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).

Tuesday, 27 January 2015

Sing for Life On Tour

I joined the Sing for Life Choir when it started. It’s a vibrant and lively community choir for those who have been affected by cancer. The choir has played a really important role in my long recovery from Kidney Cancer. It’s been so therapeutic and a tremendous support for me at a very difficult time in my life. You can be feeling very low but singing your heart out among friends really lifts your spirits. I’m not a great singer, yet all together we make a great sound. I get a real sense of achievement and motivation from the choir.

The initial idea for the choir came from Tenovus, a Welsh cancer charity. They launched a similar project called Sing With Us, to run choirs across Wales for patients, survivors, their families and people bereaved through cancer.

The Sing for Life Choir now aims to travel to Wales to meet and sing with the people that inspired the setting up of our choir. To do this we need to raise £16,000 through crowd-funding. 

Please help by donating what you can and forwarding the campaign link to friends, family and co-workers.


All of the choir are very much looking forward to meeting Tenovus. We’re hoping to get new ideas about how to develop the choir, to learn new skills and to make the choir even better.

We don't want to leave anyone behind. If we can't raise the full amount unfortunately not all the members of the choir will be able to go on this inspirational journey. With your help and support our voices can travel further.

Please donate what you can to help us see our dream fulfilled and join the Sing With Us Choir in Wales. On the campaign page you can see all the perks that you will receive for helping us.

Please also help us get the word out and make some noise about our campaign. Share it, tweet it, email it, sing it from the roof tops; we don't care how you do it but please try to help us fulfil our aim.

The Sing for Life Choir was developed through a partnership between the Crescent Arts Centre and Cancer Focus Northern Ireland and began meeting in Belfast in September 2012. Research has proven that singing in choirs reduces anxiety and pain and helps to improve physical function and wellbeing.

The likelihood of you or someone close to you being affected by cancer is increasing all the time. My, and many others experience, is that the choir plays a vital role in recovery and support.

Saturday, 17 January 2015

Gill's Memorial

I’ve just returned from Castlewellan Forest Park where I made a new memorial cairn for Gill Banks. I walked up through the forest to the top of the hill behind the house. It’s called Slievenslat and the summit looks out towards Slieve Donard and Slieve Commedagh and over Dundrum Bay. I built the memorial cairn nearby from stones I found below the summit.

Gill died in a mountaineering accident in Snowdonia on 17th January 1987. We were engaged to be married and had just bought a house together. On the same day, in a separate accident, I dislocated my ankle badly and was taken to Bangor Hospital. I was told about Gills death as I was being treated in Casualty, she was in the Mortuary below.

Gill’s ashes were scattered at a ceremony on Crib y Ddysgl in Snowdonia that Spring. For many years I returned there on every anniversary of her death. Then work took me far away, yet wherever I lived I found a good place and made a memorial for her. In 1999 after I arrived in NI, I made a memorial cairn on Slieve Commedagh. But this year, because of my knee and breathing problems, I wasn’t able to go there so I chose a place for a new memorial cairn. On Slievenslat it took me about an hour to find the stones under the snow, carry them to the summit and build the cairn. Then I sat beside the new memorial and talked with Gill.

When I approached the new memorial site for the first time, two ravens flew overhead calling to each other. I then knew I was in the right place. The raven is my animal of power. A raven came to me when I returned to Snowdonia for the first time after Gill died. I had gone there for the inquest into her death (a horrible ordeal) and had just started to walk again supported by a stick. Some years later, I did my best to capture this experience in a poem.


My animal of power appeared
on the day I returned to the mountain
(the inquest was to open nearby).
At the pass I limped from my car
and shuffled with a stick
to the start of the stony ascent
and halted.

My damaged leg throbbed
as I traced the craggy ridge of Crib Goch;
serene, smiling to the lens,
you’d forged ahead on the climb.

I laid flowers on a boulder beside the path,
an insignificant blaze of yellow and red
amidst bleak millennia of glacial erosion
and mumbled,
words flown
the wind spearing my core.

Unable to keep on
and join you, afraid to return:
I slump to the broken ground
and remain.

Swooping down from the mountain
the great dark bird heads for me:
arrowing near,
glossy-black overhead,
gliding effortless beyond.
The raven’s throaty cry booms out from the pass.
I hear the call.

Friday, 9 January 2015

Love is a Sheltering Tree

I didn’t send a round-robin letter with my Xmas card (I enclosed a poem instead). So it’s now the time for my review of the past year. I’m tempted to say that 2014 has been a very up and down year for me, but aren’t they all?

On the up side: I’m still free of cancer after three and a half years, I restarted hillwalking and cycling for the first time since my surgery, and I went to Orkney and reconnected with Patrick my best mate at primary school after a gap of over 50 years. On the down side: I got a bad knee injury that has prevented me from participating in many activities for over six months, and just as my injury was beginning to get better I was diagnosed with asthma. I've had more debilitating medical problems in the past four years than in all the rest of my life put together.

