Cattle in Ancient Ireland

I’ve been working on an article on milk, which I think will be in next week’s Irish Times magazine. I did a fair bit of research, including reading a fascinating book, Cattle in Ancient Ireland, by A.T. Lucas. It’s amazing how intertwined milk cows are with Irish history, and our literature and historical tracts are full of cows. Professor Lucas writes, “It must be emphasised that these thousand of allusions (in ancient literature) are not to cattle in general but specifically to cows and more specifically to cows as yielders of milk. There are no beef-eating heroes in Irish literature; the doughtiest Irish warriors relied on pig-meat for their intake of protein.”

The importance of both cows and milk in Ireland is the basis for the article, along with my belief that we have the best milk in the world. Since there were far too many interesting tidbits in the book (and that was only one part of my research!) for a relatively short piece, I thought I’d put some of it here.

10 Things You Might Not Know About Cows and Ancient Ireland

1. The milk cow was the highest unit of currency under Brehon law, and Lucas writes, “The cow was the measure of everything: it was the unit of value; the ultimate in poverty was the man with only one cow; the wealth of the richest consisted of vast herds of them.”

2. There was a practise of bathing new-born infants in milk. St. Brigid was the daughter of a bondsmaid, and her mother was sent out to get milk, then “the maidservants washed St. Brigid with the milk that was still in her mother’s hand.”

In 1171, Henry II arrived in Ireland and insisted on reforms including that babies be baptised in churches. From the Chronicle of the Reign of Henry II: “For it was formally the custom in various parts of Ireland that immediately a child was born, the father or some other person immersed it three times in water and, if it was the child of a rich man, he immersed it three times in milk.” There us no suggestion that this bathing was a Christian baptismal rite.

3. It seems there was a tradition of not letting the calves go to their mothers after the death of an important person, so that they, missing their mother, joined in the keening, or wailing. In Cogadh Gaedhel re Gallaibh, describing the death of Brian Boru’s brother, it states: “Calves are not suffered to go to the cows, in lamentation for the noble Mathgamhain.”

From the Annals of Ulster, under 737: “Cernach, son of Fogartach, is treacherously slain by his own wicked associates, whom the calves of the cows, and the women of this lower world in long continued sadness bewailed.”

4. Buachaill, the Irish word for boy, comes from cowherd.

5. It was believed that a cow deprived of her calf would retain her milk. There are many stories about calves being separated and what had to be done to get the mother to give milk (in one miracle, the wolf who killed a calf allows the cow to lick it as she would her calf, at which point the cow gives milk). So, much of dairying had to do with keep the calf close by and yet not letting it drink all the milk. Stuffed calf skins were used later on.

6. There was a strange tradition, recorded on the Iveragh Peninsula, that when cows became ill after calving (reducing their milk), women blew three puffs of their breath into the cow’s vaginia as a therapeutic treatment. This is echoed in Herodotus talking of the Scythians: “…they insert a tube made of bone and shaped like a flute into the mare’s genitals… and while one blows, another milks.” It’s also echoed in Al0’Ubaid, from 2500BC, where milkers are shown in profile sitting behind the cows with their mouths adjacent to the genital region of the animals.

7. Cattle were brought to burials. There is a reference in Annals of Connacht to Domhnall O Conchobhair, who was killed in 1307 and buried at Boyle Abbey, Co. Roscommon: “He was taken to the Curlieu hills, and never in that age was there brought with any corpse so many droves and flocks of cattle and companies of horse and food and mercenaries as we brough with him to his burial.”

8. Cows not only defined wealth, but they were used as currency. They made up all or part of a bride-price. When a king of Tara married the daughter of the King of Offaly, he promised four score cows, two score at once, and two score not later than the next May Day.

9. Poets charged for their work in cows. The law tract Uraicecht Becc details the payments due to various grades of poets for their poems, ranging from one cow to ten cows (which tells you how valuable poems were at the time!).

10. Cattle raiding was common place. After all, our great epic, The Tain, is about a cattle raid. Creach, a word said to have originally meant marking or branding, is used as a reference to both the raid itself and for the intended prey.

Oisin, lamenting the quiet life says:

No courting or hunting, the two crafts we looked forward to
no fighting no raiding, no learning of athletic feats.

Gan bheit ag suirghe ag seilg
in dá cheird le a raibhe ar súil
gan deabaidh gan denamh creach
gan beith ag foghluim cleas luith.

Even the saints shared the plunder of raids. St. Caillin of Fenagh is depicted as insisting on a fat cow from every prey from each son of a king and chieftain.

