new zealand electronic poetry centre

Fiona Farrell

online works

The Book of the Dun Cow

This is the book of the dun cow.
It is to be treated with reverence.
Stowed bound in silk, in silver.

The book is revered for the skin
from which its pages are made.
Skin of the dun cow.

Blessed cow of the saint. His
heifer with her twisted horn,
milk spilling from her swaying udder.

He loved her, followed her
wandering. Slept pressed to her side
on frosty upland. Her spindly calf.

And when she died cradled in straw
he skinned her, blade tugging at tufts
of belly hair, slitting neck and knee.

He stretched her skin, pegged it to
dry, legs splayed. Soaked it in his own
piss to soften, then cut it in squares,
shaven and stitched to make a book.

Now he is seated in a stone cell
to write the words that matter most
to him, on the skin of his dun cow.

But when his eyes tire with writing
he can rest his forehead on the desk
and smell it:

the scent of the dun cow and the
winding way she led him, the
damp lick of buttercups, the
green plop where he could
warm bruised feet, when the
way was all stones and frost
made the ground

too hard.


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)

Fiona Farrell

Last updated 26 July, 2007