In Padraic Colum’s children’s classic The King of Ireland’s Son, this tale is told to the son by the king’s steward:
The King of the Cats stood up. He was a grand creature. His body was brown and striped across as if one had burned on wood with a hot poker. Like all the race of the Royal Cats of the Isle of Man he was without a tail. But he had extraordinarily fine whiskers. They went each side of his face to the length of a dinner-dish. He had such eyes that when he turned one of them upward the bird that was flying across dropped from the sky. And when he turned the other one down he could make a hole in the floor.
He lived in the Isle of Man. Once he had been King of the Cats of Ireland and Britain, of Norway and Denmark, and the whole Northern and Western World. But after the Norsemen won in the wars the Cats of Norway and Britain swore by Thor and Odin that they would give him no more allegiance. So for a hundred years and a day he had got allegiance only from the Cats of the Western World; that is, from Ireland and the Islands beyond.
The tribute he received was still worth having. In May he was sent a boatful of herring. In August he was let have two boatfuls of mackerel. In November he was given five barrels of preserved mice. At other seasons he had for his tribute one out of every hundred birds that flew across the Island on their way to Ireland–tomtits, pee-wits, linnets, siskins, starlings, martins, wrens and tender young barn owls. He was also sent the following as marks of allegiance and respect: a salmon, to show his dominion over the rivers; the skin of a marten to show his dominion in the woods; a live cricket to show his dominion in the houses of men; the horn of a cow, to show his right to a portion of the milk produced in the Western World.
But the tribute from the Western World became smaller and smaller. One year the boat did not come with the herring. Mackerel was sent to him afterwards but he knew it was sent to him because so much was being taken out of the sea that the farmer-men were plowing their mackerel-catches into the land to make their crops grow. Then a year came when he got neither the salmon nor the marten skin, neither the live cricket nor the cow’s horn. Then he got righteously and royally indignant. He stood up on his four paws on the floor of his palace, and declared to his wife that he himself was going to Ireland to know what prevented the sending of his lawful tribute to him. He called for his Prime Minister then and said, “Prepare for Us our Speech from the Throne.”
The Prime Minister went to the Parliament House and wrote down “Oyez, Oyez, Oyez!” But he could not remember any more of the ancient language in which the speeches from the Throne were always written. He went home and hanged himself with a measure of tape and his wife buried the body under the hearth-stone.
“Speech or no speech,” said the King of the Cats, “I’m going to pay a royal visit to my subjects in Ireland.”
He went to the top of the cliff and he made a spring. He landed on the deck of a ship that was bringing the King of Norway’s daughter to be married to the King of Scotland’s son. The ship nearly sank with the crash of his body on it. He ran up the sails and placed himself on the mast of the ship. There he gathered his feet together and made another spring. This time he landed on a boat that was bringing oak-timber to build a King’s Palace in London. He stood where the timber was highest and made another spring. This time he landed on the Giant’s Causeway that runs from Ireland out into the sea. He picked his steps from boulder to boulder, and then walked royally and resolutely on the ground of Ireland. A man was riding on horseback with a woman seated on the saddle behind him. The King of the Cats waited until they came up.
“My good man,” said he very grandly, “when you go back to your house, tell the ash-covered cat in the comer that the King of the Cats has come to Ireland to see him.”
His manner was so grand that the man took off his hat and the woman made a courtesy. Then the King of the Cats sprang into the branch of a tree of the forest and slept till it was past the mid-day heat.
I nearly forgot to tell you that as he slept on the branch his whiskers stood around his face the breadth of a dinner-dish either way.
The King of the Cats waited on the branch of the tree until the moon was in the sky like a roast duck on a dish of gold, and still neither retainer, vassal nor subject came to do him service. He was vexed, I tell you, at the want of respect shown him.
This was the reason why none of his subjects came to him for such a long time: The man and woman he had spoken to went into their house and did not say a word about the King of the Cats until they had eaten their supper. Then when the man had smoked his second pipe, he said to the woman: “That was a wonderful thing that happened to us to-day. A cat to walk up to two Christians and say to them, ‘Tell the ashy pet in your chimney corner at home that the King of the Cats has come to see him.'”
