The Old Man and the Nervous Cow

An Old Tale of the West of Ireland

 

“There once was an old man who said,

“How Shall I escape from this horrible cow?

“I will sit on the stile,

“and continue to smile, “

which may soften the heart of the cow.'”

The old man was walking thoughtfully through the field, with his hands behind his back, when the nervous cow saw him. She wasn’t ordinarily a bad-natured cow, but she was very angry just then, for an aggravating fly had been biting her half the morning. Then, on top of all that aggravation, just as she was drinking at the stream, a frog had jumped up with a cry and bitten her on the nose. These things had completely unsettled her nerves, and she was ready to run at anything. With the old man being the only living thing in sight, she rushed toward him.

Nervous Cow 1What could the old man do? He was a short, stout old man, and could not run very fast. Although he tried his best, the old man just managed to reach the stile and plump himself down on it, all out of breath, as the cow neared him. Then he suddenly recalled reading somewhere that if you were to look an animal directly in its eyes, it would run away from you. “Ah!” he thought to himself, “I’ll look her straight in the eye, and if I smile at the same time, she won’t have the heart to hurt me.” So, he put a smile on his face, even though it was not a very attractive smile, and he stared straight into the cow’s eyes. When the cow saw that smile, ugly though it was, it so touched her heart that she stopped in her tracks. She sauntered back a little way, but the memory of that aggravating fly, and that awful frog, proved too much for her poor nerves and, turning around, she dashed madly forward again. Within a minute, the poor old man; his cane, little legs, smile and all, was up in the air.

He landed on top of a chestnut-tree. One branch grazed his eye, while two ran into his legs, and another held his smile stiff and straight. The old man stayed this way until he was sighted by an eagle, which immediately pounced down on the poor man, and flew off with him to her nest, built on a huge rock that rose straight up into the cold air and reached the summit of a mountain. Can you imagine how astonished the eagle’s chicks were when the old eagle dumped the little old man down into their nest? They opened their beaks as well as their eyes, and cried out to her, “What’s this, mother? What is this?”

Oh! it’s only a man,” cried the old eagle. “I found him roosting in the top of a tree. I don’t know how he got there. Maybe he thought that he could fly, and suddenly discovered he couldn’t. Tell us how it was, old man.

Can he talk?

Talk!” said the eagle. “Of course, he can talk. And I bet he can tell all sorts of stories. So, if you like, you may keep him to tell you stories.”

Oh, wont that be nice! Tell us a story, right now,” the chicks all screamed at the old man, as they pulled the old man down into the nest.

But it’s so dirty here,” complained the old man, looking around, with his nose turned up a little. “Just let me sit on the edge of the nest, won’t you? And I’ll tell you all the stories you want.”

You’ll fall over.”

Oh no, I won’t. I’ll hold on with my cane and my legs. Now just shut your beaks, so you won’t look so savage, and listen carefully.” So, the old man perched himself on the edge of the nest and the eaglets took strong hold of his coat with their beaks, to prevent him from falling. Then, sitting comfortably, he began to tell them the story of “Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves“. and when that was ended, another, and then another. The old man did not eat much supper that night, for there was nothing he cook on, and he didn’t sleep well, for whenever one of the eaglets woke up during the night, it always pinched him with its beak, to make sure he was there. Tired of this, the old man quickly resolved to get away as soon as it was possible. But he didn’t seem to have any chance of escape, and so he stayed where he was and told stories until he began to yearn to wring the necks of the gaping birds that kept asking him for more.

Now, all this time, the cow had been getting more and more nervous. Every day she thought of the poor old man and his meek little legs, and his sweet old smile, and just how his coat-tails looked as he went up in the air. Finally, she sadly laid her head down on a tuft of grass by the stream and began to cry. After relieving her sadness in this way, she became calm, and, getting up from the ground said, “I’ll go to his house and find out how and where he is, if I can.” So off she started. But the house was closed, and there was no one there except for the cat, which became very frightened when the cow pushed up the pantry window with her horns.

