The high value of cattle – and the fact that they were easily movable – explains why these were often stolen. In medieval Irish history and literature, there are many accounts of cattle-raids, including the famous tale of Táin Bó Cúailnge or ‘The Cattle-Raid of Cooley’.
It seems that cattle were brought to burials in the Middle Ages. Referring to Domhnall Ó Conchobhair, who was killed in 1307 and buried at Boyle Abbey, the Annals of Connacht say: ‘never in that age was there brought with any corpse so many droves and flocks and cattle and companies of horse and foot and mercenaries as we brought with him to his burial’.
Early Irish cattle seem generally to have been small and black – like the Kerry cow, or bó Chiarraí, today – but there are references to red, brown and white cattle as well.
A vast range of dairy products were consumed in medieval Ireland, including milk, cream, butter and cheese. One Old Irish tale states that milk is the best food because it is ‘good when fresh, good when old, good when thick and good when thin’.
It is estimated that there are currently around 988 million head of cattle in the world!