Horses were highly prized in ancient Irish culture. Deference for our equine companions continues to this very day.
Both Ireland and Kentucky, my two homes on either side of the Atlantic, are renowned for breeding magnificent racehorses. So I thought it was high time I explored the connection between the Irish and horses.
This collection of old Irish words of wisdom and ancient myths, in praise of our equine friends, underlines the importance of these magnificent animals to the Irish throughout the centuries.
“A tattered foal can grow into a splendid horse.”
This is a fine example of how the Irish appreciate horses. It’s good advice to this very day. Time can change everything.
But before we explore more of the sayings, let’s first delve into a little history about horses in Ireland.
When Did Horses Arrive In Ireland?
Horses arrived in Ireland thousands of years ago. Some believe they crossed a land bridge between County Derry and Scotland at the end of the last ice age. Others now believe they swam here across this narrow strait.
The horse originated along the Asian steppes. Roaming, wild herds of horses migrated west across Europe and into Ireland either by land or by sea.
Horse remains have been found at ancient Celtic settlements at Lough Gur, County Limerick, and Newgrange, County Meath. Archaeological evidence suggests the Celts domesticated horses before 2000 B.C. Our myths and legends indicate a long history of the horse in Ireland.
“The raggy colt often made a powerful horse.”
Old Irish Saying
Cú Chulainn’s Mighty Steeds:
In the ancient Irish tale “The Cattle Raid of Cooley” (Táin Bó Cúailnge – pronounced ‘thawn-boh-coo-in-ea), which was written as part of the Book of Leinster, the feats and accomplishments of the great Celtic warrior Cú Chulainn are recounted.
During one battle he rode a chariot pulled by two horses. These were beautiful animals, and like any good horseman, Cú Chulainn ensured they were equal in size, beauty, and speed to keep his chariot nimble.
One horse was described as grey, broad in the haunches, fleet of foot, and wild. The second horse was jet black, broad-hoofed and slender.
These two magnificent steeds were faster than any other horses found on the island. No other horseman in Ireland could keep pace with the Mighty Cú Chulainn.
Enbarr of the Flowing Mane And the Great Celtic Sea God Manannán Mac Lir:
A magnificent horse, Enbarr of the Flowing Mane, is associated with the great Celtic Sea god Manannán Mac Lir. He features in Irish, Scottish and Manx mythology.
It is from Manannán that the Isle of Man (Mannin) gets its name. Many old Celtic myths and legends recount his role as a god of the Tuatha Dé Danann (the ancient, magical people of Ireland).
Stories of the Tuatha Dé have been told through generations in Ireland and other Celtic countries and were handed down through the Irish oral tradition of storytelling.
Manannán was a skilled magician with enchanting props that wielded magical powers. Enbarr of the Flowing Main his astounding horse, was said to gallop over land and sea.
King Connor Mac Nessa And Crunnchú’s Wife:
King Connor Mac Nessa was the High King of Ulster around the time of Christ, and features in many Irish legends. In one such story, a man named Crunnchú bragged that his wife could run faster than a horse, even the mighty steeds owned by the king himself.
Being a proud man, King Connor was tempted to execute Crunnchú for his boasting, but decided it would be better to put the poor woman to the test.
Lo and behold wasn’t the poor woman pregnant at the time. She was sent to the starting line to race King Connor’s horses anyway. Crunnchú’s wife was jeered and heckled by the Red Branch Knights. But fear not! She took off like lightening and left the horses in the dust.
She dropped at the finish line and promptly gave birth to twins. It turns out the woman was none other than Macha, the Celtic horse goddess.
Horses In Brehon Law:
In passages of the Brehon Laws it is revealed that during the first millennium the Irish often imported horses from Wales and France. No saddle was used when riding.
Brehon Law existed in Ireland for centuries. These laws guided the lives of ancient Irish chieftains and their subjects. With the English conquest of Ireland in the early 17th century, Brehon Law was suppressed.
These laws were first committed to parchment in the 7th century. They are so called because they were devised and shared by wandering Celtic lawyers, known as the Brehons.
Here are a few interesting Brehon Laws regarding horses.
If a man took a woman off on a horse, into the woods or onto a sea-going ship, (which may have been very common back then), her family had a set amount of time to rescue her and object to her elopement or kidnapping whichever the case might be. Members of the woman’s tribe had to object within 24 hours if they wished to demand payment of the fine.
I don’t know if they could get the poor woman or the horse back, or just be compensated by a fine.
Horses were used to pay dowries for a bride. Under Brehon Law it was the husband-to-be who paid a bride price of land, cattle, horses, gold or silver to the father of the bride.
It was not the woman who brought a dowry to the marriage. Another interesting fact was that both husbands and wives retained individual rights to all land, animals, flocks and household goods each brought to the marriage.
And so, if a woman brought horses to the marriage, they always remained her horses. Our Celtic forebears were very advanced in their thinking.