Through the window she bellowed, “Where’s your master?

I don’t know,” replied the cat nervously as he retreated into a far corner, with his back up. “I haven’t set eyes on him since last Sunday.

Oh dear!” sighed the cow, dropping the window with a crash that broke two panes of glass. “What shall I do?

What’s the matter with you? And what do you want of the old man?” asked Tabby, bounding out through one of the broken panes. The cow told him.

Well,” said Tabby, stroking his whiskers reflectively, “I guess I’ll go with you and help you look for the kindly old man.” So, they walked on, asking everybody they met about the old man. But nobody knew where he was, until finally they came across an old crow who knew everybody’s business.

An old man?” he asked. “Sure, the eagle took an old man the other day. Did your old man have thin legs?

Yes, yes!” said the cat and the cow together. “With a sweet smile on his face?”

Yes, yes!” cried the cow.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                          “He went up with that smile, and it has been haunting me ever since,” she said as she burst into floods of tears.

Well,” said the crow, “he’s in the eagle’s nest telling stories to the eaglets, and I’m sure the man sore and tired of that business by now, if I’m not mistaken.”

Where is the nest?—and how can we get there?”

It’s up at the very top of that mountain over there. Go straight ahead, and you can’t miss it.

Nervous Cow 3
Bill Doyle Bill Doyle was born in Dublin in 1926 and has lived here all his life. From an early age Bill was involved in photography, but it wasn’t until after he won the Daily Telegraph Magazine Photographer of the Year Award in London, in 1967, that he took up freelance photography as a fulltime career. He won this for a collection of photographs of the Aran Islands, many of which were included in the major retrospective held in the Gallery of Photography in 2007 and which toured to Ennis and to Inis Oirr in 2008. Doyle has won numerous awards and has exhibited his work in Japan, Germany, England, Australia and the USA. His books include The Aran Islands, Images of Dublin ??? A Time Remembered and Bill Doyle???s Ireland.

So straight ahead they went until they came to the rock where the eagle’s nest was, and wondered what should they do next? They could hear the old man’s little, thin voice telling stories to the birds, but they knew he wouldn’t chance to come where the cow was, even if he could clamber down that steep rock. Finally, Tabby suggested that the cow should hide herself, while he climbed up into the nest and persuaded the old man to come down. So, as the cow hid, the cat scrambled his way up to the nest and carefully poked his head into it. “Ah, master!” he whispered, “climb down the rock to-night, and I’ll show you the way home.” And then he disappeared. But his visit bolstered the old man’s courage, and when the mother-bird came home he calmly told her that he thought he would sleep at the foot of the rock that night, and she unsuspectingly took him in her talons and dropped him gently on the ground.

As soon as the Eagle had gone, the old man looked all about him, and called “Tabby, Tabby,” very softly. Tabby came out from under the roots of a tree and bounded on his shoulder, and told him how sorry the cow was, and how she was waiting in a thicket ready to carry him home, if he wanted to go. Of course, the old man wanted to go home, and in a moment the cow had come out from her hiding-place, had cried a little. But she took the old man on her back, and started down the mountain at full speed, with the cat chasing after her. It was a long way to the old man’s house, and tired out they finally reached it, got something to eat, and then they went to bed, where they slept right through the next two days. On the morning of the third day they all got up together, full of life, and, after eating a hearty breakfast, they all agreed that they would live together for the rest of their lives. This is the way that they have lived ever since that day, in perfect peace and harmony.

Shot by the Fairies!

SusieIn 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.

St. Martin's FireThe ‘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.

UPDATE

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.

