The last days of March and the first days of April are often the coldest days of the year in Ireland. How did Irish folklore make sense of these? By blaming the boastful Brindled Cow of course!
After an unseasonably warm St Patrick’s Day weekend, followed by a pleasant spell of weather, Ireland once again finds itself in the grips of cold, wet, gloomy weather.
But isn’t April supposed to herald summer-like temperatures? If not the abating of rain, then at least the disappearance of fog and frost?
According to Irish folklore, it’s because of the Bó Riabhach, a rare breed of Irish cow!
The Bó Riabhach
An Bó Riabhach (pronounced on bow ree-av-och) cattle are typically red to brown in coat color with black brindle type stripes throughout the body. Small white patches can be observed throughout this predominantly red/black/brown coat color scheme.
The word riabhach is Given in O Donaill’s dictionary as streaked/striped/brindled and the spelling has remained unchanged since Old Irish. Riabhach also has wider meanings – speckled grey/dull/drab. A common phrase La riabhach translates to a dull day.
The Bó Riabhach was once a fabled and numerous breed of cattle, but numbers dwindled to the verge of extinction in 2016 before a group of farmers joined forces to save the ancient Irish bovine.
Laethanta na Bó Riabhaí
The folk tale of Laethanta na Bó Riabhaí seeks to illustrating the unpredictability of the weather at this time of year in Ireland.
The tale relates how the bó riabhach complained at the beginning of April to her herd about the harshness of the weather in March. As the complaining of the cow continued, March began to take interest as well as offense and decided to teach the speckled cow a lesson to remember. To do this, March “borrowed” the first three days of April but made them so bitterly cold and miserable that before they were ended the unlucky bó riabhach had died.
To understand the story of the brindled cow, one needs to tune into our ancestors’ past – their in particular, their dependence on the weather and the land and livestock. Cattle were the cornerstone of Irish society and both older and some male animals were culled around Martinmas (November 11th) to spare fodder for the remaining cattle over winter. March was traditionally the harshest month for livestock, as they awaited fresh growth of grass and watched the last reserves of fodder deplete. April brought with it the promise of lush spring and stirrings of soon to come summer, but not before testing the last of the land’s patience.
Teventual lesson of the days of the brindled cow is that complaining about the harshness of the weather should be done at one’s peril. As with all cautionary tales, the story teaches us to be patient with nature and refrain from complaining about situations that may be out of our control.
The Schools’ Collection
In 1937 and 1938, more than 100,000 schoolchildren, under the supervision of their teachers, collected stories from the old people in their local school areas and transcribed them into notebooks. These notebooks were deposited in The Folklore Collection in University College Dublin and digitised on duchas.ie.