Neil Arnold runs KENT BIG CAT RESEARCH, studies folklore and writes for cryptozoological, Devon-based magazine ‘Animals & Men’. His own exotic cat research can be found here.
On 15th February 1996 it was claimed that several witnesses had sighted a ‘lion cub’ in Fintona, Co. Tyrone, Northern Ireland. Three days later the felid was dead, shot by marksmen from the Royal Ulster Constabulary, after it was seen slinking close to a field of sheep. The so-called ‘lion cub’ was nothing of the sort, but still very much an exotic cat that had obviously escaped, or been released from a private collection due to the fact that was wearing a collar around its neck.
Several reports on the internet of the cat identified the specimen as a Caracal, although the photo clearly shows that the felid is a Eurasian Lynx, due to the shortness of the tail, and the ears certainly do not match the size of the Caracal. The incident itself increased demands across Ireland for the introduction of the Dangerous Wild Animals Act, which, across the rest of Britain, during 1976, was introduced to stop such escapees occurring and for those who kept such felids in captivity to have an official license. As for the carcass of the Lynx, contact was made with the R.U.C. who stated that the corpse of the felid would be stuffed and displayed for the R.U.C. museum. Further investigations mounted by the Centre For Fortean Zoology during the time though concluded that the body would eventually be destroyed.
Large cats such as Black Leopard, Puma, and Lynx have been enclosed within inadequate facilities for a number of years, these felids remain a separate enigma to the reports of the Irish ‘wildcat’ said to exist. It is highly likely that a majority of the felids of a larger nature sighted across Ireland are cats that have escaped from menageries, or were let go on purpose. The mystery itself does not necessarily ask the question as to how they got there, but for how long they have been around.
In 1928, as already mentioned on this website, in Co. Derry, a Mr. Martin was trout-fishing near his rural home when he saw a large, black animal strolling through the shallow water of the river. Unnerved by the nearing presence, Mr. Martin, realising it wasn’t a dog, leapt up onto the back, startled by the menacing creature. Mr. Martin hid behind the nearest tree, as the animal padded by it gazed eerily in his direction, it bared its teeth and stared menacingly with glowing eyes which, at the time, were described as ‘blazing red’.
The animal went on by, leaving the witness terrified as he remained cowered amongst the leaves of the tree. When the animal had disappeared from view, Mr. Martin hastily made for home, unsure of what he’d seen in the water. Days after the encounter Mr. Martin made a few enquiries in the local area to see if anyone else had sighted the animal, but his research drew a blank, until one day he stumbled upon the legend of the Irish Pooka on a cigarette card. The animal on the card appeared as a giant ‘fairy dog’, with a black coat and fiery eyes. Mr. Martin decided to hunt the creature, but he failed in his attempts to track the beast down which was often seen during the hours of darkness by walkers and fishermen on the water, but hardly had it ever been seen in daylight.
Such encounters with large, mysterious black animals are common in folklore with many countries across the world, they are known as Black Dogs, and many encounters with these ghostly hounds obviously suggest supernatural connections, but there is also the possibility that encounters such as the one involving Mr. Martin, do involve mystery cats, such as the Black Leopard, despite the fact that the legendary Pooka is often tied to watery locations, but then again, so are cats!
The incident from the 18th February regarding the shot Lynx may appear as far removed from the 1928 encounter involving Mr. Martin in Co. Derry, but what these cases prove is that there has always been an abundance of strangeness in Irish lore regarding felids and indeed, such lore is common throughout the world, but let us not put these cats into the realm of the supernatural which is haunted by the strange hellhounds.
An Arctic Wolf was shot dead after eight days on the loose during the Autumn of 1995, in Lisnaskea, Co. Fermanagh. On the 29th of June 1997 Mark Rowe, writing for the Independent On Sunday, in an article entitled, Power Pets – The New Love Of Ireland, expressed the concerns of exotic animals being kept in captivity, with no licensing:
“There may be no snakes in Ireland but there are big cats galore. Tigers, pumas and jaguars are fast becoming status pets in the north and the south. Ray Cimino, of the Dublin-based Trust For The Welfare Of Captive Wildlife, said: ‘It is a growing problem. During the past five years the number of people owning tigers and other big cats has multiplied several times. It is not unusual to see them being taken for walks down country lanes. The RUC has had complaints that tiger cubs on leads have been taken into shopping centres.’