Tim Harte Goes Courting

Big Tom Harte was his adopted mother’s jack-of-all-trades. In fact, I do not know how she could ever have managed the farm without having his clear head and sound judgment to guide her. Everyone in the parish knew Tom as a man well-trained in getting a bargain and, probably, the best judge of a ‘beast’ in this part of the county. Although I knew the man well, I truly believe he deserves all such compliments because I can never remember mother ever losing money on her cattle dealings, and at various shows and fairs our animals were highly regarded for their appearance. Tom did not regard himself as being wholly an Ulster-man and took a lot of pride in the fact that through his mother he could claim Scottish descent, and some said that much of Tom’s cautiousness with money and shrewdness in dealing with others was a result of this Scottish blood.
We, children were always rather in awe of him. He ruled over us and our lives on the farm with a rod of iron, and woe betide anyone who dared to enter the garden before the house had been supplied with ample fruit for preserving! Our lives would not be worth living if we decided to launch an assault upon his beloved fruit trees or damaged his trim flower-beds! Yet, it was very good for us that someone had been set in authority over the garden and farm-yard, for we were a rambunctious lot of fatherless ‘gorsoons’. But the years passed quickly as, one-by-one, we grew into adulthood. I, being the eldest, left home first and was the first to return, more alone after being so happy for a very short period of time. When I returned home, a young widow, the younger children had all flown the nest, and my mother now had no one left but me, and she was growing old. I decided immediately that I should put my future, and that of my son’s, into her hands, and soon we became thoroughly acquainted with Tom Harte. In his mind I was ‘the young mistress’ or ‘Miss Ellen’ and I can honestly state that I often felt at a disadvantage when I was in his presence. He had a widespread knowledge of subjects in which I was totally ignorant, he could calmly reject my farming theories without belittling me, he was always successful in all ventures that he undertook, and he completely overawed me to such an extent that, after a struggle or two, I would give in.
Although Tom must have been at least forty at this time, he looked quite a few years younger, was handsome, tall and well-built, and most importantly a bachelor. He had a bright twinkle in his grey eyes, which almost contradicted his firm-set mouth with its long upper lip and massive square chin. From his mother he had inherited a close calculating mind, which was hard to convince and slow to take on-board new impressions but would strongly retain these new thoughts once he had accepted them. From his father, roving Pat Harte from Donegal, he inherited an Irishman’s ready wit and nimble tongue, and under all an Irishman’s fickle heart, but not his warm affections, which went so far towards mitigating such fickleness.
Tom was unusual among men of his own class, for he was well to do. He had successfully speculated in cattle on his own account and he had money in the bank and a snug cottage of his own. Nevertheless, year after year, Shrove-tide after Shrove-tide, which was the marrying season throughout Roman Catholic Ireland, Tom could be found rejoicing in the blessings of being single. Yet, the man could not have had a comfortable home, for his old mother was a confirmed invalid and, as Tom was known to be very careful with money, he only provided her with the services of a little girl who was scarcely in her teens. I can recall that, on more than one occasion, mother had spoken to him about matrimony. But, on each occasion Tom would answer her with the argument, “Is it as easy to work for two as for one, ma’am?” Hearing this type of answer from him, she ceased bothering him about it.
On one bright frosty November day I sent Tom to the Ballygarr on very important business. Then, to assure myself that this business had reached a favourable outcome, I walked along the road to meet him as he returned home. But, I waited and waited for his return until the expected time of his arrival home had passed. The delay caused me to feel rather uneasy and I, therefore, quickened my steps along that winding sea-side road. Then, as I came around a bend in the road the reason for Tom’s delay was revealed to me. Ahead, I could see him walking beside a very pretty country girl, while another, not so young or nearly so pretty, lagged a little behind them.
