In the Supreme Court Wednesday, Attorney General K K Venugopal likened the power tussle between the CBI’s top two officers to a fight between “Kilkenny cats”. The expression, which has come to mean a fight to an assured mutual death, refers to cats supposedly fighting in a mediaeval town of Ireland.
The origin of self-destructive cat fights was probably in an allegory to power and excess. In mediaeval Irish lore, massive burrow-dwelling cats —Banghaisgidheach — ruled the Kilkenny region.
Having fought and killed Luchtigern, the local mouse chieftain and his army, the monsters probably had none but one another to turn to. Until there were none.
Other versions blame Oliver Cromwel’s army or a group of German soldiers for tying the tails of Kilkenny cats in pairs and hanging them over a wire to fight. Whatever the triggers, an extended limerick came to be:
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!
Over time, the thoughtless Irish cats entered popular culture. They appeared in Punch, the British magazine, in 1846, with the caption:
Oh, leave them alone,
They’ll fight to the bone,
And leave naught but their tails behind ’em.
The zero-sum idea soon crossed the Atlantic and the cats were mentioned by the likes of General Ulysses S Grant (later twice elected President) during the American civil war and Mark Twain in his writings. The residents of Country Kilkenny became Kilkenny Cats, and their football team, The Cats. Since the mid-1990s, Irish comic talent have found expression in the annual Cat Laughs fest in Kilkenny.
Cats still make news in Kilkenny. This September, local media slammed unidentified teens who shot pellets at Casper, a family cat. It did not survive the spine injury.
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