The reason for the ownership of exotic pets – bears too have been found by officials – is that the 1976 Dangerous Wild Animals Act does not apply in Northern Ireland and no similar legislation exists in the Republic.
Angi Carroll, deputy director of the Dublin Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals said: ‘In Ireland you must have a license for a dog but there’s nothing to stop you walking down the high street with a tiger or a rhino. Most pets are sold in Belfast so people can drive up from Dublin and back across the border with a tiger cub within four hours. There is nothing furtive about it.’
Ms Carroll and her colleagues can act on reports of wild animals being kept as domestic pets only if they believe the creatures are housed in poor conditions. Then they can prosecute under the 1911 Protection Of Animals Act.
Last year, police on a routine drugs raid in a Dublin suburb found an adult jaguar and a serval in a garage. In another incident at a Limerick farm, an ex-circus bear, two Siberian tigers, two tiger cubs and a baboon were found. The owner was prosecuted and banned for life from owning animals.
Many of the animals are sold by unscrupulous zoos or by travelling circuses. Others are bred in captivity. A tiger cub can be bought for as little as £150 and sold for £2000.
However, many of the cubs do not survive into adulthood. ‘People think if they hand rear a cub it will grow into a well-trained adult, but these cubs are taken off their mothers at a very early stage and often die by the age of five months because they haven’t had the right nutrition’, Mr Cimino said. ‘People have no knowledge of how to raise them. They are not prepared to spend £25000 on a proper secure habitat and so put them in garages or small cages in back gardens.’
Ms Carroll said, ‘At the moment these creatures are freely advertised in Dublin newspapers. We urgently need a change in the law but I suspect nothing will be done until somebody gets mauled.’
The Royal Ulster Constabulary’s wildlife liaison officer, Inspector Mark Mason, believes that an Act should be introduced to control the ownership of wild cats, but he also wants any such pet to have a microchip inserted in its neck to make it easily traceable.”
On September 28th 1999, the Belfast Newsletter, reported that the USPCA had warned the public to be on the look out after several sightings of the ‘beast’ of Ballygowan, Co. Down. A felid, measuring between four and six-feet in length, black in colouration, had been sighted near Davidson’s Quarry and also at a school playground on the Belfast Road. Local welfare officers believed that the animal in question was an escaped ‘panther’ (although the term ‘panther’ is, across the USA used to describe the fawn-beige coloured Puma – although in Britain it is used to describe the Black Leopard, which is often called a Black Panther).
A Martin Dobbin from the USPCA, claimed to have found unusually large prints in the ground near the quarry, and also said that if he saw the animal he would call in the vets from Belfast Zoo to tranquillise it. Nothing of course came of his rather naïve investigation. During ’99 there were several reports of large exotics filed. Fortean Times magazine put together a short list of reports for the year, with sightings from Aughnacloy, Co. Tyrone – Puma (1st January), Sixmilecross Co, Tyrone – brown cat (2nd January), Black Mountain, Belfast – large cat with small dog in its mouth, (Late Jan), and a further twelve sightings of a large black cat near Ballygowan, and even a report of an escaped Red Panda, said to be inhabiting Black Mountain.
During the Spring of 2000, a David Malone, executive producer of Extreme Production, contacted various newspapers etc, in the hope of bringing forward witnesses to big cat activity across Ireland and also to hear from anyone who kept an exotic cat. His research and investigative results were to be aired in a Channel Four documentary regarding Northern Ireland and its situation.
Reports over the millennium were reasonably quiet for an island where large animals are kept in shoddy conditions! During 2001 large cats were seen at Richhill, South Armagh and further south, whilst in February at Rearcross, Tipperary, and in West Wicklow during July, there were two very peculiar reports of large cats. A Rearcross witness claimed that the animal they saw was striped with a bushy tail, whilst at Blessington, West Wicklow, the cat sighted was described as being ‘cheetah-like’. My own exotic cat research in Kent, England, has enabled me to siphon out the hoaxes from the genuine, and the possibilities from the impossibilities, but across Ireland it is proven that anything is obtainable which means anything can escape into the wilds. One cannot rule out some reports of felids simply because witness descriptions are all too varied, and sometimes exaggerated. However, if alleged sightings of ‘cheetahs’ do not resurface time and time again then one has to question their validity, although it is fair to say that smaller cats such as the Jungle Cat, and in some cases the Golden Cat, can disappear from public view and so reports will be scarce, making it nigh on impossible to build a better picture of the felid in question, especially concerning its territory.
