Táin Bó Cúailnge (The Cattle Raid of Cooley)

Start Free Trial

The Táin Bó Cúailnge as an Elaborate Literary Creation

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Students of the Táin Bó Cúailnge in particular and the early Irish literature in general have often neglected treating it as literature. Patricia Kelly at the beginning of "The Táin as Literature" saw as the main obstacles to literary analysis the scholarly preoccupation with mythology, history, and prehistory, and a "primitive" quality that Murphy, in Saga and Myth in Early Ireland, attributed to 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." Research is making this explanation of the peculiar quality of the Táin Bó Cúailnge more and more difficult to accept. Work on all the elements of the texts suggests that the "primitive" character of the epic is a carefully constructed one, using biblical and classical as well as native material to build up a picture of the past that accorded with what might be called an anthropology of pagans. This construction was surprisingly positive for three reasons. First, these pagans were their ancestors; second, they were the source of a formidable body of native law that must be preserved; third, their society had been relatively amenable to conversion.What was the purpose of this reconstruction? Recent readings of the Táin Bó Cúailnge are still driven by history, with suggestions or assumptions of a political allegory touched by bitter irony. But no single time, place, or situation, no one key for this allegory has, however, achieved even general acceptance. Despite Kelly's belief that "a reliable verdict of the artistic failure or success of the Táin Bó Cúailnge is only possible if the texts aims have been correctly identified," it is still valid to look at the text as something that should on one level explain itself. That is, the author has produced a work that says what it says in general terms that is a story that has generally applicable insights into the human condition.

Whether the first recession represents a learned Christian re-interpretation of the past for a complex political purpose, or as O'Corrain suggested, a file of material to be worked up for various purposes at a later date, it, like the later recessions must reflect the tastes and preoccupations of its contemporary audience. If the reader finds a theme, particular motif, or image used continuously throughout a work, it suggests that that theme, motif, or image is important. It is there because it embodies something important or fundamental, and it does it better than anything else the author can imagine. A reader must grasp how such things work both individually and as patterns in the work as a whole. However unappealing a literary device might be to a modern audience, for instance the use of proverbs or elaborate genealogical passages, they demand attention. They cannot be dismissed because they are not the modern choice.

Living far from the places named, with no sense of connection to the individual commemorated in any given place name, few modern readers can see an immediate purpose or pleasure from the place name narratives in the Táin Bó Cúailnge. But, they cannot be dismissed as meaningless or awkward. Carney suggests that they were the element most likely to be derived from the purely native tradition, but that the writers were using them in a radically new way. The function of these dinnsenchus , to use the Irish term, was to preserve historic lore attached to a place. They existed as independent, self-sufficient narratives and were gathered into collections at an early date. They were not originally part of any dramatic, least of...

(This entire section contains 1439 words.)

See This Study Guide Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this study guide. You'll also get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

all fictional, narrative. Their superficially pointless ubiquity in theTáin Bó Cúailnge must then represent a decision by the author to use them, outside of the immediate tradition of both the heroic tale and the place name narrative. When Carney identified the place name stories as native, he was right in recognizing that they reach back into the pre-Christian past and that they played a part in Irish literature and cultural life that cannot be exactly paralleled in any other country. But other literatures have used place name narratives and referred to the meaning of place names. Virgil's Aeneid used stories attached to place names to make his poem more than simply a glorification of the Emperor Augustus' Julian clan or even of Rome. Instead, his lingering descriptions of the places, people, and their origins, while fewer and more developed than those in the Táin Bó Cúailnge, created a broader theme of Italy over which the specific action of his poem runs. Scripture scholars and preachers regularly stressed the meaning of place names in the Bible, connecting them with the larger spiritual meaning of the individual actions that had occurred in each. It is not surprising that the most important study of the topography of the bible lands in the middle ages was written by the Irishman, Adomnán. All this must have fed into an already active native interest and genre, suggesting the possible ways short narrative attached to a place might be used to refer to something connected to, but outside of themselves. The author of the Táin Bó Cúailnge then had an important body of material in which his audience had a cultivated interest. Clearly, the author used this material.

