Rats, Lovely Rats
I can’t think of the Irish diaspora without thinking of rats – rats scurrying onto ships, scurrying over each other to get away from the places and people that had rendered their lives worthless.
Economic migrants, to be sure. Colonists, undoubtedly. But economic migration can be as much a matter of life and death as war, can’t it? Although, it’s usually less dramatic. Death by starvation or preventable illness shames us all, and there’s no noble or romantic trope to be taken from it.
Imagine a life lived barred from opportunity, education, meaningful employment. A life lived as an outsider in your own home, barred from your own land and language. Colonists do this to others the world over – they’re doing it in Australia right now – just as some colonists have had it done to them.
And I am a child of them both: the colonised and the colonists, people who’ve moved from one dot on the earth to another, escaping poverty and oppression, searching for something better than a slum and, in the case of my Irish ancestors, ending up in another slum in Sydney. Rats. The rats of Surry Hills and Chippendale who made me.
I have inherited all their sharp edges: suspicion of authority and wealth, and a gnawing sense of inferiority that I will never shake. I’ve realised only recently, here in middle-age and from a place of comfort and privilege, that I still shop very warily, as if I might not be able to pay the electricity bill if I indulge in that two-for-one special on loo paper. I know, deep in my DNA, that my sweet comfort and privilege could be gone in a blink.
Best to value more important things than money and materialities, then. Family and friends, to be sure, are our most priceless treasures. But just as essential as these are the stories we share.
Stories of survival, hope, encouragement, wisdom, love, laughter – and taking the literary mickey out of those who tell you: ‘No. You’re no good.’
I could never be the sort of writer who, godlike, imagines the lives of others unconnected to their own – or who looks at disadvantage as if it’s a foreign state to be examined or popped into a novel to tick a diversity box. I can only write about what I know: rats. My rats – the German and Jewish and Whitechapel-slum ones too. They fill the sails of all my stories in one way or another.
And so they’ve inspired my latest tale, too: The Rat Catcher: A Love Story.
It all started at the end of 2020, in the thick of pandemic pandemonium, as I was looking about at so many people losing their shit, inexplicably stockpiling loo paper, and I wondered, how did people cope in such crises past?
Whispers from my Irish grandmother, Nin, came to me – as they often do when I’m in need of a story. I was struck by a memory of me as a small child, maybe looking at a book or museum exhibition, peering at a photograph of men holding up what looked like braces of rabbits. But they were rats, and as we chatted, Nin told me that her brothers had caught rats in Sydney, for the Health Department, once upon a time.
At that moment, a young Irish labourer, Patrick O’Reilly, shambled into my imagination. Down on his luck and homesick for Tralee, he scores a job as a rat catcher for the City Council when the bubonic plague visits Sydney in 1900. Worst Irish joke ever: problem is, O’Reilly finds he’s too fond of rats to be much good at the job. Of course, he falls in love with one rat called Old Scratch in particular, and one girl by the name of Rosie Hughes too, as well as all the books in the Public Lending Library in the Queen Victoria Building across the road from Town Hall. And, of course, things work out all right in the end – no spoilers there.
Things work out like my grandfather’s homemade bookshelf: good enough. A small but sturdy monument to the power of learning, my grandfather, who never owned a car or a house or a flash suit, taught himself the carpentry to make that bookshelf – taught himself from a book, no less – and he filled it with self-educating history texts and adventure novels. One of those books contained a brief encyclopedia of Classical mythology that would, a few decades later, lead his granddaughter to discover Empedocles’ pre-Socratic philosophy that the world is in fact made of love. But that’s another story.
What you’ll find in all my stories, over and over again, is a shameless exaltation of the rat. Our tenacity, our charm, our drive to win at the thing that none of us can truly live without: love. A sense of belonging where there was none. A sense of home, not here or there, but in the world.
A cherishing of this poor, beautiful world, all its creatures, all its gifts. Perhaps the lowly, lovely rat has the best free-ticket view of all of it?
The Rat Catcher: A Love Story is out 5 April from Brio Books.