I’ve always had strong feelings about cows, beginning with the unease of a suburban child. Even for sixpence – serious money in the early 1960s – I refused a dare to dash from one end of a Kerry cowshed to the other, from a fear that one of those smelly fly-ridden beasts would raise her tail and crap all over me. To be bovine was to be an object of abuse: poor cow, silly cow, stupid cow, fat cow! To be bovine was to be slow and heavy and sloppy, the epitome of an embarrassingly obvious femaleness. But this was way before I had any notion of myself as a female mammal. Decades later, when I was plugged into the steam-punk milking machine of the Special Care Baby Unit of St Thomas’s Hospital in Westminster, and proudly donating the surplus product to the breast milk “bank”, I began to feel a kind of solidarity with dairy animals in general, and milch cows in particular.
This affinity was taken for granted by our pasture-farming ancestors. Ireland’s ancient stories, poems, chronicles and laws – composed in prehistoric times and transcribed hundreds of years later by Christian monks on to parchment derived from the skin of calves – are saturated with cow lore. Literally and figuratively, cows were the crème de la crème of cattle, the be-all and end-all of health, wealth and happiness. The newborn babies of ruling families were ceremonially bathed in milk, and the keening of the professional mourners at VIP funerals was accompanied by the doleful cries of deliberately starved calves. The epic story of the Táin begins with the queen of Connacht’s determination to acquire a bull as fertile and powerful as her husband’s white-horned prodigy. At one stage in the subsequent conflict the Morrigan appears to Cúchulain in the guise of an old woman milking a cow. The river Boyne is named after a pre-Christian “white cow” goddess, and the primal bovine theme is obvious in the Irish for road (bóthar). A high proportion of the “miracles” attributed to the saints and scholars of the otherwise “Dark Ages” pertain to the herding and milking of cows. The centrality of these generous animals in Irish culture persists in proverbs and idioms: faraway cows have long horns! In one haunting seventeenth-century poem (and song) the sorry state of the whole country is represented as the struggle for survival of a darling brown heifer (droimean donn dilis).
For at least five thousand years, grazing and browsing cows have been the most efficient means of converting Ireland’s grassy pastures and leafy woodlands into human food. In summer the tribal herds grazed upland ranges; in late autumn they returned to graze, and incidentally fertilize, winter pastures, including the stubble fields of harvested crops of oats, rye and barley, which were near the permanent human settlements. The chunky hand bells in the National Museum in Dublin are associated with early monastic communities, which revolved around set times for praying and eating, etc., but as likely as not some of the plainer ones functioned as cow bells. The clink of the bell on a “leader” cow would alert the herder to the wandering cows’ whereabouts.
This “low-intensive” dairy farming resembled the sustainable “permaculture” practices of today, which is not to say that these pre-modern animals were footloose and fancy free. In late winter and early spring, when the starving herds were barely able to stand up, exceptionally cold weather was catastrophic. Calving had to be strictly managed, so that, ideally, most of the calves would be born in May, at the start of summer when the cows would be enjoying the rich new grass – in clover, so to speak – and there would be enough milk to go round for newborn calves and people alike. The ancient Irish didn’t go in for haymaking – which started with the Normans and their powerful horses – but fodder was provided for the select few late calving cows who would be kept under the same roof as the households for whom they provided winter milk.
Without cows there could be no banbhia (literally “white food”). Like their Indian contemporaries, old-time Irish cows were not reared for meat. The diehard warriors of the legends feasted on pork and mutton and venison, never beef. (Wild pigs and boars provided the pork; smallholder pig-keeping didn’t take off until the introduction of the miracle food called potatoes.) A few male calves were reared to serve as breeding bulls or draught oxen – plough and cart horses weren’t viable as such until the invention of the horse collar in medieval times – but the majority of the slaughtered bull calves provided leather and vellum, as well as multi-purpose horn, and rennet for cheese-making. I was puzzled by the predilection of the classic American cowboys’ for black coffee until I remembered that their “cows” are actually beef steers.
