Letter to My Grandson: Cat Warfare… Irish Cavemen and the Cat Sith


Dear Grandson,

Well, I woke up this morning pondering two things.  The first was that since the first man and woman lived on this earth…Adam and Eve….our family members have survived every natural disaster, disease, epidemic and war.  If they hadn’t we wouldn’t be here. Amazing when you think of it.   No matter what the conditions or circumstances our ancestors survived and had children.  Those children then had to survive and make more children, and so on until many generations passed until….here we are.   All of the people alive on earth today are all descendants of amazing survivors.

That made me wonder if our ancestors were hero or villain survivors. Let’s just suppose that my caveman grandpa saw a fellow caveman drowning what would he have done?  Would he get a stick and help pull the fellow to safety or use the stick to push his head under to speed up the fellow’s demise?


So, I mentally pictured this scenario in my mind.   I thought about the Irishmen on your Grandpa Doug’s side of the family.  It pains me to say it, but I think this is how it would have gone if they had found the drowning caveman.  First, they would have offered a toast to their good fortune that the other fellow had never learned to swim.  Then, they would have stolen the doomed guy’s weapons right in front of his eyes. The only mercy shown would have been a blow to the head, with the stick, to knock the drowning caveman unconscious so he wouldn’t struggle as much when they used the stick to push his head underwater to make short work of him.   As the last of life’s breath left the dying man’s lungs and the final air bubbles reached the water’s surface, I am sure that an Irish ancestor of your Grandpa Doug would have stood there enjoying a refreshing beverage while whistling an appropriately solemn yet hauntingly beautiful tune.

On the other hand, I think that my kind, quiet, trusting Swedish ancestors would have handled the situation entirely differently.  They would have used the stick to pull the drowning caveman to safety.  Then, they would have taken him home, fed him and took care of him until he had fully recovered.  They have would sadly watched their guest take leave of their hospitality as he whistled a jolly tune while carrying off their wealth and women.  As they tried to untie themselves, they would have humbly prayed for his unrepentant soul and that the lutefisk he gorged himself on would turn his intestines to jello

After completing that mental exercise, I came to the conclusion that our ancestors were both villain and hero.  I think everybody’s would have had to been.  Survival is about life and death.  Do or die. Desperate times call for desperate measures.  I rather imagine that there is not much room for emotion or sentimentality during times such as those.

The story I made up about an Irish caveman relative who had no moral boundaries, makes the Irish sound like they are an earthly form of a Star Wars Sith Lord. As you know, Sith Lords represent evil.  What is evil?  Well, it is actually anything that hurts other people or disrespects God. I am sure that you have heard about the 10 commandants that God gave to Moses in the Bible.  Jesus explained that these ten rules of God are really only two.  Love the Lord God and to treat other people as you would like to be treated yourself. Sith Lord’s do not know anything about love, kindness, truth, happiness, joy or any of the other nice things of life.  They only know the darkside of causing pain to others.

Of course, the Irish are not at all like a Sith Lord.  However, they do have a legend about an evil cat called a Cat Sith. The Cat Sith is a mythological creature from Celtic Legend.  This ghost cat is very large and all black except for a white spot on its chest.  It is said that these creatures steal the souls of the dead before the soul can be claimed by God. They do this by simply walking over a corpse before it’s buried.

Cat Sith

To save the souls of their loved ones, family and friends would stand guard around the clock to keep the Cat Sith at bay.  The grave guards used many methods of cat distraction such as catnip, reciting riddles, making music and playing games.  There also could be no fires near the dead body as Cat Sith was attracted to the warmth.

However, a Cat Sith could also bless your home if you left a saucer of milk out for it.  If you did not leave a saucer of milk out, Cat Sith would put a spell on your cows and their milk would all dry up.

Some folks thought that Cat Sith was really a witch with nine lives.  After she used up her ninth life, the witch became a cat forever.  Is this where the legend of cats having nine lives began?  I wonder…

You know, it has always amazed me that the Irish have never ruled the world.  Quite the opposite, their history is one of poverty, persecution, famine, slavery, rebellion and war. When I think of the Irish, I think of a people who never give up or give in.  They have a reputation for loving a good fight, having a great sense of humor, and having a good ear for a catchy tune.

In the decades right before the start of the Civil War, Irish emigration to America increased greatly.  This was due to their suppression under British rule and a great crop failure called the potato famine.  This famine completely changed the course of Irish history.

Potatoes were a very important part of the diet in Ireland.  Almost a half of the Irish population depended on eating potatoes for survival. As it happened, a terrible plant blight called  Phytophthora infestans devastated their potato crops. The disease was a parasitic non-photosynthetic algae, and not a fungus as commonly assumed. The blight caused mass starvation and death.  Almost a million people died and another million left Ireland to come to America. The tiny nation’s population fell by almost 25 percent.

When the Irish immigrants arrived in America they had very few financial resources, did not speak our language and were not used to our customs.  People like to live with other people who are like them, there is nothing unusual or wrong about that, and the Irish were no exception to this rule. During the mid-1860’s there were so many Irish people in the City of New York that it began to resemble Ireland.  Once here, the Irish immigrants wanted to become American. Soon the Irish learned our language and traditions.  A distinct Irish-American culture evolved.

While many European immigrants arrived on our shores during this period of time and were greeted with acceptance, there was much hate and discrimination directed at the Irish.  There are reports that slave owners would hire the Irish to do dangerous life-threatening work so that they would not lose a slave.  Slaves, as sick as slavery was, had financial value. They were worth money to their owners. Whereas the Irish had no value and therefore were a cheaper more disposable labor force to use for hazardous tasks.

