The most quintessentially Irish experience you can have is not posing with an over-priced pint in Temple Bar, nor wearing an aran jumper in a futile attempt to block out an Atlantic gale, it’s one you can run into any evening of the year just a few miles outside any Irish town or city: getting stuck behind a herd of cows coming in from the fields.
It happens to everyone more times than they realize. You’re speeding along a windy country lane, keeping a wary eye out for wide spots where you might conceivably have a chance of squeezing past oncoming farm machinery, when you round a corner and find a wall of cows slowly undulating along. In this situation, you’d better stop, because the cows certainly won’t. Cows have one speed, and they plod along with a stoic determination. They make this trip every day, and would doubtless find their way from the field to the farm on their own — eventually. The dog zig-zagging along behind them is there to ensure they get there more-or-less when the farmer wants them to, as cows will idle like reluctant schoolboys, sampling the grass and leaves from the hedge, if left to their own devices.
We recently came upon a herd that sauntered along the road with such style and self-assurance that it struck me that dairy cows must be the supermodels of the bovine world. They strut along with confidence and attitude, convinced that the world will order itself to their needs (as it always has). All they’re missing is an expensive pair of sunglasses.
One of my children asked me why we kept meeting herds of cows on the road, not flocks of sheep. It’s because cows need to be milked twice a day, thus have to keep making the short trip from the fields to the milking parlor. It’s not uncommon to meet sheep — especially in the west, but these (in my experiences) are more often sheep that have escaped from the fields, rather than flocks being moved from field to field. Sheep tend to be a lot more nimble, and will jump out of the way of oncoming cars — provided there is room enough on the verge. Ideally, you would first come on somebody with a warning flag or else standing in the road to stop oncoming traffic, but not every time.
Anybody moving animals on the roads has the authority to stop traffic just like workers digging up the road, etc., so obey any teenagers in muddy boots telling you to slow down or stop (the herd of cows following along behind them might be another sign they’re worth heeding).
When driving in rural areas where you are likely to meet cows or other animals, you should be driving reasonably slowly given the narrow roads and sharp corners (whether or not you see warning signs like the one on the right). Trust me, if you hit a cow at speed, it will do a lot of damage to you and your vehicle — not to mention depriving the world of some delicious dairy produce.
So, meeting a herd of cows on the road may be a big cliche and something you want to cross off your list of quintessentially Irish things to do on your vacation, but it is also a situation that requires a little care and attention at the same time.
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