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Kerry cowCattle In Early Ireland

(Left, a Kerry cow, an ancient breed. Photo © Copyright 1999 Shae Clancy.)

By Shae Clancy

It is difficult to write with certainty about Celtic Ireland because the earliest surviving written sources date from the 8th century. The difficulty is even more profound when dealing with cattle. The early writers shared the same environment as their audience and, since cattle were part of everyday life, the scribes saw no need to describe and explain what was obvious to everybody. Thus, much that would be of interest to us today was never recorded. Nonetheless, the early law texts, wisdom texts, hagiographies and sagas abound with references to cattle, thereby testifying to their importance in early Irish society.

Cattle, especially milch cows, were the unit of currency and the measure of a person’s status. The largest unit of currency in the old Irish system was the cumal, which was equivalent in value to a female slave or to three, or three and a half, milch cows. Similarly, a sét was valued at half a milch cow.

The early law texts describe penalties for wrongdoing in terms of numbers of cattle. For example, the fine for injuring a person’s shin was three séts, which had to include a milch cow and a calf. Social status was an important part of Irish life. A man with only one cow was regarded as being extremely poor. The lowest grade of freeman who was non-royal had seven cows and a bull, whilst the highest grade had to have thirty cows to qualify for the status.

Archaeological evidence shows that domesticated cattle first appeared in Ireland about 5500 years ago. They were similar in stature to the modern Kerry cattle, which are regarded as a very old Irish breed. While it is impossible to say with certainty, there are indications from the texts that early Irish cattle were mostly black in colour, although red and brown are also mentioned. Saint Ciarán, founder of Clonmacnoise, had a dun coloured cow, the hide of which, according to tradition, was later used to make the Leabhar na hUidhre, the Book of the Dun Cow. There are also references to brindled cows – those having more than one colour.

The colour combination most frequently mentioned in the sagas and hagiographies is that of the white cow with red ears. These beasts are always associated with Otherworldly events. Examples from mythology include those from the Táin Bó Cúalnge – the Cattle Raid of Cooley – when the Morrigan attacked Cú Chulainn in the guise of a white red-eared heifer, and from the Wooing of Étaín, when Midir, an Otherworld person, included fifty white red-eared cows in his stake during a game of chess. These mystical animals also appear in the Lives of the saints. Saint Brigid, as an infant, vomited all unclean food, but the problem was solved when her druid father provided milk from a white red-eared cow. In another story, a pious man’s calf was eaten by a wolf but Saint Finian ordered the wolf to fetch a calf to replace the one it had eaten. The wolf reappeared with a white red-eared calf.

White, red-eared cattle are always in the context of Otherworld, or some other sense of the unreal, in Irish myth and legend, and this might lead to the assumption that they were purely mythological. However, there is a herd of precisely this colouring in an enclosed park in Northumbria in Britain. It is speculated they are descendants of feral cattle that were accidentally imprisoned when the park was enclosed from the surrounding forest in the 13th century. There are records of other similar herds in England and Wales that are now extinct. In another record, the wife of William de Braose gave as a gift to King John’s queen of a herd of cattle that included ‘. . . . one bull, of colour all white, with the eares excepted, which were red.’

Whether white red-eared cattle were ever introduced to Ireland is impossible to establish from known records.

Given the importance of cattle in early Ireland, it is hardly surprising that their care and maintenance took up a significant proportion of daily life. They had to be milked morning and evening, and the herd needed constant vigil to protect it from predation by wolves and humans. The cattle had to be herded into byres at night and released to pastures during the day.

Unlike in other areas of the Celtic world, Irish heifers had their first calf at the late age of four. In the wild state calves suckle frequently during the day, but calves of domestic cows were prevented from suckling except at the twice daily milking. Cows and calves were separated early in the calf’s life, but they were in close contact even if separated by a fence. This was to encourage the cow to keep producing milk for as long as possible. The law texts make frequent reference to the importance of keeping calves away from their mothers, except at milking time, and it was an offence for somebody to leave a way open between somebody else’s cows and their calves. The purpose of this restriction was to ensure sufficient milk for the household.

Milk and its products were an important part of Irish diet and, for this reason, most bull calves were slaughtered at, or shortly after, birth. Only a few were retained for breeding purposes or for use as oxen.

