Unlike Great Britain, relatively few reports emerge from Ireland concerning mystery cats of the very large puma-like or black panther-like varieties. Yet this island is far from bereft of feline mystery - on account of the Irish wildcat. It was traditionally thought that wildcats had never existed in the Emerald Isle, but in more recent times fossil evidence has emerged to confirm that such cats did indeed exist here up until approximately 3,000 years ago (see later). Moreover, there is a sizeable albeit highly controversial archive of reports on file claiming that bona fide Irish wildcats have been actually been sighted right up to and including the present day. More remarkable still is that these reports of alleged Irish wildcats have suggested a closer relationship for these felids to the African wildcat Felis lybica than to the European one F. silvestris.
Some of the material in support of Irish wildcats stretches back centuries, interwoven with ancient Celtic mythology. For example, an archaic poem believed to date from the 9th Century (translated by Eugene O'Curry and published by Sir William Wilde) tells of the Irish hero Fin mac Cumhaill being held captive by the king of Erinn, Cormac mac Art, who pledged to free him only if a male and female of every species of wild animal inhabiting Ireland were brought to him at the ancient city of Tara. The poem subsequently lists many different animal forms, including a pair of cats brought from the cave of Cruachain.
While on the subject of Irish mythology: in an article of 6 December 1941 in The Field, Irish writer Patrick R. Chalmers argued that despite the wildcat supposedly being unknown in both Ireland and the Western Islands, the warrior King Cairbar of Connacht was surely called 'Cinn Chait' on account of the pelt of wildcat that he bore on his casque.
This leads to another aspect of the Irish wildcat mystery. Chalmers's comments drew a response by letter from A. MacDermott, who maintained that this cat form has never existed in Ireland, and that in his own boyhood the name `wildcat' was actually applied not to any felid but instead to the pine marten Martes martes - an arboreal relative of the weasel.
Compare this with information obtained nearly 50 years earlier by William Andrews, because he had discovered that the inhabitants of the remote glens of Kerry's western reaches knew of both the pine marten and an apparently genuine wildcat form. They even had separate names for the two creatures, calling the marten 'tree cat' and the wildcat 'hunting cat', thereby destroying MacDermott's notion that the Irish wildcat was nothing more than the result of an etymological ambiguity.
The usage of 'hunting cat' in Ireland relative to supposed wildcats was also noted within the mammalian tome of the Reverend J.G. Wood's three-volume Illustrated Natural History (1859-63), together with an anecdotal account taken from Notes on the Irish Mammalia by the well-known Irish naturalist William Thompson. After having noted on several occasions grouse feathers strewn near a water-break in his Irish beat, as well as a number of grouse corpses beheaded but otherwise undamaged, the gamekeeper responsible for that area set a trap and caught two specimens of what appeared to be bona fide wildcats, one adult and one juvenile.
Thompson had taken a particular interest in reports of alleged wildcat sightings in Ireland, notably in the mountains of Erris in the county of Mayo. He had himself seen a very large cat, weighing 10 lb 9 oz, which had been shot in the wild at Shane's Castle park, County Antrim. Apparently this specimen resembled the European wildcat in every way except for its tail (which was not bushy at its tip like the European wildcat's is) and its fur (which was of a finer texture). Consequently, when the Larne Journal reported in February 1839 that the wildcat occurred in Tullamore Park and also used to be found along the shores of Ballintrae, Thompson naturally sought out further details. He questioned Lord Roden's gamekeeper, who informed him that he had never seen wildcats in Ireland.
All through his researches, Thompson encountered similar conflicts of opinion on this subject, and even his own ultimate conclusion is somewhat paradoxical. Even though he never became entirely convinced (at least not in print) of the wildcat's occurrence here, after comparing the Shane's Castle specimen with two Scottish wildcats Thompson nonetheless offered the opinion that it was probably a wildcat x domestic cat hybrid. Needless to say, however, in order for a wildcat hybrid to occur in Ireland, there must be pure-bred wildcats there in the first place.