On Tuesday, May 22nd 2001, Irish Examiner, reported: Farmers on alert after big cat goes on the prowl.
Joe Oliver reported: “The RUC has warned farmers on the Border to be on their guard after it was confirmed that a Puma or a panther is on the loose. There have been a number of sightings of the beast in South Armagh in recent weeks. Evidence of animal droppings at a remote house also pointed to the presence of a large cat.
RUC Wildlife liaison officer Mark Mason said teeth marks were found on a rabbit in a hutch in Co. Down. Mr. Mason ruled out any possibility that the bite marks came from a dog. “The distance between the canines is consistent with a cat of the scale of a puma or a panther,” he said.
“It ripped the rabbit hutch apart and all that was left was a spot of blood.
The fact that in recent times we shot and have recovered a lynx proves not all of these sightings of big cats are untrue. There is firm evidence to support the view these sightings are not all fairy stories.”
In 1996, police marksmen shot dead an African lynx ( author note: incorrect continent stated, the Lynx was European – the Caracal is native to Africa but the photograph clearly shows a Lynx ) in the Fintona area of Co. Tyrone.
Two years ago dozens of locals, including doctors and soldiers on duty, reported a puma-like animal roaming the countryside.
Dubbed ‘The Border Beast’, it was sighted in Augher, Clogher, Ballygawley and Aughnacloy.
Mr. Mason said the beast which destroyed the rabbit hutch would be unlikely to attack humans.
“I would advise people to be on their guard while it remains at large”, he said.”
Various liaison officers and so-called ‘experts’ within the wildlife field often speak of these so-called ‘panthers’ and ‘puma-like’ felids, but seem to have trouble identifying these animals despite countless reports of them. Let us then look at the candidates:
BLACK LEOPARD (panthera pardus)
A common novelty cat kept by owners during the swingin’ Sixties. This is merely a darker coated version of the spotted Leopard, growing to over four-feet in length, standing over two-feet at the shoulder and weighing over one-hundred pounds.
These cats are the only official ‘big cat’ to roam Britain, despite one or two cases where tigers have escaped for short periods, and debatable reports of Clouded Leopards and the previously mentioned Blessington ‘cheetah’. The Leopard is a highly agile felid that can climb trees, especially in order to stash prey so that other predators in their countries of origin (Africa/Asia) are unable to feast on the kill they have made.
Such felids live for around fifteen years in the wild, and are solitary hunters, but up to four young can be produced. Black (melanistic) Leopards can only produce black offspring but normal Leopards can have a mixed litter.
The Leopards sighted across Britain are nearly always black and it is highly unlikely that black Pumas are being seen, as they are extremely rare despite the fact that across the USA a number of witnesses are describing black cats, but tend to describe ‘black puma’ probably because the Puma (Cougar) was the native felid.
The Black Leopard is a powerful cat, sleek, muscular and slender. There is enough prey in the British countryside to support a population, and whilst livestock often suffers, rabbits are the most ideal prey, alongside deer, rodents, birds, foxes.
Black Leopards still have the rosettes, these can be seen in the right light or if anyone is idiotic enough to get close enough!!!
Across the UK, Black Leopards appear reasonably common and are the main felid sighted, although the Puma is also well established.
PUMA ( felis concolor)
The Puma (Cougar, Mountain Lion, Panther), is native to the US, although endangered in parts, and despite growing to a size that compares to the Leopard, if not bigger, it is not a ‘big cat’ for it only purrs in the same way as members of the genus Felis. The Puma also screams rather than roars, this particular is the largest of the Lesser Cats.
Many people across Ireland have described encounters with a ‘black, puma-like’ animal but the Puma is not black in colour, but its coat can vary from silvery-grey to fawn-beige, there are no markings although young are born spotted.
Attacks on humans have occurred across the USA, but other creatures such as deer, dogs and bees cause more deaths each year.