Failure by a cow to give milk, or to give a good yield, was a serious matter for the farmer, and a number of means were employed to increase yield. It was essential to have a calf present during milking, although not necessarily the cow’s own offspring. Sweet music was believed to increase milk yield. The presence of a stuffed calfskin during milking is recorded in 16th century Ireland, although there is no mention of this device in the early texts. Another practice, recorded from the later period also, was known as ‘cow blowing’, which involved blowing air into the cow’s vagina. Dineley, writing about his tour of Ireland in 1681 makes the following picturesque comment: ‘In Milking of Kine when milk doth not come freely. . . . with their mouthes to blow in as much wind as they can, with which doing they many times come off with a shitten nose.’ Use of the stuffed calf and cow-blowing was not peculiar to Ireland. Both practices have been observed in Asia, Africa and other parts of Europe.

Ensuring that cattle had sufficient feeding was a constant preoccupation. Unlike in other parts of Europe, hay for winter feeding was not harvested in Ireland until after the arrival of the Normans in 1169. Cattle were kept in enclosures near the homestead during the winter and allowed to nearby fields during the day to feed. Very often, just prior to the start of spring growth, cattle were close to starving and this was sometimes exacerbated by winter snow, which prevented access to the grass. Cattle were also allowed to feed on corn stubble during the winter. There is evidence that the ears of grain were cut much closer to the top of the stalk than is currently the practice.

With the arrival of Spring, grass became more plentiful and surviving cattle were strengthened and fattened on new pastures. Traditionally on Beltaine, the cattle were herded together and driven between bonfires to purify them and to prevent them being ‘overlooked’, after which they were taken to mountain pastures for the summer. This transhumance, or booleying (after the Irish word búaile, meaning ‘cattle enclosure’) was still being carried out in the 20th century. Those in charge of the cattle were often teenage girls or boys, but a wealthy farmer could hire a professional herder (buachaill). They stayed with the cattle, often long distances from home, until it was time to return to the farm at Samhain. They lived in temporary huts, or shielings, that were rebuilt each year from wattles and sods of peat. The cattle were milked twice daily and milk not needed for immediate consumption was churned to make butter. If the butter could not be transported home readily, it was sometimes buried in a bog for storage. During their time in the mountain pastures, the cattle were exposed to many dangers including wolf attacks, drowning in bogs, falling from cliffs and being driven off by raiding parties. A particular danger was the pit-fall dug to trap deer.

While the cattle were on the mountains, the land at home was used for tillage or allowed to become meadow for winter feeding. At Samhain, cattle that could not be sustained during the winter were slaughtered and the meat salted.

It seems probable that some cattle owners had enough land near their homes to avoid having to expose their animals to the danger of summer pasture in the mountains. Such land would have consisted of low-lying ground that would be flooded in winter, and possibly turloughs – lakes that disappear during the summer when the water table drops.

No discussion of cattle would be complete without reference to cattle raiding. The cattle raid was a social institution in Ireland. Nobles were praised during their lifetimes, and afterwards, for the number of raids they had carried out. Many placenames owe their origin to cattle raids. For example, Druim Cliabh (Drumcliffe, Co. Sligo) is supposedly named after the wickerwork boats made there by a certain Caurnán in preparation for a raid. Ath Cliath Medraige (Clarinbridge, Co. Galway) is so called because of the hurdles of thorns and brambles which the seven Maines, sons of Ailill and Medb, placed in the ford to delay those pursuing them after they had been on a raid in Munster. Even the Christian clergy saw nothing wrong with cattle raids and some saints demanded a share of the plunder resulting from every raid launched from the territory in which their monasteries lay. St. Caillin of Fenagh, for example, demanded a ‘fat cow out of every prey’ and even went so far as to threaten lack of success in raiding on those who refused him his share. St. Colmán Mac Luachán was regarded as the patron saint of cattle raiders:

    ‘May Colman son of Luachan be by my side before my going on a harsh-hearted raid.’

On the other hand, cattle raids on monasteries was definitely not approved by the clergy, even though in most cases the animals were the property of tenants of the church. One example of a raid of this kind occurred in 994 when 2000 cows were taken in a raid by the Airghialla on Armagh.

Probably the best known cattle raids were those initiated by a newly inaugurated king who proved his worth by a raid into the territory of one of the traditional rivals or foes of his people. Indeed, a special term, creach rígh, meaning ‘king’s raid,’ was used to describe the event, indicating that it was a normal part of the inauguration procedure.