“Well, Master Tom!” I thought to myself, “Are we to hear news of you this Shrove-tide?’
As I came forward, the two girls fell back, and Tom hurried forward to meet me. He looked shy and rather sheepish as he came toward me. I immediately recognised the pretty girl as being Mary Docherty, who was considered to be the most beautiful girl in the district, and she hung her shapely head, trying to hide her blushing face as she passed me by.
Tom was calm and very business-like as soon as the girls were out of sight. He had lodged money for me in the county bank, settled my own and my mother’s accounts with butcher, baker, and grocer, and transacted all our various businesses with care and correctness. Having given me a full account of what he had been doing, Tom hurried on, while I continued with my evening walk. Twilight was quickly falling when I returned home and, although more than an hour had elapsed since Tom had went ahead of me on the road, he was just entering the gate as I turned from the sea-road and on to the small path leading to the same gate. In the house, later that evening, I caused my mother to smile very brightly as I told her about what I had seen on the road. “But,” said she, “poor little Mary has no fortune behind her, and Tom will be looking for one with any girl he decides marry.”
A few days after this encounter, Tom quietly took me into his confidence. We were making our winter preparations in the green-house, putting away the summer plants whose flowering days were done, and filling up gaps in our shelves with bright chrysanthemums and other winter-blooming plants. Mother was exhausted after an hour of this work, and so Tim and I were left alone among the flowers. For a lengthy period of time he worked away at the task in silence, but I could see that he was longing to speak. Just as I was about give him the opportunity to speak, however, he forestalled me.
”It was a fine day that day I was in Ballygarr, Mrs Greene” he said, as he passed me carrying a huge flowering bush from one end of the greenhouse to the other.
“It was indeed, Tom. Had you many people about that day?” I replied.
“No, ma’am, there weren’t very many. Some of them soldier boys from the barracks.”
“Were there many people from around these parts?” I asked him.
“Hugh Docherty and his sister, and Susie O’Connor, were there ma’am.”
“Ah, sure you walked home with the girls. What became of Hugh that time?”
“Sure, you know what it’s like, ma’am, he just got overtaken with a drop of drink. I simply thought it would be a friendly gesture for to see the girls home safely.”
“I am sorry to hear Hugh was so bad as that, Tom.”
“Well, it was all his own fault, Miss Ellen, for he did not want to leave ‘Mrs Gallagher’s Pub’ no matter what we said, and so we just left him there. But! Miss Ellen, I’ve had some thought about a change to my life.”
“I am very glad to hear it, Tom.”
“Yes, Miss! Yes, indeed, miss. Sure, it is lonely work growing old with nobody to take care of you.”
Susie“God bless us, Tom, that’s a selfish way of looking at things,” I told him.
“But, miss, why else would a man marry, but to have himself taken care of?”
“I suppose liking the girl he married would also be a reason too,” I responded.
“Oh aye! I’d still like to have a woman that I’d fancy, but she must be handy.”
“And who would you be thinking of?” I asked, as Tom bent over a box of geranium cuttings. “Whoever she may be, I hope she is nice and good, and that she will be kind to your poor old mother, as well as a good manager?”
“You can be sure that I wouldn’t take one that wasn’t that, Miss Ellen,” he replied, without raising his head. “But, sure it’s awful hard to tell how these young ones will turn out.”
“She is young then?”
“Young enough, and settled enough,” he told me. “There’s two that I’m thinking of.”
“Two!” I exclaimed. “Well that’s not the right to do, Tom. A man of your years is surely old enough to know what kind of wife would suit him best. Besides, it’s not very fair to the girls. They are related to each other, I believe. Those two young women you were walking home with on Saturday?”
“They are,” replied Tom, utterly unembarrassed by what he had said. “Mary Docherty and Susie O’Connor. Mary’s the prettiest, though,” he added in a sort of heartfelt sigh.
“Aye, I have always heard that she was as good as she looked,” I told him. “She has been such a dutiful daughter and a good sister to those wild boys, that she cannot fail to make a good wife for someone.”
“Maybe,” Tom replied. “But the Docherty family hasn’t got much money about them these days.”
