Northern Ireland

Breaking superstitions with a 'longtail' infestation

Rick Faragher
Image caption An infestation of "longtails" caused a rather unusual problem for Rick Faragher

Rick Faragher is no pied piper - he is from the Isle of Man and people there are deeply superstitious about using the three-letter "r" word for vermin.

But the BBC News reporter had to face his fears when he was sent to cover a story in Belfast that made his blood run cold.

I winced the moment I got the nod.

I'd covered some difficult stories for the BBC but this was the most daunting in terms of subject matter.

It's not that I have an issue with the creatures themselves, it's just their name.

For the first 29 years of my life, I had never actually used the word.

But that was about to change in 2015. It was unavoidable. I had a professional obligation to utter the dreaded word - RAT.

Image copyright BW Folsom
Image caption A rat by any other name - ringie, joey or roddan are acceptable in the Isle of Man

Like any self-respecting Manxman - Isle of Man native - I had opted for other terms - "longtail" is the most common.

Others such as "ringie", "joey" or the native Gaelic word "roddan" are also acceptable.

I was out of my homeland and out of my comfort zone. I honestly thought I could hear the creatures sniggering at my plight.

But I went out and I mumbled my way around the word with the owner of the infested house.

"I hear you've got problems with… visitors?" I said.

This was a disaster. I felt embarrassed already.

'Raven's blood'

Even people who move to the Isle of Man often dodge the term, whether through genuine fear of bad luck, or to avoid shock and outrage from the locals.

Some say it began with fishermen who brought their superstitions back to shore.

I knew there were three ways to stop a jinx if ever I was forced to say it: Whistle immediately afterwards; touch a piece of wood while saying it, or cross my fingers.

Image copyright SPL
Image caption There's an ancient belief that killing a wren on St Stephen's Day is good luck for you... not such great luck for the wren

Superstitious minds

  • People in parts of Ireland and the Isle of Man refer to 26 December as Wren's Day or Hunt the Wren. It comes from the ancient belief that killing a wren on St Stephen's Day was good luck.
  • In Scotland, there are many superstitions about certain animals. Some farmers believe that the birth of a black-faced sheep brings bad luck for all the flock - this is where the expression "black sheep of the family" originates. Seeing a black hare, however, is considered good luck.
  • A Scots canary is considered a singer greater than all other birds and to harm it in any way causes the person to lose their voice. The strange markings on its eggs have led people to believe it is the devil's bird.
  • Many people across Ireland believe that thorn trees are home to fairies and, if anyone tries to cut them down or damage them, it is likely they will die young, or become seriously ill. Green keepers at one Belfast golf club refuse to remove a fairy tree which has been growing there for more than 120 years. If a player's ball hits the tree they must apologise to the fairies immediately.

The interviews with the owner and environmental health officer were soon filmed and it was time for my piece to camera - almost three decades of superstition about to end.

I fidgeted, cleared my throat, and slowly climbed the ladder to the attic.

After a couple of seconds the time had come… "Rats."

Image copyright SPL
Image caption Rats: "They fought the dogs and killed the cats and bit the babies in the cradles"

I said it without hesitation in an attempt to sound convincing.

My right hand squeezed the ladder. My left hand was out of shot, fingers firmly crossed.

We Manxmen are not alone.

'Elf-shoot cattle'

Dr Andrew Sneddon, from Ulster University, said superstitious beliefs about rats were commonplace in Ireland in the early 20th Century.

"In County Galway, people believed that if you were plagued by rats you could get them to move on by getting an owl's quill and dipping it in raven's blood while saying 'rats be gone'," he said.

Image copyright Nicolas McComber
Image caption In the Middle Ages, people believed fairies could "blast" cattle and humans

"In County Cavan, there were people who used charms to banish rats for you, and in County Laois, rats were believed to be a sign of an enemy or bad luck."

It seems it is not just rats that gave our ancestors sleepless nights.

"From the Medieval period onwards, Ireland, in common with the Highlands and islands of Scotland, and the Isle of Man, fairy belief is very strong in the sense that you try not to upset the fairies because they are dangerous," said Dr Sneddon.

"They can whisk away healthy children and leave sickly changelings in their wake. They can fairy blast or elf-shoot your cattle and make them ill, they can also blast humans.

"They can also abduct you and take you away to their land. This can also happen if you step into a fairy ring, either made of mushrooms or a Neolithic stone circle.

"In Ireland, as a precaution, traditionally you don't mention the name fairy, you say gentry or good people."

Consider yourself warned.

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