On our one Sunday in Ireland we chose to go to the ‘sung service’ at Christ Church cathedral, the oldest in Dublin. It was beautiful, ritualistic and welcoming. The 400-year-old choir sang forth from its loft high over the 12th century crypt and site of the Vikings’ original 6th century wooden church. We were delighted when a friendly church member invited us down for coffee and a cookie afterwards; maybe we’d find out why they kept a mummified cat and a rat there on display!
As my English mother would say, “Thereby hangs a tale.”
1. Chasing Around inside a Pipe Organ Tube
In the 1860’s, long after the site had been updated to a 17th century Gothic cathedral, the wardens decided to have the organ pipes cleaned (perhaps they smelled something.) Wedged inside the tubes they found the bodies of a cat and a rat, evidently trapped in the narrow space in mid chase. One can only imagine the horror of the scene.
2. Being Mummified Like Kings
In a gesture of humanity, the wardens decided to exhibit them in a glass case in the crypt near the tombs of bishops and statues of kings. Local people who came to see them nicknamed the duo Tom and Jerry, the names caught on and the story spread. In his novel, Finnegan’s Wake (1939), James Joyce wrote that one of his characters was “as stuck as that cat to that mouse in that tube of that Christchurch organ.”
3. Being Put on Public Display
When I saw the mummified cat and rat in their case I was struck by their positions and attitude, reminiscent of God stretching out his hand towards Adam’s in Michelangelo’s painting on the Sistine chapel ceiling. It did not seem incongruous because I was in Ireland, the country whose famous Gospel manuscript, The Book of Kells, depicts cats even on its most solemn pages — as if “In the beginning was suppleness” and they had the “absolute confidence and grace” of the godhead. (See Simon Worrall’s The Book of Kells: Copulating Cats and Holy Men).
3. Having Their Identity ‘Stolen’
Was it pure coincidence that the MGM team of William Hanna and Joseph Barbera invented a cat-and-mouse animated cartoon series called Tom & Jerry in 1940? Or, did the names have a familiar ring for the Irish-American Hanna? We will never know and it doesn’t matter to the hundreds of millions of people worldwide who have laughed over and loved to watch the hilarious, violent gags and adventures of the begrudging rivals. To their credit, they have seven academy awards, a feature-length movie, a long-running TV series, games and product names and are not yet finished.
5. Becoming a Model for Peace
Deep underneath the spectacular American fame and success is the haunting story of two real-life animals who had been “chased, got stuck, became friends, slowly died together and became frozen in time.” These last words belong to J.W. Ocker who in his blog Odd Things I’ve Seen also says, “It is a reminder of how every episode of Tom and Jerry should end.”
Margaret Kell Virany lover of lang and lit, note-taker of Norrie Frye, journalist, editor, author
This blog post adds to the mystery of why anyone would entitle their family memoir A Book of Kells: Growing Up in an Ego Void. (Our surname was Kell and I grew up as a preacher’s kid. There’s some doubt over whether or not our family originated in a community of ninth century monks).