The Book of the Dun Cow
This is the book of the dun cow.
The book is revered for the skin
Blessed cow of the saint. His
He loved her, followed her
And when she died cradled in straw
He stretched her skin, pegged it to
Now he is seated in a stone cell
But when his eyes tire with writing
the scent of the dun cow and the
The Book of the Dun Cow is a compilation of prose and verse in Irish transcribed by monks at the great monastery of Clonmacnoise around ad 1100. It was widely believed that its vellum pages had been cut from the skin of a dun cow, Odhar, who accompanied the founder of the monastery, St Ciaran, when he left home to live the life of a monk. Odhar’s milk sustained the monastery. The saint drew a line on the ground between her and her calf with his staff and thereafter the holy cow licked her calf over the line, but never let it suckle, so that she always had enough milk for her human charges.
After her death, Odhar’s skin remained sacred. Cattle skins were highly regarded as agents of visions up until the eighteenth century in both Ireland and Scotland: there is record of a man who could not sleep because of the fleas in his bedding. He wrapped himself instead in an ox hide he found laid over a chair in his chamber and as a result stayed awake for three days and nights, experiencing visions.
The book, as a relic of the saint and his holy cow, was highly valued. It was, for example, handed over in 1380 as ransom for an O’Donnell prince who had been captured – along with some highly prized chairs – by enemies.
The text contains historical and religious material and the earliest known versions of several famous tales that date from the pre-Christian era, most notably the Táin Bó Cúailgne, the story of how Queen Maeve sent her army on one of the cattle raids that were the noble sport of their era to capture a precious brown bull from the herds owned by the men of Ulster. This story was supposed to have been written by the saint himself on vellum cut from Odhar’s skin.
From The Pop-Up Book of Invasions (AUP, 2007)