This section is from the book "Ancient Legends, Mystic Charms, And Superstitions Of Ireland", by Jane Francesca Wilde. Also available from Amazon: Ancient Legends, Mystic Charms, And Superstitions Of Ireland.
The observation of cats is very remarkable, and also their intense curiosity. They examine everything in a house, and in a short time know all about it as well as the owner. They are never deceived by stuffed birds, or any such weak human delusions. They fathom it all at one glance, and then turn away with apathetic indifference, as if saying, in cat language-" We know all about it."
A favourite cat in a gentleman's house was rather fond of nocturnal rambles and late hours, perhaps copying his master, but no matter what his engagements were the cat always returned regularly next morning precisely at nine o'clock, which was the breakfast hour, and rang the house bell at the hall door. This fact was stated to me on undoubted authority ; and, in truth, there is nothing too wonderful to believe about the intellect of cats ; no matter what strange things may be narrated of them, nothing should be held improbable or impossible to their intelligence.
But cats are decidedly malific; they are selfish, revengeful, treacherous, cunning, and generally dangerous. The evil spirit in them is easily aroused. It is an Irish superstition that if you are going a journey, and meet a cat, you should turn back. But the cat must meet you on the road, not simply be in the house ; and it must look you full in the face. Then cross yourself and turn back ; for a witch or a devil is in your path.
It is believed also that if a black cat is killed and a bean placed in the heart, and the animal afterwards buried, the beans that grow from that seed will confer extraordinary power; for if a man places one in his mouth, he will become invisible, and can go anywhere he likes without being seen.
Cats have truly something awful in them. According to the popular belief they know everything that is said, and can take various shapes through their demoniac power. A cat once lived in a farmer's family for many years, and understood both Irish and English perfectly. Then the family grew afraid of it, for they said it would certainly talk some day. So the farmer put it into a bag, determined to get rid of it on the mountains. But on the way he met a pack of hounds, and the dogs smelt at the bag and dragged it open, on which the cat jumped out ; but the hounds were on it in a moment, and tore the poor animal to pieces. However, before her death she had time to say to the farmer in very good Irish-" It is well for you that I must die to-day, for had I lived I meant to have killed you this very night." These were the last dying words of the cat uttered in her death agonies, before the face of many credible witnesses, so there can be no doubt on the matter.
Cats were special objects of mysterious dread to the ancient Irish. They believed that many of them were men and women metamorphosed into cats by demoniacal power. Cats also were the guardians of hidden treasure, and had often great battles among themselves on account of the hidden gold ; when a demon, in the shape of the chief cat, led on the opposing forces on each side, and compelled all the cats in the district to take part in the conflict.
The Druidical or royal cat, the chief monarch of all the cats in Ireland, was endowed with human speech and faculties, and possessed great and singular privileges. " A slender black cat, wearing a chain of silver," so it is described.
There is a legend that a beautiful princess, a king's daughter, having gone down to bathe one day, was there enchanted by her wicked stepmother, who hated her ; and by the spell of the enchantment she was doomed to be one year a cat, another a swan, and another an otter; but with the privilege of assuming her natural shape one day in each year, under certain conditions. It is to be regretted that we have no account as to the mode in which the Princess Faithlean exercised her brief enjoyment of human rights ; for the narration would have had a mystic and deep psychological interest if the fair young victim had only retained during all her transformations the memory of each of her successive incarnations as the cat, the swan, and the otter.
This abnormal mode of existence, however, was not unusual amongst the Irish. Fionn himself had a wife who for seven years was alive by day and dead by night; and the Irish Princess Zeba, being enchanted by her wicked stepfather, the king of Munster, died and came to life again each alternate year.
All nations seem to have appreciated the mysterious and almost human qualities of cat nature ; the profound cunning, the impertinent indifference, the intense selfishness, yet capable of the most hypocritical flatteries when some point has to be gained. There traits are not merely the product of brute instinct with unvarying action and results, but the manifestation of a calculating intellect, akin to the human. Then their grace and flexile beauty make them very attractive ; while the motherly virtues of the matron cat are singularly interesting as a study of order, education, and training for the wilful little kitten, quite on the human lines of salutary discipline. Humboldt declared that he could spend a whole day with immense profit and advantage to himself as a philosopher, by merely watching a cat with her kittens, the profound wisdom of the mother and the incomparable grace of the children. For cats are thoroughly well-bred, born aristocrats; never abrupt, fussy, or obtrusive like the dog, but gentle, grave, and dignified in manner. Cats never run, they glide softly, and always with perfect and beautiful curves of motion ; and they express their affection, not violently, like the dog, but with the most graceful, caressing movements of the head.
Their intellect also is very remarkable, they easily acquire the meaning of certain words, and have a singular and exact knowledge of hours.
Mr. St. George Mivart, in his interesting and exhaustive work on cats, has devoted a whole chapter to the psychology of the cat ; in which he shows that the race possesses evident mental qualities and peculiar intelligence, with also a decided and significant language of sounds and gestures to express the emotions of the cat mind. The highly reflective and observant nature of the cat is also admirably described in that very clever novel called " The Poison Tree," recently translated from the Bengalee. There the house-cat is drawn with the most lifelike touches, as she sits watching the noble and Beautiful lady at work on her embroidery, while her little child is playing Reside her with all the pretty toys scattered over the carpet: "The cat's disposition was grave : her face indicated much wisdom, and a heart devoid of fickleness. She evidently was thinking-' the condition of human creatures is frightful ; their minds are ever given to sewing of canvas, playing with dolls, or some such silly employment ; their thoughts are not turned to good works, such as providing suitable food for cats. What will become of them hereafter I ' Then, seeing no means by which the disposition of mankind could be improved, the cat, heaving a sigh, slowly departs."