Cattle droving (and cattle rustling!) was men’s work, while the milking, calving and churning was female business. In other cultures the spindle, or distaff, is the definitive female accessory, but in ancient Ireland a woman was inseparable from her personal spancel or buarach: the length of plaited hair from the tail of a cow or a horse, usually fastened with wood, which steadied the back legs of a cow during milking. In one old tale with contemporary resonance an outraged goddess strangles a sex pest with her deluxe spancel made of bronze. In true life, metal spancels would have been impracticable, which is probably why none have been found among the gorgeous torcs and brooches of archaeological hoards.
Children helped to keep the calves apart but still within earshot of the cows, so as to stimulate what human mothers call the “let-down”, the flow of the milk. Problems with the flow were resolved by “cow-blowing”: blowing air into the cow’s vagina. English commentators were horrified by the “shitten nose” aspect of cow-blowing but this technique worked, which is why it was as familiar to the ancient Babylonians as it still is to the Masai and other pastoral people. At night the cows were corralled in circular wattle-and-daub (mud) or stonework enclosures, the herdsmen and their dogs sharing the space and keeping an eye out for wolves. Wolves were a major problem in Ireland, which is probably why wolfhounds – dogs that could cope with wolves – were a favoured breed. The milking yards were smaller enclosures called machas, and it’s likely that when the cows were grazing their upland summer pastures the day’s milk would be churned into butter on the spot. Butter is easier to transport and conserve than milk.
Blood and war
For colonial English functionaries of the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, hailing as they did from a land of tillage and towns, of bread and beer, milky, meaty Ireland was backward and barbaric. But though the majority of the “mere Irish” were materially poor, their culturally rich and relatively leisurely way of life was far from wretched. They lacked ambition – the individualist and entrepreneurial spirit of the new religion – and they had an unfathomable relationship with the landscape on which their precious cattle grazed. In fact, there were well-understood boundaries to the land “owned” by the extended families of the ruling “tribes”, but these ditches and landmarks were invisible to English eyes. The more military-minded observers noted the dependence of the native armies on their “creaghts”, the herds and their minders who provided the soldiers’ food. The separation of the creaghts from their battalions was a key factor in the defeat of Gaelic Ireland and success of the conquest. Some historians see the origins of Irish travelling people in the disruption of the creaght system, and the displacements of the subsequent plantations.
If cow-blowing was disgusting, barely mentionable behaviour, cow-bleeding – the practice of bleeding live cattle – was something else again. Before they were driven to their upland summer pastures, the cows were rounded into small valleys, or on to marshy ground, to be bled. This ritual may have begun as a blood sacrifice to a god or goddess, but from Christian times onwards it was understood as a preventive, health measure. It was believed that the cattle would be better able to resist the “murrain” and other bovine afflictions if they were bled. This detox argument is hardly surprising, given the reality that humans used to pay quack physicians to bleed them in the belief that it would do them a power of good.
The really troubling thing, from the point of view of early commentators, was the Irish habit of mixing the blood taken from live cattle with milk and oatmeal, and maybe a bit of sorrel or watercress, to make a sort of bloody porridge, or black pudding. For Edmund Spenser the cattle-bleeding tendency was proof positive that the aboriginal Irish were descendants of the Scythians, whose bloody customs in connection with their horses were described by Herodotus. In one form or another, this cattle-bleeding tradition persisted, but at different times and places it was done for different reasons. The nicking of a cow’s ear as a “healthful” measure in early summer isn’t as risky or serious a business as the tapping of the animal’s neck vein, supposedly also for its own good but incidentally providing life-sustaining food for humans fallen on hard times. As a regular blood donor, I don’t need to be assured that healthy cattle could withstand this kind of larceny, but I’m glad, all the same, that this tradition is dead and gone.
The nineteenth-century scholars and antiquarians who set about preserving and translating the old legends also sanitized them. They edited out and glossed over references to sex and other human bodily functions, so we have only recently become re-acquainted with queens and fairies and goddesses, personages who, for all their super powers and appetites, are also fully functional, flesh-and-blood females. And in the same spirit of reconciliation with our shared animal natures, I think we should celebrate the down-and-dirty aspects of our forebears’ relationship with their cows, and hope for a continuation of sustainable, quality-before-quantity dairy farming.
Cattle in Ancient Ireland A.T. Lucas, 1989
Milk and Milk Products P.Lysaght (ed.), 1992