The earliest recorded raid took place in 628, but there is no reason to believe that raiding was not part of normal life prior to that. The Annals of the Four Masters record over 500 unambiguous references to cattle raids between 854 and 1603 and there are many more references to incidents when cattle raids were likely involved. Other texts also contain many references to raids. The 12th century Cogadh Gaedhel re Gallaibh, or ‘War of the Gaedhil with the Gaill,’ recounts the exploits of Brian Boru and other nobles of the Dál gCais in their dealings with the Norsemen, and cattle raids are frequent events perpetrated by both sides. One of the last recorded raids took place in 1691 when a ‘Party of the Militia of Bandon advance into the Enemies Quarters, and killing some few straglers, brought off a good Prey, according to the custom of the Country.’

The number of cattle, almost always cows, taken in raids varied from a few to ‘many thousand.’ The highest number cited in the annals is 6000, which were taken on a raid in Connaught in 1062. That raids were so commonplace is highlighted by the fact that there seems to be only one description anywhere in the historical texts of an actual raid. This occurred in 1281 and is described in the 14th century ‘Triumphs of Turlough.’

‘From the westernmost side of the country they drove its cattle to meet that of the eastern; on the flanks of the massed droves they formed a prickly palisade of spears and to cover them in the rear had a clump of red ensigns with a troop of horsemen: their common kerne and camp-followers they assigned to drive them as hard as might be, seeing that this was no excursion of mere spite but a stroke of solid business…..’

Apart from the king’s inauguration raid, the most common reason for cattle raids was merely the desire for booty. Invariably, however, a cattle raid was avenged by a counter-raid, and many such retaliatory raids are recorded in the annals. Conchobhur, king of Tara, for example, raided the plains of the river Liffey and parts of Kildare in 1048, but the people of north Kildare raided the monastery of Clonard in revenge. Other reasons for raids included the slaying of a member of a ruling family and even a slight to personal or tribal dignity. For example, the Ulidians made an expedition to the inauguration place of the O’Neills in 1111 and cut down its sacred trees, and this desecration was avenged by a raid into Ulidia from which two or three thousand cows were taken.

Although cattle raids were an ordinary event of life, some were regarded as unethical. These are usually called ‘treacherous’ or ‘shameful’ raids in the annals, but in only a few instances is the reason for this appellation given. A raid by Murchadh, king of Tara, on parts of Meath, Monaghan and Louth in 1109 is regarded as ‘predatory’ because it was ‘in violation of the Staff of Jesus and the successor of Patrick.’ The Staff of Jesus, known as Bachall Íosa, was believed to have belonged to St. Patrick and was the most prestigious relic in Ireland. There seems little doubt that Murchadh had sworn an oath of peace on the Staff in the presence of the abbot of Armagh, but had broken his oath by carrying out the raid. A small number of other entries in the annals indicate that the only unethical cattle raid was one undertaken following a peace agreement between raider and victim.

In summary then, it is clear that cattle were one of the most important elements of life in early Ireland. They provided food in the form of milk products and meat, they required constant, year round attention, some had mystical properties, and they were a vehicle for nobles to demonstrate their prowess. In some respects, things are little different in modern Ireland. Cattle are still one of the most important components of the economy, although beef is now of equal importance to dairy products; they are still milked twice daily, even if by milking machine instead of manually, and they are still sent to the higher pastures in summer, but without the attendant Beltaine ceremonies. And animal lovers will be glad to know that hay or, more commonly silage, is now harvested to make sure cattle have enough fodder to see them through the winter.


Cooney, G. and Grogan, E. (1994). Irish Prehistory -- A Social Perspective, Wordwell Ltd, Bray, Co. Wicklow, Ireland. ISBN 1869857119

Kelly, Fergus. (1998). Early Irish Farming Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies, ISBN 855001802

Lucas, A. T. (1989). Cattle in Ancient Ireland Boethius Press, Kilkenny, Ireland. ISBN 0863141463

Mac Airt, S. and Mac Niocaill, G. (1983). The Annals of Ulster Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies, ISBN 0901282774

Mahon, B. (1998). Land of Milk and Honey Mercier Press, Cork. ISBN 1 856352102

Raftery, Barry. Pagan Celtic Ireland: The Enigma of the Irish Iron Age, Thames & Hudson. ISBN: 0737218827

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