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  • Writer's pictureWilde Irishe

Beware the Cat

Updated: Jan 3, 2020

“O wad some Power the giftie gie us, to see oursels as ithers see us!" —Robert Burns

So these next couple of weeks, we again sample an English source for Tudor Ireland, with all the bias that entails. But we’ll soon right this with recourse to Gaelic sources in the near future!

Beware the Cat, by William Baldwin, is the first novel in the English Language. Baldwin was working in the Revels office of Edward VI over Christmas, 1552-53, preparing a “Maske of Cats” and “An Irish Play of the State of Ireland.” Young Edward’s sickness delayed the plays till April, if indeed they were performed before his untimely death in July. Baldwin wrote “Beware the Cat” in 1553 against the backdrop of the likely accession of Catholic Mary to the throne. It was only published in 1570. The novel is strongly anti-Catholic, and its second tale, covering the death of Grimalkin in Ireland, is a Protestant satire of oral tradition. But we’ll enjoy it here for the light it sheds on Ireland, and the pure fun of it. The novel takes place in the lodgings of Master Ferrers, the Master of the Revels, where the inmates (actual persons Baldwin knew) are lolling in bed in December 1552, exchanging tales.

Cover page of Beware the Cat
Cover page of Beware the Cat

Master Streamer tells a tale of a talking cat that bade him tell his kitten “Grimalkin is dead,” whereupon the kitling bid him farewell and left. Thomas, “which had been in Ireland,” asks when this happened. Forty years ago is the answer. “Sure then it may well be; for about that time, as I heard, a like thing happened in Ireland where, if I conjecture not amiss, Grimalkin of whom you spake was slain.”

“Yea, sir,” quod I, “I pray you how so?”

“I will tell you, Master Streamer,” quod he, “that which was told me in Ireland, and which I have till now so little credited, that I was ashamed to report it. But hearing that I hear now, and calling to mind my own experience when it was, I do so little misdoubt it that I think I never told, nor you ever heard, a more likely tale. While I was in Ireland, in the time that Mac Murrough [i.e, Cahir Mac Art Kavanagh, died 1554, who we saw journey to Kilkenny with Hugh Mac Shane O’Byrne to buy saffron a couple of weeks ago!] and all the rest of the wild lords were the King’s enemies, what time also mortal war was between the Fitz Harrises and the Prior and Convent of the Abbey of Tintern, who counted them the King’s friends and subjects, whose neighbor was Cahir Mac Art, a wild Irishman then the King’s enemy and one which daily made inroads into the county of Wexford and burned such towns and carried away all such cattle as he might come by, by means whereof all the country from Clonmines to Ross became a waste wilderness and is scarce recovered until this day. In this time, I say, as I was on a night at choshery [cóisireacht, feasting] with one of Fitz Harris’ churls, we fell in talk (as we have done now) of strange adventures, and cats. And there, among other things, the churl (for so they call farmers and husbandmen) told me as you shall hear.

“There was, not seven years past, a kern of John Butler’s dwelling in the fassock [fhásach, wasteland] of Bantry called Patrick Apore, who minding to make a prey in the night upon Cahir Mac Art, his master’s enemy, got him with his boy (for so they call their horse-keepers be they never so old knaves) into his country, and in the night time entered into a town of two houses, and brake in and slew the people, and then took such cattle as they found, which was a cow and a sheep, and departed therewith homeward. But doubting they should be pursued (the cur dogs made such a shrill barking), he got him into a church, thinking to lurk there till midnight was past, for there he was sure that no man would suspect or seek him—for the wild Irishmen have had churches in such reverence (till our men taught them the contrary) that they neither would, nor durst, either rob ought thence or hurt any man that took the churchyard for sanctuary, no, though he had killed his father.

“And while this kern was in the church he thought it best to dine, for he had eaten little that day. Wherefore he made his boy go gather sticks, and strake fire with his feres, and made a fire in the church, and killed the sheep, and after the Irish fashion laid it thereupon and roasted it. But when it was ready, there came in a cat and set her by him, and said in Irish, ‘Shane foel,’ which is, ‘give me some meat.’ He, amazed at this, gave her the quarter that was in his hand, which immediately she did eat up, and asked more till she had consumed all the sheep; and like a cormorant not satisfied therewith, asked still for more. Wherefore they supposed it were the Devil, and therefore thinking it wisdom to please him, killed the cow which they had stolen, and when they had flayed it gave the cat a quarter, which she immediately devoured. Then they gave her two other quarters; and in the meanwhile, after their country fashion, they did cut a piece of the hide and pricked it upon four stakes which they set about the fire, and therein they sod a piece of the cow for themselves, and with the rest of the hide they made each of them laps to wear about their feet like brogues, both to keep their feet from hurt all the next day, and also to serve for meat the next night, if they could get none other, by broiling them upon coals.

Grimalkin demands more meat from the kern Patrick Apore and his horseboy.
"Shane foel."

“By this time the cat had eaten three quarters and called for more. Wherefore they gave her that which was a-seething; and doubting lest, when she had eaten that, she would eat them too because they had no more for her, they got them out of the church and the kern took his horse and away he rode as fast as he could ride.

Next Week; A Harrowing Ride Home!

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