There has been a tendency among readers to concentrate on the lack of a particular type of topographical or landscape use in the Táin Bó Cúailnge. The Táin Bó Cúailnge does not have the sort of landscape description, beloved by the romantics and Victorians, which concentrates on the individual and particular. The essential function of these landscapes is to create atmosphere, as for example in the description of Dartmoor in The Hound of the Baskervilles. The author of the Táin Bó Cúailnge was perfectly capable of creating such a landscape. Landscape as modern readers generally expect it to be introduced into a narrative appears spectacularly not as an actual landscape, but as a description and simile for the vast Ulster army finally coming to Cúchulainn's aid. Its use in the passage not only shows that it was not lack of ability that stopped the writer, but it gives the army a feeling of a force of nature, echoing Cúchulainn's calling of the land of Ulster to rise and fight the invaders with him.

The most usual form in which natural features enter the narrative is purely topographical, taking the audience and characters to rarely described features of the landscape: woods, fords, plains, standing stones. It does this fifty-eight times in Recession 1, slightly more in the second recession. The author does not use individual landscapes to create atmosphere. It is the sum total of all the short topographical narratives together that creates the effect. The land is connected in sympathy with its people. When Cúchulainn intercepts the raiding army of Medb and Ailill he says: "I summon air and earth; but I summon now above all the Cronn river ... and the water reared up to the treetops." Standing at the ford, a naturally defensible place but also a boundary with all the deep significance of a boundary, Cúchulainn calls upon the country to stand by him to protect their people. The landscape names become the trophies of the earth; fame, or at least memory, is shared by both place and warrior. These features are very much where the action is. They are defined and named by a moment of history, but that moment of history is about the trees, the fields, the standing stones as well as men and women. Every fight is about protecting Ulster, whether the Ulster of water and earth or flesh and blood. Here a collection of dinnsenchus has been subjected to a new organizing principle. Suddenly, not only the place names but the endless series of individual combats begin to make sense. One great story, one great threat, one great champion to meet it, has emerged from their total. One combat would not have made Cúchulainn the champion of Ulster any more than one clan or province would have made Medb's army the formidable force it was. It is the cumulative effect tinged with irony. Cúchulainn rings his province with the graves of her enemies. Boundary burials are usually of one's own protecting ancestors or heroes; here, they are of one's enemies. Cúchulainn sets the boundary not for Ulster, but for those who have attacked her.

Source: Helen Conrad-O'Briain, for Epics for Students, Gale, 2001.

The Táin as Literature

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

What then of Táin Bó Cúailnge? While the earliest references to the events of the tale occur in a genealogical context, as early as the eighth century the Ulster Cycle would seem to have acquired a literary autonomy. For instance, the originally independent saga Táin Bó Fróich (Fróich's cattle-driving) was adapted in the eighth century to function as a foretale to the greater Táin. Motifs of the cycle are already parodied in two eighth-century tales, Scéla Muicce meic Dathó (The story of Mac Da Thó's pig), and Fled Bricrenn (Bricriu's feast).

While Recension II of the Táin conforms more to modern expectations of an aesthetic creation, presenting a smooth narrative in a unified style, the focus of this article will be on Recension I, which, it is hoped to show, is more than 'a mass of workshop fragments, not yet assimilated or amalgamated'. Recension II will occasionally be drawn on where it supplies extra material or helps to clarify the terse account of the earlier version.

