Holy Cow. The miraculous animals of the Irish Saints: Part 7, St Ciarán of Saighir and his cow

This is part seven in my series of posts about the saints and their animals. This post features St Ciarán of Saighir, the founder of the great monastery of Seir Keiran in Co Offaly and his cow.

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St Ciaran of Saighir.

Like earlier posts about St Ciarán of  Clonmacnoise, St Manchan of Lemanaghan and St Patrick the theme of the story relates to the theft of the saints cow.

 

 

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Site of St Ciaran’s monastery Seir Keiran Co Offaly

 

This story was recorded in the Irish  Life of St Ciarán of Saighir, compiled in the seventeenth century. The text recalls

a thief came westward over the Slieve Bloom, and stole a cow from Ciarán.

Below is a location map showing the  location of Slieve Bloom Mountains and the monastic settlement of Seir Keiran.

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After Google Earth location map of Seir Kieran monastic settlement and the Slieve Bloom Mountain range.

There is no mention of the cow having any miraculous abilities like the cows of the other saints, however, divine intervention stops the progress of the thief allowing the cow to escape and return to her rightful owner.  As the thief is crossing a river the waters rose and drowned him and the cow to the saint.

Mist and unspeakable darkness rose against him, and a river so strong in flood, so that he was drowned, and the cow returned to Ciarán again (BNÉ, Vol. II, 105).

irishmoiledcowcalf

 

Reference

Plummer, C. (ed.) 1922 reprint 1997 Bethada Náem nÉrenn. Vol.1, 2 Oxford.

 

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Holy Cows. The Miraculous Animals of the Irish Saints: Part 6, The Magical Cows of Kilmalkedar

Last year I began a series of post on the saints and their animals. Continuing with this theme this post will look at the folklore and legends of cows associated with the great ecclesiastical complex of   Kilmalkedar /Cill Maoilchéadair in the Dingle Peninsula, Co Kerry.

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Kilmalkedar medieval church part of the the Kilmalkedar Ecclesiastical Complex

The site of Kilmalkedar  consists of  a large ecclesiastical complex with archaeological remains dating from the early medieval to late medieval period.  It is dedicated to a little known saint called  Maolcethair, whose death was recorded in the martyrology of Donegal (Cuppage 1986, 308). The site was also linked to St Brendan and was  part of the  pilgrim landscape of the Mount Brandon. Unlike the previous tales about the saints and their animals ( Ita and her donkey, Patrick and his cow, Ciaran and his cow, Manchan and his cow), St Maolcethair  is not directly associated with any animal  but ecclesiastical complex has two interesting folk tales that relate to miraculous events associated with cows. These stories are embedded in the physical landscape.

The Cow and Thief’s Stone

One of the stories concerns the theft of a cow, a familiar theme from  the earlier posts in this series. The story goes that a thief tried to steal a cow from the community at Kilmalkedar. The cow bellowed, which woke up one of the monks.  One of the monks

‘caused the thief to stick in the stone  which he was climbing and the hoof of the cow to get embedded in the stone on which she had alighted from the fence. The thief set up a howling form pain and fright and prayed humbly for mercy and forgiveness. The holy man released him and warned him to sin no more. The imprints of the thief’s knees are to be seen to the present day and the impress of the cow’s hoof is also discernible’ ( Dingle Survey Files  after mss of John Curran, unpublished  OPW file).

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1st ed OS map of Kilmalkedar (1842) showing the site of the Cow stone and Theifs stone.

Until 1967 two stones  known as the cow  and thief stone were located on either side of the road close to the church and graveyard at Kilmalkedar,  they were set 150m south of the graveyard and some 350 yards northeast of (KE042-028). Both were recorded on the 1st edition OS map of 1842. Unfortunately the cow stone  has now disappeared, both stones  were set on either side of the roadway until at least 1967.  The  cow stone (KE042-02701) was located on the west side of the road and the thief stone (KE042-027) on the east. Killanin & Michael (1967, 96) described the two stones as standing stones and the Dingle Survey notes that the theif stone ‘stood 0.81m high at the base’ (Cuppage 1986, 323). However descriptions in the Dingle Survey Files suggest that the  cow stone was a flat stone.

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View of the road outside if Kilmalkedar Graveyard the Cow and Thiefs Stones were located 150m to the south.

A story recounted  by Mary Jane Leadbeater Fisher in her book Letters from the Kingdom of Kerry: In the year 1845 also records the tale but in her account the story is linked to another archaeological feature of the landscape, a large multi basin bullaun stone know as the Keelers or na Beirtí (Milk Coolers).

