The real story of our cool cats
Like many others, I am a voluntary cat slave. She’s bossy and demanding, but also a fantastic and really a lot of fun company to interact with.
There are many reasons why the cat is the most popular pet in the world, and the relationship between our two species dates back thousands of years. In some cultures this animal was traditionally revered, while in others it was persecuted as a representative of the devil himself.
Here in Ireland cats were once popular, maybe even more than they are today.
Genetic studies show that the cats we keep as pets today are descendants of the African wildcat (Felis libyca). These feral cats were domesticated in West Asia around 9,000 years ago.
As one of the last animals to be domesticated by humans, the cat still retains its independent nature and many of its “wild ways”, as any cat owner will attest.
The early Egyptians had domesticated cats as early as 2600 BC, using them to protect granaries along the Nile from vermin. They were then used for the same purpose on merchant ships and were scattered far and wide. And, with the arrival of the Romans in Egypt, they came to be shipped throughout the Roman Empire.
Cats in Ireland
The Romans most likely brought the cat to Ireland as well, with the earliest evidence of cats on this island dating back to the second century AD.
As in other countries, the cat was considered a useful deterrent against vermin, but was also kept as a pet. Under Early Irish Laws (Brehon), if a cat could both purr and protect itself from mice, its value was considered to be no less than that of three cows. It would certainly not be the valuation of a cat in Ireland today!
Traditionally, there is a lot of folklore and folk medicine associated with cats in Ireland. Many folk tales relate to the animal’s wilderness, with the story of the King of Cats as an example. The story begins with a traveling man who is attacked by a big cat. He manages to kill him with difficulty but, as he dies, the cat tells the man that he is the king of cats. When the man arrived at his home, he told the story to his wife. And with that, their pet cat, which was sleeping by the fire, jumped up and attacked the man and killed him.
Folk medicine associated with cats focuses particularly on black cats who were believed to provide cures for a variety of ailments.
It is believed that the blood of a black cat was a remedy for a skin condition called erysipelas. It was also believed that the scorched fur of a black cat would soothe burns to the skin. And, most bizarre of all, the old Irish remedy for whooping cough involved drinking water containing nine hairs cut from a black cat.
The cat also appears as a character in ancient Irish myths. A Tuath DÃ© Danann doctor is said to have used a cat’s eye to replace the one lost by a young warrior in combat. But even though his eyesight was restored, the Cat’s Eye caused trouble for the Warrior afterwards – warning him when he heard a squealing mouse or flying birds.
The hero CÃºchulainn also had a meet cats in the form of seven fairies with poisonous tails.
A drop of this poison could penetrate CÃºchulainn’s heart and kill him, so he deftly cut off their seven tails with a single blow of his sword and the fairies were defeated.
However, one of the most charming and well-known references to the cats of Old Ireland was probably a 9th century poem written by a monk about his white cat, Pangur BÃ¡n.
Hundreds of years later, this man’s obvious love and respect for his pet lives on in these beautiful words:
Myself and Pangur BÃ¡n,
Everyone has jobs that we call our own
Hunting words my only vice,
Him, my white cat, hunts mice.
I don’t care about fame or fame
Just a book with a well-told story.
Pangur does not envy that,
He is content to be a cat.
Although we sit next door all day,
We never interfere with each other’s business.
Each content to work alone,
Happy with the skills he made his own.
Fast and secure is the goal of Pangur.
Every day he trains.
My own training strives to find,
Out of darkness a clear mind.