Perhaps swings and roundabouts would be a better summary; or one step forwards, one step backwards, one step sideways. But normal life is like this, I hear you say: never smooth and easy, always a challenge. Although when you are younger you get advice from older people (perhaps your parents) who try to intimate to you about the unexpected vagaries of life and the coping skills needed to deal with them. But the young with their more simplistic and inexperienced view of the world are never able to accept this advice and charge on until they encounter the switchbacks, roller-coasters and reversals for themselves. Yes, resilience and versatility are crucial and hard-earned life-skills.

Coping with life’s reversals does get a bit easier the more you have of them. But this doesn’t save you from the pain and unhappiness of each one: despite previous experience, it hurts every time. What you do seem to gain is the fortitude to get through it, alongside the knowledge that it probably won’t last forever.

Crucial to my life this year has been the love and support of a good woman. T and I have been together for 15 months now and our relationship has become an unwavering rock to rely on and a deep source of sustenance. This has been both my greatest up, and the help that has enabled me to surmount all the downs. We are committed to each other. I cannot imagine life without her.


Friday, 2 January 2015

Kilcannon House

Gertie and Pat are the ultimate hosts. They used to run a restaurant in Dungarvan and retired to open a guest-house amidst the lush river valleys and wooded hills of West Waterford. Gertie is an inspired chef, having been trained by Darina Allen, Jane Grigson, John Tovey and Anthony Worrall Thompson. Pat is an ex-mariner and a font of many stories, from the amusing to the hair-raising. Most of all, they welcome you into their home as a friend of the family.

Visiting Kells Priory and Woodstock Arboretum enroute, T and I arrived after an icy drive of over 200 miles. Leaving the car in the cobbled stable-yard of the old stone farmhouse, we were brought into the lounge, sat in armchairs on either side of the open fire and plied with mulled cider. The shutters were closed across the yard-thick walls and Pat entertained us with stories and chat whilst Gertie made our dinner. After an hour or so of unwinding amidst intriguing art and artefacts from Pat’s many travels, we were taken into the dining room.

A long table set with fine Aynsley china lay in front of another fire, our wine was opened and the first of three splendid courses was served. We ate hungrily, devouring the home-made pate with three types of home-made bread and several fruit sauces. Pausing, we sipped our Sauvignon Blanc until the main course arrived: pork in cider with apple gravy and five dishes of vegetables. Savouring the flavours, I undid my belt several notches and tucked in. The final course was home-made steamed sponge in toffee sauce. After that we stumbled back to the lounge for tea, coffee and liqueurs.

Gertie’s great skill as a chef is not in the creation of exotic new dishes but in the re-invention of dishes that you already know or thought you knew. With her selection of great ingredients and creative combination of flavours and spices, she takes traditional home-cooking to inspired heights. During our trip we went to the internationally renowned Ballymaloe House for lunch, but compared to the food we were given by Gertie it was a disappointment.

The five-course breakfast, which takes place not at a set time but when you get up, is an excellent example of Gertie’s craft. It begins with freshly squeezed orange juice, followed by vanilla pannacotta with banana caramel sauce (a magnificent dish) and is followed by stewed fruits, roasted nuts and home-made cereals. At this point you definitely need to pause, for soon it’s the next course: the best porridge you will ever have, served with Demerara sugar, Irish whiskey and cream. But then you need another deep breath, for your main course is about to arrive. There are seven options and I had a different one every day: although the traditional fry was delicious, my favourite was pancakes, maple syrup and bacon – a lovely combination of the sweet and savoury. After this you are almost finished off, but you must leave space for the final course of freshly-baked scones and bread with home-made preserves (rhubarb and ginger jam being my favourite).

Between the five-course breakfast and the three-course dinner you need to do a bit of activity, both to aid digestion and to prepare your system for the next set of indulgences. On the first day we went to Ardmore and did the cliff walk around the headland ending up at St Declan’s cathedral (the first Christian site in Ireland), the following day we went to Shanagarry (visiting the Pottery and Ballymaloe) and walked the strand, on our final day we walked along the Glenshelane River by Cappoquin and visited Lismore. There are plenty of other options, as the house is situated in rolling country between the Knockmealdown Mountains and the sea.

Kilcannon House is a place where you feel at home very quickly. Gertie and Pat are most attentive hosts but not obtrusive. You are indulged with wonderful food and stimulating conversation. It is a delightful place to get away to and fully relax. They have three ensuite rooms, but we were their only guests. Given the quality of everything and the very reasonable charges, we were astonished. We could not recommend this fantastic guest-house more highly. We will be definitely be back. T is eager to avail of one of Gertie’s cooking lessons. I’m thinking I might need to lose a few pounds before it would be safe for me to return.

Old Graveyard at Ardmore