Q From Steve Cohen, Virginia, USA: Could you please tell me what the expression play Kilkenny cats means?
A I know it in the form fight like Kilkenny cats. This refers to an old story about two cats that fought to the death and ate each other up so that only their tails were left. It’s a battle that goes on until both sides have been destroyed, an all-out, no-holds-barred fight to the finish. It’s often used figuratively of two people who are vehemently opposed in attitudes or opinions to the extent that they will never agree and will spark fire off each other whenever they meet.
The idea has been summed up in this limerick:
There once were two cats from Kilkenny
Each thought there was one cat too many.
So they fought and they fit
And they scratched and they bit
And instead of two cats, there ain't any!
(You may, incidentally, like to note the use here of fit, the dialectal past tense of fight.)
Where the expression comes from in one sense is easy enough: everyone’s agreed that it refers to the ancient town of Kilkenny, on the River Nore in south-east Ireland. There are three stories in modern books about how the expression grew up in connection with the town; all of them repeat submissions to the British publication Notes & Queries in the Victorian period.
One version was told in detail in Notes & Queries in 1864. This said it was the result of the stationing of a group of German soldiers in Kilkenny, either during the revolution of 1798 or possibly that of 1803. To relieve the boredom in barracks, soldiers would tie two cats together by their tails, hang them over a washing line and leave them to fight. One day an officer was alerted by the caterwauling and the look-out man failed to give warning of his approach in time. In great haste, a soldier cut off the cats’ tails to let them escape, but wasn’t able to hide the evidence left behind. The officer was told blandly that two cats had been fighting each other so savagely it had proved impossible to separate them and that they had fought so desperately that they had devoured each other, with the exception of their tails.
A second story is even more clearly fiction, since it refers to a legendary battle on a plain near Kilkenny, supposedly sometime in the eighteenth century, between a thousand cats of that city and a thousand cats that had gathered from all other parts of the island. This left the field of battle strewn with dead moggies, they having fought so viciously that they had all killed each other. This may be a parable based on dissents of the period between the people of the Kilkenny area and other parts of Ireland.
Another entry, in an issue dated 1850, argues that it may indeed be a kind of parable, but one based in factional disputes in Kilkenny between the fourteenth and seventeenth centuries. The town then was divided into two townships called Irishtown and Englishtown, a situation that wasn’t uncommon in a country occupied for so long by the English. For religious, cultural and political reasons there were deep divisions between the two groups. These were made worse, the writer said, because the rights and duties of the two townships hadn’t been made clear by statute. This led to three centuries of dispute between the rival municipal bodies that ended in beggaring both of them.
Nobody seems to have added anything to these entries in the 150 years since. If I had to plump for a story, I’d point to the last of these, which seems rather more plausible. But, as so often, in the absence of evidence, we can only guess.