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.