In his own Illustrated Natural History, Wood mentioned that William H. Maxwell's book Wild Sports of the West (1838) contained several accounts concerning a fierce, wild-living felid form in Ireland that was depopulating the rabbit warrens. Apparently, one of these cats was killed after a severe battle, and was, according to Wood:
...of a dirty-grey color, double the size of the common house Cat, and its teeth and claws more than proportionately larger. This specimen was a female, which had been traced to a burrow under the rock, and caught in a rabbit-net. With her powerful teeth and claws she tore her way through the net, but was gallantly seized by the lad who set the toils. Upon him she turned her energies, and bit and scratched in a most savage style until she was despatched by a blow from a spade.
Although certainly fierce, feral domestics do not normally attain sizes larger than their tame counterparts (although as noted elsewhere in this present book, in recent years evidence has begun to accrue that extra-large melanistic ferals may be responsible in Britain and various overseas regions for certain sightings of unidentified medium-sized pantheresque beasts). Similarly, in his own wildcat write-up, Wood did not attempt to ally ferals with the much larger and mysterious cat form typified by the beast in the above incident documented by Maxwell. In any case, both in Wood's time and in the present day, feral domestics are very familiar animals in Ireland, not likely to be mistaken for anything else.
In or around 1883, while shooting rabbits near County Galway's Annaghdown, F.C. Wallace sighted an animal that in his opinion seemed to be a magnificent specimen of a genuine wildcat. As no physical evidence was obtained, however, no formal identification could be made.
If the Irish wildcat controversy were ever to be resolved, it was evident that a specimen would have to be procured and submitted for official scientific examination. Such an event appeared, at least initially, to have finally taken place in 1885. For on 28 January of that year, English naturalist William B. Tegetmeier exhibited the skin of an alleged wildcat from Donegal at a meeting of the Zoological Society of London and subsequently permitted Dr E. Hamilton to examine it thoroughly. In the Society's Proceedings for 3 March 1885, Hamilton's report on this specimen was published - in which he unhesitatingly classified it as merely a feral domestic cat, and included excerpts from letters by earlier researchers interested in the Irish wildcat saga all supporting his own belief that the latter felid did not exist.
Irish wildcat R.I.P.? Not quite - because a most unexpected discovery was made just a few years later that added a completely new dimension to the mystery. In the report of the Irish Cave Committee sent to the British Association meeting in 1904, Dr Robert F. Scharff announced that he had discovered amongst a collection of felid subfossil remains obtained from the Edendale and Newhall Caves near County Clare's Ennis, a number that constituted two distinct series, one small in size, the other larger, and that he considered the larger to be of wildcat identity. Moreover, in a short report published by the Irish Naturalist during April 1905, Scharff dramatically reopened the case for the modern Irish wildcat by stating that the position and nature of the bones found suggested that the felid was not long extinct in Ireland, and that it was even possible that a few specimens still survived in the western regions' more remote mountainous areas.
Scharff then went on to comment that, until then, it had always been assumed that if a wildcat did actually exist in Ireland it would naturally belong to the Scottish form. However, as a startling climax in his report, Scharff disclosed that the County Clare cave remains were comparable not with the Scottish but with the African wildcat, and that its tail was not bushy at its tip but pointed - just like that of the sizeable cat observed by William Thompson.
This complete turnabout in the tale of the Irish wildcat resulted in a series of letters on the subject by other interested parties appearing in the Irish Naturalist during subsequent months. Some received Scharff's findings favourably and contributed further news regarding the Irish wildcat; others were more critical and remained sceptical.
For example, R. Welch related an old fisherman's account originally given to Irish entomologist William F. de Vismes Kane concerning the wildcat's supposed existence in some numbers on the banks of Lackagh. Conversely, Robert Warren poured cold water on this report, arguing that if such cats were indeed so common within this wild and little-traversed region, then some representatives should still be there today. Yet as noted later by Scharff, in view of the above-mentioned similarity between feral domestic cats and African wildcats (both having tapering tails), perhaps they are.
Warren also attested that the finding of sub-fossil bones of a wildcat in Ireland did not prove that the wildcat was a native of Ireland. This was a quite paradoxical statement to say the least, which the editors of the Irish Naturalist were swift to point out in a footnote at the end of his letter of June 1905.
The following year, Scharff published his findings as a scientific paper in the Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy, Series B, describing fully the unearthed remains. Meticulous comparisons made by Scharff between these and specimens of Scottish and African wildcats were also included, and which demonstrated conclusively in Scharff's opinion that the Clare cave remains were indeed most closely related to the latter wildcat.
