Pangur Bán

Pangur Bán

Pangur Bán is said to be the most famous poem in Old Irish. Written around the ninth century AD, the author compares the activities of his cat “Pangur Bán” to his own scholarly activities. Pangur hunts for mice, while he hunts for words and knowledge. It was also the name and inspiration for the cat in the wonderful 2009 animated movie The Secret of Kells (See a scene from it at the bottom of this post.)

The poem is preserved in the Reichenau Primer, pictured here, open to the page with the poem (lower left). The book appears to have been a practice workbook in which an anonymous Irish monk wrote down Latin hymns, grammatical texts, Greek language declination tables, astronomical tables, as well as Old Irish poems including the delightful “Pangur Bán”. It is written in insular script similar to that in more famous works like the Book of Kells. The style of the poem is said to be similar to the poetry of Sedulius Scottus who was an Irish teacher, Latin grammarian and scriptural commentator. Scans of the Reichenau Primer can be seen online at the Internet Archive.

Translated from Old Irish by Robin Flowers:

I and Pangur Ban 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 task 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 task we ply,
Pangur Ban, 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.