Three Junior Clerics and their Kitten (from the Book of Leinster)

I offer below a text and translation of ‘Three Junior Clerics and their Kitten’, from the Book of Leinster. This tale, which is both humorous and didactic, tells of three junior clerics (or clerical students) leaving Ireland in a boat in order to exile themselves for the sake of God. They cast away their oars and allow divine providence to take them where it will. They end up on an island, where they erect a church. However, their attempts at asceticism are undermined by their pet kitten, who has a talent for catching implausibly large quantities of salmon. They decide very devoutly not to eat the fish caught by the kitten, and Christ miraculously provides food for them on the altar, in the form of loaves and fishes. (Incidentally, the ordu éisc, literally a ‘thumb of fish’ provided for each man, must be one of the earliest references to ‘fishfingers’!) They offer devotions to Christ: one man recites the Psalms daily, along with celebrating Mass and the canonical hours; another recites 150 prayers daily, along with celebrating Mass and the canonical hours; but the third man recites the Hymnum Dicat, a Latin hymn attributed to Hilary of Poitiers, 150 times a day, along with celebrating Mass and the canonical hours. As each man dies, the remaining clerics take on the work of the others, until there is one left, reciting all the Psalms and prayers and hymns and saying Mass (three times per day) and observing the canonical hours. He feels resentful at this heavy burden, thinks God has favoured the other two over him, and begins a hunger strike against God. An angel visits him and shows him that, to the contrary, he is blessed above his two companions, since simply reciting the Psalms each day – a bare minimum in devotional terms – would grant one entry to the kingdom of heaven, but would give only a short life; reciting the prayers was enough to give a natural life-span – neither longer nor shorter than one would expect; but it is the recitation of the Hymnum Dicat which granted the third man not only entry into the kingdom of heaven, but also an extended life in this world. Thus, we are told, the third man lives on into great old age, until he encounters St Brendan (an intertextual reference to the Navigatio Sancti Brendani), who gives him the viaticum and the last rites, and the man enters heaven.

This tale is also preserved in the Book of Lismore, from where it was edited and translated by Whitley Stokes. The two versions are very closely related, with only a few minor textual differences. However, this version from the Book of Leinster preserves many older linguistic forms and allows us to identify the tale as late Old Irish or very early Middle Irish. The text is probably datable to (roughly) the early tenth century. It has much in common with other tales from the same period which seek to demonstrate the salvific power of particular Psalms and hymns. The humorous element of the kitten undermining the clerics’ spiritual aims, and the tale’s ultimate didactic function, suggest that the tale might originally have been intended for classroom use in an early medieval Irish ecclesiastical school.

pangur ban

Pangur Bán, from The Secret of Kells (2009) – a cat who preferred  more scholarly surroundings than the sea-faring kitten of our tale?


This text is slightly adapted from the diplomatic edition of The Book of Leinster, formerly Lebar na Núachongbála, ed. R. I. Best, et al., vol. 3. I have expanded didiu and immurgu, and made very minor changes in word division and transcription (e.g. conda rraile for the diplomatic edition’s co ndarraile). I have added punctuation and paragraph divisions to reflect my reading of the text.

Ttriar macclerech do feraib Herend dochotar inna n-ailithre. Ba dichra & ba cridechair dochoas and. Ni rucad and do loon for muir acht teora bargin.

‘Beratsa in cattíne’, or fer díb.

O rosiachtatar didiu formna na farge: ‘i n-anmaim Crist trá lecam ar ráma úan isa muir. & foncerddam i lleth ar Tigernai’. Dorónad ón. Nirbo chian iar sin la fortacht Crist conda rraile dochum indsi. Alaind ind inis. Usce & connud imda inti.

‘Denam tra eclais dún for lár na indsi’. Dognither ón.

Téit a cattine dosrengai bratán fíréisc dóib conice tri bratanu cech ae a thratha.

‘Ní ailithre ar n-ailithre hi fechtsa. Tucsam ar loon lend .i. ar cattine diar n-airbiathad. Ní chaithfem torad in caitt.’

Batar iar sin sé thráth cen túara. conda tanic timthirecht o Christ. co mbuí forsind altóir .i. lethbargen chruithnechta cech fir & ordu éisc.

‘Maith tra finnad cách úaind a mod dond fir ardonbiatha’.

‘Gébatsa chetus’, or fer díb, ‘na tri coícdu cech dia la celebrad mo thráth & la aiffren cech dia’.

‘Gebaitsa dano’, or araile, ‘tri coíctu ernaigthi la celebrad mo thráth & la aiffrend cech dia’.

‘Gebait dano’, or in tres fer, ‘tri coictu ymnum dicat cech dia la celebrad mo tráth & la offrend cech dia’. Dognither ón tra, co ré fata. Marb iarum in tres fer Ro gabad a écnairc & ro hadnacht.