A cow is the subject of this legend—a cow of size and breed suited to provide milk for the giant race of those days. We saw the milk vessels, and if she filled them morning and evening, she was indeed a marvellous cow. In a huge flat rock were these milk pans; six large round holes, regular in their distances from each other, and nearly of equal size; they could each contain some gallons of liquid. This said cow gave sufficient milk for one whole parish; and was the property of a widow—her only wealth. Another parish and another clan desired to be possessed of this prize; so a marauder, endued with superior strength and courage, drove her off one moonlight night. The widow followed wailing, and he jeered her and cursed her as he proceeded. The cow suddenly stopped; in vain the thief strove to drive her on; she could neither go on, nor yet return; she stuck fast. At length, aroused by the widow’s cries, her neighbours arrived, and the delinquent endeavoured to escape. In vain—for he too stuck fast in the opposite rock; he was taken and killed. The cow then returned to her own home, and continued to contribute her share towards making the parish like Canaan, “a land flowing with milk and honey.” The prints of her hoofs, where the bees made their nests, are still to be seen in one rock ; and those of the marauder’s foot and hand in another, where he was held fast by a stronger bond than that of conscience (Leadbeater Fisher 1847, 48).

The ‘huge  flat rock’ she refers to seems to be  a large stone known as the Keelers or ‘Beirti’.  This is a large irregular, shaped bullaun stone (KE042-026007)  located 50-60m northwest of the Romanesque church at Kilmalkedar. The stone  has seven depressions of oval and circular shape with depths of 0.04-0.25 diameters 0.22-0.42m diameter. This stone is associated with a magical cow known who is known in folklore form other parts of the country.

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The  legendary cow was the  Glas Ghoibhneach,  she was said to a have been a marvellous milker.  The Glas Ghoibhneach translates as ‘the grey of Goibhniu’. Goibhniu was a mythical smith who likely derived from a god of the same name. The legend of the cow  is  very old and widespread across Ireland. According to O’hOgain

legend told of her all over Ireland describes how she filled with milk every pail put under her by her unnamed owner. However, a jealous woman claimed that she had a vessel which the Glas could not fill, and accordingly she brought a sieve and began to milk the great cow. The Glas yielded a continuous stream of milk, enough to fill a lake, but it all ran through the sieve. Eventually, she became exhausted by the effort and died.

The tradition from Kilmalkedar tells that the glas was milked into the basins of the rock by the monk from the monastery (An Seabhac 1939, 117). Interestingly additional stones associated with the magical cow are found a few miles to the southwest, the stones are  a pair of standing stones known as ‘Geata an Glas Ghaibhleann’ or the gate of Glas Ghaibhleann.

I would like to thank the wonderful archaeologist Isabel Bennett  for all her help with  pointing out sources for these  stones

References

An Seabhac. 1939. Triocha-Chéad Chorca Dhuibhne. Cuid IV. Dublin: An Cumann

le Béaloideas Éireann, 117.

Cuppage, J. 1986. Archaeological Survey of the Dingel peninsula. A description of

  the field antiquities from the Mesolithic Period to the 17th century A.D. Oidhrecht

  Chorca Dhuibhne. Ballyferriter: Oidhreacht Chorca Dhuibhne, 308

Dingle Survey Files.

Ó hÓgáin, D. 1991. Myth, legend & romance an encyclopaedia of the Irish folk tradition

New York: Prentice Hall Press.

Killanin, M. & Duignan, M. 1967. The Shell guide to Ireland. London: Ebury Press.

Leadbeater Fisher, M. J in her book Letters from the Kingdom of Kerry: In the year 1845. pub 1847. Dublin: Webb and Chapman

http://www.voicesfromthedawn.com/gate-of-the-cow/

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An Irish St Stephen’s Day Tradition: Lá an Dreoilín/Wren Day

The 26th of December is the feast  day of St Stephen,often shorted to Stephens day or Stephens.. In  Britain the 26th of December is commonly referred to as Boxing Day , as this was the day servants and tradesmen would traditionally received gifts known as a “Christmas box” from their masters, employers or customers. In Ireland the day was also known as Wren Day, in Irish Lá an Dreoilín. Other variants include Day of the Wren, or Hunt the Wren Day. This name comes from a very old tradition focused around a tiny bird called the wren. 