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10 Things to Give Up for Lent

Assorted chocolates As we head into Lent, here’s my third “Things to Give Up” list.

As anyone who has followed this blog knows, I’m very fond of chocolate and feel it’s not really the best thing to give up, especially since the Vatican made a pronouncement in 1662, specifically allowing it (at least in drinking form – more here). Besides the panic I feel at the thought of being without chocolate, I think, in general, that there are far more creative uses for Lent.

So, here’s my Top Ten Things To Give Up For Lent this year:

1. Complaining. There’s far too much of it around. I know things are bad in many ways, but complaining wont help that one bit. Better to try to change things and take a bit of positive action.

2. Eating cashews when I’m starving. It’s my rather odd binge habit.

3. Staying inside when it’s sunny out, whenever possible.

4. Worrying about the state of the Irish economy, NAMA, and what the year will bring. In fact, make that worrying in general. Like complaining, worrying doesn’t change anything.

5. Going to Tesco, even when it’s extremely handy. They don’t deserve my hard-earned euros.

6. Arriving home late for dinner with my beautiful little daughter and partner (especially annoying for them since I generally do the cooking).

7. Any restaurant that serves a dish with sweet chili sauce. Time to figure out something a little more interesting!

8. On-line shopping. Better to meet people face to face, support local shops, and spare the credit card.

9. Watching the news. Perhaps these days, ignorance really IS bliss.

10. Anything that gets in the way of friends and family. After all, it’s February, and things will be much busier soon in the world of ice cream!

I’ll let you know how I get on.

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It’s Time To Change the Debate

 Last night, on RTE’s Frontline program, there was a discussion of whether it made sense to buy Irish foods, or whether it made sense to shop in the North, which is cheaper. John McKenna spoke up for supporting Irish foods and used some strong language in making his points. There were some angry farmers, an amazing number of regular people saying they wanted to support Irish (including some on the dole), and of course there was the usual retail bashing. Eddie Hobbes mocked the notion of buying Irish, saying the best thing for the economy was for everyone to buy in the North so that prices would come down further here. It seems his logic is that with no customers, everyone will be out of work, and then stuff will get really, really cheap in Ireland. As happens on so many of these programs, the discussion devolved into price, price and price. Were retailers ripping people off? If not, who was ripping people off? Were prices too high?

I found it all very depressing. During the Celtic Tiger, so much public discussion focused on prices and money. House prices, food prices, salaries, etc. Now, we’re in a recession, and the discussion hasn’t changed a bit. It’s still about house prices, food prices, salaries, etc. When can we leave this behind and have discussions of all the other things that are important – family, trust, truth, love, beauty, honour, leisure, heritage, caring etc? One would think, now that the Celtic Tiger and the myth of money = happiness has been exposed, that we could focus on other issues besides prices and money.

The fact is that we buy for all sorts of reasons, even if we’re constrained financially. Price becomes important if we see the item as a commodity or don’t really care about the quality (toilet roll would be an example in my case. I’d buy the cheapest and save my money for other things, but my partner violently disagrees). But for many of our purchases, price is only one of many factors. Do we buy the cheapest shoes, regardless of style or quality, or do we rather buy the best and most stylish shoes we can afford on our budget?

We make choices all of the time with our purchases, and those choices can define the society we live in. If we bought more organics, organics would grow (which they have, by the way – 13% growth last year, defying the notion that price is everything). If we support a restaurant we love, that restaurant will probably pull through these tough times. If we hate a shop, we can simply shop elsewhere and it will probably fail. We, as purchasers, have great power. We can decide who survives and who fails with the money we have to spend, even if our budgets are shrinking.

To show that price isn’t everything, here are 10 other, perfectly good reasons that I buy things:

1. Because I know and like the person. For example, I have a jumper I bought from a friend who knits them. I actually make a lot of purchases this way, and for me this category also encompasses local.

2. Because I simply love it. My camera would fall into this category. There are loads of cheaper cameras, but I love my Nikon D300. For food, think Glenilen’s clotted cream or Llewellyn’s apple juice.

3. Because it’s Irish. Knowing how hard it is for farmers these days, I wouldn’t feel right buying potatoes, eggs, fish, milk, etc. from abroad. You can mock me, but I feel better buying Irish when I can on products that matter to me. Saying that buying Irish is xenophobic or anti-free trade is a nonsense – I am all for free trade, and I love certain products from abroad. However, I also have a sense of community and understand that my purchasing decisions matter.

