The Kilkenny Cats

John Johnson Marshall
Chapter IX (3) - Start of Chapter

Kilkenny has several claims to distinction. Here stood the cathedral and many another sacred fane of no small architectural beauty, hence Kilkenny was called “the Holy City,” but while peace was proclaimed from its altars war was made from its castle; for here was the seat of the Butlers, Earls of Ormond, who were at everlasting enmity with the Desmond branch of the Geraldines. It was also known as “the Marble City,” whose advantages are summed up in the lines:—

“Fire without smoke, land without bog,

Water without mud, air without fog,

And streets paved with marble.”

These are literally correct—the Kilkenny coal is almost smokeless; there is great freedom from bog in the district; fogs are very unusual; and the black marble is in common use.

The advantages of Kilkenny are admirably stated in a poem entitled “Mattheo and Honora: A Tale,” composed about 1750:

“Of all the towns within Ierne’s coasts,

Kilkenny justly the precedence boasts.

For many rare advantages which grace

The happy soil, peculiar to the place;

No smoky vapours from her coals arise

To stain her houses, or obscure her skies;

Upon her hills no lazy fog abides

Low-ring at top or flitting round the sides;

No mud was ever known to tarnish o’er

The silver bottom of her winding Nore.

• • • • • • • • • • • •

Canice an early saint of great renown,

Gave name to the Cathedral and the town;

A fair cathedral built with Gothic pride,

Her domes and palaces of marble made,

Her very streets with marble pebbles laid:”

The saying to “fight like Kilkenny cats,” who, it is said, ate one another up except their tails, has also contributed its quota to render “the marble city” famous. The story goes that in the troubled times of 1798 when the Hessians quartered in Kilkenny they used to amuse themselves by tying two cats’ tails together and throwing them over a line to fight. Their officer, hearing of this, ordered that there should be no more cat fights. Still, on a certain day there hung two cats on a line when the officer was heard coming, in the emergency one of the troopers drew his sword and cut them down, leaving only the tails hanging on the line. The officer on reaching the spot asked “Where are the cats?” When one of the troopers explained that they had fought so furiously that they had eaten one another except their tails. The story was too good to be suppressed and has since helped to extend the fame of Kilkenny round the world.

However, John G. A. Prim, a distinguished Kilkenny antiquary, writing upon the subject in the middle of the nineteenth century was of the opinion that the contending cats was an allegory designed to typify the utter ruin to which centuries of litigation and embroilment had reduced the rival municipal bodies of Kilkenny and Irishtown, separate Corporations existing within the limits of the city. Their struggle for precedence and to maintain their alleged rights commenced A.D. 1377, and was carried on till the end of the seventeenth century, when it may fairly be considered that they had devoured each other to the very tail, as we find their property all mortgaged and see them passing by-laws that their respective officers should be contented with the dignity of their stations, and forego all hope of salary till the suit at law with the other “pretended corporation” should be terminated.

“Grace’s card, the Six of Hearts.” At the Revolution of 1688 one of the family of Grace, of Courtstown, raised and equipped a regiment of foot and a troop of horse at his own expense, for the service of King James, whom he further assisted with money and plate, amounting, it is said, to £14,000. He was tempted with splendid promises of royal favour, to join the party of King William. A written proposal to that effect, was sent to him by one of Duke Schomberg’s emissaries. Indignant at the insulting proposal, the Baron of Courtstown seized a card which was accidentally lying near him, and wrote upon it this answer: “Go, tell your master I despise his offer! Tell him that honour and conscience are dearer to a gentleman than all the wealth and titles a prince can bestow!” The card happened to be the “Six of Hearts,” and to this day that card is generally known by the name of “Grace’s card,” in the city of Kilkenny. The ace of diamonds for some unknown reason, is everywhere designated as “the Earl of Cork,” just as the nine of diamonds is known as “the curse of Scotland.”