Cattle In Early Ireland
By Shae Clancy
'It is difficult to write with certainty about Celtic Ireland because the earliest surviving written sources date from the 8th century. The difficulty is even more profound when dealing with cattle. The early writers shared the same environment as their audience and, since cattle were part of everyday life, the scribes saw no need to describe and explain what was obvious to everybody. Thus, much that would be of interest to us today was never recorded. Nonetheless, the early law texts, wisdom texts, hagiographies and sagas abound with references to cattle, thereby testifying to their importance in early Irish society.
Cattle, especially milch cows, were the unit of currency and the measure of a person’s status. The largest unit of currency in the old Irish system was the cumal, which was equivalent in value to a female slave or to three, or three and a half, milch cows. Similarly, a sét was valued at half a milch cow.
The early law texts describe penalties for wrongdoing in terms of numbers of cattle. For example, the fine for injuring a person’s shin was three séts, which had to include a milch cow and a calf. Social status was an important part of Irish life. A man with only one cow was regarded as being extremely poor. The lowest grade of freeman who was non-royal had seven cows and a bull, whilst the highest grade had to have thirty cows to qualify for the status.
Archaeological evidence shows that domesticated cattle first appeared in Ireland about 5500 years ago. They were similar in stature to the modern Kerry cattle, which are regarded as a very old Irish breed. While it is impossible to say with certainty, there are indications from the texts that early Irish cattle were mostly black in colour, although red and brown are also mentioned. Saint Ciarán, founder of Clonmacnoise, had a dun coloured cow, the hide of which, according to tradition, was later used to make the Leabhar na hUidhre, the Book of the Dun Cow. There are also references to brindled cows – those having more than one colour.'