cattle raids and the mysterious giant bull
Updated: Jul 5, 2020
I am afraid of cows.
There... I've said it. This is because I was once chased by a stampeding herd of cows who took an instant dislike to the (very small and harmless) dog I was walking at the time, even though she was completely minding her own business.
I believe I am only here today due to the astonishingly athletic vault I made at full speed over a gate into the next field, a feat I’ve never since been able to replicate.
Bulls scare me even more. Yet you can’t go far in Ireland without encountering them.
I met this bunch at Grainne’s grave at Shee Beag. They were unnecessarily and unnervingly attentive, in my opinion.
I met this one just up the road. You can’t tell from this picture just how big and powerful he is. And terrifying. And yes, that really is just two flimsy strings of barbed wire separating him from me.
And this one was witness to my recent visit to St Brigid’s Well at Lisnabantry. I didn’t see him until I was leaving, and had just turned around to pay my final respects. There he was, glaring at me, supremely confident in his might and splendour, with Manannán’s cloak drifting eerily behind him.
Today, cattle are big business in Ireland. As of 2012, there were 139,000 farms in Ireland, 110,000 farming 6.6 million cattle.
In ancient Ireland, although the numbers may have been smaller, cattle were just as important. In pre-Christian days, a person’s wealth was measured not in currency (they had none), or in land, but in the number of cattle one owned. Interestingly, the unit used to measure the value of cattle was known as cumal, the same word used for a female slave.
Cattle raiding was a way of life to the early Irish people. It was seen as sport, an opportunity to show off one’s prowess, acquire wealth, and dominate one’s enemies. A newly appointed King was expected to lead his men in a raid following his inauguration as a celebration.
The Black Pig’s Dyke, so called because in folklore its creation was attributed to the rooting of an enormous black pig, is a huge earthwork stretching between Ulster and Connacht (which passes right through my very own co Cavan). It is thought to have been constructed around 390-370BC in an attempt to counter these increasing waves of cattle raiding.
In Medieval times, the Christian church turned a blind eye to the raids, so long as they received a fair share of the raided cattle.
Cattle tribute was often paid to the High King. According to mythology, when Bres assumed the throne following Nuada of the Tuatha de Denann’s injury, he demanded a very high tribute from them in favour of his Formori heritage. The Danann were famous for their beautiful milk-white cattle, which were greatly coveted by other tribes. However, in order to avoid paying such heavy tribute, the Dagda tricked Bres by driving the herds between the Bealtaine fires so that the smoke stained their coats black.
Brian Boru’s full name, Brian Boruma, actually means ‘Brian of the Cattle Tributes’ because he received such great quantities of cattle in tribute from the lesser kings, thus making him the wealthiest and most powerful man in the land.
The river Goddess, Boann, from whom the River Boyne is named, is associated with a white cow called Bó Bhán. Boann was the daughter of Delbáeth of the Tuatha de Danann. One day, she went against her husband’s will (for shame!) to the source of the Boyne which was known as the Well of Segais (Connla’s Well) where the enchanted Hazels of Knowledge grew. In outrage at her audacity, the water rose up and spilled out of the well in a torrent, carrying her out to sea where she drowned. It is thought that she connects the Way of the White Cow (the Milky Way) to Newgrange (Brú na Boinne).
Another famous cow in mythology was Glas Gaibhnenn, the magical ‘Grey Cow of the Smith’. She was said to have belonged to Goibniu, the master Smith of the Tuatha de Denann. It was said of her that she had milk for all, and that all you had to do was place a vessel beneath her, and she milked herself into it.
In ancient Ireland, women were just as likely to own cattle as men. A fine example of this is recounted in the Táin Bó Cúailnge, a story of Irish mythology more famously known as ‘The Cattle Raid of Cooley’.
Queen Medb and her husband, Ailill, were discussing which of them was the wealthier. They compared all their fine possessions, slaves, livestock, and found that they were quite equal except in one regard; Ailill owned the magnificent milk-white bull, Finnbhennach, which means ‘white-horned’.
Big brown bull of Cooley or giant aurochs?
Medb was somewhat peeved by this, so she approached Dáire mac Fiachna of Ulster for the loan of his brown bull, Donn Cuailnge. Although he agreed, Medb’s men boasted how they would have taken the bull by force, and furious, he reneged on the deal.
As a consequence, the determined Medb assembled her armies and marched against Fiachna. Eventually, after a long drawn out military campaign, she succeeded in capturing the bull, but when she brought him home, he and Finnbhennach took immediate exception to each other.
The two mighty creatures clashed in a battle which raged up and down the land. Ailill’s white bull was killed, and Donn Cuailnge returned to Ulster, where he died of his wounds and exhaustion.
There is also an interesting story about the origins of these two bulls. According to mythology, two pig-herders belonging to Bodb Dearg (son of the Dagda, and High King of the Danann after they were forced to retreat into their hollow hills) got into an argument, which quickly turned to blows.
As descendants of the magical folk, they were able to fight their battle in many animal forms, as each sought to press their advantage over the other. Finally, they unwisely took the shape of two worms (do worms fight each other? Who knew! Perhaps the translation should have been ‘snakes’, although there were none in Ireland), which were promptly eaten up by two grazing cows.
Thus, Finnbhennach was born into Ailill’s cattle herd, and Donn Cuaillnge born into Fiachna’s herd, and the hatred which had arisen in their previous incarnation continued into the next.
I wonder what was so special about these bulls. All we know, is that they were huge and mighty, and worth going to battle over. There must have been many other bulls in the land, so why were these particular ones so highly prized that Medb and Ailill would risk so many lives over them?
I have a theory. (Yes, of course I do!)
Perhaps these bulls weren’t bulls at all, but aurochs.
The auroch is an extinct ancient ancestor of today’s cow, which roamed across Europe, Asia and Africa. It is not thought to have been native to Ireland; no bones have been found, but lack of evidence proves only that they have not yet been discovered.
Last year, the remains of an auroch were unearthed at the Ness of Brodgar complex on the Scottish island of Orkney. If it managed to reach this remote location, I see no reason why it couldn’t have found its way to Ireland, either through the machinations of man, or under its own steam.
During Neolithic times, the auroch was hunted for its meat, hide and horns, and there is evidence to suggest that this was also when attempts at domestication first began.
Caesar in his De Bello Gallico claimed that aurochs were swift and fast, and very aggressive… no doubt he managed to capture a few and send them back home for the battle games in the arena.
It was one of the largest herbivores in Europe, the bulls standing on average, up to 180 cm (71 in) tall at the shoulders. The horns could reach 80 cm (31 in) in length and and 20 cm (7.9 in) in diameter. These great cattle were longer, thinner and more athletic than the creatures we know today, with longer legs. The males were dark brown, or black in colour with a distinctive lighter ‘eel-stripe’ running down their spines, and lighter muzzles, whereas the females were a softer, chestnut brown.
This large specimen dates from 7500 BC and is on display at The National Museum of Denmark. The circles indicate where the animal was wounded by arrows. Image licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.
We know all this, because they continued to survive in small numbers into the early modern era; the last one, a female, was said to have died in 1627 in the Jaktorów Forest, Poland, from natural causes.
Sadly, it is thought that unrestricted hunting, the development of farming in their natural habitat, and diseases transmitted by domestic cattle, all contributed to their extinction. However, many characteristics of the auroch live on in certain breeds of modern cattle, and there are breeding programmes in place with the aim of reintroducing them into the wild, as this short film shows.
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