Kilkenny cats denotes two cats fabled to have fought until only their tails remained, hence combatants who fight until they annihilate each other, and to fight like Kilkenny cats means to engage in a mutually destructive struggle. (The name Kilkenny denotes both a county in south-eastern Ireland and its chief town.)
The earliest mention of Kilkenny cats that I have found is from Anthologia. A Collection of Epigrams, ludicrous Epitaphs, Sonnets, Tales, miscellaneous Anecdotes, &c. &c. (London – 1807), by ‘W. T.’:
In a company, consisting of naval officers, the discourse happened to turn on the ferocity of small animals; when an Irish gentleman present stated his opinion to be, that a Kilkenny cat, of all animals, was the most ferocious; and added, “I can prove my assertion by a fact within my own knowledge: I once,” said he, “saw two of these animals fighting in a timber-yard; and, willing to see the result of a long battle, I drove them into a deep saw-pit, and, placing some boards over the mouth, left them to their amusement. Next morning, I went to see the conclusion of the fight; and what d’ye think I saw?”—“One of the cats dead, probably,” replied one of the company.—“No, by Ja—s, there was nothing left in the pit but the two tails and a bit of flue [= downy substance].”
In Memoirs of the legal, literary, and political life of the late the Right Honourable John Philpot Curran (London – 1817), William O’Regan attributed an extended variant of this story, this time set in Sligo, to the Irish lawyer, judge and politician John Philpot Curran (1750-1817):
Passing his first summer at Cheltenham, generally inattentive as he was to his dress, he was in a sort of disguise, and little notice being taken of him, and probably not much known, he had resort to a story to draw himself into notice. With the straight forward, credulous character of the English he was perfectly well acquainted, with which he often eked out a tale. The conversation of the table turning altogether on the stupid, savage, and disgusting amusement of cock-fighting, he was determined to put an end to it, by the incredible story of the Sligo cats. He prefaced it by saying, that in his country there prevailed a barbarous custom of fighting these animals in the same way as mastiffs are fought in England, or bulls in Spain. That being once in Sligo, a fishing town in the north-west of Ireland, he was invited to see this grand spectacle. That the people of rank and condition in that part of the country had these cats regularly bred and trained for the purpose; and crowded into town, and took lodgings for the week, whenever these games were to be celebrated. The Corinthian chariot-races were never more highly the scenes of gaiety and mirth in Greece, than these were at Sligo. At one of them three matches were fought on the first day with the most furious courage, with all that intrepidity of valour and skill, all that brutal rage, that feudal clans could furnish; and before the third of them was finished (on which bets ran very high), dinner was announced in the inn where the battle was fought. The company agreed, though reluctantly, to return, and
“Let wretches die, that jurors may go dine,”
and to lock up the room, leaving the key in trust to Mr. Curran, who protested to God, he never was so shocked, that his head hung heavy on his shoulders, and his heart was sunk within him, on entering with the company into the room, and finding that the cats had actually eaten each other up, save some little bits of tails which were scattered round the room. The Irish part of the company saw the drift, ridicule, and impossibility of the narrative, and laughed immoderately, while the English part yawned and laughed, seeing others laugh, and sought relief in each other’s countenances.
The version of the story that has become popular is that of the Kilkenny cats, perhaps because it was the one that was widely reproduced in 19th-century newspapers and magazines, or simply on account of alliteration: Kilkenny cats. What is certain at any rate is that the tale of two cats fighting until only their tails remain was meant to be nothing but amusing nonsense.
Unfortunately, in the course of the 19th century, several persons took leave of their common sense and made up theories purporting to give rational, historical origins to the idiom.
The less absurd of those later rationalisations was put forward by a certain John G. A. Prim, from Kilkenny, in Notes and Queries of 29th June 1850:
The Kilkenny Cats.—I would feel obliged if any of your correspondents could give me information as to the first, or any early, published allusion to the strange tale, modernly become proverbial, of the ferocity of the cats of Kilkenny. The story generally told is, that two of those animals fought in a sawpit with such ferocious determination that when the battle was over nothing could be found remaining of either combatant except his tail,—the marvellous inference to be drawn therefrom being, of course, that they had devoured each other. This ludicrous anecdote has, no doubt, been generally looked upon as an absurdity of the Joe Miller class; but this I conceive to be a mistake. I have not the least doubt that the story of the mutual destruction of the contending cats was an allegory designed to typify the utter ruin to which centuries of litigation and embroilment on the subject of conflicting rights and privileges tended to reduce the respective exchequers of the rival municipal bodies of Kilkenny and Irishtown,—separate corporations existing within the liberties of one city, and the boundaries of whose respective jurisdiction had never been marked out or defined by an authority to which either was willing to bow. Their struggles for precedency, and for the maintenance of alleged rights invaded, commenced A.D. 1377 (see Rot. Claus. 51 Ed. III. 76.), and were carried on with truly feline fierceness and implacability till the end of the seventeenth century, when it may fairly be considered that they had mutually devoured each other to the very tail, as we find their property all mortgaged, and see them each passing by-laws that their respective officers should be content with the dignity of their station, and forego all hope of salary till the suit at law with the other “pretended corporation” should be terminated, and the incumbrances thereby caused removed with the vanquishment of the enemy. Those who have taken the story of the Kilkenny cats in its literal sense have done grievous injustice to the character of the grimalkins of the “faire cittie,” who are really quite as demure and quietly disposed a race of tabbies as it is in the nature of any such animals to be.