Similarly, Major G.E.H. Barrett-Hamilton, a prominent British-Irish natural historian, had planned to include historical evidence favouring this felid's existence in a forthcoming book on British mammals. Unfortunately, however, his untimely death in his early 40s prevented this data from being published.
Nevertheless, one would have expected Scharff's researches to have been of sufficient importance in themselves to have initiated a new surge of interest and investigation regarding the Irish wildcat enigma. Instead, the possible existence of modern-day wildcats living in Ireland is nowadays totally dismissed - but why?
African wildcat, showing its pointed tail tip (© Michal Maňas/Wikipedia – CC BY 2.5 licence)
In an Irish Naturalists' Journal paper of July 1965, Belfast-born wildlife authority Arthur W. Stelfox re-examined Scharff's findings, and offered a very different explanation for them. First of all, he considered that Scharff was too willing to accept anecdotal evidence of Irish wildcats unconditionally, and gave the Tegetmeier specimen as an example, which Scharff had used in support of their existence (even though it had been denounced as a feral domestic by Hamilton). And as far as the cave remains were concerned, Stelfox was convinced that a much simpler explanation than Scharff's was available for these. Namely, that instead of the smaller ones being domestic cats and the larger ones being wildcats, both sets were of domestic identity - the smaller being females and the larger being males (especially as the two sets were found at the same geological level and in the same mineralised condition).
Stelfox also noted that although one would expect remains of fossil wildcats to be associated with those of other wild fossil species of mammal in Ireland if it did indeed harbour wildcats at one time, no such find had been discovered. Instead, all cat remains known from Ireland had occurred only at levels where the bones of domesticated mammals had been found, and Stelfox reported that he had not uncovered evidence of any cat remains in Ireland dating back further than the Bronze Age.
However, this is no longer true, as revealed in an extensive Quaternary Science Reviews paper published in 2014, whose co-authors included Queen's University Belfast biologist W. Ian Montgomery and the University of Manchester's veteran British mammals expert Dr Derek W. Yalden. They disclosed that fossil European wildcat remains dating variously from 9,000 to 3,000 years old had indeed been discovered in Ireland.
Moreover, sightings of large felids not readily explained away as feral domestics have continued to emerge from Ireland. In 1968, for example, while seeking lake monsters in western Ireland, Captain Lionel Leslie and his team were taken aback when a very sizeable felid suddenly appeared on the opposite side of Connemara's Lough Nahooin (i.e. only about 100 yards away) from where they were standing. According to team member F.W. Holiday, who subsequently documented this encounter in his book The Goblin Universe (1986), Captain Leslie stated afterwards that he had never seen anything like it before. Dublin zoologists later contacted by Leslie concerning this were equally bemused - a suggestion that it might simply have been a fox was flatly rejected by the team.
More recently, in their excellent book The Mystery Animals of Ireland (2010), authors Gary Cunningham and Ronan Coghlan noted that in May 2003 a very elderly man from Connemara named Francis Burke affirmed that wildcats had been reported here. He claimed that they were bigger than domestic cats and occurred mostly in wooded areas.
They also recorded a sighting dating from as recently as a decade ago that indicates wildcat-like felids (possibly even hybrids of original pure-bred wildcats and domestics) may still exist in Ireland:
In February 2002, Sandra Garvey saw an animal while driving at night at Knockfune (Co Tipperary) which shocked her so much she nearly drove off the road. She described it as larger than your average moggy with a very striking tail. It transpired that Mrs Garvey's sighting was not an isolated one, with eyewitnesses coming forth, including park ranger Jimmy Greene who spotted such an animal with its two kittens whilst patrolling the Slieve Bloom Mountains in Co Offaly.
Appended to this report in their book was a detailed drawing by Gary Cunningham based upon Sandra Garvey's description of the cat that she had spied that evening, and the result is a burly tabby-striped felid with a sharply-pointed tail that looks very like a bona fide African wildcat.
Even today, therefore, it would seem that with leprechaun-like elusiveness, the Irish wildcat continues to evade explanation.
Comparative illustrations from 1896 showing the European wildcat (top) and the African wildcat (bottom) (public domain)
This ShukerNature blog article is excerpted and expanded from the Irish wildcat coverage in my book Mystery Cats of the World.