door and window frames and filled them.

I kept the bait in the loft for over a week. It wasn’t touched. I started to hope that the rodent war might have been won. I called the alarm engineer who came and replaced the cable. He advised me to remove the bait as it was an attraction, but to leave the traps. He also said the best deterrent was a cat, as rodents had sensitive noses and were afraid of the scent of a cat.

There are several groups of feral cats in the parish; one of these seemed to live in the old graveyard not far from my house. A neighbour about a mile away had been feeding a different group of feral cats regularly, they came every day for food and slept in one of her outhouses. What a good idea, I thought and put out some cat food and milk. I kept a watchful eye during the day and was very disappointed to find that by twilight my offerings hadn’t been touched. But the next morning the food and milk were gone. It might have been a fox in the night I mused, but I put the food and milk out again. No sign of anything during the day, but in the morning the bowls were clean again. This persisted for several days. Then I saw him. A muscular black cat slunk across the lawn late one afternoon. He drank the milk first then ate all the food. With a stubby tail, he looked to be a real bruiser. Pangur Dubh himself. The next day he came again. Those rodents had better watch out.

Tuesday, 10 February 2015

Wee Sweety Mice?

The house burglar alarm went off. I blinked at my watch, the strident tone banging in my ears. It was 3am? What? The alarm crashed on, bouncing off the walls. I got up, stumbled to the flashing panel by the front door and punched in my code. The alarm stopped, the tone still echoing around my head. What was happening? A burglary?  But I hadn’t put the alarm on. I glanced at the control panel, one red light was still flashing. It said ‘tamper’. I racked my tired brain, didn’t that mean the circuit was broken somewhere? Bloody hell, a burglar was preparing to break in? I put the outside lights on and peeked out, holding my breath. It seemed very still and quiet outside. I kept listening. The driveway was gravel and I’d hear any footsteps. Yet the night was dead quiet. The alarm must have scared them away.

Then I heard a scratching noise above my head. Were they on the roof? The scratching continued. It sounded far too slight for a person, was it a bird? I plucked up courage and went outside in my dressing gown with flashlight. Shivering, I shone the beam up into the night. The roof seemed clear. Back indoors, the scratching started again. Must be something in the loft, I thought. I climbed up through the hatchway, my flashlight beam glancing off the roof timbers. Quiet as the grave, nothing seemed to be there. If it was bird, I reckoned, it would have flapped to try and escape. I went back down and closed the hatch; nothing for it but to go back to bed, try to sleep and begin again in daylight.

I lay in bed but couldn’t relax. I kept listening intently for any noise. Soon the scratching started again. Then some scurrying. I gasped: mice of course. It was freezing outside and they’d found a way in to escape the cold. I sighed and turned over; the bastards had gnawed through my alarm cable, I’d sort them out in the morning. I slept fitfully and woke feeling burnt out. First thing, I went up in the loft again; an expanse of timbers and pink insulation, no mice to be seen. I drove into town after breakfast, to the hardware store.

‘I’ve got rodents in my loft’, I told the woman behind the counter.

‘Mice or rats?’ she said with a smile.

‘Don’t know’ I replied.

‘This kills both’ she said, handing me a yellow sachet. ‘You keep putting the bait down until they stop eating it.’

‘How long for?’ I said, holding the sachet gingerly at its corner.

‘Kills rats in a week’ she grinned, ‘mice take a bit longer.’

‘Mice are tougher than rats?’ I said, with a shake of my head.

‘The bait makes them thirsty’ she said, 'they go outside to drink and then the poison reacts.’

‘So they die outside?’ I said.

 She nodded, ‘it does cause them some pain.’
‘I don’t mind’ I said, and bought a supply of the sachets.

Monday, 2 February 2015


Wednesday 4th February is the midpoint between the Winter and Spring solstices. This is a quarter day; there are four of these a year, one between each of the solstices. In the ancient Celtic calendar this particular quarter day was called Imbolc; it marked the end of Winter and beginning of Spring. Imbolc was essentially a festival of fertility that celebrated the coming of Spring and was first practiced by small farming communities that settled these islands some 6000 years ago. This celebration fits well with the rhythm of the land as early February often brings snowdrops and the birth of the first lambs.

In early Mediaeval times the long-standing pagan fertility festival of Imbolc began to be appropriated by the Christian church who initiated St Brigid's day on Ist February. Brigid was an ancient Irish goddess who was of the bringer of Spring, as well as the patroness of smithing, poetry, crafts and medicine. St Brigid was an Irish nun who lived in the 6th century, she founded a monastery and was said to have performed miracles of healing.

After the church fused St Brigid with the mythological Brigid, the saint was able to take on the functions and powers of the pagan goddess but with some interesting twists. St Brigid became typically portrayed with a cross woven from reeds (a fertility symbol) and a lamp with a sacred flame. Importantly, one of the greatest saintly acts of the nun Brigid is said to have been that she blinded herself to preserve her chastity from the amorous advances of a nobleman.

I attended a service at St Columba’s in Derry yesterday, which illustrated the complex interrelationship of the saintly and pagan myths. The homily described St Bridgid as the harbinger of Spring and new natural growth. Later, babies that had been born in the past two months were brought to the altar, blessed and given small crosses woven from reeds. Clearly the power of this saint was being invoked in relation to fertility (in plants, animals and humans) but this saint was also a nun who blinded herself to preserve her chastity (a symbolic inversion of the pagan meaning).

So the contemporary church manages to both reiterate the pagan meaning and take on its power (the giving of blessings for fertility) as well as to reverse it, embodying this paganism in a saint who emphasises the values and rules of the church itself (sacrifice, chastity).