Lá an Dreoilín/Wren Day

Lá an Dreoilín or Wren Day  is a very old tradition and was once practised throughout most of Ireland up to the middle of the last century, with the exception of northern Ulster. The word wren was pronounced ‘wran’. Traditionally on Wren Day,   groups of mostly boys and men  called ‘The Wren Boys’ would dress up in old clothes and paint their faces. They then travelled  from door to door singing, dancing and playing music demanding  money to “bury the wren”. This process was called going on the ‘wran’.

In modern Ireland the tradition has faded out in most parts of the county but it is still carried on in pockets of the country especially in Co Kerry, in the Dingle peninsula and in parts of Co Limerick and Galway with people going from house to house.

Angela Gallagher of the Slivervoice blog provides the following description of the process

Heralding their arrival by loudly playing the bodhran (an Irish drum) as they make their way towards the door, and with barely enough time to shut the startled dogs away, the door is opened wide and the musicians stream in. Dressed in old clothing, mostly in white, with assorted bits of tinsel, straw and holly attached to hats of all descriptions, they file in and proceed to entertain us with a few songs, some traditional airs expertly played on fiddles, bodhrans, accordions, tin whistles and flutes, and Irish dancing. The entire performance lasts less than 10 minutes, and they play themselves out again, back into the night!

The modern wren tradition now also  incorporates street parades.  The straw boys often take part in the parades and other organised  Wren Day events.

In Dingle the wren tradition also incorporates

A pantomime-type horse with a wooden head, snapping jaws and a body made from cloth stretched across a timber frame, it is worn on the shoulders of one of the members of the Wren – who whirls and capers at the head of the parade (Woods 1997).

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Wren Hunt in Dingle Photos by Chrisity Mc Namara ( taken from https://www.dingle-peninsula.ie/home/culture-and-language/wren-s-day.html)

The role of the Wren in Wren Day Traditions

Originally the ‘Wren boys’ carried a dead wren or wrens with them on their escapades. The wren is no longer part of modern celebrations which are a much more animal friendly affair.

Catching a wren was not an easy task. The wren was obtained the days or the day before  the 26th. The wren boys would go out into the woods and bogs or search the thatched roofs of houses and any other places this poor little bird would live. They would hunt for and if found they would then kill the little bird. The following day the bird was  paraded  through the town or rural areas on top of a decorated pole or holly branch coloured in ribbons and coloured paper. What follows is a description of the wren hunt from Cork in 1840

For some weeks preceding Christmas, crowds of village boys may be seen peering into the hedges, in search of the “tiny wren”; and when one  is discovered the whole assemble and give eager chase to, until they have slain, the little bird. In the hunt, the utmost excitement prevails; shouting, screeching, and rushing; all sorts of missiles are flung at the puny mark; and not unfrequently, they light upon the head of some less innocent being. From bush to bush, from hedge to hedge, is the wren pursued until bagged with as much pride and pleasure, as the cock of the woods by the more ambitious sportsman (Hall, 1841 23).

Wren_boys_in_Cork_hall

Ireland: its scenery, character etc.(Volume I) by Mr and Mrs S.C. Hall. London: Hall, Virtue & Co., 1843. Drawn by D. Maclise, engraved by Landells. (http://www.corkpastandpresent.ie)

The killing the bird has long died out and any reference to  the killing of this tiny bird in a modern context is symbolic. Catching the wren was not easy task and if a wren could not be found  people would improvise and there are 20th century  accounts of toy birds and props being  used instead of the live bird (Danaher 1972, 246).

The Schools  Folklore Essays from  Clogher in Co Mayo  recorded in the 1930s,  recalls a piece of turf dressed up with feathers being used as a substitute for the poor little wren

Going out in the Wren” is still practised: only young boys now go out in the wren but formerly grown men did the same.
Now the boys go in batches or singly. If they can manage to catch a wren they dress him up in ribbons, put him into a small box also arrayed in ribbons and bring him round with them. But if they can’t get a wren they stick feathers in a small ciarán of turf and this does instead. They disguise themselves -thats an essential part of the game. There is no particular sort of disguise. They go from house to house getting money in each house. Sometimes batches of boys from 16 to 20 years do the rounds. These have often tin whistles or sometimes melodeons or mouth organs (NFCS Clogher 0095: 80).

