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The robin and the cat

4 Jan 2021

An Leabhar Breac, a manuscript of the early fifteenth century that is now in the Royal Irish Academy, is all the work of a single scribe, Murchadh Ó Cuindlis. Like many Irish scribes, he frequently made notes in the margins of the text, some of which give us a vivid sense of his thought and feelings. On page 73, he wistfully writes, ‘The robin is all red, Domhnall, and I am alone’ – a mixture of perception and feeling which is like a classic haiku.

On page 164 is a cynical little poem:

A kitten, which you rear so that it may be pleasant: when it has been made much of, it goes away from you to hunt.

A bad person is like that: you bring him up according to his wishes, and when you make a man of him, your bad person deserts you.

The reason for this discouragement becomes apparent directly afterward, in a sentence with a little box drawn around it in red: ‘The white cat is straying away from me.’

Poor Murchadh was still pining for his cat (or for its successor) 84 pages later, on page 248: ‘It is a wonder: the robin staying with us, and the cat fleeing from us.’

Roinn na Sean- agus na Meán-Ghaeilge

Department of Early and Medieval Irish

Bloc A, Urlár na Talún, Áras Uí Rathaille / Block A, Ground Floor, O'Rahilly Building, UCC, Cork