Herding, Grazing, Milking in Ancient Ireland

From A Smaller Social History of Ancient Ireland 1906

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CHAPTER XIX....concluded

4. Herding, Grazing, Milking.

Herding and Grazing.There were special keepers of cows, of sheep, of swine: the old word for a cowherd was bochaill or buachaill [boohil]; from bo, 'a cow': but in modern times the word buachail has come to signify 'boy' simply, without any reference to occupation. At the present day a shepherd is called aedhaire and treudaighe [aira, traidee]. As an aid to herding, bells were sometimes hung round the necks of cows and sheep, and the law laid down a fine for removing the bell. Such bells have continued in use till this day: and in the National Museum may be seen many specimens.

The nature and use of "commons" have been already explained (p. 83). The commons pasture was generally mountain-land, usually at some distance from the lowland homesteads; and it was grazed in common and not fenced in. Each head of a family belonging to the tribe or fine had the right to send his cattle on it, the number he was entitled to turn out being generally in proportion to the size of his farm. In regulating the right of grazing, animals were classified, a cow being taken as the unit. The legal classification was this:—two geese are equivalent to a sheep; two sheep to one dairt, or one-year-old heifer; two dairts to one colpach, or two-year-old heifer; two colpachs to one cow; a cow and a colpach equal to one ox. Suppose a man had a right to graze a certain number of cows on the common: he might turn out the exact number of cows, or the equivalent of other animals, any way he pleased, so long as the total did not exceed the amount of his privilege. This custom continued down to recent times.

In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries it was usual for all the people of a village or townland, after putting down the crops in spring, to migrate to the uplands with their families and cattle, living there in temporary settlements during the summer, and returning to their homes in the beginning of autumn in time to gather in the crops. An upland settlement of this kind was called a buaile [booley]: and the custom—which descended from early times—was known as booleying by Anglo-Irish writers, several of whom have described it.

Remnants of the old regulations regarding the use of commons land survive in many parts of Ireland to the present day. There are still "commons"—generally mountain-land or lowland moors—attached to village communities, on which several families have a right to graze their cattle according to certain well-defined regulations; and there are bogs where they have a right to cut peat or turf—a right of turbary, as they call it: and if an individual sells or otherwise disposes of his land, these rights always go with it.

Farm Life and Milking.—The people of Ireland, not the farming classes merely, but the general community, were early risers, and went early to bed. The active working-day in the houses of farmers began at sunrise and ended when the cows came to their stalls: and in the houses of chiefs it began when the horse-boy let out the horses in the morning, and ended at bed-time. In milking they used a spancel (Ir. buarach) as at present, made, then as now, of a stout rope of twisted hair, about two feet long, with a bit of wood—a sort of long-shaped knob fixed at one end, and a loop at the other end into which the knob was thrust so as to fasten the spancel round the two hind legs of the cow. Women always did the milking, except of course in monasteries, where no women were employed, and the monks had to do all the work of the community. It has been already mentioned that the monks, after the milking, always brought the milk home in a special vessel strapped on their backs, and went first to the abbot that he might bless the milk before use.


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