THE KILKENNY CATS

May 26, 2008 at 12:49 am Leave a comment

THE ROLE OF CATS IN NURSERY RHYMES
by Sarah Hartwell

There were once 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.

During the rebellion of Ireland, Kilkenny was garrisoned by a troop of Hessian soldiers, who amused themselves in barracks by the cruel sport of tying two cats together by their tails and throwing them across a clothes-line to fight, betting on the outcome. The officers heard of the cruel practice and apparently resolved to put a stop to it, but he had to catch the soldiers in the act. As the officer approached, a vigilant soldier saw him and cut off the cats’ tails with a sword. The cats escaped, leaving only their tails behind. When the officer asked what was the meaning of the two bleeding tails, he was told that two cats had been fighting and had devoured each other except for their the tails.

An alternative to the Hessian soldier explanation, and more plausible, is that it is rooted in the fighting between two Irish towns and describes a war of attrition where, despite bitter fighting, neither party gains from the conflict. During the 17th Century, the municipalities of Kilkenny and Irishtown contested their boundaries and rights so hotly that that they mutually impoverished each other, leaving little else than “two tails” behind

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