No sooner were the words said than the lean, gray, ash-covered cat that lay on the hearthstone sprang on the back of the man’s chair.
“I will say this,” said the man; “it’s a bad time when two Christians like ourselves are stopped on their way back from the market and ordered–ordered, no less–to give a message to one’s own cat lying on one’s own hearthstone.”
“By my fur and daws, you’re a long time coming to his message,” said the cat on the back of the chair; “what was it, anyway?”
“The King of the Cats has come to Ireland to see you,” said the man, very much surprised.
“It’s a wonder you told it at all,” said the cat, going to the door. “And where did you see His Majesty?”
“You shouldn’t have spoken,” said the man’s wife.
“And how did I know a cat could understand?” said the man.
“When you have done talking amongst yourselves,” said the cat, “would you tell me where you met His Majesty?”
“Nothing will I tell you,” said the man, “until I hear your own name from you.”
“My name,” said the cat, “is Quick-to-Grab, and well you should know it.”
“Not a word will we tell you,” said the woman, “until we hear what the King of the Cats is doing in Ireland. Is he bringing wars and rebellions into the country?”
“Wars and rebellions,–no, ma’am,” said Quick-to-Grab, “but deliverance from oppression. Why are the cats of the country lean and lazy and covered with ashes? It is because the cat that goes outside the house in the sunlight, to hunt or to play, is made to suffer with the loss of an eye.”
“And who makes them suffer with the loss of an eye?” said the woman. “One whose reign is nearly over now,” said Quick- to-Grab. “But tell me where you saw His Majesty?”
“No,” said the man. “No,” said the woman, “for we don’t like your impertinence. Back with you to the hearthstone, and watch the mouse-hole for us.”
Quick-to-Grab walked straight out of the door.
“May no prosperity come to this house,” said he, “for denying me when I asked where the King of the Cats was pleased to speak to you.”
But he put his ear to the door when he went outside and he heard the woman say,–
“The horse will tell him that we saw the King of the Cats a mile this side of the Giant’s Causeway.” (That was a mistake. The horse could not have told it at all, because horses never know the language that is spoken in houses–only cats know it fully and dogs know a little of it.
Quick-to-Grab now knew where the King of the Cats might be found. He went creeping by hedges, loping across fields, bounding through woods, until he came under the branch in the forest where the King of the Cats rested, his whiskers standing round his face the breadth of a dinner-dish.
When he came-under the branch Quick-to-Grab mewed a little in Egyptian, which is the ceremonial language of the Cats. The King of the Cats came to the end of the branch.
“Who are you, vassal?” said he in Phoenician.
“A humble retainer of my lord,” said Quick-to-Grab in High-Pictish (this is a language very suitable to cats but it is only their historians who now use it).
They continued their conversation in Irish.
“What sign shall I show the others that will make them know you are the King of the Cats?” said Quick-to-Grab.
The King of the Cats chased up the tree and pulled down heavy branches. “There is a sign of my royal prowess,” said he.
“It’s a good sign,” said Quick-to-Grab. They were about to talk again when Quick-to-Grab put down his tail and ran up another tree greatly frightened.
“What ails you?” said the King of the Cats. “Can you not stay still while you are speaking to your lord and master?”
“Old-fellow Badger is coming this way,” said Quick-to-Grab, “and when he puts his teeth in one he never lets go.”
Without saying a word the King of the Cats jumped down from the tree. Old- fellow Badger was coming through the glade. When he saw the King of the Cats crouching there he stopped and bared his terrible teeth. The King of the Cats bent himself to spring. Then Old-fellow Badger turned round and went lumbering back.
“Oh, by my claws and fur,” said Quick-to-Grab, “you are the real King of the Cats. Let me be your Councillor. Let me advise your Majesty in the times that will be so difficult for your subjects and yourself. Know that the Cats of Ireland are impoverished and oppressed. They are under a terrible tyranny.”
“Who oppresses my vassals, retainers and subjects?” said the King of the Cats.
“The Eagle-Emperor. He has made a law that no cat may leave a man’s house as long as the birds (he makes an exception in the case of owls) have any business abroad.”
“I will tear him to pieces,” said the King of the Cats. “How can I reach him?”
