Celtic cowboys: Riding the range in ancient Ireland

Ireland, like several other celtic lands blessed with rangeland and the right climate, has been a haven for cattle since prehistoric times. Where there are cattle, there are valuable milk-cows–the rich source of milk, butter, cheese; and of meat, horn, hooves and durable hide.                                                               

And where there are cows, there are always cowboys.

First let me address the cattle themselves. In Ireland, two of the most ancient strains are the stocky Kerry and the durable Dexter breeds. The milk-cow from the beginning was the measure of wealth in the country, and for centuries the cumal (one milk-cow) was the standard against which all other wealth was weighed. This standard was set in the Brehon, the law of the land. Thus any who owned many cattle were regarded as nobles in society.                                                          

The ancient Gaels took their cattle very seriously. They drove them faithfully to the ripening grass throughout the country, even into the rocky cairns, through land that many people (like the Romans) would never venture. They built shielings, or rough shelters for them in the winter, driving them to lower areas where they could be tended more closely together.

The summer drives would have been especially difficult and important for the men who took care of their herds. In the following excerpt from The Wakening Fire, one of the main characters named Liam talks about what the cattlemen could expect:

“I grew up tending the land and cattle of me father. It was, and is, a life of hardship. But also a life of joy, and—yes, adventure, Cat. A kind of adventure that ye may not understand. Which calf will not survive until the next summer drive? How many cattle will be stolen if we leave this pasture for a few days only? Will the lake waters recede and give us a tur loch for summer pasture, or will we need to ride for days seeking undiscovered fodder for our herds? Will the cry of the wolf come in the night, and the next day find our darlings dead an’ gutted? Such be the adventures we face every day.”

Liam mentions the tur loch or turlough, a word derived from the Irish Gaelic word for “dry” combined with “lake.” This was an area lying on limestone, low enough that it would be flooded during wet weather, and then during drier weather, groundwater would well up through the rock to provide precious water for the cattle.

Liam also brings up the fear of stolen cattle. The best-known of Ireland’s sagas, “The Cattle Raid of Cooley,” was based on the theft of a prize brown bull. The battles that raged around that cattle raid resulted in a saga as rich and full of heroes as Homer’s Iliad! The underpinnings of this story are clear enough: with a commodity as valuable as cattle, the rustling of the herds must have been common…and the result bloody.

There are many renderings of celtic warriors. But I have found no pictures of ancient “cowboys,” the men and boys who drove  the herds from low ground to higher summer pastures, the ones who drove  them also to markets where they could be traded for other kinds of wealth.

I imagine these cowboys in the novel Storm Maker, as Caylith’s love interest Liam and his cattle-drover cousin Ryan ride with her on the long road to Derry.

Liam wore a knotted kerchief like a band around his forehead….It kept his wavy, auburn hair back from his face as he rode, heedless of the hot sun and the stiff wind gusting off the lake.

His chest was bare except for a leather thong that crossed one shoulder and then circled his waist. Without seeming to look, I watched how the sun and shadows played across his skin, how his bold muscles flowed with every movement.

He wore leather riding breeches, bríste leathair, no doubt an old pair of Michael’s. I had always liked the way his breeches hugged the muscles of his calves and thighs; and the fact that he was larger than Michael made his contours stand out even more.

His leggings were close fitting, too, made of half-tanned leather and encircled with laces all the way to the knee. Altogether, Liam struck a handsome figure as he rose easily across the low-mounding, green hills. 

Ryan rode next to us, dressed in a tanned leather tunic with no sleeves. Under the tunic he wore pleated trousers, a different kind of breeches called triús, to protect his legs from the friction of horseback riding. They seemed to be made of wool. The upper part, from about midthigh, was loose and gathered. He, too, wore leggings.

The leggings and trousers, triús, would have protected the riders’ legs from rubbing against the sides of their horses. A headband or kerchief would have shielded their necks or heads from the hot sun. Liam’s bare chest here is merely an excuse for Caylith to look upon him with suppressed excitement….     