‘Maith tra na tesbad in t-ord assind eclais. Rannam etraind ord ar cocéli’ .i. fer na tri coicat is hé atbath and ar tús. Rannait eturru iarum mod in tres fir. Nirbo chian tra iar sin corbu marb araile. Adnaictherside dano .i. fer na tri coicat aurnaigthi. Trummute lassin n-oenfer di suidiu. Ba saethar mór immurgu dósom na tri .l. salm & na tri .l. urnaigthi & na tri .l. ymnum dicat. lasna tri offrennaib cach dia & la celebrad na tráth.

‘Fir,’ or seseom ‘moo serc na desse út la Tigerna indúsa. Rosuc cucai. fomrácaibse. Dogentar troscud frisseom ón or nach ferr a n-airli. ud andúsa’.

Donic in t-aingel. ‘Is bairnech do Thigerna fritso’, or in t-angel, ‘do throscud indligthech fair ar ní bá cen airchisecht úad’.

‘Ced laisseom didiu cen mo brithse la muntir?’

‘Is tu dorroega,’ or in t-aingel ‘.i. Ro randsaid for n-urddu. In fer immurgu dorroega na tri coícait is duthain. & nime. nusmenicedar is aire fosroiti i tossaig. Fer na trí coícat ernaigthe. Ní thimdibend saegul. ni thabair saegul. Aní doroegaiseo .i. ymnum dicat. sirsaegul doberside & flaith nime.’

‘Bendacht forsin Tigerna o tucad. am buidechsa de’.

Buí didiu ina indse co haís & chríne conid tarraid Brenaind forsind fairgge conid eside rod mbeir & dorat commain & sacarbaic dó co ndechaid dochum nime. Conid tor angel fil uastib do grés & a n-inis. & conid hé Brenaind adfét in scel sin.



Three junior clerics of the men of Ireland went on their pilgrimage. It was gone on fervently and heartily then. Only three loaves were taken to sea as sustenance.

‘I will take the kitten’, said one of them.

When they reached, then, the open sea:[1] ‘In the name of Christ, then, let us cast our oars away from us into the sea and let us throw ourselves on the mercy of our Lord’. That was done. It was not long after that with the help of Christ that they happened upon an island. The island was beautiful; plentiful water and firewood in it.

‘Let us build a church for ourselves in the middle of the island’. That is done.

Their kitten goes off. It catches salmon[2] for them, up to three salmon for each of them each canonical hour.

‘Our pilgrimage is not a pilgrimage any more! We have brought our sustenance with us, i.e. our kitten to supply us with provisions! We will not consume the produce of the cat’.

They were then six canonical hours without food, until there came to them a ministration from Christ so that there was upon the altar a half-loaf of wheat-bread and a fish finger[3] for each man.

‘Well, then, let each of us discover his work for the man who supplies us.’

‘I will recite first,’ said one of them, ‘the three fifties [i.e. the Psalms] every day along with celebrating my canonical hours and with Mass every day.’

‘I will recite, moreover’, said another, ‘three fifties of prayers, along with celebrating my canonical hours and with Mass every day’.

‘I will recite, moreover’, said the third man, ‘three fifties of Hymnum Dicats every day along with celebrating my canonical hours and with Mass every day’. That is done then, for a long time. One of the three men died then. His requiem was recited and he was buried.

‘Well, then, let not the arrangement in the church be lacking anything. Let us divide between us the arrangement of our companion’, i.e. the man of the three fifties [Psalms], it is he who died there first. They divide between them, then, the work of the third man. It was not long after that until another one of them died. He too is buried, i.e. the man of the three fifties of prayers. The one man found it all the heavier as a result. It was a great effort moreover for him: the three fifties of Psalms and the three fifties of prayers and the three fifties of Hymnum Dicats with the three Masses every day and with celebrating the canonical hours.

‘In truth’, said he, ‘the Lord has greater love for that pair yonder than for me. He has taken them unto himself. He has left me behind. Fasting will be undertaken against him then for their behaviour is not better than mine.’

An angel comes to him. ‘Your Lord is angry with you’, said the angel, ‘because of unlawful fasting against him, for you were not without mercy from him’.

‘Why then did he not take me with his household?’

‘It is you who chose’, said the angel, ‘i.e. you divided your arrangements. The man, moreover, who chose the three fifties is short-lived and destined to go to heaven.[4] [ …] This is why he was [chosen] first.[5] The man of the three fifties of prayers: it does not shorten life, it does not confer [i.e. lengthen] life. The thing which you chose, i.e. the Hymnum Dicat, it is long life which it confers and the kingdom of heaven.

‘A blessing on the Lord by whom it was given. I am grateful to him’.

He was then on his island until old age and decrepitude, until Brendan came upon him on the sea so that he [i.e. Brendan] took him and gave him communion and the sacrament, so that he went to heaven. And it is a host of angels that is always above them and their island, and it is Brendan who narrates that story.


[1] literally: ‘the shoulder of the sea’.

[2] literally: ‘salmon of true fish’, a common phrase used to describe salmon.

[3] literally: ‘a thumb of fish’.

[4] literally: ‘of heaven’.

[5] This passage is unclear. There seems to be something missing after nusmenicedar (which is itself omitted in the Book of Lismore version of this text). The fosroiti is also problematic, so I have used the reading from Lismore to translate this sentence.

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