The pine marten has been present in Ireland for thousands of years, hence its descriptive name in Irish of cat crainn (tree cat) and its use in place names, such as ‘Líos na gCat’ and ‘Cathair an chaitín’.
Niall Mac Coitir’s book, Ireland’s Animals – myths, legends and folklore, contains many references to the pine marten, including possible links to place names. Although the following may refer to feral domestic cats, it is quite possible that they represented places where pine martens were often observed:
County Mayo – Carrickacat (Carraig an Chait – rock of the cat);
County Tipperary – Glennagat (Gleann na gCat – valley of the cats);
County Antrim – Craignagat (Creag na gCat – rock of the cats);
County Westmeath – Poulnagat (Poll na gCat – hollow of the cats);
In various counties – Knockaunacat (Cnocán an Chait – hillock of the cat).
Niall Mac Coitir also describes references to the pine marten in stories about Fionn MacCumhaill, the mythical hunter-warrior, and his band of Irish warriors known as the Fianna. This verse is taken from a poem about Beann Ghualainn, a favourite hunting place of the Fianna:
‘Martens in your mysterious woods,
Squirrels abounding in your trees,
Badgers that are good to hunt
Many wild fawns running free.’
In fact, Fionn’s first heroic act, as an infant, involves a pine marten that had approached the camp where Fionn lay sleeping, attracted by the smell of wild pig meat. Fionn strangled the marten and then wore its pelt as a blanket.
In the early Irish Brehon Laws (dating back to the 7th and 8th centuries), the only references to pine martens are in relation to their being kept as pets. In the Irish legend ‘Táin Bó Cuailnge’ (The Cattle Raid of Cooley), Queen Meadhbh is described as having had a pet pine marten around her shoulders, which the warrior Cúchulainn killed with a slingshot.