One of  the more humorous references I learned about these ancient cowboys and  their wards was the suggestion that the tenders of milk cows would actually blow into their, ah, nether region to hasten the running of the milk. In The Wakening Fire, the discussion runs like this:

As Michael made our fire, he told me more about the roving clansmen. “Do not be disappointed, lass, if our kinfolk do not see our signal. Even if this is the first day of spring weather, they will not be herding cattle onto the pastures yet. Chances are, they are holed up in their little huts, waiting for the grass to green.” 

“And yet, to hear Ryan tell it, the drovers are on the range night and day, sleeping with their charges.”

He grinned, piling the kindling into an interlaced pyramid. “Yea, lass, methinks Ryan does sleep with his nose in the nether parts of his milk cows.”

Liam brought the tinderbox, laughing. “To make sure she gives the best milk…very old tradition.”

I left to find my smoke blanket, wondering whether all the clansmen were bawdy all the time when they congregated. When I returned, I asked Brigid in a low voice, “Why do they always speak with such vulgarity when they are together?”

She smiled up at me from her cross-legged position near the fledgling fire. “You know, Cay, the drovers really do, um, blow a bit into their cows to stimulate the milk giving. Our husbands are telling a very tiny bit of truth, for once.”

I leave you with that very close look at cows and their keepers….

To read more about the celtic cowboy life and much more, please get a bit closer to the following:

Storm Maker: http://www.amazon.com/Ireland-BookStrand-Publishing-Romance-ebook/dp/B00845V8X6
The Wakening Fire: http://www.amazon.com/Wakening-Ireland-BookStrand-Publishing-ebook/dp/B008BKSGES
Captive Heart: http://www.amazon.com/Captive-Ireland-BookStrand-Publishing-ebook/dp/B008K2X1QA
Fire & Silk (on Strand) : http://www.bookstrand.com/fire-silk

14 thoughts on “Celtic cowboys: Riding the range in ancient Ireland

  1. Paul R Hewlett

    Very interesting. I agree with “all things Ireland” above. I felt like I was there, great post! I’m going to check out your books.


  2. Janus Gangi

    I love your blog!!! And I also love you!!! ❤ I never fail to learn something new. Thank you for you dedication to research and for being just who you are, a good friend.!


    1. Yes, Rionna, my own dream–not just cowboys, but Gaelic cowboys! That’s how I imagine some of the lively characters in my books (Liam, Ryan and their kinsmen). Given the cattle, the bad-ass land and the temperament of the Irish, I must be hitting the mark somehow.
      Slainte! Erin


  3. Always fascinating. Note: You always seem to slip in a bull in your blogs, Erin–hmmm. 🙂 These seem different from the Highland cattle of Scotland. Also, you mention Brehon (the common law)–I can’t remember the author’s name but there’s a mystery series featuring a woman traveling judge–I believe Irish. Have you heard of it? M. S. Spencer


  4. Dear M.S.,
    Thanks for your intriguing remarks. Bulls? Heavens! What could I be thinking! As for the Brehon, I have not heard of that mystery series, but it sounds like my cuppa chicory. I have a character named Brigid who has undergone 10 of the 12 required years to become a high judge. The judgeships, at least in the early days, were inherited from the parent; her own father is a Brehon or judge, and her uncle Dubthach (who shows up in other books) is THE ollamh to the High King. I want to write another book in the Caylith series, about the trying of the slaveholder Ursus in a moot court, but the law itself is really complex and I am really lazy….

    I always delight in your replies. Thanks and sláinte! Erin


  5. Dear M.S., Thanks for the thought. I’ve read precious few fictionalized accounts of early Ireland. Everyone is drawn to the time some 400 years later when the Vikings stormed in. But Ireland had a rich culture well before then. Patrick and his monks had a lot to say about changing the Brehon, too, making it Christian-centered. So the whole subject of the Brehon and the judges is fascinating to me.


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