Sad times of a workhouse and a war, followed by a new design in Kilkenny


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 seven, 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 Gorta, Cattie and Art .

These are taken from their recent illustrated children’s book We are Kilkenny Cats!

Gorta – A Hungry Cat
Once, a little girl called Katie grew up on a small farm with her cat Gorta. Life for her family was hard but they were happy together. They lived in a rented house on a small piece of land where they grew potatoes. With eggs from their few chickens, this was their main food.
In 1847 her father noticed that the potato plants were withering. This had happened the year before with other people. Worried, he dug up some plants and found the potatoes were turning black and rotting.

The family had a little money saved and they bought food for a while. But they didn’t have enough for the rent and, after a few months, they were thrown out of the house. The family and its cat were on the side of the road with nowhere to live.

Their only choice was to ask to be taken into the workhouse. This was a hard place to be. Katie was separated from her parents and had to live with a big crowd of children she didn’t know. Her mother and father were also separated and had to live in different parts of the workhouse. There was no place for a cat.

Food was poor and in short supply in the workhouse. Outside, Gorta had to be careful all the time. Some people were so hungry that a fat cat looked like a nice dinner. Over a few weeks the cat grew thinner and thinner with no one to feed her. The same was happening to Katie in the workhouse.

Finally, one day, a cousin of Katie’s father lent him some money and the family left the workhouse and walked to the coast. There they boarded a ship and left Ireland forever, to make a new life in another country. They brought Gorta with them. Neither Katie nor Gorta ever saw Kilkenny again but, many years later, their descendants returned to see where their journey had started.

Cattie – A Brave Cat
Cattie was born on Brennans’ farm in the Kilkenny countryside in 1912. She grew up playing around the barns and fields and her best friend was the farmer’s third son, Mousey. As Mousey’s eldest brother was to take over the farm from his father, he had to find work and a life elsewhere.

One day in 1914 he came home to say that he had joined the British Army. A Great War was being fought in Europe for small nations. Mousey and all his friends were joining up for adventure and to earn a living. His family were very happy for him and cheered him off in his new uniform. Cattie hid in Mousey’s knapsack.

In France they saw nice green fields like at home in Kilkenny but soon an enemy army came and bombs dropped on them. Green fields became fields of mud. Everyone dug down into the earth to protect themselves and the land was crisscrossed with these trenches. These places became home for everyone fighting for many years.

Mousey fought the Germans who were trying to get into the trenches and Cattie fought the rats. Cattie cared for Mousey when he was shot and Mousey cared for Cattie when she was gassed. Meanwhile many of their friends went missing or died.

They came home to Kilkenny occasionally but over time, while they were away, people at home turned against the British and their army. His family were no longer happy to see Mousey in his uniform.

Mousey and Cattie returned to France on Christmas 1917. On the day they returned to the trench, a bomb exploded under them and neither was ever found again. Cattie had used up all her nine lives.

Over 3,000 people from Kilkenny fought in the Great War. Over 800 never came home alive. No one counted the cats.

Art – Crafty Cat
Not very long ago, Ireland wasn’t a very modern place. Whether it was music, artor the style of clothes we wore, there were few new ideas. The world was changing.

Irish people started to watch television and learnt how the rest of the world thought.

To see if we could make things better it was decided to open a place where new ideas could be tried and new ways of making things explored. A search for a home for this new centre decided that Kilkenny would be the best place. Opposite the main castle gate were large stables which once belong to the lords in Kilkenny Castle. They were now lying empty. Everyone agreed that this was the best place in Ireland to test the new ideas.

However, while the stables no longer had horses, there were still mice, so the first job was to clear them out. A clever Kilkenny cat called Art was given the job. He quickly saw the mice out the door and in came the artists, potters, jewellers, weavers and other crafts people.

They brought in new people to teach them how to design and make new Irish designs. Soon the students set up their businesses. Whenever they needed a model they could use Art. A shop was opened to see if people would like the new things made. Whether it was cups, scarves or jewellery, everything sold quickly. Soon you could buy Kilkenny designed goods all across the country and, not long after, in other countries.

People came in large numbers to Kilkenny to learn new skills. They became copy cats. Art was always there to help them. He sat as a model if he was needed and if he was not busy chasing mice. Now, although the workshops are closed, the many designers that Art helped teach still fill Kilkenny and make it well known around the world for great design.

‘We are Kilkenny Cats’ is available in Kilkenny bookshops

Previous Community rallies as fire causes devastation
Next The Journey to Calvary to feature on Community Radio with all-star local cast