Táin Bó Cúailnge (The Cattle Raid of Cooley)

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Critical Overview

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The Táin Bó Cúailnge appears alien, primitive, and unimaginably ancient. There are unmistakable signs that this atmosphere is a sophisticated construction of the past, making its historicity a scholarly donné (a thing in a literary work that is taken for granted or expected by virtue of the genre or milieu in which it is contained) well into the twentieth century. As B. K. Lambkin notes, the clarity of perception of its earliest critic, the scribe of the twelfth century Book of Leinster who said, "But I who have written this story, or rather this fable, give no credence to the various incidents related in it. For some things in it are deceptions of demons, others poetic figments; some are probable, others improbable" was forgotten in a desire to have a reliable historical source. It was its apparent 'primitiveness' that caught the imagination of nineteenth-century scholars whose obsession with the presumed and desired antiquity of the Táin quickly became part of the Irish strain of nineteenth-century romantic nationalism. Scholarship under its influence, and not only in Ireland, often justified itself in the search for the pure, unsullied national character of a people. As editor Barbara Hillers notes, even the greatest nineteenth-century scholars approached the Ulster cycle of tales as history and its characters as real people. The Táin Bó Cúailnge was a rich source of historical, mythological, and linguistic information. As Gerard Murphy notes, the question of literary technique hardly entered into their consideration, its artlessness was a positive virtue, if only as a proof of its great antiquity, their origin in "the youth of the world, before the heart had been trained to bow before the head or the imagination to be troubled by logic."

The critical situation of the Táin Bó Cúailnge is somewhat better than Irish saga literature as a whole. According to Cathasaigh, there are good modern editions with translations. Yeats' dramatic adaptations of the Ulster tales never achieved the popularity of his lyrics, but Kinsella's 1969 translation has opened the work up to a wider audience whose interests are more exclusively literary than philological, mythological or historical. Ironically, it is further historical and archaeological research picking up anachronisms in the text that has shifted interest to the author's artifice and learning in projecting the aura of an archaic pagan past. This has been furthered by the emergence of a strain of historical-political readings according to N. B. Aitchison, moving interest away from the period it depicts to that of its original audience. This movement towards the analysis of the Táin Bó Cúailnge as highly ironic political satire has been further complicated by the fault line that has opened up across the fields of early Irish literature and history in the second half of the twentieth century. On one side are the so-called "nativist" critics who have traditionally emphasized the pagan and Indo-European material fossilized in medieval texts. They dominated the study of early Irish history and literature until the later twentieth century. On the other side are the "revisionists," beginning with Carney, who emphasize the quick and thorough assimilation of classical and Christian literary culture among the Irish and its profound influence on Irish vernacular literature. Carney's explanation of the Táin Bó Cúailnge's origins with its even-handed recognition of both native and classical Christian material is worth recapitulating. The Táin Bó Cúailnge , like the Irish sagas in general, shows in its vocabulary that it was given the form we find in the manuscripts after Christianity was introduced. The essential narrative and characters go back to a more or less remote pre-Christian past. This nucleus...

(This entire section contains 773 words.)

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of characters and action, however, were like the grain of sand in an oyster's shell. They attracted the author's total literary experience ranging across classical and Christian literature as well as native material, particularly thesenchus, the stories that explained place names or how certain peoples came to be in a particular part of the country. The Táin Bó Cúailnge also attracted both popular characters from other legends into its narrative and popular types of narrative episodes.

It is understandable that students of language, history, and archaeology have monopolized the Táin Bó Cúailnge's study, because only by taking them into account can criticism have validity. Nevertheless, whatever criticism has done, if, as Carney suggested, the original author of Táin Bó Cúailnge was attempting to give Ireland the equivalent of the Aeneid. Scholars and poets in the last 150 years have worked tirelessly to ensure it that position in the history of Irish literature and in the popular imagination.


Cualnge, Táin Bó