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.