EURASIAN LYNX (lynx lynx)
The Eurasian Lynx is twice the size of its North American relative. This felid is known for its leggy appearance, shortish tail, triangular ears topped with tufts of black hair, and well furred, large paws. The coat can appear in a variety of colours from yellowish-brown, to reddish-grey with dark spots. These cats are often found in rocky regions and forest areas, their natural environment covering western Europe, the former USSR and parts of Asia. The Spanish Lynx ( lynx pardinus) is similar in appearance and is sometimes classified as a subspecies rather than a species in its own right.
Many people confuse the Caracal (lynx caracal), with the Lynx. The Caracal, native to Africa, and India, is smaller than the Lynx, is reddish brown in colour with long, pointed ears with black tufts. They are excellent jumpers, known to pluck low flying birds from the air, and they are solitary hunters. Felids such as the Caracal, Jungle Cat (felis chaus), and more so the Asian Golden Cat (felis temmincki), could well be incorrectly identified by witnesses, across Ireland and the rest of Britain. The Asian Golden Cat, could, at a brief glimpse to an unsuspecting witness, appear Puma-like, whilst a Puma on the horizon could appear as a Black Leopard.
With so many private menageries spilling into the woodlands, all manner of felids could be roaming the Irish woodlands, fields and towns, especially at night when most of these cats prefer to feed. Smaller cats such as the Caracal and Jungle Cat can disappear without trace, feeding off mice, lizards, insects, birds, and remain undetected for years, but very rarely are these felids identified in the press, who merely seek a ‘beast’ story to make their headline.
On Tuesday, October 29th, 2002, LAOIS NATIONALIST reported, Another sighting of panther, with an article that not once accurately described the felid!
“There has been another claim of a sighting of the mysterious cat-like animal in the county.
Prompted by the article in last week’s Laois Nationalist about claims of a sighting of a panther in Mountmellick, a woman caller rang to tell us about her encounter.
For fear of ridicule, the caller asked her name to be withheld: “’it was on Monday morning about 9:10 when I was on my way to work in Kildare. I was approaching the cross at Ballybrittas on the Main Dublin road when what I thought was a big black dog bounded out in front of the car and bounced across the road and headed down the Vicarstown Road.
I wondered what type of dog it was. It had a jet-black coat and I could plainly see it had a tan-coloured collar, about three-inches in diameter, around its neck.
It was on my mind al day and I wondered who would have come off worse if I had been a few seconds earlier. It didn’t look like a dog running about after being out all night.’
The caller said she was on her own in the car but there was other motorists on the road at the time and they must have seen the animal.
‘It wasn’t until I read the paper on Wednesday, that made me think again, that maybe it wasn’t a dog. It seemed to have been well built. I’m not sure how it was a dog, it could have been the panther that was spotted in Mountmellick’, she said.
The area the woman caller claims to have seen the animal is approximately eight miles from where two men, John Travers from Mountmellick and his brother, claim they saw a panther the previous night.
While the Mountmellick Gardai say they received no reports of dead animals, and are unaware of anyone keeping a panther, or similar big cat, they have not ruled out the possibility of someone owning one locally.”
Melanism is common amongst a variety of species of felid, but the Black Leopard makes up 99% of eye-witness sightings which describe black cats, although in Scotland the Kellas Cat has come under investigation. Cats such as the Leopard and Puma have vast territories, up to 250-square miles in their countries of origin, but across Britain a male may have a territory up to 100-square miles and this area may cover the territories of several females. The Mountmellick cat is quite obviously a Black Leopard, and certainly not tame just because it had a collar, but across the UK the large cats sighted appear to be British Leopards and not cats which have escaped from captivity over the last ten years or so. Until laws are introduced into the Irish system to curb then private collections in poor condition will continue to spill into the forests, but even if an act is passed to prevent such easy access to exotic cats, there may already be a well established population of Puma, Leopard, Lynx and others, which in turn will become more abundant over the years, in the same way it has snowballed elsewhere in Britain.
On 1st March 2002, Peter Gleeson reported for the Nenagh Guardian, about the ‘SEARCH ON FOR CREATURE WITH FANGS AND CLAWS’, after several reports near Rearcross of an unusually large felid too big to be a domestic cat. He wrote:
“The Scottish Wildcat, is there one in Rearcross ? Yes, the search is on for a genuine wildcat suspected to be wandering around the remote mountain forests near Rearcross.
It’s wild, with claws and fangs. And it is believed to be roaming the countryside around North Tipperary.