“I know they are not very rich, Tim, but they are comfortable.”
“Aye, they aren’t begging, miss, begging your pardon. But, even you will admit that there is little comfort about the house.”
“Well, I suppose she has known what it is to want, and she will know better how to take care of plenty, when she gets it.”
“I don’t know about that! Maybe when she’d get her two hands full she’d be throwing it all away, for them that has been reared in poverty seldom know how to handle plenty when it comes.”
“Well, I have always heard Mary praised for being the prettiest and the best girl in the entire county, and I am sure you would think yourself a happy man if you could get her for your wife,” I said sharply.
“There’s not a word of a lie in what you say, Miss Ellen,” replied Tom, as he placed the last young geranium in its pot. “She’s a good girl, and as pretty a girl as you’d see in an entire summer’s day. But, I have a wish to step up and see all contenders before I speak to her.”
“Why, Tom, have things gone as far as that?”
“Well, I may say I have her courted up to the asking, miss.”
“And the other, Tom?” I asked him and tried desperately to hide my amusement.
“Truthfully, I don’t know, but I have her on hand too.”
“Now, is that fair to either of those wee girls?” I asked rather indignantly.
“Sure, I don’t know. All I do know is that a man has to look sharply before he jumps.”
“And who is the other girl? Mary’s cousin?”
“Yes, miss! ‘Long Tom O’Connor’s’ daughter, from Drumshesk. She’s up with Mary since Hollowe’en. Hughie’s looking after her.”
“She’s no beauty, Tom”’
“No, miss! But she’s settled. They tell me that her temper is a little rough, but she has the finest two-year-old heifer that I ever set my eyes on. A pure beauty, Miss Ellen.”
“Sure, what good would the cow be to you, Tom, if you had a sour cross-grained wife at home?”
“Aye, but maybe she wouldn’t be so sour or cross when she’d have a good house over her head and plenty in her hand. She’s getting old, Miss Ellen, and she sees the young ones coming on, and leaving her on the shelf. I tell you, there would be a ‘quare’ change in her if she had her own way.”
“By God, Tom, you seem to think much more of the cow than the girl!’ I retorted.
“Truthfully, it’s the prettiest of the two. But miss, I’m asking, what would you advise me to do?”
“You should marry the girl you like best, Tom, and never mind the cow. A young sweet-tempered girl like Mary, who has been so good to her sickly parents, so gentle and loving to those wild brothers of hers, cannot fail to make you a good wife. You will never be sorry, if you marry the girl you like best.”
“That would be right, ma’am. She is a good girl, and I’m in no doubt that I like her beyond any other woman in the world. But, Miss Ellen, I’d wish she had the cow!”
Next day I left home, and I did not return until the daffodils were glittering in the spring meadows around our home, and the rooks were cawing over their fledglings in the trees that stood behind our garden. Tom was married, for I had heard the news from my mother early in the year. But, I still did not know which fair maid he had decided to choose, and I was eager to find out. It was late at night when I returned home from my travels, and my mother had far too much to tell me about other than the termination of Tom’s courtship.
In the morning, I made my way into the garden, the farm-yard, the fields lying close by, and still I could not find Tom. I didn’t meet up with him until late in the afternoon, when I found him busily trenching up some early cabbages in the back-garden. He seemed rather shy of me, but I put out my hand and greeted him warmly.
“You’re welcome home, Mrs Greene, ma’am,” he said. He struck his spade into the fresh-turned earth and shook the hand that I offered him with more than ordinary warmth. “We’ve been waiting a very long time to have you back among us.”
“Thank you, Tom. So, I have to wish you every future happiness.”
Tim looked sheepish, but speedily recovered himself. “Yes, ma’am, if happiness it is to be.”
“Oh, there can be little doubt on that score, Tom. I hope Mary is well?”
“Mary? You mean Mary Docherty? Why, she’s spoken for with ‘Lanky’ Muldoon that owns the hotel in Ballygarr.”
“Well, Tom, I thought you were going to marry Mary?”
“No, Miss Ellen, I chose not to. I believe her and ‘Lanky’ were married last Saturday.”
“And what made you change your mind, Tom?”
“Well, I just took Susie. For you see, Miss Ellen, I decided that a cow would make the difference between any two women in the world”
“So, it was the cow that won the day for Susie, after all!”