The term Kilkenny cat refers to anyone who is a tenacious fighter. The origin of the term is now lost so there are many stories purporting to give the true meaning.
To "fight like a Kilkenny cat" refers to an old story about two cats who fought to the death and ate each other up such that only their tails were left. There is also a limerick (with optional added couplet) about the two cats:
- There once were two cats of Kilkenny
- Each thought there was one cat too many
- So they fought and they fit
- And they scratched and they bit
- Till (excepting their nails
- And the tips of their tails)
- Instead of two cats there weren't any!
The story has many roots.
The earliest suggested origin is that according to Irish legend, the monster cat Banghaisgidheach made its home in Dunmore Caves in Kilkenny County, about 6 miles north of Kilkenny city. The name of the monster cat referenced here is given as actually describing the warrior as an amazon woman, a woman of courage. In fact this story dates earlier to the Book of Leinster talking of how Aithbel overcame the cat monster of Luchtigern (Mouse lord) amongst her other achievements. This origin however only describes a monster cat in the locality. It doesn't explain the phrase.
A local version of the story tells that in the mid 17th century Oliver Cromwell's soldiers tied the tails of all the cats in Kilkenny in pairs of two and hung them over a wire. The cats then fought until they had killed each other.
It is said to be an allegory on the disastrous municipal quarrels of Kilkenny and Irishtown which lasted from the end of the 14th to the end of the 17th centuries. After the Statutes of Kilkenny the city was divided into two boroughs called Irishtown and Englishtown. For religious, cultural and political reasons there were deep divisions between the two groups. This may lend itself to the story of two cats fighting. Because the rights and duties of the two townships hadn't been made clear by statute this led to three centuries of dispute between the rival municipal bodies that ended in beggaring both of them. There is a passage in the bible which bears a resemblance to the phrase and meaning in this usage: Galatians 5 "Love your neighbour as yourself. If you bite and devour each other, watch out or you will be destroyed by each other."
The story is told in 1807, as if by an Irish gentleman amongst a group of Naval officers, about watching two cats fighting and pushing them into an enclosed area to see the outcome only to have no remains but a tail.
Versions were told in detail in Notes & Queries, in 1864 it was said that a group of German soldiers (Hessians) were stationed in Kilkenny, during the period of the 1798 rebellion. To relieve the boredom in barracks, sadistic soldiers would tie two cats together by their tails, hang them over a washing line to fight and place bets on the "winning" cat. Gambling was contrary to military regulations, the story goes that the soldiers, alarmed by the impending arrival of an officer, released the cats by cutting their tails with a sword. When the officer arrived and inquired about the scene facing him, he was told that "they've eaten each other up"
It is claimed to be the invention of J. P. Curran. As a sarcastic protest against cock-fighting in England, he declared that he had witnessed fights between trained cats, and that once they had fought so fiercely that only their tails were left.
Another story has a thousand Kilkenny cats fighting a thousand cats from the rest of Ireland in a field outside Kilkenny City. All the cats died in battle. This may be a parable based on dissents of the period between the people of the Kilkenny area and other parts of Ireland.
19th Century Usage
It appears in the Quarterly review in 1822 in discussion of a lack of animal remains in a situation.
There was a British cartoon of the cats, which appeared in Punch 8 August 1846, drawn by Richard Doyle and captioned:
- "Oh, leave them alone,
- They’ll fight to the bone,
- And leave naught but their tails behind ‘em."
and there, with motion and counter-motion, with jargon and hubbub, cancel one another, like the fabulous Kilkenny Cats; and produce, for net-result, zero;
Edward Gibbon Wakefield uses the phrase to describe colonial democracy in "A View of the Art of Colonization: With Present Reference to the British Empire: in Letters Between a Statesman and a Colonist". As does Ebenezer R. Hoar talking about Edwin M. Stanton and Salmon P. Chase during their attempts to become Lincoln's Chief Justice.
It is used as a phrase by General Grant during the American civil war and a cartoon was published of this.
Mark Twain sarcastically treats "the Kilkenny cats" as a historical reference in his unflattering review of the Book of Mormon that was included in his 1872 book, Roughing It. He uses it to mock the Book of Mormon's unrealistic war of mutual extinction between rival factions of "Jaredites", that ends—after several years and several million deaths—with one leader decapitating the other and no other survivors, except the "prophet" witnessing and recording the events.
In popular culture and literature
A different legend is given by George Cruikshank in his Omnibus published in 1841 which tells of six tom cats which ate first their owner and then each other.
In David Weber's Honor Harrington novel Echoes of Honor, wardens on the prison planet Hades use starvation of prisoners as an ultimate sanction for attempted insurrection, referring to each camp's subsequent self-destruction from cannibalism as a "Kilkenny Camp".
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...If we're unlucky, we'll be 'Kilkenny Camp Number Three.' " "Kilkenny?" Honor repeated, and Ramirez laughed with no humor at all. "That's the Black Legs' term for what happens when they stop sending in the food supplies," he told her. "They call it the 'Kilkenny Cat' method of provisioning. Don't you know the Old Earth story?" "Yes," Honor said sickly. "Yes, I do.
|Wikisource has the text of a 1911 Encyclopædia Britannica article about Kilkenny cat.|