One of many surviving stories from Irish Folklore concerns the three Old Cow’s Days, often referred to as the Days of the Bó Riabhach or Reevogue Days. It concerns the weather at the end of March and beginning of April. Very often when Winter merges into Spring the weather can be quite cold and bitter as if one dreary and miserable season is reluctant to leave us and make way for the cheerfulness and optimism of another. According to tradition the blame for this unfortunate state of affairs is laid firmly on the shoulders of a mythical cow.
In Irish legend one version of the story claims that the Bó Riabhach which translates as the Brindled (or Striped) Cow was constantly complaining to her companions about the harsh weather at the end of March. Not surprisingly the month of March was far from pleased at this whingeing and whining and set about teaching the grumpy animal a lesson.
Borrowing three days from April, March made them so cold and miserable that the poor old brindled cow gradually grew weaker and weaker until it died. Thus it failed to survive until the improved weather of April that arrived too late save her. Those days have been known since as the Laethanta na mBó Riabhaigh or Days of the Brindled Cow.
In another version the arrogant old tSean-Bhó Riabhach was often heard to not just complain about the weather but also to boast that while it was very miserable and cold it was still unable to kill her. That of course would really have angered March and the suitably enraged month borrowed the aforementioned three days from April to lengthen the winter, during which it not only killed but also skinned the unfortunate cow.
The late Kevin Danaher who for many years was Lecturer in Irish Folklore at University College, Dublin and who was widely acknowledged as a leading expert in his field remarked that the three days were known as Laethanta na Riabhaiche, the “Reehy Days,” “The Borrowed (or Borrowing) Days,” the “Reevogue Days,” the “Skinning Days” and other names depending on regional variations.
He quoted an old writer Amhlaoibh O Suilleabhain who in 1827 said “This, the twelfth day of April, is the first of the three days of the old brindled cow, namely three days which the weather of Old March took from the beginning of Old April.” That suggested that the borrowed days were not necessarily at the changeover from one month to the other but could be inflicted on the wretched animal at any time in April.
According to Kevin Danaher there was a more elaborate version of the story in the north of Ireland, with even worse consequences if that could be possible for the Brindled Cow. Our bovine friend had to endure a slower, more agonising death as nine days were borrowed instead of three. They were described thus in Irish.
Trí lá lomartha an loinn,
Trí lá sgiuthanta an chlaibhreain,
Agus trí lá na bó riabhaighte.
(Three days for fleecing the blackbird,
Three days of punishment for the stone-chat, And three days for the grey cow).
Quoting from an article in the Ulster Journal of Archaeology, 1861-62, Kevin Danaher expands on that theory. “The first nine days of April are called the “borrowing days.” The old legend relates that the blackbird, the stone-chat and the grey cow bid defiance to March after his nine days were over; and that,to punish their insolence, he begged of April nine of his days, three for each of them, for which he repaid nine of his own.” In other countries too, particularly in parts of Europe where the weather is more or less similar, they have stories that concern this time of year though not necessarily involving a cow. There are probably other versions of the tale in this country too depending on where teller lives.