Irish Celtic Culture And Cattle
Ancient Ireland became a land of cattle during the time of the ancient Celts- a legacy which has endured. The Irish word for road is ‘bothar’, which means ‘cattle-way’. Many modern Irish roads began in this way- as cattle tracks.
Cows drinking water from the lake on a hot summer evening in the ancient ritual landscape around Lough Gur, County Limerick, an age old image that has endured.
landscape of prehistoric Ireland was suitable for keeping large herds of cattle.
The country looked very different from today. There was a lot of dense woodland
but much of the landscape consisted of wide open grassland. Fields, apart from
few exceptions, were not generally enclosed with walls as they are today.
- A cattle
owner in Celtic ancient Ireland was called a ‘bóaire’ (bo-arra). ‘Bo’ means
‘cow’ and ‘aire’ is a keeper. Being a boaire meant you had standing in the
Celtic culture. Or, put simply, if you didn’t own cattle, you were a Nobody.
- The ancient Celts
were semi-nomadic. They had a base at their ring fort, but they followed their cattle and stayed away from the
fort for periods of time. For example, you might have heard of ‘Booleying’, a
cattle farming practice that involved farmers moving with the cattle to upland
summer pastures and staying nearby, in whatever temporary accommodation they
could rig up. This Celtic life style continued in some parts of Ireland until
the early 20th century!
- In Celtic
Ireland, cattle were kept mostly as dairy cows. Dairy was an important part of
the diet. Most of the males were slaughtered early in life, many ending up as
pages in early medieval manuscripts.
- There was no
coinage in Ireland until the arrival of the Vikings. In Celtic Ireland, fines
and commercial transactions were measured in units called ‘Séts’. A ‘Sét’ was
half the value of a milk cow.
- Did I
mention at all that cattle were important in Celtic Ireland? The most famous of
the Irish sagas the ‘Tain bo Cualnge’ (‘The cattle raid of Cooley’) revolves
around an invasion of Ulster by Queen Medb of Connaught, when Conchobar Mac
Nessa, the Ulster king refuses to give her his prize bull.
- In this land
of cattle it is not surprising that raiding each others’ cattle was common. It
might surprise you though to hear that cattle raiding was in fact a much celebrated
practice. Successful cattle raids were a means of gaining prestige. The raids took
different forms. They could be anything from the petty rustling of your
neighbouring enemy’s cattle to a highly organised large scale raid that
involved driving thousands of cattle off your rival’s lands.
- Upon the
inauguration of a regional king, his followers would expect him to lead them on
a cattle raid immediately to mark the occasion. The practice of raiding each
others' cattle continued right up to the medieval period. It was even accepted
and honoured under the early Christian Church with monasteries sometimes
receiving a share of the cattle raided.
- In Irish Celtic Culture, kings were
given tribute in the form of cattle. The full name of Ireland’s famous High King
Brian Boru was Brian Boruma, which means ‘Brian of the cattle tributes’, referring
to the cattle tributes he received. The more cattle you had in Celtic Ireland,
the more powerful you were.
- The closest
parallel to this semi nomadic cattle keeping Celtic life style in ancient
Ireland that we can think of in the present day is the life style of some
African tribes, such as the Zulu.
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