Cow/Calf Analogy

Le gach bain a bainín, le gach leabhar a leabhrán,” (Gaelic, translation: “to every cow its calf, to every book its copy (literally book-child),” also reported as “le gach bó a gamhain (nó a boithre) agus le gach leabhar a mhacasamhail.”) Refers to what is sometimes described as the first copyright case.

In the 6th century, the monk who was to become Saint Columcille (pronounced Kuh-lum-kill, alternate spellings Columbcille, Colm and also known as Columba) was an enthusiastic copyist, transcribing every book he had access to—which was significant, since many such books and writings were then regarded as providing great mystic power that was also present in their copies. He was so notorious that the Abbott of one monastery dug a hole in his orchard in which to hide his books when Columcille visited. One night Columcille stole into the monastery of his former master, Finnian and copied a rare book of psalms (other versions have it that Finnian lent the psalter to Columcille, who made an unauthorised copy.) The incensed Finnian brought suit under the Brehon laws to the High King of Ireland, Diarmuid Mac Cearbhaill, who, analogizing from the legal rules applicable to livestock, ruled against Columcille with the phrase cited above.

Columcille refused to accept the judgment and later reclaimed the book in a battle in 561 at Cúl Dreimne (Drumcliffe) in Sligo, but not before an asserted 3,000 lost their lives in the fighting. Two years later he would leave Ireland for good, banished by the church Synod and consumed with guilt for the deaths his pride had caused. The book he created, known as the “Cathach,” was said to grant the possessor victory in battle if carried thrice around the battlefield. As penance for his sins, Columcille was required to convert 3,000 pagans, and thus rose to sainthood by converting the Picts and Saxons and, in self-imposed exile establishing a monastery on the island of Iona.

The Cathach still exists and can be seen in its jewelled casket at the Royal Irish Academy.


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