Emerald Isle

The Cows of Connor

Irish and Celtic myths and legends, Irish folklore and Irish fairy tales tales of Ireland

An old enemy can sometimes become the best of friends

Once in Ireland, somewhere around the south and east of the country near the old kingdom of Osraí, there lived a young farmer by the name of Connor. He had a small herd but a good one, of strong stock and unblemished, but one morning he arose from his bed before the dawn, as was his custom, and noticed that two of them were missing!

This was no small or laughing matter, so he took in his hand a long blackthorn stick of the sort that was used for both walking and fighting, and went forth to search for his missing cows. All day he travelled, through many parishes, towns and villages, asking everyone had they seen his cattle, but none had.

The sun had set and the evening was beginning to some in, and Connor felt despair, for he was tired and hungry, and he found himself under leaden grey darkening skies upon a desolate hath, with nothing for company but brambles and a low rough shieling, like the lair of a bandit or some wild beast.

Even so, when he spotted a gleam of light through the doorboards he went over and knocked, for even a rough bed was better than no bed!

A tall grey haired old man answered, and gazed upon Connor with dark, sharp eyes. He bid Connor welcome and introduced him to his wife, as tall and thin as her husband, but with oddly sharp teeth and fierce glittering black eyes.

"Be welcome," she said "we have been waiting for you!" and she pulled out a chair at the table which was laden with food.

More than a little taken aback at this strange pronouncement and even stranger people, Connor nonetheless girded himself up and took a firmer grip on his blackthorn. He could fight his way clear if they set upon him, he reasoned, and in any case it was dark outside and he was very tired and hungry.

After he sat, a knock came at the door and the old man rose up and opened it letting in a slender young black wolf, who padded across the floor to another room! From that door came forth a dark, slender, handsome youth, who took his place at the table and looked hard at Connor with his glittering eyes.

"You are welcome," he said, "we have waited for you!"

Before Connor could answer another knock was heard and in came a second wolf, who passed on to the inner room like the first, and soon another darkly handsome youth came out and sat down to supper with them, glaring at Connor with his keen eyes, saying nothing.

"These are our sons," said the old man, "tell them what you want, and what brought you here amongst us, for we live alone and don't care to have nosey neighbours and strangers coming to our place."

So Connor told them his tale, about his missing cattle, and how far and wide he had searched for them. He admitted he didn't know who he was or who his hosts were, but if they happened to know where his cows were he'd thank them kindly and be on his way.

Then they all laughed and looked at each other, and the old hag looked more frightful than ever when she showed her long, sharp teeth.

I can tell you that Connor was an Irish man of the sort that brooked no insult, and he felt his hot temper start to rise, so he rose along with it, hefting his blackthorn and telling them to let him out. They paid him no heed but only mocked him until the eldest of the sons stood up.

"We are fierce and evil, but we never forget a kindness. Do you remember one day down in the glen you found a poor little wolf in great agony and likely to die because a sharp thorn had pierced his side? And you gently extracted the thorn and gave him a drink, and went your way leaving him in peace and rest?"

"Aye, well do I remember it," said Connor, "and how the poor little beast licked my hand in gratitude!"

"Well," said the young man, "I am that wolf, and I shall help you if I can, but stay with us tonight and have no fear."

Little less alarmed but perhaps mollified somewhat, Connor sat again and they feasted late into the night, until Connor fell asleep in his cups. He awoke the next morning, dew-covered in a large hay rick in his own field, and he thought to himself that the whole thing had been a dream. Still oddly confident, he went back to his house and looked around expectantly hoping to find the two missing cattle, but they were nowhere to be seen.

He felt as sad as he had ever felt, but then spotted at the gate three of the most beautiful cows he had ever set eyes on. They must have strayed in, he imagined, from some neighbour's land, and he took his big stick to drive them out of the gate off the field.

But when he reached the gate, there stood a young black wolf watching, and when the cows tried to pass out at the gate he bit at them, and drove them back. Then Connor knew that his friend the wolf had kept his word. So he let the cows go quietly back to the field, and there they remained, and grew to be the finest in the whole country, and their descendants are flourishing to this day.

As for Connor, he grew rich and prospered; for a kind deed is never lost, but brings good luck to the doer for evermore, as the old proverb says:

Blessings are won,
By a good deed done.

But never again did Connor find that desolate heath or that lonely shieling, though he sought far and wide to return his thanks as was due to the friendly wolves. Neither did he ever again meet any of the family, though he mourned much whenever a slaughtered wolf was brought into the town for the reward, fearing his fine friends might be the victim.

For it was at that time the wolves in Ireland had grown so much in numbers, owing to the desolation of the country by constant wars, that a reward was offered and a high price paid for every wolf's pelt brought into the court of the justiciary.

And this was in the time of Queen Elizabeth, when the English troops made unending war against the Irish people. There were more wolves in Ireland than people, and the dead lay unburied in hundreds on the highways, for there were no hands left to dig their graves.

The old kingdom of Osraí can be found on the map below!


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