The setting of the Táin Bó Cúailnge has traditionally been identified as the first century A.D. The earliest extant manuscript of any version of the work was written in the early twelfth century in the great monastery of Clonmacnoise overlooking the Shannon River. Sometime between these two dates, the Táin Bó Cúailnge came into existence.
It has been a basic assumption of Irish literary studies that the Táin Bó Cúailnge was written to be the Aeneid of Ireland. Nevertheless, despite continuous references to the characters and events of the Táin Bó Cúailnge, it is probably true that the stories of the Irish hero Finn Mac Cumhghaill (Finn Mac Cool), his son Oisín, and his warrior band, the Fianna, were more popular until the nineteenth century. Then, Irish nationalism interacting with contemporary scholarship began to look to the Táin Bó Cúailnge as the major source for a sense of Irish identity. National and cultural worth was judged against the classical past and the dominant English language culture. It was important that Ireland had a vernacular epic.
The Irish literary revival at the turn of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries introduced the Táin Bó Cúailnge to a world audience. Lady Augusta Gregory, patroness of the young W. B. Yeats, published retellings of the stories clustered around the hero of the Táin Bó Cúailnge, Cúchulainn. Yeats wrote a series of plays based on the stories of Cúchulainn and Deirdre (Dierdriu) and the Táin Bó Cúailnge entered the western literary heritage.
About the Author
The twelfth-century manuscript called The Book of Leinster preserves a note stating that at one time none of the poets of Ireland knew the full Táin Bó Cúailnge. Two pupils of the poet Senchán Torpéist set out to find a copy that had been taken out of Ireland to exchange for a copy of the Cuilmenn, the Irish name for the Etymologiae of Isidore of Seville, the greatest digest of learning of the early middle ages. On their way, they happened upon the grave of Fergus, one of the great heroes of the Ulster cycle of tales. His spirit came and recited the whole Táin Bó Cúailnge to them. The note's scribe, however, added an alternative version: some people said Senchán himself learned the whole story from some of the descendants of Fergus adding, "this seems reasonable."
The existence even in such a note is characteristic of the history and scholarship of Táin Bó Cúailnge. The Táin Bó Cúailnge survives in several versions. The Book of the Dun Cow, or Lebor na hUidre, copied in the twelfth century and the Yellow Book of Lecan, copied in the late fourteenth century preserve an older, shorter version, perhaps as old as the seventh or eighth century. This version is often described by scholars as 'mutilated' and 'interpolated' with alternative and sometimes contradictory versions of events. Other scholars suggest that these 'additions' are the author's own attempt to acknowledge variant material, and that this early version should be seen as a collection of materials relating to the great cattle raid of the Cooley peninsula. The Book of Leinster, copied in the twelfth century, preserves a fuller, more unified version. The compiler of this later version of the Táin Bó Cúailnge attempted to clear up inconsistencies and repetitions and produce a polished narrative. The elaborate style, however, suffers in comparison with the older version, despite its variants and additions.
There is no real consensus as to exactly when the original author of the Táin Bó Cúailnge wrote, or even if it is essentially the version that survives in The Book of the Dun Cow. Older scholars pushed the composition back as far as they might on linguistic grounds, but recently it has been strongly suggested that the Táin Bó Cúailnge was consciously composed to have the feel of an ancient work.
There are good modern editions with translations of both The Book of the Dun Cow and Book of Leinster by Cecile O'Rahilly. In 1969, the poet Thomas Kinsella produced a translation of the Táin Bó Cúailnge working from the earliest version with additions from the later versions. It is this version that is generally used by non-specialists.
How Conchobor was Born and Became King of Ulster
Nes asked the druid Cathbad what the hour was lucky for. He replied it was lucky for conceiving a king, and swore that a son conceived then would be famous in Ireland forever. Nes and Cathbad therefore had relations. The son she bore was Conchobor. Cathbad raised him.
Fergus was King of Ulster, and he wished to marry Nes. She would only accept him if he allowed her son Conchobor to be king for a year. Conchobor was allowed to become king for a year, but Nes was clever. At the end of the year, she had persuaded the Ulstermen to not accept Fergus back.
