A distinctive feature of the English spoken in Ireland is the colloquial use of cat as an adjective to mean: awful, unpleasant, rough, terrible, bad, calamitous, or very disappointing. I heard it a lot as a child, and I still do occasionally in the city – someone wants to criticise a situation, such as a bad sporting performance or a job done ineptly, and they say “It’s cat” and that sums it up.
Adjectival cat shows up in writing as well; I came across it recently in Angela Bourke’s short story ‘Charm’, in her collection By Salt Water. The narrator, an eleven-year-old girl, is staying at her aunt’s and hanging out with Brian Molloy, a neighbour around her own age, and Bernie, his older cousin:
Bernie was at Molloys as well. She was their cousin and she had a job in the hospital for the summer. She was from another place up in the mountains, called Derrylynch, that Brian said was the arse-end of nowhere. He was always teasing her, saying things like that. Any time Bernie didn’t like something she said it was cat, and Brian used to go around after her asking her if the dog was cat. He said cat himself though, and if he was talking about something really bad, like his school, he said it was cat melodeon.
Bernie is later reported as saying, “it’s cat when they’re dying all over the place” (i.e., rats); and “it was cat, the things some of them expected” (i.e., men). Often it appears as cat altogether or cat melodeon (or melodium), these longer phrases emphasising the cat-ness of the situation. (Cf. the expression melodeonised “left in an awful state”, suggesting the image of being crumpled like an accordion.)
Browsing the popular Irish web forum Boards.ie for examples, I found the following things described as “cat”: a head cold; processed food; Rocky V; poems; dark ales; bad weather; golfing ability; heavy traffic; rugby jersey design; video gameplay; an athletics result; a music performance; band members not coming to a gig; and the state of Main Street in Lanesboro. You get the idea.
The origin of this peculiar usage is uncertain: is it an abbreviation of catastrophe/catastrophic, or a derivation from Irish cat mara or cat marbh – literally “sea cat” and “dead cat”, respectively, but meaning “mischief” or “calamity”?
Bernard Share’s Slanguage quotes Victoria White in the Irish Times calling cat melodeon “the greatest expression in Hiberno-English”; her review of a book on Irish traditional music by Ciaran Carson reports his hypothesis that it comes from the aforementioned Irish phrases, and relates:
the tendency of the piano-accordion players (who often refer to their instruments as melodeons) to play two notes at once.
Two discordant notes, presumably, maybe evoking the yowling of a tom-cat on a hormonal night. But I don’t know if there’s anything to this origin story beyond speculation.