Cows in Irish culture

Cattle have been vital in Irish society since ancient times, evident in stories of cattle raiding and the renowned brown bull of Ulster in the 'Táin Bó Cuailgne' tale. Irish folklore focuses on safeguarding cows from fairies, using St. Brigid's cross in cow-houses and May Day customs. Milk or butter wouldn't be shared with neighbors on that day, fearing it would take the dairy's luck. Milk spilled on thresholds and rowan trees protected against fairies. Clay from cow's feet, yellow flower posies, and bonfires were additional methods of safeguarding cattle. These customs reflect the reverence for cows and efforts to ensure their well-being in Irish tradition.

Cattle are frequently associated with Irish saints. St. Brigid, in particular, is portrayed as having an affinity with cattle and was regarded as their patron and protector. According to tradition, Brigid was reared on the milk of a white, red-eared cow, which was given only to her. On one occasion she performed a miracle by blessing a pail of water so that it turned into milk. A popular legend about St. Colmcille tells how, after the saint’s death on the island of Iona, off Western Scotland, his body was put in a stone coffin on the seashore; the coffin miraculously floated across the sea to come ashore in Colmcille’s beloved Derry. One of the cows of a local farmer began to eat the seaweed that grew on the coffin and to lick the coffin itself, and soon after was giving as much milk as four cows.

The Ossianic Transactions mention this aspect, including stories like the Grey Cow of the magical Tuaths, which generously provided for a large family and their servants. The Fomorians coveted this remarkable cow and eventually stole her, yet her benevolent gifts continued for generations. There are also accounts of King Diarmuid Mac Cearbhail, who, being part Druid and part Christian, punished his son for harming a Sacred Cow. Owen Connelan's translation of the Proceedings of the Great Bardic Institute recounts a story where a cow sustained the daily needs of a group of nuns at Tuaim-Daghualan, possibly indicating their connection to Druidic practices. These cows held a special significance, akin to living idols or sacred animals. The Irish Druids were known for their magical abilities, which played a role in various enchantments and rescues. For instance, the abduction of Etain by Mider and the sighting of two swans joined by a golden yoke above Tara were countered with the aid of powerful Druidic spells.

These stories and customs exemplify the profound reverence and cultural importance the Irish bestowed upon cattle. They were regarded as symbols of nourishment, abundance, and connection to the divine. The traditions surrounding cattle in Ireland highlight the enduring legacy of the cow's role in Irish society and their deep-rooted place within its folklore and heritage.