The prominent role of cats in folklore: Part I

In part one of two-part article, Eugene Daly shares the many superstitions and stories connected with the cat in Irish folklore.

A traditional Irish greeting on entering a house was; ‘God save all here, except the cat’, on account of its association with the devil. Despite this, it was believed to be lucky for a stray cat to enter the house. Many of the superstitions concern the cat’s supposed ‘sixth sense’. In County Clare it was thought that to be looked at fixedly by a cat after it had washed its face was a sign of approaching marriage. On the other hand, to be looked at fixedly by a cat, except after washing its face, was an omen of sickness or death. To dream of a cat foretold an enemy; to dream of a dog a friend. In Ireland generally a purring cat or a cat with its back to the fire was a sign of rain. Another belief was that it was an omen of bad luck if a cat caught a mouse and allowed it to escape for no reason. In Limerick it was thought that putting a cat under a pot brought bad weather and it was apparently a common practice among sailors’ wives in order to keep their men at home.

Black cats are considered the most powerful in terms of magic and superstition. It was considered lucky to have a black cat cross your path on New Year’s Eve, and if a black cat comes into the house on Christmas Night, the inhabitants will have great luck for the coming year.  Many people consider it lucky to have a black cat cross the road in front of them or to come upon a black cat unexpectedly.

Many folk tales about cats emphasise that they have a wild, untrustworthy nature, even the fully domesticated pets. A very popular story concerns the death of the king of the cats. The story goes that a man out travelling met a huge cat which attacked him, and which with difficulty, he managed to kill. As it lay dying, the cat told him that it was the king of the cats.  On his return home, the man told his wife how he had killed the king of the cats. Hearing this, the couple’s domestic cat which been sleeping by the fire, leaped up and attacked the man, sinking his claws into his throat, killing him (in some versions of this story the man manages to fight the cat off).

Cats appear in quite a few Irish proverbs. A few examples are: ‘Is ar a shon féin a dheineann an cat crónán’  – It’s for her own good that the cat purrs; ‘Trí bhua an chait – (radharc istoíche, siúl nach gcloisfí agus dearmad mhna an tí)’ – three fortunes of the cat – (keen sight in darkness, walking without sound and the housewife’s forgetfulness); ‘Ar mhaithe leis féin a dheineann an cat crónán’ –  it’s for its own good that the cat purrs; ‘Beagán ar bheagán a d’ith an cat an scadán’ – bit by bit the cat ate the herring. ‘Níor dhóigh seanchat riamh é féin’  – an old cat never burned itself – emphasising the value of experience.

Another well-known proverb is ‘Briseann an dúchas trí shúilibh an chait’ – nature breaks out through the eyes of the cat. This proverb is illustrated by an old Irish tale about a man who had his cat so well trained that it would hold a candle for him while he read. A visiting poor scholar bet the man that he could make the cat drop the candle. The man of the house took on the bet. Accordingly, he returned some time later and released a mouse that ran across the table in front of the cat. The cat’s eyes were riveted on the mouse but it continued to hold the candle. The scholar released another mouse with the same result. But the third time he released a mouse the cat could contain itself no longer. Flinging aside the candle, it gave chase. The moral of both the proverb and the tale is that nothing can conceal its true nature completely. Another well known one is ‘Cad a dhéanfaidh mac an chait ach luch a mharú?’ – what would the young cat do but kill a mouse, i.e. like father, like son.

The most famous Irish proverb about cats describes those who would quarrel to the bitter end; ‘fighting like Kilkenny cats’. According to legend the name arose when Hessian              soldiers were quartered in Kilkenny during the 1798 rebellion. They amused themselves by tying two cats together by their tails, and throwing them over a line to fight. Their commanding officer disapproved of this practice and banned it, but it continued in secret.  One day as a fight was in progress, the soldiers heard an officer approaching. One of the soldiers cut down the cats with his sword, leaving only their tails. The officer enquired as to where the cats had gone. The soldier replied that they had devoured each other, so furious was their fighting and that only their tails remained. The true origin of the story, however, most likely lies in Kilkenny history.  

A regular feature of Irish myths is that people turn, or are turned, into cats. According to one legend, the goddess Clíona, associated with county Cork and particularly with Glandore, turned her sister Aoibheall into a white cat because they were both in love with the same chieftain. Clíona married the chieftain, O’Keeffe, and they lived happily together for a long time. Eventually, however, the chieftain found out the truth and demanded that Clíona restore her sister’s human shape. Unfortunately, it was too late to do anything, and in his rage, the chieftain banished Clíona from his sight,

The cat has always had an ambiguous reputation in myth and folklore. On the one hand it is the playful and useful companion of man, and widely thought of with affection and respect.  On the other hand its cool, independent nature, ruthless skill in hunting, and links to night time and the dark, have often caused it to be regarded with suspicion and even persecuted as an animal of witchcraft and magic.

Black cats are considered the most powerful in terms of magic and superstition. In Ireland it was considered lucky to have a black cat cross your path, especially on New Year’s Eve; if a black cat came into the house on Christmas Night the inhabitants would have great luck for the coming year. Indeed these superstitions about black cats are still believed by many people.

Next month Eugene will share some of the legends of cats in other countries, as well as continuing with its role in Irish folklore.

Eugene Daly

A retired primary teacher, West Cork native Eugene Daly has a lifelong interest in the Irish language and the islands (both his parents were islanders). He has published a number of local history books and is a regular contributor on folklore to Ireland’s Own magazine. Eugene’s fields of interest span local history, folklore, Irish mythology, traditions and placenames.

Next Post

Is Paul Lynch’s novel ‘Prophet Song’ a tale of things to come?

Tue Jan 16 , 2024
On November 23, 2023, Dublin bordered on the brink of anarchy. The riots fuelled by far-right propagandists and lit by criminal opportunists, racists and anarchists engulfed Dublin for a few scary hours. Scary, not by virtue of scale or duration, but because something like this, was happening in Ireland. Three […]

You May Like