This appeared in the North Clare Local in July.
Ireland’s beef and dairy industry is a vital component of our economy. The rich, rolling farmland around south Munster and Leinster suits the rearing of cattle perfectly; unlike sheep, cattle need good land to thrive. In many ways, cattle were a symbol of prosperity. It’s no surprise that they feature prominently in Irish folklore and history.
Even though today the word ‘bovine’ is a synonym for dull passivity, the cow’s heritage is very noble indeed. The zebu cattle of Asia and our own European cattle breeds are descended from the auroch, an ancient beast which only became extinct in central Europe 400 years ago. At their ice-age height, certain types of auroch could weigh as much as 3,300 pounds. Their legacy lives on in large, horned breeds such as Heck cattle, a world away from the mild-mannered Friesians us non-farming folk associate with our milky tea.
Of course, cattle, like horses and dogs, were strong animals bent to human will. Much of the symbolism around cattle centres on the bull. Bulls meant strength and fortitude, but also impatience and aggression.
Bulls are prominent in Irish myth. The most enduring concerns Queen Medbh and her husband Ailill, who begin a war with Ulster over a bull.
The tale goes that Medbh was bickering with the king about who had the most possessions, and despite being equal in all other things, the queen did not have a fine, proud bull. Her husband had a white-horned animal named Finnbhennach. Even worse, Finnbhennach was born to Queen Medbh’s herd, but unhappy to be in the ownership of a woman, he went to her husband.
There was, however, something that the wilful Queen of Connacht could do.
There was a man in Ulster named Daire of Cualgne who had a fine brown bull named Donn Cúailnge. If she could own this bull, she would be equal to her husband in all things. She cajoled Daire into lending the bull to her for a year, but on overhearing that the army of Connacht would take the bull by force if he refused, Daire reneged on the deal. True to their word, the Connacht men launched a raid on Cooley (now in Co Louth).
The raid to steal the brown bull would be a cakewalk, or so thought the Connacht men. After all, Ulster’s heroes were in an enchanted sleep. The goddess Macha placed the pains of labour on the Ulstermen after she was insulted by King Conchobar.
But they did not count on the mighty Cú Chulainn. The hero, unaffected by the Macha’s curse, fought single-handedly against the men of Connacht. This was not as outlandish at it seemed as Celtic battles were fought as one-on-one duels.
Even as he dispatched champion after champion, Cú Chulainn was just one man. While distracted, Medbh stole Donn Cúailnge and brought him back to her kingdom.
There was not where the story ended. The bulls were not normal animals. Originally swineherds for the god Bodb Dearg, they had fallen out and taken a number of animal forms to continue their fighting. Finally, they had transformed into worms which had been swallowed by grazing cows, who birthed them into the famous bulls. Free to continue their enmity, Finnbhennach and Donn Cúailgne fought to the death. Donn Cúailgne killed his rival, but stampeded throughout Ireland until his heart burst and he died.
This is, of course, a very potted version of the Táin Bó Cúailnge, known more prosaically in English as the Cattle Raid of Cooley. Like any good epic, there are all sorts of portents, omens and special guest gods threaded throughout. It does show the importance of cattle to the Irish people in ancient times.
Cows’ health was inextricably tied in with the prospects of the family, and indeed the cow was used as form of measuring wealth in Brehon times.
This led to the belief that several sites throughout Ireland could cure cattle if they sickened; Lough Fergus in Clare being the prime example.
The devilish fairies were always a threat to cattle and steps had to be taken to protect them. In an interesting article available online, Patricia Monaghan claims that an innate knowledge of best hygiene led to the Irish in former times dismissing the meat that had come from sickened or dead cows. To find a cow dead suddenly meant it had been taken by the fairies and its changeling remained. Not a slice of meat could be taken from the carcass. Of course, a cow that may have lay dead for a number of hours or even days would be swimming in dangerous bacteria, and even in lean times the meat would be discarded.
Next month I will go into further detail about churning and other supernatural woes that could befall cattle.