4. Because it’s stylish and/or very cool. My iPhone fits in this category. I don’t make a lot of these purchases, but they sure make me happy.

5. Because it’s ethical or Fairtrade. As long as the quality is good, I feel much better supporting companies with this ethos.

6. Because it’s natural/organic/Biodynamic. Always important to me, this has become much more important after having a baby. I simply couldn’t feed her junk or dress her in synthetic clothes. I’d rather put off my visit to the dentist, put off buying myself new clothes, etc.

7. Because it supports a cause I believe in – for example, my Chernobyl Children’s Project sweatshirt. Not the cheapest, but what a good cause, and I always feel good wearing it.

8. Because the quality is good. This, of course, is one of the most basic reasons we decide to buy anything, and we all know about the false economies of buying cheap shoes that fall apart in a month, cheap food that you end up throwing out because it’s awful, etc. etc.

9. Because I trust the person or company. I don’t think this needs any explanation, and it an important reason for me.

10. Because I need a boost and/or need to feel better. Chocolate. ‘Nuff said.

I’m sure there are many more reasons you can think up, and again I’m not saying price isn’t important. I know that people don’t have unlimited budgets, and I believe that is precisely why we need to change the debate.

So… can we please, please stop talking incessantly about money and prices now that the Celtic Tiger is over? We all need to live within our means, whatever they are, but there are so many other important things in life.

The Things That Keep Us Going

 Running a business, especially in these times can be a challenge. There are always stresses and worries – what will the future bring? For us, our customers have always been the rock upon which everything is based, and they bring us so much joy (and hopefully we reciprocate!) 

Reading something like this from Imen over at Married an Irish Farmer gives us all here at Murphys such a lift. Never under estimate the power of a compliment and how good it can make everybody feel, especially on a rainy winter’s day. 

The rain will lift, the cold will pass, the days will lengthen, and I’m actually quite excited about the coming year. I can’t wait to meet up with customers again, feel the buzz again of a busy shop, and I think we’ll have some small and some big improvements and that we believe will make people even happier. 

Thanks, Imen, for a bit of light in January!

Deconstruction: A New Flavour Concept

We have been thinking a lot about flavours and what we offer in our shops, and perhaps for 2010, we will change our offerings in a fairly radical way.

Instead of offering one scoop, two scoops, etc., each portion (small, medium, large) could be made up of two flavours.

This would allow us to design flavours that go well together, and it might be a more fun and satisfying way to offer ice cream.

Each flavour might be simpler in itself, but in combination it could be complex.

So, for example, we could make salt ice cream and a strong caramel. Not too exciting, perhaps, but together they could be fantastic.

We could make honey ice cream and lavender ice cream, instead of an ice cream that is both. That way, the possibilities would be endless. Not only could people mix the two to create our classic honey lavender, but they could also have lavender and chocolate, lavender and coffee, lavender with strawberry (all of which are very tasty). They could also have honey vanilla, honey and chocolate, etc.

Naturally, if people still wanted simply a scoop of honeycomb or vanilla, they could still do so.

What do you think? Is it a good idea? Is it too complicated? Confusing?

I’d love your feedback. Please comment, or there is a poll below.

[poll id=”8″]

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Ahhh, A Decade of Ice Cream!

ScoopCabArrives-sm Amazing as it seems, we’re completing our 10th year of Murphys Ice Cream. I thought, perhaps, I’d try to write up a Top Ten highlights of the decade of ice cream, even though there were so many amazing moments…

First Ten Years of Murphys “Top Ten”

1. Opening the doors in Dingle. A dream becomes a reality.

ArtisanTubs-sm2. Moving the ice cream making from the back of the Dingle shop into our own little ice cream factory. The move allowed us to launch our tubs into Dublin and other places around the country (and happily places like Morton’s, Fothergill’s, Ivan’s and Donnybrook Fair took us in). Suddenly, we were more than just a shop in Kerry.

3. Some of our ice cream and other creations. My (very subjective) top ten of the products that made me proud: Aztec Hot Chocolate, Vanilla Ice Cream, Chocolate Whiskey Ice Cream, Champagne Sorbet, Brown Bread Ice Cream, Extreme Cocoa, Goat’s Cheese Ice Cream, Wiebke’s Fudge Cake, Chocolate Sorbet.

4. Support from the press. From the Irish Tatler to the Irish Times, from Nationwide to Moncrieff, we’ve had amazing support from journalists who care, both here at home and abroad. It’s been such a help, and we’re very grateful!

