Drowning Kittens and Puppies; Seamus Heaney Poem

Now I know this is going to seem an unlikely post for me, but there’s a reason and I’ll put it after the poem. I also hope Cousin is reading as she may be able to shed some light, and correct me if I get the story wrong.

The Early Purges by Seamus Heaney
I was six when I first saw kittens drown.
Dan Taggart pitched them, ‘the scraggy wee shits’,
Into a bucket; a frail metal sound,

Soft paws scraping like mad. But their tiny din
Was soon soused. They were slung on the snout
Of the pump and the water pumped in.

‘Sure, isn’t it better for them now?’ Dan said.
Like wet gloves they bobbed and shone till he sluiced
Them out on the dunghill, glossy and dead.

Suddenly frightened, for days I sadly hung
Round the yard, watching the three sogged remains
Turn mealy and crisp as old summer dung

Until I forgot them. But the fear came back
When Dan trapped big rats, snared rabbits, shot crows
Or, with a sickening tug, pulled old hens’ necks.

Still, living displaces false sentiments
And now, when shrill pups are prodded to drown
I just shrug, ‘Bloody pups’. It makes sense:

‘Prevention of cruelty’ talk cuts ice in town
Where they consider death unnatural
But on well-run farms pests have to be kept down.

Each time I read this poem I wonder how ironic Heaney is being in the sixth and seventh verses; parroting the sort of thing the Countryside Alliance might say; suggesting that country people have a more robust and practical approach to their animals.
The only person I have heard speaking matter-of-factly about drowning kittens lived in a city. My mother, despite her dementia, still recalls with horror the drowning of kittens on the farm where she grew up, not far from where Heaney lived as a child, and the tyrannical cruelty of her father to one small kitten just so he could demonstrate who was boss.
My cousins will tell of their father, my mother’s brother, who would drown kittens if he found them when they were very small. So they would hide them from him; sure that if the kittens eyes were open he could not do it. They were pretty successful and cats thrived.
He worked for someone else, and had responsibility, among other things, for milking the cow. When he milked the cow, the cats would arrive.
One memorable day, the Boss came to talk to him as he headed with his pail for the cow. He knew what would happen but was powerless to divert events. Thirteen cats waited while he milked and talked to his Boss. Thirteen cats, tails held high and straight, followed him to the dairy confident of their share of the creamy milk. The Boss said not a word. My uncle said a lot to his children.

25 thoughts on “Drowning Kittens and Puppies; Seamus Heaney Poem

  1. Despite my dislike for cats, I would never harm one. Reading the cruelty here made me wince in horror; nevertheless, that’s how they dealt with it in those days. I suppose getting a vet do the job was not financially within their reach, neither was getting the cats fixed in the first place.
    I think farmers encouraged cats, usually feral I imagine, to get rid of mice and rats, unlike dogs which were kept as working animals and pets.
    As a child I recall a man up the road from us taking the latest kitten litter to a local pond to drown them the moment they were born, it horrified me. I’ve never heard it being done to dogs, puppies were either kept or given to friends and neighbours.

  2. i remember people talking of drowning kittens and puppies as though it was the natural thing to do. Fortunately animal charities have worked hard to neuter cats and dogs and so stem some of the unwanted offspring. And in some ways I agree that a quick death at birth is better than the drawn out life of hunger and illness that besets so many feral cats. But i also believe to commit such acts brutalises the person who does them. Which is again why I wonder how ironic Heaney is being at the end of the poem, because a farmer who does not care for and about animals is not a good farmer.

  3. Brutal farmers! that’s true Isobel, thank goodness for animal charities. I’m going round to my pals house shortly, when I went a few weeks ago her neighbours cat was prowling, it’s a Siamese with the most ugly face. As I got out of the car and before I had both feet on the ground, he approached and hissed at me. It seems he greets everyone the same. She was telling me he sits and watches another house, they have a parrot or some such bird near their window, this cat makes threatening leaps at their window, crashing at it with speed hitting the window; it must hurt, you’d think he’d have the brains to stop wouldn’t you 🙂

    I phone her when I’m on my way, then she locks her cats away before I get there; sad I know, but she knows how I feel.

  4. You know Val that most cats make a beeline for the people who like them least. It’s not simple feline cussedness, but because in cat language it’s friendliest to look away, so the non-catlovers probably won’t look at the cat, so are seen as non-aggressive. and the cat wants to be with them.

  5. I live in the country, and farmers would traditionally have drowned kittens. Now they may begrudge the cost of neutering cats and see it as money wasted … some of them, probably, would be quite afraid that others would laugh and see them as ‘soft’ if they took a cat to the vet.

    As I mentioned before, I think, a neighbour of mine runs a cattery and rehomes cats and kittens. People who take a kitten from her can later get it neutered at a discount.

