The expression “to catch a Tartar” means to have a bull by the tail; to stir up a hornet’s nest, or, in plain English, to take something that one expects to be advantageous and find it to be an unpleasant attachment that one cannot be rid of, like marrying a woman for her money and finding her to be not only miserly, but also a nagging scold.
The saying seems not to be older than about the middle of the seventeenth century; Dryden, was the first to record it. But for its source we can do no better than, with tongue in cheek, to repeat the story given by Francis Grose in his Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue, published in 1785.
He says, “This saying originated from a story of an Irish soldier in the Imperial service, who, in a battle against the Turks, called out to his comrade that he had caught a Tartar.
‘Bring him along, then,’ said he. ‘He won’t come,’ answered Paddy. ‘Then come along yourself,’ replied his comrade. `Arrah,’ cried he, ‘but he won’t let me.’