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Wren at its nest by Sonja Kübelbeck (own picture –Kuebi 16:31, 5 May 2007 (UTC)) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

In another account from Co Wexford  dating to 1867 the bird was tied to the bush alive.  This was no less cruel the killing the bird, as the little wren was brought from house to house tided to the bush which was shook vigorously as described below  in an excerpt from  The banks of the Boro: A Chronicle of the County of Wexford by Patrick Kennedy 

The professional artist used by some means to secure a live wren, and fasten it by a string to the twig of an ivy or holly bush, and enlivened by  the strains of an ear-piercing fife, invade the quiet of strong farmer’s houses and dance and shout, and sing the well known legend…..Then hands were taken, and steps performed round the bouchal na druleen[wren boys], who capered away in his best style, shaking the bush ans the poor prisoner in unison. They generally succeeded in extracting drink or money.. In most buys under the age of 15 pity for the sufferings of the small animal is the exception (Kennedy  1867, 233-234).

This must have been very traumatic for the little bird. Thankfully the practice of using  live or dead wrens has long died out.

So why did the poor little wren receive such harsh treatment? According to folklore the  Wren  was blamed for betraying the Christian martyr St. Stephen when he was in hiding by making noises, hence the reason for hunting the Wren on St. Stephen’s Day.

Wren Boys Athea Limerick 1946 National Museum of Irelandhttp://www.communityarchives.org.uk/content/organisation/our-irish-heritage

When the groups of wren boys travelled around from house to house, a poem was recited  and a number of songs grew up around the tradition. In Halls account from Cork in 1840 (Ireland: its scenery, character etc.) the poem recited was as follows

The wran, the wran, the King of all birds,

St Stephen’s day was cot in the furze

Although he is little his family’s grate,

Put yer hand in yer pocket and give us a trate.

Sing holly, sing ivy- sing ivy, sing holly,

A drop just to drink it would drown melancholy

And if you dhraw it ov the best,

I hope in heaven yee sowl will rest,

But if you dhraw it ov the small

It won’t agree wid de wran boys at all

A similar poem was recorded  in Drogheda Co Louth in the 1930’s. This poem was recited throughout the country in the 20th century with slight variations and is still recited today.

The wran the wran the King of all birds, St Stephen’s day was caught in the furzse.

Although he was small his family was great. Rise up landlady and give us a trate.

Up with the ketel and down with the pan.

A penny on a halfpenny to bury the Wran

(NFCS, Naomh Muire, Droichead Átha 0680: 219)

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Dublin Wrenboys 1933 National Museum of Ireland photo taken from http://www.sligoheritage.com

In all the poems  the wren is called the King of all birds. A lovely Irish folk tale recalls how the wren became king of all birds

Many years ago all the birds gathered together and wanted to have a king. The birds were satisfied that the bird that would fly the highest was to be their king. All the birds flew up into the air and the eagle far above them looked down and shouted, “I am the king of all birds.” But the wren hopping out from beneath the eagle’s wing shouted “You are not the king yet” and he flew still higher. The eagle was too tired to follow him and the wren was the king. When the wren came down out of the air the birds said he was too small and they proposed to drown him. But no water was to be found so all the birds began to cry into a bowl. When the bowl was filled with tears the clumsy owl tripped over the bowl and spilt it. They had all their tears shed and had nothing to drown him and he is still the king of all birds (NFSC Raheenagh (B.),  Volume 0493: 025).

Music was  and still is a very important part of the wren tradition. The Wren Boys usually carried some musical instruments with them such as a  tin whistles or “sometimes melodeons or mouth organs”. They would play music and  often dance and amuse their audience ‘by quips, pranks and buffoonery’ (Danaher 1972, 249). I have included an RTE documentary on the  Wren  tradition in  Mountcollins West Limerick  which provides further insight into the process.

At the end of the day the wren was normally buried  when all housed were visited. In Mountcollins Co Limerick  it was lucky for the wren to be buried opposite a  house.  In other cases the wren was buried opposite a house that refused to give any food, drink or money to the wren boys, it was said no luck would enter the house for the next 12 months (Danaher 1972, 249).

The money that had been collected was either on the “wren” divided up between the group, this was the norm for groups of  children. Adults would often  use the money to  buy food and drink to be consumed later at a  ‘Wren Party’ or spent that night in a public house (Danaher 1972, 248, 250). In modern Ireland the money is often given to charity.

When night falls they go (the ) to a public house and spend the money (NFCS Denmore,  Volume 0977: 135).

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Wren boys from Limerick. Image from Limerick Museum Identifier: 1996.1314.190

The tradition of hunting the wren seems to be  very ancient and  very similar traditions  was also carried out in parts of Britain and France.

Hunting the Wren was also a central part of Christmas traditions on the Isle of Man. The following is an article by Howard Caine describes the traditions

This ritual hunting of the hapless bird would seem to have originally taken place on Christmas Day, when folk would head out in the early hours to hunt down and kill their prey, before bringing it back to the local church. It would then be plucked and buried with much ceremony and singing in Manx.

