There is an extraordinary legend explaining how cattle first came to Ireland. It was recorded by Lady Jane Francesca Wilde, who published a book called Ancient Legends, Mystic Charms, and Superstitions of Ireland in 1888. Her book is filled with stories that were, for the large part, collected orally, from conversations with the peasantry.
It is thought that much of the book was actually written by her husband – Sir William Wilde, the surgeon and author of major works on Irish archaeology and folklore – but exactly how much is not known. William died in 1876, and it is possible Lady Jane added much more material by the time the book was published 11 years later.(1)
The chapter about cows, which Lady Wilde unimaginatively labels 'Concerning Cows', tells of a mysterious Berooch, or mermaid, who prophecies the arrival of three sacred cows to Ireland. Here follows the story as it was published in Wilde's book.
The most singular legends of Ireland relate to bulls and cows, and there are hundreds of places all commencing with the word Bo (one of the most ancient words in the Irish language), which recall some mystic or mythical story of a cow, especially of a white heifer, which animal seems to have been an object of the greatest veneration from all antiquity.
In old times there arose one day a maiden from the sea, a beautiful Berooch, or mermaid, and all the people on the Western Coast of Erin gathered round her and wondered at her beauty. And the great chief of the land carried her home to his house, where she was treated like a queen.
And she was very gentle and wise, and after some time she acquired the language, and could talk to the people quite well in their own Irish tongue, to their great delight and wonder. Then she informed them that she had been sent to their country by a great spirit, to announce the arrival in Ireland of the three sacred cows—Bo-Finn, Bo-Ruadh, and Bo-Dhu—the white, the red, and the black cows, who were destined to fill the land with the most splendid cattle, so that the people should never know want while the world lasted.
This was such good news that the people in their delight carried the sea-maiden from house to house in procession, in order that she might tell it herself to every one; and they crowned her with flowers, while the musicians went before her, singing to their harps.
After dwelling with them a little longer she asked to be taken back to the sea, for she had grown sad at being away so long from her own kindred. So, on May Eve, a great crowd accompanied her down to the strand, where she took leave of them, telling them that on that day year they should all assemble at the same place to await the arrival of the three cows. Then she plunged into the sea and was seen no more.
However, on that day year all the people of Ireland assembled on the shore to watch, as they had been directed by the beautiful sea-maiden; and all the high cliffs and all the rocks were covered with anxious spectators from the early dawn. Nor did they wait in vain. Exactly at noon the waves were stirred with a mighty commotion, and three cows rose up from the sea—a white, a red, and a black—all beautiful to behold, with sleek skins, large soft eyes, and curved horns, white as ivory. They stood upon the shore for a while, looking around them. Then each one went in a different direction, by three roads; the black went south, the red went north, and the milk-white heifer—the Bo-Finn—crossed the plain of Ireland to the very centre, where stood the king’s palace. And every place she passed was named after her, and every well she drank at was called Lough-na-Bo, or Tober-Bo-Finn (the well of the white cow), so her memory remains to this day.
In process of time the white heifer gave birth to twins, a male and female calf, and from them descended a great race, still existing in Ireland; after which the white cow disappeared into a great cave by the sea, the entrance to which no man knows. And there she remains, and will remain, in an enchanted sleep, until the true king of Eire, the lord of Ireland, shall come to waken her; but the lake near the cave is still known as Lough-na-Bo-banna (the lake of the snow-white cow). Yet some say that it was the king’s daughter was carried off by enchantment to the cave, in the form of a cow, and she will never regain her form until she sleeps on the summit of each of the three highest mountains in Ireland; but only the true king of Eire can wake her from her sleep, and bring her to “the rock of the high place,” when she will be restored at last to her own beautiful form.
Another legend says that a red-haired woman struck the beautiful Bo-Finn with her staff, and smote her to death; and the roar which the white cow gave in dying was heard throughout the whole of Ireland, and all the people trembled. This is evidently an allegory. The beautiful Bo-Finn—the white cow—is Ireland herself; and the red-haired woman who smote her to death was Queen Elizabeth, “in whose time, after her cruel wars, the cry of the slaughtered people was heard all over the land, and went up to heaven for vengeance against the enemies of Ireland; and the kingdom was shaken as by an earthquake, by the roar of the oppressed against the tyrant.”
The path of the white cow across Ireland is marked by small rude stone monuments, still existing. They show the exact spot where she rested each night and had her bed, and the adjoining lands have names connected with the tradition—as, “The plain of the Fenian cows;” “The hill of worship;” “The pool of the spotted ox,” called after him because he always waited to drink till the white cow came, for they were much attached to each other.
There are also Druid stones at one resting-place, with Ogham marks on them. Some time ago an endeavour was made to remove and carry off the stones of one of the monuments; but the man who first put a spade in the ground was “struck,” and remained bedridden for seven years.
The plain of the death of the Bo-banna (the white cow), where she gave the roar that shook all Ireland is called “the plain of lamentation.” It never was tilled, and never will be tilled. The people hold it as a sacred spot, and until recently it was the custom to have dances there every Sunday. But these old usages are rapidly dying out; for though meant originally as mystic ceremonies, yet by degrees they degenerated to such licentious revelry that the wrath of the priesthood fell on them, and they were discontinued.
There is a holy well near “the plain of lamentation,” called Tobar-na-Bo (the well of the white cow); and these ancient names, coming down the stream of time from the far-off Pagan era, attest the great antiquity of the legend of the coming to Ireland of the mystic and beautiful Bo-Finn.
There is another legend concerning the arrival of the three cows—the white, the red, and the black—which is said to be taken from the Book of Enoch.
Four cows sprang at once from the earth—two white, a red, and a black—and one of the four went over to the white cow and taught it a mystery. And it trembled and became a man, and this was the first man that appeared in Erin. And the man fashioned a ship and dwelt there with the cows while a deluge covered the earth. And when the waters ceased, the red and the black cows went their way, but the white remained.
The story is supposed by Bryant to be a literal rendering of some ancient hieroglyph, descriptive of the three races of mankind, and of the dispersion of the primal human family.
(1) See O'Sullivan, Emer (2017), The Fall of the House of Wilde, Bloomsbury, chatper 29.