Booleying is an Irish term for transhumance – the agricultural tradition of taking cattle up to the high open lands to graze during the summer months.
Booleying territory: on the upland moors of the Sheep’s Head the ruins of a simple cottage in a lonely glen tell of bygone farming practices
The English poet Edmund Spenser went to Ireland in 1580 and was given lands in County Cork that had been confiscated in the Munster Plantation. (His fellow colonialist Sir Walter Raleigh was also granted large areas of land, which he sold to Sir Richard Boyle who later became Earl of Cork and one of the richest men in the British Isles). In 1596 Spenser wrote a pamphlet – A View of the Present State of Ireland – based on his experiences. This piece is highly regarded as a historical source on 16th century Ireland although it refers somewhat inaccurately to booleying: …the Irish country people keep their cattle and live themselves the most part of the year in bollies, pasturing upon the mountains and wild waste plains, and removing to fresh lands as they had depastured the former…
16th century Ireland: the Munster Plantation
Our trusted commentator Kevin Danaher devotes a chapter in Irish Customs and Beliefs (Mercier Press 1964) to ‘The Summer Pastures’: …If you could take away the cattle from the fields around the house all during the summer and autumn, you could have more hay and a bit of winter pasture. Therefore you could keep more cattle and were a richer man. But where could you put the cattle in summer and autumn?
Old walls on the Coomkeen ridge tell of early land divisions
(Danaher) …In Ireland there are big areas of the countryside which have some value during the better part of the year but none at all during the winter and spring. These are, of course, the mountains and moor lands. In the cold season they are barren and desolate, but when the milder part of the year comes they provide grazing which may be sparse but is very sweet. Our farming ancestors knew this and a system was worked out which gave the milch-cows the benefit of them. They were away in the mountains or the moors, far from the homestead over bad roads or no roads at all, so that the cattle could not be driven home for milking. Some of the family went and lived with the cows on the mountain. Some sort of dwelling was built there for them, they milked the cows morning and evening and made the butter which could be stored until the men from the home farm came for it once a week…
Varieties of simple shelters – ancient beehive style (left from George Walsh’s window in St Kentigern’s Church, Eyeries, on the Beara Peninsula and – top right – from Dingle, County Kerry – both were used by contemplative hermits but some booley huts were built in similar style) and, bottom right, an example of an Irish cabin
Of the booley houses – or huts – Danaher writes: Most of them were just rough copies of the kind of houses ordinarily used as dwellings, smaller and simpler but made of the same materials and by the same methods. Usually they had only one room, with a simple fireplace, often without any chimney, only a hole in the roof over the hearth… In fine weather their occupants could live out of doors all through the long period of daylight, coming in only to sleep or to cook food and eat it, and the buaile houses were used as sleeping-places only…
This structure on the Sheep’s Head is recorded on the National Monuments Record as a Booley Hut
Farming practices have changed in the modern day and I am not aware that any booleying still happens – but the custom lives on in memory and in place names. The Irish word Buaile (pronounced bool-yeh), is translated as a feeding or milking place for cows – so it refers to the dairy as well as the summer pastures. There is a townland near us called Corravolley: that’s the anglicised name. Two roads lead there, and on each road is a signpost:
Do you notice the subtle difference in the Irish rendering of the name on these signs? One reads ‘An Chorrbhaile’ and the other ‘An Chorrbhuaile’. One letter is different in the second sign, but it makes all the difference in the way you might translate its meaning. An Chorrbhaile combines corr – round hill, pointed hill, hollow, pointed, conspicuous with baile – townland, town, homestead, but the alternative suffix buaile means cattle-fold, or summer-pasture. As Corravoley is way up in the hills it is very likely that it was the place of the booleying.
Other examples of Irish names which may have derived from the booley include Coill na Buailidh, Kilinaboley, Kilenabooley, Both Théith, Boheagh, Knocknaboley, Buaile h’Anraoi, and Cnoc an tSamhraidh (which actually translates as Summerhill – a place name associated with transhumance in Britain).
