Islands of Ireland: The sacred Cow of Beara

Islands of Ireland: The sacred Cow of Beara

If ever an island were misnamed it must be the small Cow island which lies 2.5km off Dursey Head on the Beara Peninsula.

It is home to a sizeable guillemot colony and goodly numbers of kittiwakes, razorbills and visiting gannets from the Bull.

Part of the delightfully named quartet of Bull, Cow, Calf and Heifer, Cow Island resembles a very different quadruped whose origins lie far from these shores.

The island, whose forbidding cliffs and churning seas prevent a landing to anyone other than the very foolish or the very brave, is much more like an elephant striding through the waves whose trunk is coiled rather than the bovine creature of its given name.

Crashing over the waves in his RIB with skipper Paul O’Shea in the recently established Dursey Boat Trips, the uninhabitable Cow island presents itself in inanimated relief — an elephant with head bowed and trunk resting in the water.

Paul skilfully manoeuvres through the passage and kills the engine affording us a brief respite from the angry seas.

The island is split in two with one splinter counterpointed by a 70m cliff-face on one side and utterly inhospitable seas on the other.

The great characteristic of Cow is its tremendous sea arch which the sea has carved through its limestone precipices.

It reaches high into the sky like the vault of a Gothic church.

Kayaker David Walsh and a friend were the first people to record an ascent of the Cow which they managed in 2011.

The summit is a bright green of grasses and even looks inviting enough for a picnic.

David wrote: “The climb is manageable. Remember to mark your route up and in particular the point where cliff meets flat top as getting this wrong on the way back down could prove tricky.”

Cow’s largest neighbour is the mighty Bull Rock whose tunnel was thought by one of the first peoples to land on this territory thousands of years ago, the Milesians, to be the gateway to the underworld.

Very close by is the Calf whose stump of a lighthouse is all that remains of the structure built there in 1886 before a tremendous storm blew it into the ocean in 1881.


That event forced the construction by the Commissioners of Irish Lights to build a new lighthouse on the Bull Rock.

And what an awesome sight it is. Sadly, the last lighthouse keeper left in 1991 and now the lighthouse is fully automated.

And finally, if you have a bull, a cow and a calf and there is another little rock adjacent you may as well call it a heifer.

And that completes the quartet of the bovine family.

However, a writer in the 19th century cast doubt on the origins of the names given to the islands.

As we have seen in plenty of examples in this series the suffix ‘ay’ or ‘ey’ is the Norse word for island as in Lambay or Dursey. And the Vikings indeed sailed these waters.

“The name Calf is perhaps of Danishorigin; those of Bull and Cow may have subsequently been added, to make out the group, by persons unacquainted with the meaning of ‘calf’. However this be, the ‘Calf of Man’ is an undoubted example.

“In Normandy, this word is supposed to be represented by ‘cauf’. The investigation of certain ruins, adjacent to one of the Greenland firths, was impeded by what are called in Danish ‘kalvissen’, by a number of which the firth was blocked up. This word doubtless means ‘ice calves’ or small masses of ice near the large ones.

"The word ‘sound’, applied to some of our narrow straits may be likewise in origin,” wrote a George Downes for the Royal Irish Academy. Dursey, Dursey Sound and Cauf would seem to be indisputable evidence of the horn-helmeted ones.

According to this theory Calf was so named as it resembled an iceberg that the Vikings were used to seeing.

Though if that is the case why were the Bull and the Cow not named by them? Perhaps they were.

And perhaps artefacts of their marauding still remain to be discovered there.

How to get there: Tours but no landing: www.facebook.com/Durseyboattrips

Other: Oileáin, David Walsh, Pesda Press; ‘On the Norse Geography of AncientIreland’, George Downes, Transactions of the Royal Irish Academy, Vol 19, 1843

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