• Wilde Irishe

Beware the Cat: Part 2

Being the conclusion of our excerpt from William Baldwin’s Beware the Cat, wherein Thomas finishes his tale of the cat Grimalkin, killed in Ireland:


“When he was a mile or two from the church the moon began to shine, and his boy espied the cat upon his master’s horse behind him and told him. Whereupon the kern took his dart, and turning his face toward her, flung it and struck her through with it. But immediately there came to her such a sight of cats that, after long fight with them, his boy was killed and eaten up, and he himself, as good and as swift as his horse was, had much to do to scape.


Irish horseman thorwing dart, horseboy fleeing.
Whereupon the kern took his dart, flung it and struck her through.

“When he was come home and had put off his harness (which was a corselet of mail made like a shirt, and his skull covered over with gilt leather and crested with otter skin), all weary and hungry he set him down by his wife and told her of his adventure, which when a kitling which his wife kept, scarce half a year old, had heard, up she started and said, ‘Hast thou killed Grimalkin!’ And therewith she plunged in his face, and ere that she could be plucked away, she had strangled him. This the old churl told me now about thirty-three winters past; and it was done, as he and divers other creditable men informed me, not seven years before. Whereupon I gather that this Grimalkin was it which the cat in Kankwood sent news of unto the cat which we heard of even now.”


kern in cotun sits with wife, spinning by fire.
‘Hast thou killed Grimalkin!’

So finishes the tale. Baldwin is mocking the role of tradition in the Catholic church, as opposed to the written Word. He says; “Witchcraft is kin to unwritten verities, for both go by traditions.” By setting his story in Ireland he can mock both the Church and the credulous Irish. But it is interesting that the story indicates some familiarity with Ireland, a suggestion furthered by Baldwin’s work on An Irish Play of the State of Ireland about the same time. That play didn’t survive, but we know it from the props list in the Revels Accounts, and we’ll look at it later in the context of what it can tell us about the sword dance of the Irish kerns.


Irish cooking in a hide cauldron
"Seething in a beast's skin." After Derricke.

Baldwin’s description of the cooking of the cow, and the making of brogues from its skin is accurate. This cooking in the skin was practiced in Scotland, where in 1327 Froissart’s Chronicles reports that the Scottish soldiers cooked their dinners and made new brogues for themselves before slipping away in the night to avoid English forces. The next day the English discovered “more than four hundred cauldrons made of hide with the hair left on, full of meat and water hung over the fire to boil . . . and more than five thousand old worn out shoes made of fresh raw hide with the hair on, which the Scots had left behind.” Nearer in time is Andrew Boorde’s description of the Irish (1548): “And they will seethe their meat in a beast’s skin. And the skin shall be set on many stakes of wood, and then they will put in the water and the flesh. And then they will make a great fire under the skin betwixt the stakes, and the skin will not greatly burn.” And A. T. Lucas has shown that the rawhide brogue, or bróg úirleathair, (which he classified as Type 3 among his types of Irish foot ware) continued to be made and worn unchanged on the Aran Islands up until the 1980’s.


Aran Islander making pampootie, or rawhide brogue
Aran Islander making a Lucas Type 3 brogue, of hair-on rawhide.

Also, the “kern’s” armor—a coat of mail ‘made like a shirt’ and a skull ‘covered over in gilt leather and crested with otter skin’ also echo contemporary illustrations. The use of otter skin for the crest is interesting. In Roderick O’Flaherty’s West or H-Iar Connaught (1684), we learn that the the white-faced otter is never killed without loss of man or dog, and the skin is ‘mighty precious.’ A note adds; Called by the Irish Dobhar-chu. Martin, in his interesting Description of the Western Islands of Scotland, 1703, tells us that in Skye, “the hunters say there is a big otter above the ordinary size, with a white spot on its breast, and this they call the king of otters; it is rarely seen and very hard to be killed. Seamen ascribe great virtue to the skin, for they say that it is fortunate in battle, and that victory is always on its side.” Also, gilt leather for armour is mentioned by Edmund Spencer, and I have written a paper exploring the possibility that the helmet and jack of Derricke’s chief are covered with this material, which may be seen under Resources/Research on this website.


Of course, Patrick Apore in this story is a horseman (marcach) not a kern. ‘Kern’ is likely being used here as a mild insult, but it is true that typically the kern and horseman were the two elements of the non-professional “rising-out” of an Irish territory. The horseman was simply the wealthier part of the rising out, able to afford horse and armour. And Nicholas Dawtrey (A Book of Questions and Answers) notes that even in 1597, the kern and horsemen continued to be positioned together guarding the cow herds in the rear of an Irish defense-in-depth, with paid bonnaughts thrown forward on picket lines and guarding passes and fords in strength. (We do, of course, occasionally find bands of professional kern who serve for hire.)


By the way, Grimalkin would become a standard name for mysterious cats in literature, and it is assumed that this story is Shakespeare’s source for the name, which he uses in Macbeth for the “familiar” of one of his three witches.


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