‘Kilkenny Cats’ refers to soldiers who fight with tenacity and conviction. However, the phrase originates in cat cruelty.
It is said that the cat’s aloofness is partly the reason why people were and continue to be cruel to cats. However, today aloofness is more often interpreted as being an animal of independence and deserving respect.
In the past the cat’s aloofness resulted in people being suspicious of the cat, leading people to credit the cat with magical abilities. This also garnered respect but peoples’ suspicions about the cat allowed them to express their sadistic and cruel tendencies against the animal as it had little or no value at the time when the phrase Kilkenny Cats was formulated, namely around 1800.
A rebellion occurred in Kilkenny, Ireland in 1798 or 1803, I am not sure of the exact date. German soldiers, Hessians from the principality of Hesse Kessel, were garrisoned in the town to quell the rebellion and keep the peace.
To amuse themselves during times of boredom, I suspect, they indulged in a bit of cat cruelty, a highly insensitive pastime.
They tied two cats together by their tails and hung them over a line. The cats, utterly confused and distressed fought each other to get free until one was killed.
The cat’s admirable tenacity and ferocity came to the fore under these barbarically contrived conditions.
Officers wanted the practice stopped. On an inspection of the barracks and noting that a cat fight was in progress, a soldier cut the cats down by slicing through both their tails with his sword. The cats raced off leaving their tails hanging on the line still tied together.
The officer was told that these cats, abducted from the town, had eaten each other. As this must have taken an enormous amount of conviction and fighting spirit the saying evolved, “to fight like a Kilkenny cat“.
As I understand it, today, the Kilkenny hurling and Gaelic football teams call themselves “The Cats”.
The origins recited above come from the Times archive. The journalist at the time – 1864 – was convinced his version was correct. There are several versions but the same principles apply: there is terrible cat cruelty, ferocity and tenacity.
(Kilkenny is in the southeast of the Republic of Ireland).
Note: this post has been re-dated to bring it forward as a news story is doing the rounds concerning Kilkenny cats at this time.