Cow Appreciation Day
July 11th marks Cow Appreciation Day - an invention by an American chicken restaurant, designed to lure customers away from delicious beef burgers. But we won’t let a cynical marketing ploy get in the way of acknowledging one of the most important animals in Irish folklore and mythology.
The cow has been domesticated in Ireland since approximately 3500 BC, and many stories, legends and folk traditions have developed in this time. With one cow for every four people in Ireland, they still remain an important part of Ireland - even if they do get overlooked. They’ve been a valuable resource to people over these thousands of years, providing meat, milk, butter, cheese and leather, and as such have become symbols of wealth, strength and fertility. Bulls especially have been admired for their strength and virility - and were prized possessions.
The Brown Bull of Cooley was particularly special - his reputation eventually lead to the great bloody battle epic of Irish mythology known as Táin Bó Cuailnge, or The Cattle Raid of Cooley. It was said:
“He would bull fifity heifers every day, fifty youth used to play games every evening on his back, he could protect a hundred warriors from heat and cold in his shadow and shelter. No spectre or sprite or spirit of the glen dared to come in to the same canton as he.”
This was of particular interest to Queen Medb of Connacht, who was very almost equal in wealth to her husband Ailill, only he was richer by one white bull. Just to really rub it in, it just so happens this was a gift he had been given by Medb. Typical.
So Medb is determined to obtain the famous Brown Bull of Cooley for herself, and when plans to borrow it fall apart, she sets about stealing it. This leads to a bloody battle between Connacht and Ulster. Medb and her army eventually succeed in stealing the bull, but on returning to Connacht the brown bull and Ailill’s white bull engage in a bloody battle of their own, which rages all across Ireland. The Brown bull disembowels Ailill’s bull bit by bit, from which it is said Athlone (Áth Luain, “ford of the loin”), Waterford (Port Lairge, “port of the thigh”) Dublin (Originally Dubh Linn meaning “Black Pool”) get their names. Eventually the Brown bull dies, exhausted, and everyone lives miserably ever after.
Another famous, and far more benevolent, cow was The Grey Cow of Goibnui, or Glas Gaibhnenn. This cow was thought to have never ending supplies of milk, and could fill any container. Land where this cow lay became forever fertile, and it is said that the hoofprints of the cow can still be seen in the Burren, Co. Clare. The cow was even stolen at one point by Balor of the Evil Eye, and eventually returned by Lugh after the death of Balor. However, an old hag claimed she had the container the cow could not fill - a sieve. The cow was said to have produced enough milk to fill a lake, but of course, it never fills the sieve, and so the cow died from the effort. It seems like if you have a point to prove, take it out on a cow.
Brigid, a patron saint of Ireland and cows, was raised on the milk of a white cow with red ears. As an adult, Brigid was then able to turn water into milk and also turn milk into beer. That must have saved her many a trip to the shops.
Protection from the fairies for yourself and your home was incredibly important for many Irish families - and this includes the cows who could provide so much. It’s thought the fairies had a particular fondness for white cows, and as such, having a white cow in your herd was unlucky.
It’s thought that the fairies would try to either take the cow, or at very least, the milk. The first signs of this were cracks or marks on the cow’s skin, or they would become suddenly ill. Old stone arrow heads were often thought to be fairy darts.
If your cow was fairy struck or elf-shot, there were a number of cures, such as this one from Co. Sligo. “This is an old cure which is supposed to cure cows or horses that are sick. The person that owns the sick beast gets an elf stone and puts it into a bucket or basin full of water. An elf stone is a short smooth and fairly thick stone. It is supposed to hav something to do with faries. When it is about five or ten minutes in the water, the water is given to the sick beast to drink. It is given to her three times in sucession. There are not many elf stones in the country. My grandfather had one long long ago, and it is still in our house.”
May Day was the time to prevent the cattle from being fairy struck, and to protect them from disease. Fires would be lit at Bealtaine, which the cattle were driven between. This was said to ward off the fairies. Butter-coloured primroses would be rubbed on the udders of cows at this time of year, to ensure a plentiful supply of butter. It was also wise to keep a goat with the herd for good luck, as it was thought to stop the cows calving too early.
Once the calves are born, the ritual of ‘churching the cow’ was performed, to protect the cow and her calf from bad spirits. As one account from Letterfrack, Co. Galway explains “Two people get a red coal. One of them stands at each side of the cow and they pass the coal around the cow three times in the ‘name of the Father Son and Holy Ghost. Then they pass the coal from her hind legs to her head in the name of the Father Son and Holy Ghost.”
Another way to protect the cows was to place a little of the mother’s dung into the mouth of the calf, and that way it would never have it’s milk taken by the fairies. Milk was a valuable resource and so to help the cows yield as much as possible, it was common to sing to the cow while milking. However, the first drops of milk should be thrown in the air to placate the fairies.
So how best to celebrate Cow Appreciation Day? Maybe best you avoid roaming fields to rub flowers on udders and feed them dung, and instead celebrate with one of the greatest gifts cows provide - ice cream. Murphy’s in Dublin, Kerry, and Galway make ice cream from the rare Kerry cow, thought to be the oldest breed in Europe and closest to cows introduced to Ireland thousands of years ago. They produced large quantities of extra creamy milk, which Murphy’s use to make incredible flavours such as sea salt, carmelised brown bread and gin. It’s almost better than Brigid’s milk-into-beer trick.