Medieval Cattle Raiders


March/April 2020

Ireland Medieval Manuscript Cattle SoloIt was not enough for medieval Irish lords to own cows, they also had to steal them. “Stealing cows was important in this society,” says archaeologist Daniel Curley of the National University of Ireland Galway. “It was a ready source of wealth, a slight to opponents’ honor and power, and a pseudo-martial sport.” In fact, pilfering the animals is the central theme of Ireland’s national epic, the Cattle Raid of Cooley, which was composed in the seventh and eighth centuries. It tells the tale of a conflict between the kings of Connacht and the kings of Ulster over the Brown Bull of Cooley, which was owned by Daire, an Ulster chieftain.


Medb, the warrior queen of Connacht, and her husband, the king Ailill, were very competitive about their assets, explains University of Minnesota Morris archaeologist James Schryver. “Much of their pillow talk involves arguing about their possessions, including which of them has the best bull.” Ownership of an impressive white-horned creature named Finnbhennach wins Ailill the argument. Determined to be richer than her husband, Medb plans to steal the famous brown bull from Daire and leads her army from Connacht to seize the animal. To settle the score, the teenage hero of Ulster, Cuchulainn, meets Medb’s greatest warrior—and Cuchulainn’s closest friend—Ferdiad, in combat. After four days, Cuchulainn wins the contest, defeats Medb’s army, and captures the brown bull. In the end, the brown bull vanquishes Finnbhennach—after which its heart bursts and it dies—and peace is finally declared.

Main Article:
Ireland Lough Key
Inside a Medieval Gaelic Castle
The Castle of Heroes