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  • Writer's pictureJo-Anne Blanco

The Island of the Cat

In The Voyage of Máel Dúin, a tale of an epic sea voyage written in Old Irish ca. 1000 A.D., the hero and his crew alight on an island with a white fort built as if it were one giant rock of chalk, so high that it seems to touch the sky. The fort is open wide and around the rampart are great snow-white houses. Máel Dúin and his crew enter the largest of these and find no one there save a small cat, which is playing on the four stone pillars inside, jumping from one to the other. It barely acknowledges the men’s entrance and continues playing. The men see three rows on the wall of the house, from one row to the other. The first row holds brooches of gold and silver, the second necklaces of gold and silver, the third swords with hilts of gold and silver. The room is full of fine quilts and garments, and in the centre a feast has been laid, with roast ox and vessels full of liquor. Máel Dúin asks the cat if the feast is for him and his men. The cat looks at him but does not reply and continues to play.

Assuming that the feast is for them, Máel Dúin and his crew eat and drink, and then sleep. When they awaken, they pack up the remainder of the food and drink. One of Máel Dúin’s crew, his foster brother, asks him if he should take one of the necklaces, but Máel Dúin says no and tells him the house is not without its guard. However, the foster brother takes the necklace and makes it as far as the middle of the fort. The cat follows him, shape-shifts into a fiery arrow, and leaps right through the foster brother, burning him to ashes. It then returns to its spot on the pillar. Máel Dúin asks the cat for forgiveness, returns the necklace, cleans his foster brother’s ashes from the fort, and casts them onto the sea. He and the rest of his crew depart the island, leaving the cat with the treasure it is guarding intact.

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