Cows, Pigs and Sheep in Ancient Ireland

From A Smaller Social History of Ancient Ireland 1906

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CHAPTER XIX....continued

3. Some Farm-Animals.

Cows.—From the most remote ages, cows formed one of the principal articles of wealth of the inhabitants of this country; they were in fact the standard of value, as money is at the present day; and prices, wages, and marriage portions were estimated in cows by our ancestors (see chap. xxiii., sect. 4, infra). The most general Irish word for a cow is bo, not only at the present day, but in the oldest manuscripts. A bull is called tarbh [tarruv], a word which exists in cognate forms in many languages. Damh [dauv], an ox, is evidently cognate with Latin dama, a deer. How it came to pass that the same word signifies in Irish an ox, and in Latin a deer, philologists may explain. The chief use of the ox was as a draft and plough animal, for which see "Oxen" in Index. The usual Irish word for a calf is gamhan [gowan].

Pigs.—In point of value to the community, pigs came next to cows, and were of more importance to the general run of people than horses. They were kept by almost all, so that they were quite as plentiful and formed as valuable an industry in old times as at present. The usual Irish word for a pig was, and is still, muc or mucc: a boar was called torc. A very young pig was a banb or banbh [bonniv], a word which is still known in the anglicised form of bonniv or bonny, or with the diminutive, bonneen or bonniveen—words used in every part of Ireland for sucking-pigs. It was cheap and easy enough to feed pigs in those days. Forests abounded everywhere, and the animals were simply turned out into the woods and fed on mast and whatever else they could pick up. Wealthy people—chiefs and even kings, as well as rich farmers —kept great herds, which cost little or nothing beyond the pay of a swineherd: and they gave no trouble, for, except in winter, they remained out day and night, needing no sties or pens of any kind, being sufficiently sheltered by the trees and underwood. Woodland was generally a part of the "commons" (p. 83, supra), where every member of the sept was free to send his pigs to feed. The special time for fattening was autumn, when mast abounded; and at the end of the season the fat pigs were slaughtered: those that were left were kept in sties during winter.

When woodland was not convenient, or when for any other reason pigs had to be kept and fattened at home, they were fed on corn or sour milk, and on offal of various kinds: these were managed chiefly by women. The custom of feeding pigs on malt-grains, now so familiar near breweries, was also practised by the ancient Irish: for we have seen that brewing was then very common. The old Irish race of pigs were long-snouted, thin-spare, muscular, and active: and except when fat they could scour the country like hounds. In the remote forests there were plenty of wild pigs: and we have many references to them in our literature. In the twelfth century Giraldus gives us this testimony:—"In no part of the world are such vast herds of boars and wild pigs to be found."

Sheep were kept everywhere, as they were of the utmost importance, partly as food, and partly for their wool: and they are constantly mentioned in the Brehon Laws as well as in general Irish literature. The common Irish word for a sheep was, and is, cáera [caira].

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