“No cat has thought of reaching him,” said Quick-to-Grab, “they only think of keeping out of his way. Now let me advise your Majesty. None of our enemies must know that you have come into this country. You must appear as a common cat.”
“What, me?” said the King of the Cats.
“Yes, your Majesty, for the sake of the deliverance of your subjects you will have to appear as a common cat.”
“And be submissive and eat scraps?”
“That will be only in the daytime,” said Quick-to-Grab, “in the night-time you will have your court and your feasts.”
“At least, let the place I stay in be no hovel,” said the King of the Cats. “I shall refuse to go into a house where there are washing days–damp clothes before a fire and all that.”
“I shall use my best diplomacy to safeguard your comfort and dignity,” said Quick-to-Grab, “please invest me as your Prime Minister.”
The King of the Cats invested Quick-to-Grab by biting the fur round his neck. Then the King and his Prime Minister parted. The King of the Cats took up quarters for a day or two in a round tower. Quick-to-Grab made a journey through the country-side. He went into every house and whispered a word to every cat that was there, and whether the cat was watching a mouse-hole, or chasing crickets, or playing with kittens, when he or she heard that word they sat up and considered.
Quick-to-Grab, in consultation with the Seven Elders of the Cat-Kin decided that the Blacksmith’s forge would be a fit residence for the King of the Cats. It was clean and commodious. But the best reason of all for his going there was this: people and beasts from all parts came into the forge and the King of the Cats might learn from their discussions where the Eagle-Emperor was and how he might be destroyed.
His Majesty found that the Forge was not a bad residence for a King living unbeknownst. It was dry and warm. He liked the look of the flames that mounted up with the blowing of the bellows. He used to sit on a heap of old saddles on the floor and watch the horses being shod or waiting to be shod. He listened to the talk of the men. The people in the Forge treated him respectfully and often referred to his size, his appearance and his fine manners.
Every night he went out to a feast that the cats had prepared for him. Quick- to-Grab always walked back to the Forge with him to give a Prime Minister’s advice. He warned His Majesty not to let the human beings know that he understood and could converse in their language–(all cats know men’s language, but men do not know that the cats know). He told him not to be too haughty (as a King might be inclined to be) to any creature in the Forge.
The King of the Cats took this advice. He used even to twitch his ears as a mark of respect to Mahon, the hound whose kennel was just outside the forge, and to the hounds that Mahon had to visit him. He even made advances to the Cock who walked up and down outside.
This Cock made himself very annoying to the King of the Cats. He used to strut up and down saying to himself over and over again, “I’m Cock-o’-the-Walk, I’m Cock-o’-the-Walk.” Sometimes he would come into the Forge and say it to the horses. The King of the Cats wondered how the human beings could put up with a creature who was so stupid and so vain. He had a red comb that fell over one eye. He had purple feathers on his tail. He had great spurs on his heels. He used to put his head on one side and yawn when the King of the Cats appeared.
Cock-o’-the-Walk used to come into the Forge at night and sleep on the bellows. And when the King of the Cats came back from the feasts he used to waken up and say to himself,” I’m Cock-o’-the-Walk, I’m Cock-o’-the-Walk. The Cats are not a respectable people.”
One noonday there were men in the Forge. They were talking to the Smith. Said one, “Could you tell us, Smith, where iron came from?” The King of the Cats knew but he said nothing. Cock-o’-the-Walk came to the door and held his head as if he were listening.
“I can’t tell where iron came from,” said the Smith, “but if that Cock could talk he could tell you. The world knows that the Cock is the wisest and the most ancient of creatures.”
“I’m Cock-o’-the-Walk,” said the Cock to a rusty ass’s shoe.
“Yes, the Cock is a wonderful creature,” said the man who had asked the question.
“Not wonderful at all,” said the King of the Cats, “and if you had asked me I could have told you where iron came from.”
“And where did iron come from?” said the Smith.
“From the Mountains of the Moon,” said the King of the Cats.