However, the story of the Kilkenny cats is first recorded in the early 19th century, whereas the events in question lasted “till the end of the seventeenth century”. Additionally, if those events were the origin of the story, the latter should have appeared in reference to them, not as a purely nonsensical tale.
It is difficult to ascertain whether the following, from Notes and Queries of 28th May 1864, by a person signing themself Juverna, is a serious contribution or a hoax:
I have often wondered why none of your correspondents who are natives of, or residents in, Kilkenny have given you the real version of the tale of the Kilkenny cats. I have seen the subject frequently noticed in the columns of “N. & Q.,” but I have never seen the following accurate version of the occurrence, which led to the generally-received and erroneous story of the Kilkenny cats. That story has been so long current that it has become a proverb, “as quarrelsome as the Kilkenny cats,”—two of the cats in which city are asserted to have fought so long and so furiously that nought was found of them but two tails! This is manifestly an Irish exaggeration; and when your readers shall have learned the true anecdote connected with the two cats, they will understand why only two tails were found, the unfortunate owners having fled in terror from the scene of their mutilation.
I am happy in being able to state that neither Ireland nor Kilkenny is at all disgraced by the occurrence, which did take place in Kilkenny, but which might have occurred in any other place in the known world. During the rebellion which occurred in Ireland in 1798 (or it may be in 1803), Kilkenny was garrisoned by a regiment of Hessian soldiers¹, whose custom it was to tie together in one of their barrack rooms two cats by their respective tails, and then to throw them face to face across a line generally used for drying clothes. The cats naturally became infuriated, and scratched each other in the abdomen until death ensued to one or both of them, and terminated their sufferings.
The officers of the corps were ultimately made acquainted with these barbarous acts of cruelty, and they resolved to put an end to them, and to punish the offenders. In order to effect this purpose, an officer was ordered to inspect each barrack room daily, and to report to the commanding officer in what state he found the room. The cruel soldiers, determined not to lose their daily torture of the wretched cats, generally employed one of their comrades to watch the approach of the officer, in order that the cats might be liberated, and take refuge in flight before the visit of the officer to the scene of their torture. On one occasion the “look-out-man” neglected his duty, and the officer of the day was heard ascending the barrack-stairs while the cats were undergoing their customary torture. One of the troopers immediately seized a sword from the arm-rack, and with a single blow divided the tails of the two cats. The cats of course escaped through the open windows of the room, which was entered almost immediately afterwards by the officer, who inquired what was the cause of two bleeding cats’ tails being suspended on the clothes line, and was told in reply that “two cats had been fighting in the room; that it was found impossible to separate them; and that they fought so desperately that they had devoured each other up, with the exception of their two tails,” which may have satisfied Captain Schummelkettel, but would not have deluded any person but a beery Prussian.
I heard this version of the story of the Kilkenny cats in Kilkenny, forty years ago, from a gentleman of unquestioned veracity, and I feel happy in submitting it to your numerous readers.
(¹ Hessians soldiers: German auxiliaries contracted for military service by the British government)
Likewise, one can only hope that the following by one S. Redmont, published in Notes and Queries of 18th February 1864, is merely humorous:
Great Battle or Cats.—More than thirty years ago, I have a perfect recollection of hearing the following strange story told as a fact, by a gentleman who believed it to be true. I was very young at the time, and the story made a strange impression on my mind. I find it in an old note-book of my own, from which I wish to transfer it to a lasting niche in “N. & Q.”
The narrator, was a Kilkenny gentleman, and the scene of the alleged conflict was laid on a plain near that ancient city. The time might have been some forty years before the tale “as it was told to me:” so that, calculating up to the present time, the bella horrida bella² would be about seventy-five or eighty years ago. My informant stated that he knew persons, then alive, who actually inspected the “field, after the battle.”
One night, in the summer time, all the cats in the city and county of Kilkenny, were absent from their “local habitations;” and next morning, the plain alluded to (I regret I have not the name) was found covered with thousands of slain tabbies; and the report was, that almost all the cats in Ireland had joined in the contest; as many of the slain had collars on their necks, which showed that they had collected from all quarters of the island. The cause of the quarrel, however, was not stated; but it seemed to have been a sort of provincial faction fight between the cats of Ulster and Leinster—probably the quadrupeds took up the quarrels of their masters, as at that period there was very ill feeling between the people of both provinces. I have no doubt, that this Note will elicit something further on this curious story, of which the above is a skeleton.
This has nothing to do with the story of the two famous Kilkenny cats.
( ² bella horrida bella: Wars, horrendous wars – allusion to the Aeneid, by the Roman poet Virgil)