The feathers of the dead bird were considered lucky and were believed to have the power to protect fishermen from shipwreck, to say nothing of a more general protection against witchcraft.

Later, the custom seemed to migrate, (something the wrens no doubt wished they had picked up on) to St Stephen’s Day on 26 December. Young men would chase down the birds, beating them from bushes with long sticks and general carousing.

They would suspend their dead quarry on top of a pole decorated with ribbons and evergreen leaves – which would then be paraded around the houses where dancing and singing would take place – before the feathers were distributed and hopefully some form of financial contribution would be made to the performers.

In Wales the hunting of the wren occurred on the Twelfth Night of Christmas. Groups of men would go out Hunting the Wrenhe tiny bird would be caged in a wooden box and carried from door to door. Householders would pay for the privilege of peeping at the poor wren in the box. Songs about the wren were also sung below is a song from Pembrokshire

Joy, health, love and peace be all here in this place
By your leave we will sing concerning our King
Our King is well dressed in the silks of the best
In ribbons so rare no king can compare
We have travelled many miles over hedges and stiles
In search of our King unto you we bring…
Old Christmas is past Twelfth-tide is the last
And we bid you adieu – Great joy to the new

Below is a youtube video of a Welsh song  about hunting the wren.

 

St Stephens Day in Wales was associated with  Mari Lwyd (Grey Mare / Holy Mary) a horse skull covered in ribbons. The horse-figure  was carried from door to door by wassail-singing groups during the Christmas season. The Welsh Museum blog provides the following description below. The Mari Lywd custom  reminds me of the horse used by the wren boys in the Dingle area which I mentioned above.

This figure (which is, of course, represented in other countries) seems to have been once known all over southern Wales but during the present century relatively little has been seen of it outside of Glamorgan, where it is not yet completely extinct.

The attendant ritual began with the singing of traditional stanzas by the Mari Lwyd group at the door, soliciting both permission to sing and entry into the house, and issuing a challenge to a versifying contest.

Next followed the pwnco, the debate conducted to the same music in a combination of traditional and impromptu stanzas) between a member of the group and an opponent within the house.  This usually amounted to heavy leg-pulling in which the contestants mocked each other’s singing, drunkenness, etc.

Victory in the debate would ensure admission into the house for the Mari Lwyd group, to partake of cakes and ale and perhaps collect a money gift as well.  In at least some cases, after the end of the debate, the group would sing additional stanzas introducing its individual members and finally, after entertaining the occupants of the house, it would deliver a farewell song (https://museum.wales/articles/2014-06-14/Christmas-customs-The-Mari-Lwyd/).

 

 

I really enjoyed researching the Irish Wren tradition,  and id love to find out more about the tradition outside of Ireland. Im  also glad the little wrens of Ireland can sleep safely now.

References

Caine, H. 2005, ‘Hunting the Wren’,http://www.bbc.co.uk/isleofman/content/articles/2005/12/07/hunting_the_wren_feature.shtml

Danaher, K. 1972. The Year in Ireland. Irish Calendar Customs. Cork: Mercier Press.

Hall,C.S. & Hall,  Mrs 1841. Ireland: its scenery, character.London : How and Parsons.

Kennedy, P. 1867. The banks of the Boro: A Chronicle of the County of Wexford. Dublin: M’Glashen & Gill.

Woods, P. 1997. ‘Hunting the Wren’https://www.dingle-peninsula.ie/home/culture-and-language/wren-s-day.html

NFCS Clogher 0095: 80.

NFCS Denmore,  Volume 0977:135.

NFSC Raheenagh (B.), Ráthluirc (roll number 10814).

https://museum.wales/articles/2014-06-14/Christmas-customs-The-Mari-Lwyd/

Other Wren Day related resources

http://www.mustrad.org.uk/articles/drama.htm#wren
http://www.ouririshheritage.org/page_id__70_path__0p4p.aspx

http://blog.goireland.com/…/christmas-in-ireland-the-wren…/

https://www.trac-cymru.org/en/traditions/hunting-the-wren

http://www.carrigalinecelticband.com/?p=913

https://thefadingyear.wordpress.com/2015/12/26/st-stephens-day-and-the-wren-boys/

http://www.duchas.ie/en/cbes/4427832/4348838

http://www.bbc.co.uk/wales/christmas/sites/content/pages/customs.shtml

http://resources.trac.wales/traditions/hunting-the-wren/

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