The men in the Forge put their hands on their knees and looked down at him. Mahon the hound came into the Forge with other hounds at his tail, and seeing the men looking at the King of the Cats, Mahon put his nose to him. Cock-o’- the-Walk flapped his wings insolently. The King of the Cats struck at the red hanging comb with his paw. The Cock flew up in the air. The King of the Cats sprang out of the window, and as he did, Mahon and the other hounds sprang after him–
By the magic powers they possessed it was made known to all the cats in the country that their King was being pursued by the hounds. Then on every hearthstone a cat howled. Cats sprang to the doors, overturning cradles upon children. They stood upon the thresholds and they all made the same curse– “That ye may break your backs, that ye may break your backs before ye catch the King of the Cats.”
When he heard the howls of his vassals, retainers and subjects, the King of the Cats turned over on his back and clawed at the first hound that came after him. He stood up then. So firmly did he set himself on his four legs that those that dashed at him did not overthrow him. He humped up his body and lifted his forepaws. The hounds held back. A horn sounded and that gave them an excuse to get away from the claws and the teeth, the power and the animosity of the King of the Cats.
Then, even though it might cost each and every one of them the loss of an eye, the cats that had sight of him came running up. “We will go with you, my lord, we will help you, my lord,” they cried all together.
“Go back to the hearthstones,” said the King of the Cats. “Go back and be civil and quiet again in the houses. You will hear of my deeds. I go to find the tracks of our enemy, the Eagle-Emperor.”
When they heard that announcement the cats lamented, and the noise of their lamentation was so dreadful that horses broke their harnesses where they were yoked; men and women lost the color of their faces thinking some dreadful visitation was coming on the land; every bag of oats and rye turned five times to the right and five times to the left with the fright it got; dishes were broken, knives were hurled round, and the King’s Castle was shaken to the bottom stone.
“It is not the time to seek the tracks of the Eagle-Emperor,” said Quick-to- Grab. “Stay for a while longer in men’s houses.”
“Never,” said the King of the Cats. “Never will I stay by the hearthstone and submit to be abused by cocks and hounds and men. I will range the world openly now and seek out the enemy of the Cat-Kind, the Eagle-Emperor.”
Without once turning his back he went towards the wood that was filled with his enemies, the birds. The cats, when they saw their petitions were no use, went everyone back to the house where he or she stayed. Each one sat before a mouse-hole and pretended to be watching. But though mice stirred all round them the cats of Ireland never turned a head that night.
It was the wren, the smallest of birds, that saw him and knew him for the King of the Cats. The wren flew through the wood to summon the Hawk-Clan. But it was towards sunset now and the hawks had taken up their stations at the edge of the wood to watch that they might pick up the farmers’ chickens. They wouldn’t turn an eye when the wren told them that a cat was in the wood during the time forbidden to cats to be outside the houses of men. “It is the King of the Cats,” said the wren. None of the hawks lifted a wing. They were waiting for the chickens that would stray about the moment after sunset.
But if the wren couldn’t rouse the Hawk-Clan she was able to rouse the other bird-tribes. “A cat, a cat, on your lives a cat,” she called out as she flew through the wood. The rooks that were going home now rose above the trees, cawing threats. The blackbirds, thrushes and jays screamed as they flew before the King of the Cats. The woodpeckers, hedge-sparrows, tom-tits, robins and linnets chattered as they flew behind him. Sometimes the young rooks made a great show of attacking him. They flew down from the flock. “He is here, here, here,” they cawed and flew up again. The rooks kept telling themselves and the other birds in the wood what they were going to do with the King of the Cats. But a single raven did more against him than the thousand rooks that made so much noise. This raven was in a hole in the tree. She struck the King of the Cats on the head with her beak as he went past.
The King of the Cats was annoyed by the uproar the birds were making and he was angered by the raven’s stroke, but he did not want to enter into a battle with the birds. He was on his way to the house of the Hag of the Wood who was then known as the Hag of the Ashes. Now as this is the first time you have heard of the Hag of the Ashes, I’Il have to tell you how the King of the Cats had heard of her and how he knew where her house was in the wood.
Quick-to-Grab had said to the King of the Cats, “If ever you need the counsel of a human being, go to no one else but the Hag of the Ashes who was once called the Hag of the Wood. In the very centre of the wood four ash trees are drawn together at the tops, wattles are woven round these ash trees, and in the little house made in this way the Hag of the Ashes lives, with no one near her since her nine daughters went away, but her goat that’s her only friend.” The King of the Cats was now in the centre of the wood. He saw four ash trees drawn together at the tops and he jumped to them.