This is not your ordinary tabby. No, it’s bigger, with a striped bushy tail, and it’s not supposed to be native to this country at all.
The search for the wildcat started after Sandra Garvey, who lives in the area, spotted an animal she had never seen before when out driving one night just over two weeks ago.
Ms Garvey, who lives in the town land of Knockfune, told The Guardian, ‘I nearly drove off the road I was so shocked. I saw this thing and what was striking about it was its tail. I saw nothing like it before….it was larger than your average moggie.’
When Ms Garvey went home and related the strange story to her husband he confirmed that he had seen a similar animal a year previously.
Ms Garvey’s daughter told the story to her teacher, Jeff Griffin, Vice Principal at Villiers Secondary School in Limerick, and a regular walker in the area, who confirmed that three years ago he too had seen an animal that fitted the description.
Ms Garvey contacted the RTE radio nature programme, ‘Mooney Goes Wild’, to tell her amazing story to the nation last weekend. Even the shows presenter Derek Mooney, travelled to Knockfune to search for the elusive wildcat – alas without any success.
When contacted by this newspaper earlier this week, Derek Mooney said there was no firm evidence of the presence of wildcats in Ireland. The species was found in Scotland, Europe and Northern Asia. ‘There is the possibility that someone brought a wildcat into the country,’ said Mr Mooney. Another possibility was that offspring of once domestic cats had turned feral and appeared wild-looking.
‘The chances of it being a genuine wildcat are very slight from what I have been told by scientists. You have to prove it and what we are looking for is that if someone sees this creature again they should take a picture.’
The Guardian contacted an expert on the native Scottish wildcat, Alan Paul, who confirmed that the species had never been native to Ireland. The only way the species could have got here was if they had escaped from a zoo or some other form of captivity.
‘It’s very rare for anyone to see a wildcat. They like to keep out of harms way.’
Mr Paul said the animal was not a danger to humans, unless provoked.
‘It will attack you if you corner it. It’s no more vicious than any other animal of the same size.’
Jimmy Greene, a wildlife ranger in North Tipperary up to two years ago, but now patrolling in Laois and Offaly, believes the wildcats so exist in Ireland.
Jimmy said he had seen a wildcat and its kittens while patrolling in the early hours in Slieve Bloom mountain range in Offaly. ‘I knew straight away it was not an ordinary cat. It was pure wildcat. You have to be up early in the morning or at night to see them. I didn’t think we had them in Ireland before that, but there are also reports of them in County Wicklow.’
Jimmy said he never saw a wildcat during his years as a ranger in North Tipperary. He believed the animal that Ms Garvey had most likely seen was a pine marten, which, he said, also had a bushy tail and were not much bigger than a wildcat.
Ms Garvey is still convinced that what she saw could very well have been a wildcat – but maybe not of the genuine kind found in Scotland and parts of Europe and Asia.
‘Over the years we have had feral cats in this area, but they have grown larger and developed into an indigenous wildcat. They have been interbreeding over the years.’
In his book The Smaller Mystery Carnivores Of The West Country (1996), fortean zoologist Jonathan Downes writes, :”Although it is a common figure in Celtic-Hibernian folklore, the wildcat has never, officially been recorded from the island of Ireland. There have however been isolated records of what appears to be genuine Irish wildcats for centuries.”
Sub-fossil remains were found in two County Clare caves during 1904, and investigating doctor, R.F. Scharff found that remains were more comparable with the African wildcat instead of the European species! Whilst some try to explain away wildcat reports as Pine Martens, according to Karl Shuker in his superb 1989 book, Mystery Cats Of The World, inhabitants of the hills of Kerry knew both the Pine Marten and ‘wildcat’ as separate species, with the Pine Marten often being called the ‘tree cat’ and the wildcat ‘hunting cat’, so there is no reason at all to dismiss any modern reports of the felids that are not supposed to exist in Ireland. Of course, there is always the possibility that some of these wildcats have been imported and released/ escaped into the wilds, but many reports of these cats do date back several hundreds of years.