KillarneyShopOutside-sm5. Opening our second shop in Killarney.

6. Awards, from Great Taste Awards to Food and Wine Artisan Supplier of the Year to Blog Awards. What ever one might think of awards, they give a great deal of satisfaction and pride for the whole team for all the hard work.

7. This blog and other social media – finding new ways to keep in touch and spread the message of ice cream, as well as meeting a whole range of new people!

8. Our staff – they have delivered the Murphys experience to thousands upon thousands of customers, entertained us, and kept us going and in high spirits over the last ten years. To all who have worked at Murphys in the past and especially to the team we have now, thanks a million!

9. The Book of Sweet Things – A Murphys cookbook was a dream come true, and we were so happy when Mercier Press decided to take a chance on us. Creating the book was so much fun to do, and I hope that there are many more people out there now happily making their own ice cream.

10. Customers. They might come last in this list, but they really come first in terms how much they have meant to us.

Our customers believed in us and supported us financially and in many other ways. They helped us design our products, improve our shops, and find new outlets. They chided us when we went off course and saved us from many disasters. They kept us laughing and kept us passionate.

From the very young to the very old, from those here at home to those from abroad, we have met so many special people over the years, and we had so many special times with them.

To any of our customers reading this: thanks, thanks, and thanks.

We hope to be there for you for the next ten years!

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Sunsets and Parties

InchSunset2-sm We’ve been having the most beautiful weather here in Co. Kerry, and yesterday, driving home from our Killarney shop, I was treated to the most amazing sunset (photo above) as I drove past Inch Strand. It’s almost as if the elements are doing their part in in trying to people’s spirits after all the bad news of November floods, the budget and the Murphy report. Today is another stunning day, and long may it continue. We could use it!

LadiesLast night, we had a little Christmas party with our Murphys Ice Cream team, although we were missing our ice cream maker Christophe, who was sick, and the two from Killarney, one of whom is off preparing to get married.

It’s been a year in which everyone (some of them in the photo) really worked hard to improve the business in many ways, and my brother and I are deeply grateful for their efforts. For Murphys Ice Cream to exist and thrive takes the care and support of our customers and our team, and we thank them both!

SeanWiebkeFinally, last night was also the 6th wedding anniversary of my brother Sean and his wife Wiebke, and I congratulate the two of them and wish them many happy years ahead.

Here’s hoping this sunny weather is a portent of positive change in 2010, of beautiful days filled with joy (and ice cream) and of quality time spent with people about whom we care deeply.

A Flood of Emotions

Flood The rain continues to pour down, and the flooded streets and angry waters seem to reflect the mood of the country after last night’s soccer defeat to France. I enjoy watching soccer, but I am not a mad soccer fan. And yet, I could help being swept away in the excitement last night as Ireland’s Robbie Keane scored to make the dream of going to the World Cup seem suddenly very real. Perhaps it was the symbolism of it as well – if the Irish team could win against all odds, against one of the giants of world football, then couldn’t Ireland, stuck in gloomy economic times, also perform a miracle and haul itself out of its difficulties?

Then, of course, this happened:

Suddenly it all seemed so unfair – a goal that should have been disallowed and our dreams evaporated. All the tremendous heart and hard work of our players resulted in nothing. Perhaps, again, it’s the symbolism of it that has Ireland in such a depressed state today. We are, after all, well-used to losing in international sport. However, to put in one of the best performances in recent memory and still lose (unfairly) strikes at the heart of the current Irish predicament. We are a small nation with huge competitive disadvantages due to our size and remoteness, and if hard work and heart is not enough, what is?

It must be said that sport (or life for that matter) doesn’t usually hinge on one moment, even if that moment in retrospect becomes everything. There were a host of missed chances not only in this game, but in previous games as well. We could have beaten Italy and topped the group. We could have played better again France in Croke Park. We could have scored more or defended better in any number of matches, but we didn’t.

Life will go on. There will be more matches, and we will have chances to bring Ireland out of its economic mess. I would hope, once the raw, immediate emotion of anger and disappointment passes, that instead of becoming stuck in negativity and conspiracy theories, we will instead realise that both as a team and a country we can and should do even better – that we have it in us.

RoisinSmileWe should be proud of our team, because our players showed us last night their potential is far greater than many would have admitted. I believe, for all the obstacles being placed in our path (both internally and externally), that the same is true for Ireland. We must keep the drive, as well as the joy and hope and build a better future for both us and our children. It wont hinge on one game or one moment. It will be a long, hard campaign, but we can do it.