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The Panther of Meath Street, by Pól Ó Tiréil

My Mam, Breda, was a respectable, Liberties-raised lady. At this stage of her life, following a career in Polyakov’s Garment Factory as a secretary, she was enjoying the married-bliss stage of her life. So how did it happen that she was considered slightly disreputable, having been barred from a butchers shop in Meath Street in the 1950’s?

Patrick Street in the Liberties of Dublin looking towards tower of Christ Church Cathedral. Courtesy of the National Library of Ireland.

The story has many threads, many elements that conspired to lead to her humiliation in what she described to me as the Meath Street Incident. A prime contributor was a very large black tomcat, who adopted our family. He had led an adventurous life and by the time he chose us, had lost an eye and possessed two raggedy ears. The family named him Nelson, in honour of Admiral Horatio, who led a similarly dangerous life with similar scars. Nelson was devoted to my mother. He went everywhere with her, if allowed. He loved going shopping. It must have looked odd, to see a large mouser following a lady, but then again, we rarely had pets who behaved normally.

So on this day, Nelson accompanied Mam from our house on St. Thomas Road, through Newmarket, across the Coombe and up Meath Street, a distance Google Maps tells me is 800 meters. The journey went well, with Nelson protecting Mam from any dogs on route by frightening the life out of them.

Mam’s first port was Mr. X, her seemingly friendly butcher. Here is where another element threads into the disaster, and apologies to any Vegan / Vegetarian readers. At that time, butchers shops did not prepare nice trays of ready packed choices. In this shop, carcasses of cows, sheep and pigs hung off a rail going from front to back, on the right-hand side. Chickens, ducks and rabbits hung outside. The floor of the shop was covered in a thick layer of sawdust, to absorb whatever dripped from the carcases. Thankfully sanitation and food hygiene have moved on. Near the door on the left was the cashier, and behind her was the butcher, with his knives, cleavers, block and mincing machine. Customers formed a queue, asked the butcher about prices and availability and haggled.

Ahead of my mum in the queue was an acquaintance, Missus Y, who adds yet another thread to the story by being of delicate disposition and favouring expensive black overcoats. Anyway, Mam is chatting to Missus Y when Nelson runs up the back of her coat and perches on her shoulder and squints at the lady. This unexpected vision of a large cyclopean black cat’s head seemingly growing out of Mam’s shoulder was too much for Missus Y. She fainted. Down she goes, into the bloody sawdust, black overcoat and all. Pandemonium, part one, ensues.

Curious cat Nelson hops down to investigate, and the butcher tries to eject him with the toe of his boot. Unfortunately, he misses Nelson, but not Missus Y, who rolls over from the nudge and completes the coating of sawdust on her coat and also adds a new ingredient to her coiffure. Total pandemonium as cashier, customers and Mam come to Missus’ Y’s aid. Accusation fly. The other customers did not necessarily help the situation: “I saw you, kicking her, and she down, you bowsie”, “Breda, did your cat head-butt her or what?”, “ That coat is ruined, ruined, I’m telling you. She’ll never get the smell off-of it”.

Mr. X instructed my mam to leave, immediately, and never set foot in his emporium ever, ever, again; and to take her “black panther” with her. He will call the Guards, he knows where she lives, etc., etc.

Epilogue: Mam moved her business to another butcher further up, opposite St. Catherine’s Church, who had a bespoke spiced brine barrel for corned beef (the recipe was a state secret). Nobody died, nor did anyone ever forget. After the incident, Mam crossed the street rather than walk past “that” shop. Nelson, oblivious of his new status as a black panther, was persuaded not to go shopping anymore, that Mam would survive without him. Missus Y avoided my Mam after. I was told this or a similar story every time I went shopping in Meath Street with my Mam, for years afterwards.

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