Even though the Irish were not treated very nicely, over 150,000 Irishmen joined the Union Army. Many fought in an all Irish unit called the “Irish Brigade.”  It takes a very strong and brave person to risk their lives fighting for principles that are not shared with them.

69th New York Infantry Regiment Irish Brigade battle flag. 

Soldiers of Irish or African-American descent who fought in the Civil War were extremely principled, selfless and brave.  Many of these soldiers hoped that their support of the Union cause would help end Irish and African discrimination.  It didn’t and as a quote from one of my favorite movies Gettysburg states, “People should be taken one at a time. Any person who judges by the group is a peewit.”  There have always been and will always be a surplus of peewits.

The “Irish Brigade” was also known as the “Fearless Sons of Erin.”  These men were known for their courage, ferocity and toughness when under fire.  The brigade was made up of three regiments—the 63rd, 69th and 88th New York Infantry Regiments.  They even had an Irish General as their leader. His name was Thomas Francis Meagher, who after the war became the Acting Governor of the Montana Territory.  Poor guy survived the war only to drown in the Missouri River two years later. Pitiful.

The Irish brigade led many of the most deadly charges during the major battles fought by the Army of the Potomac.  They were often, “slaughtered like sheep” suffering higher rates of casualties than non-Irish regiments.  At the Battle of Antietam almost 60 percent of the men in the 63rd and 69th regiments, about 600 soldiers, were killed in action.  At the Battle of Gettysburg 320 of the brigade’s remaining 520 soldiers were

Painting of the Irish Brigade being blessed before entering the battle at Gettysburg on July 2, 1863. 

During the war Irish soldiers became famous for their sense of humor as well as their bravery.  Their rollicking good humor and continuous jokes helped to encourage many weary soldiers.   Having a good sense of humor during hardships is a great coping skill and helps to lighten the load of those around you.

There is a story told about a couple of Irish Civil War Soldiers who were wounded.  A slightly wounded man was caught complaining that he had to walk to the rear.  A more seriously wounded soldier replied, “Ah Duffy, hold your tongue.  There’s a lad over there with his head shot off and he’s not making a complaint at all.”  (Spotsylvania, May 12, 1864: “Bloody Angle” from Patrick O’Faherty’s, “History of the Sixty-ninth”.)

Doesn’t that sound just like something Grandpa Doug would say?

The Irish were also known for their snappy toe-tapping music.  An Irish song that became quite famous during the Civil War is called the Garry Owen.  This tune began as a drinking song in Ireland’s bars in the 1700s. It is important to note that a song should no more be judged by its place of origin than a person. Many famous tunes started out as bar songs, including several of Martin Luther’s more famous Christian hymns.

The Garry Owen was quickly adopted by European military units and used as a marching song. Seriously, you cannot listen to this song without moving your feet.

When the Irish citizens of New York City formed a militia regiment in 1851, they chose the “Garry Owen” as their official marching song.  This militia unit eventually became the 69th New York Infantry Regiment and so this tune was heard on Civil War battlefields.

Later this tune was adopted by the 7th Calvary as their marching song and was the last song that George Armstrong Custer and his men heard before they were defeated and all killed by Indians at the Battle of the Little Bighorn in Montana.

I used to have a double CD of Irish tunes which I believe included this song. Ask your Dad about that CD and what he did with it when he was in high school.  This is a recording of the Garry Owen: https://archive.org/details/GarryOwen_599

As long as I am on the subject of military music, do you remember last week when I wrote to you about the Drummer Boy Johnny Clem and how drummer boys used their drums to beat out “Taps”?

Well, there was a certain Civil War General named Dan Butterfield who was the son of the co-founder of American Express, and quite a character. Now, old Danny boy became infamous for several things.  He was the chief of staff for General Joseph Hooker.  General Hooker was the commanding General for the whole Potomac Army.

Although Dan Butterfield was greatly hated by his fellow soldiers for his back stabbing and manipulative ways, he was very appreciated by General Hooker.  Dan excelled in keeping the general’s headquarters filled with women, wine and whiskey.  These women were eventually called, “Hookers.” If you don’t know what that means, ask your dad.  Hooker’s headquarters was said to have been so depraved that no decent man wanted to go there and no decent woman would go there.  This is when General Butterfield was given the nickname of “Devil Dan.”

General Butterfield also was the first to initiate the custom of wearing military patches on a uniform to identify different regiments.  This custom of identification is still used today.  The Minnesota National Guard wears a “Red Bull” patch.

Red Bull Patch

In addition to his association with hookers and his keen fashion sense, Devil Dan was dishonest. He liked to cheat and was actually fired while working for President U.S. Grant for illegal goings on in the gold market.

However, what Dan Butterfield is probably best known for is composing “Taps” for the bugle.  His hauntingly solemn tune was adopted by both the Union and Confederate armies to be played at soldiers burials and at the end of the day. Taps is still played at veteran’s funerals today. It was played at your great, great Uncle Myrwin’s funeral last month.  When your Grandpa Doug was in High School he and his older brother Greg would play Taps on their trumpets at the funerals of their hometown’s veterans.

This is the music for Taps.


This is a recording of Taps:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WChTqYlDjtI

Oh and I almost forgot….General Dan Butterfield….was Irish.

Lots of Love and Hugs!

Grandma Pat


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