The Boyhood Deeds of Cú Chulainn
The young boy expresses the heroic ethos memorably when he declares that he values everlasting fame more than life 'Provided I be famous, I am content to be only one day on earth'. Much of the action of the Táin shows Cú Chulainn living out his heroic ambitions. He fulfils his early promise when he compensates for the Ulstermen's inability to defend their province, and wards off the Connacht offensive in a series of single combat encounters. A mimetic interpretation of the macgnímrada episode would view it as a depiction of the initiation of a young man into warrior status as a fully integrated member of his túath (kingdom), and Cú Chulainn's characterisation in the body of the narrative as an exemplification of the warrior ideal. But Cú Chulainn's heroic biography also has mythological resonances, and these are reflected in this section by the scene in which the triumphant returning warrior is greeted by the bare-breasted Ulster women. This has been explained as a reflex of Cú Chulainn's original role as the vigorous young male who brings about the renewal of the year in an old seasonal vegetation drama.

The preceding episode is an even better indication of how densely-layered the meaning of an ostensibly straightforward narrative can be. 'The death of the smith's hound', explains how the boy Sétantae acquired his adult name: forced to kill the fierce hound of Culann the smith-hospitaller in self-defence, he undertakes to substitute temporarily as a guard-dog, and accepts Cú Chulainn 'the hound of Culann' as his new name. Greene describes this as a 'simple well-told story' and signals that 'scholars have looked for deeper meanings'. That the story can be appreciated at the surface level of plot is undeniable, but in view of the sophistication of many early sagas, as recent scholarship has demonstrated, it seems implausible that the 'national epic' should be an anomalous case of naiveté. And indeed it has been shown that there is more to this 'simple story' than is immediately apparent.

Given the literary convention that tales set in the distant past were primarily of relevance to the time and milieu in which they were redacted, it is clear that a knowledge of social idiom and particularly of the legal system is crucial to a deeper understanding of early Irish saga. The role of the warrior was obviously vital to that society. A number of recent studies have illuminated the institution of the fían(n), 'an association of propertyless and predominantly young, unmarried warrior-hunters on the fringes of settled society'. The Männerbund culture of such sodalities of young men is well attested in Germanic and Greek traditions, so that here we have a trace of Ireland's pagan inheritance. The fían's wild life was expressed in the wearing of wolf-skins or wolf-heads, which is reflected in the proliferation of names incorporating elements meaning 'wolf': such an element is , which signifies both the canine and lupine kind. Members of a fían were traditionally credited with the ability to experience ecstatic distortions. Both these features, the canine/lupine aspect and the distortion, are expressed in the warrior-hero of the Táin: Cú Chulainn's name marks him as a 'hound' or 'wolf’, and the contortions he undergoes in his ríastrad are mentioned frequently. With this background knowledge, Aided con na cerda can be read as a predictable stage in Cú Chulainn's martial career. By killing the hound Sétantae appropriates its martial spirit. The symbolism of the episode and its wider societal implications would presumably not have been lost on an early Irish audience.

The Táin Bó Tale Type
On the subject matter of this tale type Mac Cana says: 'The tána are the literary reflex of a social practice which was not merely Irish, but Celtic and Indo-European, and which is found elsewhere among cattle-rearing peoples ... For the Celts the successful cattle-raid was an assertion of the integrity of the tribal community vis-à-vis its neighbours and a vindication of its leader's claim to primacy over his people ... It is no mere accident, therefore, that the greatest of Irish tales, Táin Bó Cúailnge ... belongs to the category of the tána. What was at stake in Táin Bó Cúailnge on the political level was therefore the continued independence of the kingdom of Ulster. Such a conflict could easily provide the stuff of narrative, but surely does not exhaust the literary meaning of the tale. That something more than a normal, albeit major, cattle raid is involved is shown by the fact that the defeat of Ailill and Medb does not end the tale: the climax is not the battle between Connacht and Ulster forces, but the fight of the two bulls and their ensuing deaths. As the various encounters between Cú Chulainn and his adversaries leave an abiding mark on the landscape in the form of new place names, so too the battle of the bulls gives rise to a new onomastic inventory. The rivalry of the two bulls and the cosmogonic significance of the final scene, in which the physical landscape is recreated, is thought to reflect the original mythological nucleus of the tale. Between these two poles, the mimetic and the mythic, must lie the literary significance of the tale.