According to Shuker, wildcats were once caught in a trap set up a by a gamekeeper during the 1800s and there were also captures during the 1900s, large cats weighing over 10lb had been sighted around Mayo, and one specimen had been shot and killed in County Antrim. Many have offered opinions that the wildcats loose throughout Ireland are hybrid forms, i.e. wildcat crossed with domestic cats, but as Shuker correctly states, “….there must be pure-bred wildcats there in the first place.” Others have surmised that remains found in caves of wildcats relating to African species are nothing more than remnants of Egyptian, mummified cats imported across Western Europe during Victorian times. Felids were often ground down to produce fertiliser. However, whatever the truth behind the legend and lore of the Irish wildcat, it is something that will always continue, despite many suggestions that any kind of felid is probably extinct. All the while though witnesses such as Sandra Garvey continue to see mystery cats that appear to resemble the mythical wildcat, the saga shall continue.
I have never been one to connect the lore of ghostly black dogs to flesh and blood sightings and evidence of exotic felids, however, throughout the world there are reports of Black Dogs that seem to relate all too closely to Black Leopard reports instead of anything remotely paranormal, whilst others, although anecdotal, could also suggest mystery felids rather than hellhounds, especially when we consider reports of historical value from over one-hundred years ago. This of course is not a way of dampening the fiery-eyed black dog enigma, and certainly will not as many witnesses to these unearthly dogs have been close enough to see an animal that is most definitely not like a cat, and does display supernatural qualities, mainly to the extent that they disappear.
During the early 1900s a massive ‘black dog’ was sighted near Ballaghadereen in County Roscommon, Ireland, by a witness who described the animal as being, “….as tall as a persons shoulder”, and which seemed to, “….disappear through a closed gate.” In 1913, as described in Janet and Colin Bord’s superb Alien Animals, a school-master residing in Ballygar, County Galway, spoke of an eerie encounter with a black animal which followed him along a quiet road at dusk one evening. The school-master was cycling to town when he saw the animal, which he described as a ‘black dog’ which made him feel uneasy. The animal allegedly then stopped and let the worried witness continue his journey.
During the year of 1874, something clearly not supernatural, or dog-like either was stalking sheep at Cavan. According to sources, and the files of Charles Fort, who wrote of the incident in his books LO!, some thirty sheep were killed during a one night raid. Rather oddly, no flesh was devoured, but the sheep bore throat punctures and were bereft of blood. Whatever slaughtered the sheep left long, elongated tracks, and a similar individual also seemed to be on the prowl during the same year, but one-hundred miles away at Limerick. The Weekly News of Cavan reported that several people were attacked by the mystery marauder, and it was alleged, in a story dated April 17th of 1874 that some witnesses to the ‘beast’ were admitted to an insane asylum after encounters with the creature! Of course, and as Charles Fort correctly pointed out, “…Damn the dearth of details in the Irish and British Press! Journalists of that period had a frustrating way of writing ambling essays which only hinted the facts.”
Interestingly, reports of other similar kills across Britain were quite common at the time, certainly to suggest that some populations of cat-like animals were indeed prowling the British wilds, even if not all the press reports could accurately describe cat kills. With so much lore across the world pertaining to the enigmatic powers of animals, whether as mystical creations, portents of death or simply elusive, majestic wonders, many historical accounts remain almost undecided, tales that could be of great use to exotic cat researchers if only the facts could be siphoned from the fiction.
In the nineteenth century, as recorded in Lady Gregory’s Visions & Belief’s, (Volume 2), something black, the size of a calf, was seen in an unspecified location in Ireland. The creature, originally believed to be dog-like, despite the fact that there is no record to suggest so, also bore some kind of illumination around or in its mouth, and as it loped across a field the sound of chains were heard, a feature often described in Black Dog lore although I have often considered the possibility that if such an animal was an escaped Black Leopard, then the chains could well be hanging from its neck after it had broken free from its manacles! Another report from Lady Gregory described an eerie road encounter with a large beast. The incident took place in Kinvara, Co. Cork one night when an animal appeared on the left side of the horse-drawn car, and then vanished from sight as quickly as it had appeared.
A big, black animal was also sighted in the 1950s near Derrygonnelly, Co. Fermanagh, this time by what would be considered by sceptics to be a credible witness in the form of a police sergeant. He was on his cycle one evening riding near a crossroads through the tranquil village when he caught sight of a large, black animal, thought to be a dog, which kept pace with him on his journey. The sergeant claimed that the animal seemed to glide effortlessly, and had no trouble keeping up with him despite his sudden burst of speed. The most eye-catching characteristic of the animal were its large and ‘glittering’ eyes that filled the man with dread. As the sergeant reached his destination, the animal was nowhere to be seen. He immediately told his comrades of the encounter who all came to the conclusion that the creature was an omen of ill-luck, and by coincidence, the police sergeant fractured his leg shortly after the encounter.