Now the Hag of the Ashes had a bad neighbor. This was a crane that had built her nest across the roof of the little house. The nest prevented the smoke from coming out at the top and the house below was filled with it. The Hag could hardly keep alive on account of the smoke and she could neither take away the nest nor banish the bird.
The crane was there when the King of the Cats sprang on the roof. She was sitting with her two legs stretched out, and when the King of the Cats came down beside her she slipped away and sailed over the trees. “Time for me to be going,” said the crane. And from that day to this she never came back to the house of the Hag of the Ashes.
“Oh, thanks to you, good creature,” said the Hag of the Ashes, coming out of the house. “Tear down her nest now and let the smoke rise up through the roof.”
The King of the Cats tore up the sticks and wool that the crane’s nest was made of, and the smoke came up through the top of the house. “Oh, thanks to you, good creature, that has destroyed the cross crane’s nest. Come down on my floor now and I’ll do everything that will serve you.”
The King of the Cats jumped down on the floor of the Hag’s house and saw the Hag of the Ashes sitting in a corner, She was a little, little woman in a gray cloak. All over the floor there were ashes in heaps, for she used to light a fire in one corner and when it was burnt out light another beside the ashes of the first. The smoke had never gone through the hole in the roof since the crane had built her nest on the top of the house. Her face was yellow with the smoke and her eyes were half closed on account of it.
“Do you know who I am, Hag of the Ashes?” said the King of the Cats when he stood on the floor.
“You are a cat, honey,” said the Hag of the Ashes. “I am the King of the Cats.”
“The King of the Cats you are indeed. And it was you who let the smoke out of the top of my little house by destroying the nest the cross crane had built on it.”
“It was I who did that.”
“Welcome to you then, King of the Cats. And what service can the Hag of the Ashes do for you in return?”
“I would go to where the Eagle-Emperor is. You must show me the way.”
“By my cloak I will do that. The Eagle-Emperor lives on the top of the Hill of Horns.”
“And how can I get to the top of the Hill of Horns?”
“I don’t know how you can get there at all. All over the Hill is bare starvation. No four-footed thing can reach the top–no four-footed thing, I mean, but my goat that’s tied to the hawthorn bush outside.”
“I will ride on the back of your goat to the top of the Hill of Horns.”
“No, no, good King of the Cats. I have only my goat for company and how could I bear to be parted from him?”
“Lend me your goat, and when I come back from the Hill of Horns I will plate his horns with gold and shoe his hooves with silver.”
“No, no, good King of the Cats. How could I bear my goat to be away from me, and I having no other company?”
“If you do not let me ride on your goat to the top of the Hill of Horns I will leave a sign on your house that will bring the cross crane to build her nest on the top of it again.”
“Then take my goat, King of the Cats, take my goat but let him come back to me soon.”
“I will. Come with me now and bid him take me to the top of the Hill of Horns.”
The King of the Cats marched out of the house and the Hag of the Ashes hobbled after him. The goat was lying under the hawthorn bush. He put his horns to the ground when they came up to him.
“Will you go to the Hill of Horns?” said the Hag of the Ashes.
“Indeed, that I will not do,” said the goat.
“Oh, the soft tops of the hedges on the way to the Hill of Horns–sweet in the mouth of a goat they should be,” said the Hag of the Ashes. “But my own poor goat wants to stay here and eat the tops of the burnt-up thistles.”
“Why didn’t you tell me of the hedges on the way to the Hill of Horns before?” said the goat, rising to his feet. “To the Hill of Horns I’ll go.”
“And will you let a cat ride on your back to the Hill of Horns?”
“Indeed, I will not do that.”
“Then, my poor goat, I’ll not untie the rope that’s round your neck, for you can’t go to the Hill of Horns without this cat riding on your back.”
“Let him sit on my back then and hold my horns, and I’ll take no notice of him.”
The Hag of the Ashes untied the rope that was round his neck, the King of the Cats jumped up on the goat’s back, and they started off on the path through the wood. “Oh, how I’lI miss my goat, until he comes back to me with gold on his horns and silver on his hooves,” the Hag of the Ashes cried after them.
