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A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.

Pangur Ban, the Irish cat poem

The month of March is mentally green on my calendar and sprinkled with little shamrocks, as if St. Patrick’s Day lasted all four weeks. So I’m pleased to start off the month with a very old Irish poem. When I say old, I mean from the late 8th or early 9th century. It was written by a monk, whose name is lost now, in circumstances that have also faded, though some of the theories are entertaining. There’s many translations, but I’m using the one by Robin Flowers, which can be found here.
There are numerous works of literature celebrating dogs, their loyalty and trust. But cats get short shrift as furry pals, they’re always walking by themselves or tiptoeing through fog or something to emphasize their independent reputation. But anyone who has had a cat knows that they can be wonderful companions and this is what the poem celebrates.
The monk, who has a sense of humor compares his studying with the hunting that his cat does. The words are as skittery as mice, but occasionally he is able to catch the meaning of them. The cat is much better at his job, in some translations, reference is made to the monk’s weary eyes, so he was probably not a young man and he feels settled, without being resigned, which is an enviable state. Pangur was a common name for cats at that place and time and the word “Ban” means white in Gaelic, though the poem is sometimes illustrated with black or grey cats.
In the Flowers version, the last line, “turning Darkness into light” is a subtle reminder of the religious house the monk and his cat live in, harking back to Jesus being the Light of the World. It can also be a historical note, at the time the poem was written, Ireland was considered the beacon of learning in Europe, the flame of literature and learning was kept alive there through the Dark Ages.
Unlike much of Irish verse and song, this poem has no yearning or sorrow. There’s not even regret over missed sleep as the monk stays up late chasing words. It’s a poem purely of contentment. If that seems too light and fluffy, think of the last time you felt utterly at peace and how rare that is, then you’ll understand why this poem has lasted through the centuries.

Lovely ink drawing of cat is from a piece on this poem on cantofabule blog

Jackie wishes everyone a very happy St. Patrick’s Day!

14 comments on “Pangur Ban, the Irish cat poem

  1. annebrooke
    March 1, 2010

    What a fabulous poem, Jackie! A charming start to the week :) Axxx

  2. Nikki
    March 1, 2010

    That sounds really lovely. And today is so beautiful (spring actually feels like it’s in the air!) that this review feels particularly appropriate.

  3. Moira
    March 1, 2010

    What a gorgeous little poem, Jackie … thank you very much for introducing me to it!

  4. Gwilym
    March 1, 2010

    I am offended that St Patrick is spoken of on St. David’s Day! Oppression of the Welsh ;)

  5. Minnie
    March 1, 2010

    Hm, bit early – and, as Gwilym points out, today is the feast of Dewi Sant – but what Irish person would pass up an opportunity for a spot of the craic?! So glad to see this lovely poem again. An astonishing coincidence, as just back from cat rescue shelter which currently boasts a large, lively white cat. His name’s Sirius – privately, I’ve re-christened him Pangur Ban. Thank you! Slan go foill.

  6. Llyn
    March 5, 2010

    It’s a truly lovely poem. Talking of poems about cats as companions, have you never read the greastest of all these poems?
    “For I will consider my cat Jefrey” (part of a much longer and wierder poem) by Christopher Smart

    http://www.poemhunter.com/poem/for-i-will-consider-my-cat-jeoffry-excerpt-jubil/

    “For in his morning orisons he loves the Sun and the Sun loves him,
    For he is of the Tribe of Tiger.”

  7. Jackie
    March 5, 2010

    Yes, I have read that poem, but not for a long time, thanks for reminding me of it.
    And I hope the Welsh contingent forgive me for the bad timing, I’m American and had no idea of the Welsh holiday. Mae ddrwg ‘da fi

  8. Sam Ruddock
    March 5, 2010

    This is a wonderful review, Jackie. Thanks so much for introducing it to me. I love your comments about the contentment of the poem, and am intrigued that the poem reflects the mice hunting in both its style and pacing.

    Have you read, or heard of a Japanese novel called I Am A Cat? It’s by an author called Soseki Natsume and is a cat’s eye view of the world. I haven’t yet read it as it’s rather long and intimidating, but this review has made me think I may have to take it down and give it a go. After all, it sounds great!

  9. Jackie
    March 6, 2010

    I’ve never heard of the Natsume book, Sam, but it sounds like an intriguing idea, so I’ll check the libraries for it. Thanks.

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  11. soupdragon
    February 12, 2011

    “cats get short shrift as furry pals, they’re always walking by themselves or tiptoeing through fog or something to emphasize their independent reputation. But anyone who has had a cat knows that they can be wonderful companions”

    Thank you for that. So often cats get dissed usually by people who’ve never owned one, and especially by dog owners. Makes me pretty annoyed, actually.

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  14. fauquet
    May 20, 2013

    the monk is as clever with the words as his cat with the mice .
    This poem recalls also how many Irish monks came to evangelize the North of Europe . Irish is a small part of the world but its influence was( is ) important even if we do not always realize it now. .

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This entry was posted on March 1, 2010 by in Entries by Jackie, Non-fiction: philosophy, Poetry:literary and tagged , , , .

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  • (The header image is from Aesop's Fables, illustrated by Francis Barlow (1666), and appears courtesy of the Digital and Multimedia Center at the Michigan State University Libraries.)
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