On my first day at my first university—1980, UCD, Belfield campus—I made lifelong friends and was very taken by the sculpture of a monk and his white cat, Pangur Bán. I’d heard of ancient monks of course – round towers, Book of Kells, illuminated manuscripts, the whole kit and caboodle. But Pangur Bán was new to me.
The sculpture, based on a 9th century poem written in Irish, was created in 1976 by a German-born Irish sculptor, Imogen Stuart. And if like me, you would like to see it again, don’t go to the Arts Building where it was in 1980; it’s now outside the library in the Health Sciences Centre. (The cat is under the small bench seat, by the way, stretched to catch an errant mouse.)
So, below are some verses from the Pangur Bán translation that I am most familiar with. The full poem can be seen here, and there are also variants by Frank O’Connor and Eavan Boland here.
I and Pangur Bán, my cat,
’Tis a like task we are at;
Hunting mice is his delight,
Hunting words I sit all night.
Oftentimes a mouse will stray
In the hero Pangur’s way;
Oftentimes my keen thought set
Takes a meaning in its net.
’Gainst the wall he sets his eye
Full and fierce and sharp and sly;
’Gainst the wall of knowledge I
All my little wisdom try.
As luck would have it, this year I have been married thirty years. And the anniversary coincided with a holiday in Ireland, and a visit to the workshop of Michael Quirke in Wine Street, Sligo, ‘woodcarver, wordweaver and witness to the power of myth’. We talked about marriage, myth, folklore, and writing a PhD. And then he made for me in the following weeks a beautiful four-sided sculpture. In the image below, you can see the salmon of knowledge swimming below everything, and on the sides:
- Girl of many gifts/virtues/qualities; triple spiral of breasts and womb—fertility, creativity and imagination; the cauldron (cup/grail) of generosity; three beaked bird – ultimate feminine power;
- Two ravens—thought and memory; mac tiré, the wolf—guardian;
- Heron—spreading knowledge; butterfly for change; the waxing, full and waning moon symbolising the cailín (girl), bean (woman) and cailleach (hag/old woman), with the Irish hare for misneach (courage);
- A bird flying free – new beginnings; and the cleric’s hand writing his manuscript accompanied by his cat, Pangur Bán.
You can’t see the pearl in the top, included to mark the pearl wedding anniversary.
Of all the elements in the carving, I am most pleased with Pangur, who seems to have accompanied me through all my university experiences, and is still there, with rather a smug cast to his face, probably thinking that he is quicker at catching mice than I am at writing words.
I am moved to tears Susan, this is very special as is our nearly 37 years of friendship.
Thank you Paula. I did the maths too – where has that 37 years gone? We were so young! But capable of great friendships!
Susan how brilliantly meaningful these words are. This is such a beautiful sculpture. What an achievement to have shared 30 years of life with wonderful Hugh. Congratulations and ever onwards for the next thirty.
Thanks Hilary. And yes, I am delighted with the sculpture, it’s very touchable. In fact, Michael Quirke, the woodcarver, says that the only maintenance it needs is to be handled!