Entities such as the Black Dog and the Banshee have often been considered portents of doom, and symbols of misfortune through lore, although the black, graceful gait of the so-called ‘black dog’ and mournful cry of an unseen could well have their origin rooted firmly in the mystery we have come to know across Britain as the ‘alien big cat’ saga. A haunted house in Co. Antrim was often said to be plagued by the mournful cries of a banshee spirit that lurked in the woodlands and rolling fields nearby. Despite the ghostly activity within the house, which is of no relevance here, one happening of strangeness does seem eerily characteristic of a prowling ‘big’ cat. The peculiar noises heard by several witness, had come to be known as the Invermore banshee. A resident, a Miss Thompson, witness to various paranormal occurrences, heard the awful wailing one night as it echoed around the garden in the darkness. The sound ended as a terrible, haunting shriek and she commented that whatever made it must have had a massive pair of lungs, as it howled through the night. Although a death in the family occurred shortly after, one can always connect the strange with the strange!
The weird shrieking though continued for a long time, always soaring over the valleys and resounding around the grounds of the house. Miss Thompson described a second incident that awoke her one night as, “…ranging from a roaring to an eldritch shriek.” Two small dogs owned by the family strangely remained asleep during the cries, although another witness, a Miss McClane, said, “Our hair quite literally stood on end.” The women, when questioned by author Sheila St. Clair, said they were unsure if the cries were human or animal, but it was certainly like nothing they had heard before. The women also claimed that the noise was so eerie and piercing that it seemed as though it was in the room with them.
As mentioned earlier, the Puma (Mountain Lion, Cougar), does omit a very eerie cry-cum-shriek that can travel for miles and would certainly be a sound that witnesses would not be familiar with. It would be fair to say that if anyone not familiar with the cry of an out of place large cat heard such a noise, they would be terrified and certainly look towards the eerie banshee wail for a solution, in the same way witnesses to so-called black dogs may consider paranormal connotations.
A large, black dog-like entity is said to haunt an old bridge over the River Quoile, at Downpatrick, Co. Down. Many theorise that the creature sticks to stretches of roads and waterways as some kind of guardian, and a similar black animal has also been sighted near a bridge at Pontoon, Co. Mayo, but unless witnesses describe accurately something more akin to a phantom hound, I am still more inclined to believe that what these legends suggest are escaped/released Black Leopards, which often use railway lines, bridges, waterways and roads to navigate their routes. It is the Black Dog seen inside houses etc, which seems to point more towards paranormal forces. Such ‘dogs’ are divided into three types, 1) The Barguest, a shape-shifting demonic entity, 2) The Black Dog, a calf-sized, uniform in type dog, pure black, sometimes shaggy, and 3) a more scarce type which seems to appear in conjunction with particular days of the calendar. However, during the 1700s previous, and right up until the 1950s, if anyone came face to face with a long, muscular creature in the night crossing the road, then surely, judging by so many other experiences, it is most likely that what they saw was a prowling melanistic Leopard rather than a phantom hound, despite the lore of the black dog. It’s certainly confusing. Stranger still is the fact that I the modern era Black Dog reports have diminished rapidly, and sightings of large, exotic cats, particularly big, black ones have come to the fore. Are we merely seeing a transformation of lore within the belief system or a natural mystery simply taking on its true shape, a shape which has been ignored for centuries as terrified witnesses described seeing phantom, black dogs with glowing eyes when the reality was, they were seeing gracile cats with reflective eyes slinking into hedgerows like ghosts.
On a final note, I would like to end the intriguing mystery of Ireland’s mystery felids with an interesting account that first appeared in Issue 27 (2002) of Animals & Men magazine, an excellent cryptozoology journal printed quarterly by Jon Downes’ Centre For Fortean Zoology, which describes, “…an encounter with a Pooka”.(The Pooka is an Irish entity said to take on many forms, often though as a dark coloured, horse-sized phantom) The story was submitted by reader Louise Donnan.
