With St. Patrick's Day upon us, this may be the time of year we talk about the luck of the Irish, but the Irish cat didn't always have it easy. Their association with the mystical dates back to the times of gods and goddesses when the cat was considered magical. We offer a little history on why the mythological cat was something to be feared in early Ireland and how their ancestors could be generous if you were kind to them, or something dark and possibly menacing if you got on their bad side.
King of the Cats
Ireland's fascination with the mysterious nature of cats dates back to before Christianity, when the Irish cat was considered to be more fairy than feline. Hecate, goddess of the underworld (who once assumed the form of a cat to protect herself from a giant), had such affection for them, she chose one to be her consort who was known thereafter as "the King of the Cats." Some of Ireland's well-known folktales are about the cat-kings who guarded treasure buried in caves, which were considered to be entrances to the underworld.
Despite what we think of when talking about fairies, these cat-kings were not your typical gossamer-winged, glowing sprites. They could be big, like the legendary Irusan of Knowth, a cat-king described as the size of an ox or a cow, or they could be small and assuming, like "Little Cat," who transformed himself into an arrow made of fire and reduced a potential thief into a pile of ashes.
In her recordings of Irish folklore, Lady Francesca Wilde (mother of the famous writer Oscar Wilde), describes a cat-king as the "most important personage in feline history" with "genuine claims to royalty" despite being a "common looking fellow." She goes on to tell a story that shows his regal ways and which serves as a lesson to be respectful of the majestic Irish cat.
In the story, an old woman is up late one night spinning cloth when a black cat and her two white kittens come to the door, asking for the warmth of the old woman's fireplace. The woman, Judy, obliges, and lets the family in and as a reward, the black cat warns Judy not to stay up late again. There was supposed to have been a council among the fairies in her home that night, but her spinning prevented it from happening, so they sought to have her killed. The black cat and her daughter-kittens came to warn her.
Before they leave, the black cat bestows some advice to Judy, saying, "Don't interfere with the fairy hours again, for the night is theirs, and they hate to look on a face of a mortal when they are out for pleasure or business. You have been very civil to me, and I'll not forget it to you."
They leave and Judy notices they left behind a piece of silver for her, worth more than a month of spinning. After that, she never stays up late to interrupt the fairy hours again.
While there are a lot of folk stories of cat-kings, Lady Wilde's story gets to the heart of what we know about our cats: They like things their way or not at all, and most importantly, when they're happy, they offer us gifts we can never imagine.