Celtic Ireland 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.
The image above- cows drinking water from the lake on a hot summer evening- is an age old image that has endured. Cattle have always been part of Irish culture.
- The 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.
- 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 ancient Ireland, 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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