Sunday 22 September 2019

'Prog' has many definitions but it means lucky to me

A field mouse does the cute pose
A field mouse does the cute pose

Joe Kennedy

An open window to the sun didn't entice a tortoiseshell butterfly to make a house call as it flashed its pristine image, unlike a large white which had made an earlier visit.

The resting white was happy to enjoy the reflected heat from the glass, but as windows were pushed apart it seemed anxious to flutter off. A small group of restless great tits were surprise arrivals, journeying in exploration. A neighbourhood cat, beautiful with glossy black fur, keenly alert of eye and ear, stopped and glanced on a tentative adventure, perhaps questing for a mouse as a plaything in the long grass.

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I had removed a house mouse from within, a leg caught in a plastic device. It was plump and sleek - and set free in a lane - its healthy looks indicative of the 'prog' it had garnered from kitchen dust.

Seamus Heaney wrote about the 'prog' of John Clare's mouse in a ball of grass in a lecture while Professor of Poetry at Oxford. Clare's meaning was of disturbance rather than a hoard: "I found a ball of grass among the hay/ And progged it as I passed and went away..."

It turned out to be a nest.

"When out an old mouse bolted in the wheat/ With all her young ones hanging on her teats."

Prog is also gain or profit in a bargain. It can conjure up an image of the well-fed man, of boastful glee at unexpected store bagged and trousered.

A Co Meath meaning - and a new one to me - is "progging for apples" (courtesy of Dolan's Hiberno-English Dictionary), which is probably "robbing an orchard" or, the Dublinesque, "boxing the fox".

"Prog, prog" is also a call to a cow, or more likely, calves, meaning grub is up, though they should come quicker to a bucket's rattle - bucket of prog, of course!

The Oxford English Dictionary brings us back to Clare (before Heaney) with prog being a "stab or thrust" (a poor mouse's house was also disturbed by Robbie Burns with a plough: " O wha a panic's in thy breastie…") And also "provisions for a journey", "a hoard of money" or, unusually, a "Proctor at Oxford or Cambridge".

Through a field of ripening wheat I walked a boyhood track with my mother who pointed out a "harvest mouse", a tiny creature on a corn stalk. I tried to catch it but failed.

Much later I learned that the harvest species (Micromys minutus) was not native to here and what we had seen was a wood, field or grass mouse (Apodemus sylvaticus), that's an luch fheir in Irish, a creature that has been around for much longer than the house mouse (Mus musculus).

At harvest time in that field - as a reaper-and-binder threw out sheaves - I watched for rabbits bolting. One became trapped and a man hopped off his seat to dispatch it and hand it to me.

This was my 'prog' and I proudly handed it to my mother. I duly nailed the skin to a board to 'preserve' the fur and claimed a forepaw to hang on a cycle handlebars as a lucky accompaniment on my travels.

Sunday Independent

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