    I’m not sure about the end of the Heaney poem either.

  6. I’m a townie now as I’ve lived in London longer than anywhere else, but I grew up in the country and I remember being distressed by the knowledge that people drowned their kittens – not just farmers by the way – but it went on and was part of life. Somewhere along the line the accepted view changed. Neutering became the accepted to solution and those who let their cats have litter after litter were seen as irresponsible.
    Here in the town, the feral colonies are ruthlessly destroyed by the local authorities, which is why so many town cats wear collars so they do not get caught up in the culls.
    Just realised no one has commented on the story I put after the poem!

  7. My mother tells a story of holding a kitten while she was a child of about 8, and living on a farm during the war. She held on so tightly that after a while the poor thing expired. She still feels upset talking about the incident.

    Did you mean at the end of your story that the Boss didn’t mention the cat to the uncle, or that he said not a word about the fact he would kill them? (Sorry it wasn’t entirely clear to me)

  8. The Boss didn’t mention the thirteen cats. All waiting for a share of his cow’s milk and knowing my uncle would give them some.
    My uncle would only drown tiny kittens. Once they had opened their eyes he couldn’t do it.

  9. I suppose, as Valzone says, because farmers recognised the value of cats to keep down vermin, some milk for the cats would be the payoff that the Boss recognised. Nowadays, it would be health and safety running the cats out of the dairy.

    Its interesting the way that times have changed overall about cats. You never see kittens free to a good home now and that should mean that they are valued. Sadly young adult cats frequently are free to a good home after they stop being cute and fluffy. Our animals have always been part of the family but for too many people they are dispensable. A dog is for life, not just for Christmas and all that.

  10. Absolutely, Sophie.
    My aunt had a lovely ginger, very like Cat, who she called Janus because of his habit of sitting on the gatepost checking in both directions. She acquired him after finding him in her bathroom. He’d been hit by a car and had made it inside to safety. She took him to the vet, got him sorted out and then tried to find his owners. Turned out they were serial kitten owners who tired of them when they grew. They already had another kitten. So Janus stayed.

  11. I can not stand the thought of killing a living creature. As cruel as dropping the mother and her kittens off in the woods is, at least they’d have a chance at survival. Or better yet, get the momma cat fixed before she has kittens that need to be killed. I don’t think I would be particularly nice to someone if I ran across them drowning any animal, especially a baby. I get mad thinking about it. ;(

  12. When I was a child I remember how unwanted kittens in my uncle’s farm were thrown against a wall to get rid of them. Horrible! Very sad.

  13. Seamus is dead thank God
    I hated the words of this man
    Cruel and unthinking and more than a little odd.
    Now he’s gone give his work an outright ban

    • I can’t agree with you. I think he was a very feeling poet, and what he describes in this poem is the realities of how unwanted kittens and puppies were dealt with in the past.
      My uncle was sent to drown male kids when he just a child.

      • My son had to look at this poem as an 11 year old in an English class. He protested against what he thought was an UNironic poem by Heaney. His teacher told him off for daring to critique the poem and ‘a great poet’. What she didn’t do is ‘correct’ him that Heaney’s poem was in any way ‘ironic’. So I don’t know if Heaney’s poem was ironic – and to me it reads like an apologia for such brutality. If there are any sources that show he was writing the poem as a critique of the practice, I’d be interested to see.

  14. There is ‘early removal’ of excess animals to prevent overpopulation…and then there is cruelty. I think that some symptoms of cruelty can be identified in the attitude, the facial expression, the choices made by the one doing the killing. Some thrive on the power instead of taking serious responsibility for what has to be done.

  15. I’d have thought more cats on a farm would be good. Get rid of the mice and rats? There’s too much animal cruelty for me in this world. I try and keep away from such sad news.

  16. Nice people sometimes do things that are not nice and their actions may even be considered to be quicker and without pain for the recipient. ..there are many old ways that are still used to day in the human professional. .It’s just that we dont know about it…

  17. The poem is about the disconnect between sentimentalisation of nature and wildlife by people in cities and the hard pragmatic views of people who inhabit the country. The poem isn’t about animal cruelty, the kittens are a vehicle to convey the cultural disconnection to urban readers.

    • That’s an accepted interpretation of one aspect of the poem certainly. However, it is more subtle and more layered. It is too simplistic to see it merely in terms of town v country.

  18. my neighbour feeds feral cats in her garden. One was pregnant and when the babies were born she brought them to my neighbour’s garden, probably because that was an easy food source. My neighbour took the three kittens and drowned them. I feel really unsettled. I’m not sure I want to stay friendly with my neighbour after her telling me this.

    • Not long ago drowning kittens was common practice. Is your neighbour elderly? I wonder if you might be able to contact a cat charity and arrange for cats to be caught and neutered. Its a kinder option all round.

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