“One clear summer evening in 1997, myself and my niece Claire (aged 17) went for a run in the car as Claire had just passed her driving test. We went out to the Grayfield-Greencastle district, four miles outside of the town of Kilkeen, Co. Down. We were travelling along a long, straight stretch of country road when we both spotted, in the distance, ahead of us an animal on the grass verge besides the road. From this distance it looked like a sheep, but we both agreed that it seemed like a very large ‘sheep’ indeed with a coat made up of what looked like bits of torn rags as opposed to wool.
As we approached the animal we slowed down to get a look at it, as we were both bewildered to what type of animal it was. Just as were adjacent to it, it turned its head and looked directly at us. We both gasped in disbelief and revulsion. I no sooner had the words, ‘What the hell is that ?’ out, when it charged straight into the car which at this stage was almost at a stop. Its face was right up to Claire’s window and both of us – just for a second or so – looked right into its eye. I say ‘eye’ as the other eye was covered by its tatty coat.
We were both almost frozen in fear as the eye looking straight at us was reddish in colour, and gave a terrible wild penetrating stare. When I looked in its eye I could almost see its mind working powerfully behind it, a mind not of an ordinary animal but one with another sense of evil which I had never encountered before or since). I felt sick with fear, but thankfully Claire was able to compose herself enough to accelerate the car and we took off at an impressive speed. Our relief was very short lived as we suddenly felt a ‘thud’ at the side of the car. To our horror this mad ‘animal’ we thought we had gotten away from, was running alongside us and deliberately banging into the car.
I screamed at Claire to go faster which she did, and we both felt terror and disbelief that this ‘thing’ was able to keep up with us. Just as I felt that we weren’t going to get away, the ‘animal’ suddenly stopped the chase and just stood in the middle of the road watching us as we escaped at great speed. As I looked behind me out of the rear window of the car I got the impression that the ‘animal’ hadn’t even tired, but had, for some reason, reached the decision to go no further as it had reached the edge of its territory. It was some time and distance later before both Claire and I felt safe from it and we were both still saying things like, ‘What was that ?’, and, ‘How could that thing travel at that speed ?’.
When we returned home we were both very shaken by the experience and told family members what had happened. Naturally we were told that we had overactive imaginations and that it must have been just a large dog, but we both knew what we had seen was no dog but abandoned the subject as we knew we weren’t going to be believed and perhaps a bit of fun-making may have started and neither of us were in the mood for this….
The last time I spoke to Claire about it we both sat shaking our heads and the conversation ended…
Claire: That was no dog.
Louise: That was no sheep.
Claire: That was evil…”
Judging by such confused yet clearly terrifying accounts, there is no telling as to what strange animals, flesh and blood or otherwise, are roaming Ireland’s lonely back roads and dense woodlands. Whilst some are firmly embedded in the darkness or lore, others have merely escaped from menageries, and are establishing themselves in the wilds to become a native species. Such animals are at present ignored by authorities, and so may tragically drift into a mythical status. However, populations of these felids are clearly rising in number, and there has to come a time when they will slink out of the depths of the unknown and into one too many back gardens, making their presence felt as Ireland’s top predator, days that locals thought were over when the last wolf was wiped out.
It is certain that several unidentified species of animal lurk within the murky waters of Ireland’s lakes, and foggy lanes, but the felids that remain so elusive are obviously there, but they will always remain mysterious and take on different forms when those who see them have been deprived of the truth for so long by authorities etc; the truth that Ireland is very much ‘wild’ cat country, in every sense of the word.
With thanks to:
Gary Cunningham, Jonathan Downes, Karl Shuker, Scottish Big Cats, various Irish papers, and especially Nick Sucik for giving me the chance to air my views on the Irish cat situation.
MYSTERY CATS OF THE WORLD – KARL P.N. SHUKER (1989 – Hale)
THE SMALLER MYSTERY CARNIVORES OF THE WESTCOUNTRY – JONATHAN DOWNES – 1996 CFZ)
THE STEP ON THE STAIR – SHEILA ST. CLAIR (1989 – Glendale Books)
ALIEN ANIMALS – JANET & COLIN BORD (1980 – Granada)
STRANGE CREATURES FROM TIME & SPACE – JOHN KEEL (1975 – Sphere Books)
LO! – CHARLES FORT (1931 – Gollancz)
ANIMALS & MEN Issue # 27- Edited By Jon Downes (2002 – CFZ)