Pangur Bán, my cat

Long Room, Trinity College, Dublin

While in Dublin recently I visited Trinity College’s library (the Long Room) and saw again the Book of Kells. This manuscript rightly is a major tourist attraction. I am fascinated by both its timeless beauty and its role as an example of the effort by Irish monks in keeping classical culture alive in the face of barbarian depredations.

What we forget sometimes is that the faceless scribes were real people, subject to boredom and flights of whimsy. A library brochure called my attention to a poem written by a monk on a manuscript that for me at least cracked open a window on his life and work.

Here is the poem, “I and Pangur Bán, my cat,” written in the ninth century by an Irish monk in Gaelic on a Latin manuscript while in an abbey in St. Gallen, Switzerland:

I and Pangur Bán, my cat 
'Tis a like task we are at; 
Hunting mice is his delight 
Hunting words I sit all night.

Better far than praise of men 
'Tis to sit with book and pen; 
Pangur bears me no ill will, 
He too plies his simple skill.

'Tis a merry thing to see 
At our tasks how glad are we, 
When at home we sit and find 
Entertainment to our mind.

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.

When a mouse darts from its den, 
O how glad is Pangur then! 
O what gladness do I prove 
When I solve the doubts I love!

So in peace our tasks we ply, 
Pangur Bán, my cat, and I; 
In our arts we find our bliss, 
I have mine and he has his.

Practice every day has made 
Pangur perfect in his trade; 
I get wisdom day and night 
Turning darkness into light.

(Written by a ninth-century Irish monk in St. Gallen, Switzerland)

Translated by Robin Flower

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