How the Men of Ulster were Cursed with Labor Pains
Crunniuc mac Agnomain was a wealthy widower. One day, a fine woman walked into his house and stayed. The place flourished under her care. One day, there was great fair in Ulster. Crunniuc went, but the woman, being pregnant, did not. She warned him to be cautious in his speech, but he boasted at the fair that his wife could run outrun the king's chariot horses. The king immediately demanded she do so. The woman was fetched. She begged the crowd for compassion because she was going into labor, but to no avail. She told the king her name was Macha and that a curse would come on Ulster for what she was forced to do. She raced the chariot. As they reached the finish, she gave birth to a son and a daughter shrieking that every man who heard her scream would have labor pains when Ulster needed them most. All the men of Ulster there that day and their sons for nine generations after suffered the curse, except Cúchulainn and his father.
The Story of Deirdriu
Cathbad predicted that the daughter of the king's storyteller Fedlimid would be the most beautiful woman in the world and the cause of death in Ulster. The warriors wanted to kill her, but Conchobor had her raised in secrecy until she should be old enough to marry him. The girl, Deirdriu, met Noisiu, Uisliu's son, however, and fell in love with him. They ran off together with his brothers and eventually settled in Scotland. There they were threatened by the king who wanted Deirdriu himself. Conchobor offered them safe conduct home. Fergus, Dubthach, and Conchobor's son Cormac went surety (to stand in promise) for him. Conchobor had the brothers killed, Noisiu by the spear of Eogan mac Durthacht, who also killed Fergus's son Fiacha when he tried to protect Noisiu. Fergus, Dubthach and Cormac fled to the court of Connacht. Deirdriu killed herself.
The Birth of Cúchulainn
Deichtine, Conchobor's sister, was driving her brother's chariot as they hunted a great flock of destructive birds. When night fell, they came to a little house where a woman was about to give birth. Deichtine helped her deliver a baby boy. When morning came, everything had disappeared except the baby. Deichtine took the baby home with her, but he died. Deichtine was heartbroken. One of her servants brought her a drink of water. While she drank, a tiny creature flew into her mouth. She swallowed before she noticed it. That night, she dreamed a man came to her. He said he was Lug mac Ethnenn, a prince of the Síde, one of the magical beings who live in the fairy hills. The boy she had nursed was his son. She was now carrying him. He was to be called Sétanta. It soon became obvious Deichtine was pregnant so her brother married her off to Sualdam mac Roich. She was so upset at marrying him pregnant that she vomited up the being she had drunk. Soon, she was pregnant again by Sualdam. She had a boy. They named him Sétanta. Although the tradition of Cúchulainn's birth is contradictory, a rational explanation for his birth has never been expected.
The Pillow Talk
Medb and Ailill, the queen and king of Connacht, were talking in bed about who between them was the richer. Their possessions were counted; they were equal except that Ailill had a beautiful bull, Finbennach, the calf of one of Medb's cows that had gone over to Ailill's herd rather than belong to a woman. Medb asked Mac Roth if there was any bull its equal in Ireland. There was only one: the Donn Cúailnge in Ulster. Mac Roth was sent to borrow the bull for a year with the offer of a generous reward. Dáire, its owner, was pleased to lend the bull on such generous terms. Unfortunately, one of the messengers drank too much and announced that if the bull had not been lent, they would have taken it by force. Dáire was enraged and ordered them to leave.
The Muster of the Connacht Army
Ailill and Medb muster their army and wait for a favorable omen before setting out. The poetess and prophetess Feidelm tells Medb that the army will suffer enormous losses at the hands of Cúchulainn, repeating again and again, "I see them bloody. I see them red."
The Army Encounters Cúchulainn
Fergus, given command of the army, leads it astray to give the Ulstermen time to recover from their curse. Cúchulainn feels the imminent approach of the army and asks his father, Sualdam, to warn the people. Playing for time, Cúchulainn leaves a challenge to the Connacht army, but the army circumvents it. Again, he attempts to slow them down with a challenge: he placed a forked branch in the river and impaled the heads of four of the advancing warriors on it with a...
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