In some parts of Ireland, when a cow becomes dull, refuses to take food, moans, and gives other indications of suffering peculiar pain, the farmers will almost immediately conclude that “she’s shot,” or, as is expressed in Irish Gaelic, “id sidithte.” The phrase suggests the involvement of the ‘sidheoga’ or fairies, and the belief is that they have shot the cow, and there are certain symptoms that appear to be peculiar to this condition. These symptoms point unmistakably to the observer that the cow has been shot, the chief symptom is a swelling of the body and painful moaning.
When such a condition arose, however, only the village’s ‘cow-doctor’ could tell for definite if the beast had been shot by the fairy folk. My great grandfather spoke one time of these ‘cow doctors’, whom he had often seen diagnosing such things. He told how he had even helped these men to perform the curing ceremony which is one of the strangest I have ever heard described.
The ‘doctor’ stood to one side of the cow, while his assistant stood at the other. The assistant takes hold of a pair of tongs to grab a glowing ember of turf and slightly burns the “the Sign of the Cross” on the hair of the cow’s side. When this is complete, he hands the tongs across, under the cow’s body, to the ‘doctor,’ who burns the “Sign of the Cross” on the other side and afterwards passes the tongs over the cow’s back to his assistant again. This ritual is repeated three times, and the first and principal part of the ceremony is concluded by making the “Sign of the Cross” with the ember on the cow’s nostrils.
The second part of the ceremony appears to be more a ‘test’ than a ‘cure.’ The doctor ‘measures’ the cow with his arm from ‘elbow’ to the ‘point’ of his fingers, beginning at the cow’s tail and going towards the horns. The ‘measurement’ is also repeated three times, and if the cow is to get better, the second measurement should be shorter than the first, and the third measurement shorter than the second, &c. Should the attempted ‘cure’ fail, which will not happen if the cow suffers from ‘shot’ and the doctor is called in time, the owner is asked that, in order to prevent the beast’s death, to ‘Tabhair do Mairtain,’ meaning ” Give her to Martin,” namely St. Martin. The owner usually agrees to this measure, and then a “nick” is cut in the animal’s ear. Blood flows from the wound and the death of the cow is averted. In most areas of Ireland, the animal can never be sold after this, but must be killed and eaten as a feast on St. Martin’s Eve, though not necessarily for many years afterwards.
In the north of Ireland, where I live, the practice was somewhat different. The owner is not barred from selling the animal, and instead of giving it to “Martin,” some member of the family, who is thought to be “lucky”, was presented with it. It was no uncommon thing to see several animals, particularly cows and sheep, at fairs with nicks cut in their ears, or a piece cut out. If there were many nicks it is regarded as a sign that the animal was of a delicate constitution, which naturally resulted in there being a reduction in the price. The number of incisions showed to all the number of times that an animal was in danger of death.
I have just had a message from a gentleman called Michael Hegarty with reference to this bit of folklore. He informs me that he once” saw a cow cured of ‘Red Water’ in similar circumstances without the need of getting a vet.” When asked to expand, Mr. Hegarty told me, “I was a kid at the time and the cure was to stick a pin in effected manure and say a prayer to St. Martin … It worked right away.”
Thanks to Michael for this piece of folklore. If anyone has similar experiences or stories please let me know by commenting on the Blog.