What should a goat do but ramble down laneways, wander across fields, stray along hedges and stay to rest under shady trees? All this the Hag’s goat did. But at last he brought the King of the Cats to the foot of the Hill of Horns.
And what was the Hill of Horns like, asks my kind foster-child. It was hills of stones on the top of a hill of stones. Only a goat could foot it from pebble to stone, from stone to boulder, from boulder Ko crag, and from crag to mountain-shoulder. It was well and not ill what the Hag’s goat did. But then thunder sounded; lightning struck fire out of the stones, the wind mixed itself with the rain and the tempest pelted cat and goat. The goat stood on a mountain-shoulder. The wind rushed up from the bottom and carried the companions to the top of the Hill of Horns. Down sprang the cat. But the goat stood on his hind-legs to butt back at the wind. The wind caught him between the beard and the under-quarters and swept him from the top and down the other side of the hill (and what happened to the Hag’s goat after this I never heard). The King of the Cats put his claws into the crevices of a standing stone and held to it with great tenacity. And then, when the wind abated and he looked across his shoulder, he found that he was standing beside the nest of the Eagle-Emperor.
It was a hollow edged with rocks, and round that hollow were scattered the horns of the deer and goats that the Eagle-Emperor had carried off. And in the hollow there was a calf and a hare and a salmon. The King of the Cats sprang into the Eagle-Emperor’s nest. First he ate the salmon. Then he stretched himself between the hare and the calf and waited for the Eagle-Emperor.
At last he appeared. Down he came to the nest making circles in the air. He lighted on the rocky rim. The King of the Cats rose with body bent for the spring, and if the Eagle-Emperor was not astonished at his appearance it was because an Eagle can never be astonished.
A brave man would be glad if he could have seen the Eagle-Emperor as he crouched there on the rock rim of his nest. He spread down his wings till they were great strong shields. He bent down his outspread tail. He bent down his neck so that his eyes might look into the creature that faced him. And his cruel, curved, heavy beak was ready for the stroke.
But the King of the Cats sprang into the air. The Eagle lifted himself up but the Cat came down on his broad back. The Eagle-Emperor screamed his war-scream and flew off the hill. He struck at the King of the Cats with the backs of his broad wings. Then he plunged down. On the stones below he would tear his enemy with beak and claws.
It was the Cat that reached the ground. As the Eagle went to strike at him he sprang again and tore the Eagle’s breast. Then the Eagle-Emperor caught the King of the Cats in his claws and flew up again, screaming his battle-scream. Drops of blood from both fell on the ground. The Eagle had not a conqueror’s grip on his enemy and the King of the Cats was able to tear at him.
It happened that Curoi, King of the Munster Fairies, was marching at the head of his troop to play a game of hurling with the Fianna of Ireland, captained by Fergus, and for the hand of Aine’, the daughter of Mananaun, the Lord of the Sea. Just when the ball was about to be thrown in the air the Eagle- Emperor and the King of the Cats were seen mixed together in their struggle. One troop took the side of the Eagle and the other took the side of the Cat. The men of the country came up and took sides too. Then the men began to fight amongst themselves and some were left dead on the ground. And this went on until there were hosts of the men of Ireland fighting each other on account of the Eagle-Emperor and the King of the Cats. The King of the Fairies and the Chief of the Fianna marched their men away to a hill top where they might watch the battle in the air and the battles on the ground. “If this should go on,” said Curoi, “our troops will join in and men and Fairies will be slaughtered. We must end the combat in the air.” Saying this he took up the hurling-ball and flung it at the Cat and Eagle. Both came down on the ground. The Cat was about to spring, the Eagle was about to pounce, when Curoi darted between them and struck both with his spear. Eagle and Cat became figures of stone. And there they are now, a Stone Eagle with his wings outspread and a Stone Cat with his teeth bared and his paws raised. And the Eagle-Emperor and the King of the Cats will remain like that until Curoi strikes them again with his fairy-spear.
When the Cat and the Eagle were turned into stone the men of the country wondered for a while and then they went away. And the Fairies of Munster and the Fianna of Ireland played the hurling match for the hand of Aine’ the daughter of Mananaun who is Lord of the Sea, and what the result of that hurling match was is told in another book.
And that ends my history of the coming into Ireland of the King of the Cats.