Kilkenny is home to the most famous cats in the world. For over two hundred years, people everywhere have heard of the fierce Kilkenny Cats. They are part of our history; part of our DNA. They reflect Kilkenny in all its glorious past, its developing present and exciting future.
In week two, local author Donal Cadogan and illustrator Gemma Aloisi share their unique view of Kilkenny’s history and culture, as seen and told by its magnificent and ever-present Kilkenny Cats.
This week we meet Kenny, Norman and Cissie
These are taken from their recent illustrated children’s book We are Kilkenny Cats!
Kenny –A Saintly Cat’
In the 5th Century a holy man called Patrick came to Ireland. He brought with him a bible and Christianity. There is no record of him bringing a cat. He rid Ireland of snakes. If he had a cat, he might have cleared out the mice as well.
Soon many people had joined him in his work to spread the story of Christianity. One of his earliest followers was a young man called Canice. When he grew up he became a priest and wandered through the country looking for people to convert. To protect him, he brought a cat called Kenny. Like his master, Kenny was also holy. He was a holy terror to mice.
Canice founded a monastery north of where County Kilkenny is today. Many people went to hear him tell the stories from the Bible. When he had enough followers, he moved on, leaving some behind to spread his good news. To protect them he left Kenny, his cat. Canice went to Scotland where the people called him Kenneth, probably after his cat.
The people built many churches to God, as Canice had told them. They named many of these after holy people. One of the biggest was on a hill by the River Nore and they called it after him. It was known in Irish as Cill Channaigh or the Church of Canice. Over the many years since, Cill Channaigh became Kilkenny in English.
The people built a very tall round tower beside the church. On top of this they put a bell and when it rang, people heard it for miles around and came to pray. The church is now a cathedral and the tower still stands there and since my ancestor Kenny went to cat heaven there have been many more cathedral cats to follow him and to grow my family tree.
Norman – A Warrior cat
In the year 1169 King Henry II of England sent some of his Norman knights to Ireland to ﬁght for the King of Leinster, who was being bullied by some of his neighbours. The knights were strong and fearless and wore metal armour. Soon they had defeated many of the Irish kings.
The leader of the knights was a man called Richard de Clare or Strongbow. With him fought his cat, Norman, named after the knights. One day Strongbow came to a hill beside the river Nore near the cathedral of St Canice and he decided to build a wooden fort there.
Strongbow and Norman made a great ﬁghting team and after a few years they had conquered much of the East coast of Ireland. Unlike Norman however, Strongbow had only one life and his ended in 1175. Norman moved in with his master’s daughter Isabella, to protect her.
Many years later, when Norman’s nine lives were used and his kittens were grown cats, each also called Norman, Isabella married. She and her husband decided that a huge stone castle should be built on the hill that Strongbow had chosen for his wooden fort. It had high walls with four mighty towers, one at each corner. It was high above the river, and could watch for an attack by water. It was also beside the main road from the south and could stop an attack by land. It was so strong that no one ever managed to capture it.
More than 800 years later, the castle still stands on the hill in Kilkenny but, sadly, no cats or Normans live there anymore.
Cissie – A Fat Cat
Once Ireland was known as the Island of Saints and Scholars. Some of the holy men and women became hermits and others gathered into large schools to learn the Bible. Having some holy men nearby was useful to the kings and lords, both Irish and Norman. This way they could let God know they were sorry for all the ﬁghting and killing they had carried out, so that they would be sure of a place in Heaven when they died.
Around the time the Normans came, Domnall, the King of Ossory, decided to build a big monastery in the middle of his lands and ﬁll it with monks. He picked Jerpoint, near Thomastown, by a river crossing almost half way between Kilkenny and Waterford. He invited the Cistercian order of monks to move in and offered them large areas of land as a bonus.
These monks were hard workers, as well as being holy. They rose every morning at 2am to start the day. On their lands they grew oats, wheat and barley. The grains were stored in huge granaries, which attracted armies of mice. Thus the monks needed help.
They offered the post of Chief Mouse Catcher to my ancestor Cissie. She was famous for her patience in waiting for grain-eating mice. With her sharp eyes and claws, the monks grew rich on the grain they stored and she grew big on mice. The monks stayed in Jerpoint for 300 years.
Cissie had many kittens, who had many more, and on and on, and this army of Cissies were needed as the monks got more land.
Then in 1541, Henry VIII, the King of England, threw all the monks out by the roadside and took their lands and buildings for himself. We never found out where all the cats ended up but, as the lands still grew the crops, cats were needed to keep the mice in their place, so the cats stayed as protectors of the barns for many more years.
‘We are Kilkenny Cats’ is available in Kilkenny bookshops