If you thought nomads were just for the Sahara then think again.
May Day (the 1st of May) and All Saints Day (the 1st of November) mark the beginning and the end of the ancient Celtic summer which co-insides with Booleying season.
In ancient times the lords of Connemara would move their entire entourage including their cattle, families, hounds, priests and musicians from their seaside castles to the Maumturk Mountains where they’d enjoy hunting, fishing and partying for the summer months.The tradition of Booleying continued among the peasant community into the 20th century. However their style of Booleying was a little less lavish than the lords of old and their motivations more practical.
The lands near the shore which the peasants occupied were often unenclosed and it was difficult to keep cattle away from crops. The hills during the summer provided plenty of grass for the animals to feed on. The solution was to drive the cattle into the hills for the summer. The women would set up at the Booley and watch over the cattle for the summer while the men would remain in the villages and tend their crops.
As you can imagine living out in the wilds could have been a lonesome and un-nerving experience for the women. In true Irish tradition stories were told and created in these places. In the 1920’s an elderly Irish speaker called Peadar Mac Thuathalain recounted one such story:
The women of a Booley in South Connemara in an area called Casla were sitting out one day knitting and sewing. They spotted a hare wandering among their cattle until he found one that had recently borne a calf and began to suck its milk. When they threw a stick at it the hare ducked and then proceeded to pick up the stick and run off with it. The women were so scared by the hare’s behaviour that they sent word home to their village. After several failed attempts by the men to hunt down the hare a man called Micil Mag Cearra, the owner of the finest hounds was sent for. Micil called off his hound after seeing the hare leap eight feet in the air to escape him.
Some time later Micil was in County Clare searching for a little grey mare that had been stolen from him, when he was greeted by an old woman who mysteriously knew all about him and his business. She invited him in for a meal and reminded him of the hunt. “You whistled in your hound” she said, “because you knew it wasn’t a right hare. It was I that was there that day. When a year of want comes on me I turn myself into a hare and go off into the country to fend for myself. And now eat up your dinner while I fetch your little grey mare”. And with three jumps she was out the door in the shape of the hare, and was back with the same mare before he’d finished his meal.
This unusual little tale is a great illustration of simpler times gone by. In Ireland the generation who were afraid of fairies are not long gone and the remains of the villages and Booleys where they lived are still with us. If you’re interested in wandering some of the hills where these people spent their summers, then check out www.giddygoatstours.ie.
If you can’t make it to Connemara then Tim Robinson’s book entitled “Connemara, listening to the wind” is a great alternative. It should be noted that the above passage relies on it heavily for information and in some instances quotes directly from it.