In Scandinavia, transhumance is still practiced: there the common mountain or forest pasture used for transhumance in summer is called seter or bod / bua. The same term refers to a mountain cabin, which is used as a summer residence. In summer (usually late June), livestock is moved to a mountain farm, often quite distant from a home farm, in order to preserve meadows in valleys for producing hay. Livestock is typically tended for summer by girls and younger women, who also milk and make cheese. As autumn approaches and grazing becomes in short supply, livestock is returned to the home farm. Note the Norse word būð which sounds like ‘both’ as in ‘bothy’, and the use of that word in Scotland to mean a basic shelter on the high moors, unlocked and available for anyone to use free of charge.
There is physical evidence of the booleying in Ireland. On the Coomkeen route of the Sheep’s Head Way we found a little glen high up on the mountain, a setting for a ruined small stone house which could well have been used by those herding the cattle on the summer pasturage in bygone days. It’s a beautiful sheltered site, guarded by two ancient thorn trees, and we could easily imagine – through our romantic 21st century vision – the hard but simple lifestyle invoked there.
Guardians of the Booley – two ancient thorn trees stand by the abandoned cottage
I feel particularly close connections to that way of life as my Dartmoor ancestors were transhumers. They kept a remote farm out on the moor uplands, well away from the nearest centre of civilisation. The enclosure had been established towards the end of the 18th century and involved the building of miles of stone boundary walls (which caused dissent among the commoners) and my forebears who lived there for a few generations were paid to run cattle from other farms on the pastures during the summer months. By the early 1900s the farm had been abandoned and nature has gradually taken over and created an attractive antiquity which I loved to wander over and recreate in my mind’s eye the scenes of family life: my maternal great-grandmother was one of fourteen children born on the farm in one generation.
Family home: Teignhead Farm on Dartmoor – used as a summer run for cattle, although it was a permanent residence way off the beaten track for the large family of my forebears – an early 19th century print (top left), a photograph dated 1889 (top right) and the ruins of the house today (below)
Novelist Philip Robinson writes:
…The ghostly footprints of ancient sod walls still mark the sites where families once moved with their cattle up to uplands in county Antrim during the summer months (from May to October). They built temporary ‘booley’ huts to live in, usually beside a water burn or spring… The families that took their cattle to booley places on the Commons like Ardboley (High Booley), Carnbilly (Booley Cairn) or Milky Knowes had their home farms down on lower ground in clusters or villages called ‘clachans’. The arable land around each clachan was shared out between the group in a jigsaw of tiny plots and strips each year, and when the cattle returned before the 1st November, the field markers were torn down and the land around the clachans returned to common winter grazing. The homecoming to the clachan at harvest time was another great time of celebration and seasonal customs, closely tied up with Halloween bonfires and gatherings on 31st October.
On the move – Kerry cattle (believed to be Ireland’s most ancient breed) from the collection of photographer Tomás Ó Muircheartaigh, who documented life in rural Ireland between the 1930s and the 1950s
We know that Booleying was an ancient practice as it is mentioned in the Brehon Laws – which takes it back at least to the time of St Patrick. Later, under the 14th century Statute of Kilkenny the Irish ...were forbidden to booley or pasture on those of the march lands belonging to the English; if they did so the English owner of the lands might impound the cattle as a distress for damage; but in doing so he was to keep the cattle together, so that they might be delivered up whole and uninjured to the Irish owner if he came to pay the damages… The historian, John O’Donovan (1806-1861) noted (in his Ordnance Survey Letters of 1838) that the people owned houses in two townlands, one of which was a booley. …It is a great habit among the people of the island to have two townlands and houses built on each where they remove occasionally with their cattle. The townlands are held under one lease and one of these farms is called a Bouley…
In Ireland The Booley is relegated to the tune books but there are those alive today who remember the tradition in their own families. Danaher relates: …old people tell of the buaile as a very happy place, full of song and laughter. On Sunday evenings the girls from several buailes would come together and the young men came up from the farms to be with them, and there was music and dancing and gaiety on hillsides that now hear only the bleat of the sheep and the cry of the grouse and the curlew…