Ancient Irish horsemen rode without stirrups. A horse was mounted by springing from the ground on to the back of the horse. This mounting method was used up until the seventeenth century in Ireland.
Every young man of the upper classes in olden days was required to learn horse-riding.
Today we require our children to learn how to read, but in the days of Brehon Law the skill of horse-riding was legally required. I thought the following saying was associated with the skill of horse back riding being a universally acknowledged skill amongst the Irish.
“Put a beggar on horseback, and he’ll go at a gallop.”
However, a reader pointed out that it may mean that if you give a poor beggar a chance, he’ll abuse it and take off too fast. It’s similar to giving something of value to someone who does not appreciate the value of it, then they treat it with little respect.
The Penal Laws And Horse Ownership:
After 1695 the Penal Laws were enforced against Catholics in Ireland. The Penal Laws were gradually repealed over the course of the 18th century. Of note is the law regarding horse ownership.
No Catholic was allowed to keep a horse with a value worth more than 5 Pounds. If a Protestant saw a Catholic with a horse of greater value, then he could purchase the horse for 5 Pounds.
This horrendous discrimination resulted in Irish people placing great value upon horse ownership, as is clearly evident in the next old saying.
“Sell the cow, buy the sheep, but never be without the horse.”
The Penal Code reduced the Irish Catholic population to dire poverty. They were suppressed and beaten, but these laws did not fully succeed because they had the effect of strengthening the will of the Irish to survive.
A Connemara Pony
The Connemara Pony:
In the West of Ireland you’ll find the Connemara pony, a unique horse breed with a strong back and short muscular legs.
If you’ve ever been to the rocky, craggy regions in the West of Ireland, you’ll understand why this little pony is perfectly suited to the wild terrain of the Connemara landscape.
This breed of Irish horse is descended from ponies brought to Ireland by the Vikings in the 8th century. Their genetic make-up was further enhanced when beautiful Andalusian horses were released from the ships of the ill-fated Spanish Armada. The horses swam to shore and took to the hills of County Galway. There they began to breed with the Viking-Irish ponies.
These ponies show the traits of their forebears – stamina and brawn. Farmers trapped the ponies on the hills, then brought them down to be tamed and trained. They served them well in days gone by.
Horses For Farming in Ireland in Centuries Past:
Horses, Connemara ponies and donkeys served as the backbone of Irish rural farming families for centuries. Before tractors took over as the work horse of the Irish farm, it was horses that helped to plow the land (or plough the land as we spell it in Ireland).
Ponies and donkeys were fitted with special baskets called ‘creels.’ These were used to transport turf home from the bog for the fire. They were also used to bring seaweed from the sea shore. This was the main source of fertiliser for the craggy, barren fields of the western coast.
Horses made an enormous contribution to the Irish economy in the 19th century.
More Irish Sayings and Proverbs About Horses:
Let’s take a look at some additional old Irish sayings that underscore how the Irish revere and respect horses.
“It is a good horse that draws its own cart.”
Horses plowed fields, thereby helping feed the population. They pulled carts, transporting people from place to place. A good horse was well trained and did not need to be led.
I’m quite certain many a drunken Irish man was taken home by a horse that knew how to draw its own cart.
“Ní dhéanfach an saol capall rás d’asal.”
Pronunciation in English phonetics
= Nee yay-nock on sale cop-ull raw-se dah-sal.
“All the world would not make a racehorse from a donkey.”
“Mair a chapaill agus gheobhaidh tú féar.”
Pronunciation using English phonetics:
Mar, a cop-ull ah-gus gheow-hig thoo fay-ur
“Live, horse, and you will get grass.”
The meaning of this saying may not be immediately apparent to many readers. Believe it or not, these words are meant to be encouraging.
It tells us that we must first survive and live, and then we will receive our reward.
Here is another old Irish horse saying:
“A nod is as good as a wink to a blind horse.”
“Youth sheds many a skin.
The steed does not retain its speed forever.”
Many old Irish sayings provide insights into aging and growing old.
“The best jockeys are in the stands.”
Are we not all familiar with the “back seat driver,” and would-be experts on everything?
“Everyone lays a burden on the willing horse.”
Our ancestors were warning us that we need to be careful and not accept too much burden, just because we are willing and able to work.
“Bíonn grásta Dé idir an dialait agus an talamh.”
Pronunciation using English phonetics:
Bee-un graw-sta Day id-ur on Dee-a-lit ah-gus on thal-uv
“The grace of God is found between the saddle and the ground.”
Over the course of my first twenty-two years of life, I heard many of these sayings uttered by my West Cork granny. They were part and parcel of her everyday speech. Whenever I read them now, I smile, remembering how these wonderful words of wisdom just tripped off the tip of her tongue.
I hope you enjoyed this little exploration of the Irish love of horses.
Thank you for stopping by and checking out my ramblings.
Slán agus beannacht,
(Goodbye and blessings)
Irish American Mom
Here are some other recipes and ramblings from Ireland, which you might enjoy…