The other Táin Bó tales may give an indication of what is involved in a literary presentation of the cattle-raid. They all function as fore-tales (remscéla) to Táin Bó Cúailnge, the motivation for the raid being of no great political importance, but merely to provide food for the duration of the larger foray. None of the raids is conducted by a reigning monarch, or against such a major political opponent, and as one would expect, the protagonist is always a man. Finally, as Carney noted there is often a love interest: the driving off of cattle goes hand in hand with the acquisition of a woman. I suggest that these two narrative strands are figuratively linked, via a metaphor which equates cattle with humans, and particularly women with cows.

This metaphor is memorably exploited in a famous passage from another Ulster Cycle tale, Longes mac nUislenn (The exile of the sons of Uisliu). The beautiful Deirdre, who is being raised in seclusion as a future consort for Conchobar, meets and is smitten by Noísiu, a handsome young warrior. Their conversation is couched in figurative language:

—'A fine young heifer that is going by,' he said.
—'The heifers are bound to be fine where there are no bulls,' she answered.
—'You have the bull of the province: the king of Ulaid,' Noísiu 'said.

Thus the identification of cows and women in the plot of the táin bó genre is supported in the language by a metaphor in which terms for cattle can denote humans. In Táin Bó Cúailnge, of course, the roles of male and female are reversed. It is a woman who is the initiator of the raid, and her primary objective is not cattle-herds, but a particular prize bull, the Donn Cúailnge, the 'bull of the province' of Ulster, i.e. the Ulster king, Conchobar. The choice of a female protagonist therefore brings about a variation on the normal táin bó pattern, and the interpretation of Medb's anomalous behaviour is seen as crucial to the understanding of this tale.

Medb: Sovereignty Goddess or All-too-human?
Medb's role in the Táin is pivotal. She identifies herself at the outset as the chief instigator of the foray: 'it is I who have mustered this hosting', and remains the driving force throughout the narrative. Her decisions are carried even against the advice of Ailill and Fergus. She has a major say in the choice of warriors sent against Cú Chulainn and the rewards they are promised. In her marriage she is the dominant partner: Ailill is a complaisant husband, virtually conniving in her cuckoldry of him with Fergus, as a means of securing Fergus's support in their expedition. It is she who quells the disturbance in the ranks caused by the attack of the war-goddess and the dire prophecy of Dubhthach. She leads a sub-expedition of her own for a fortnight to Dál Riata. At the end of the tale she participates actively, and initially with success, in the actual fighting.

While much in the presentation of Medb's character has the impact of a tour-de-force of verisimilitude, her exercise of power is unlikely to reflect the reality of early Irish society. Ó Corráin comments: 'On the political level, women never inherited political power as such and never governed as independent sovereigns or rulers, though, of course, strong-minded women had a powerful influence on the political activities of their husbands. Indeed, Medb ... is the archetypal strong woman—determined, domineering and wanton—and we need not doubt that there were many like her in real life'. Kelly points out that 'the annals provide no instances of a female political or military leader. Indeed, the male imagery which surrounds the office of kingship ... would seem to preclude even the possibility of a female ruler.' The imagery of kingship is well-attested in the literature of all periods. Its fundamental element symbolizes the land as a woman, with whom the prospective king must mate if his reign is to be legitimate. Various reflexes of this mythic female have been identified, but Medb is considered 'the outstanding figure of the territorial goddess in Irish literature'. One of the ways the goddess signalled acceptance of a would-be king was to offer him a drink: this aspect is conveyed in Medb's very name, which has been explained as a derivative of the word med, 'mead', meaning 'the intoxicating (or intoxicated) one'. Medb Lethderg of Tara who is considered to be the original sovereignty goddess, of whom her namesake, the queen of Connacht in the Ulster Cycle, is a literary reflex. Medb Chrúachna's divine aspect is only 'vestigial in Recension I of the Táin, but Recension II is more explicit when it has her stipulate the qualities she demands in a husband: he should be cen néoit, cen ét, cen omon, 'without meanness, without jealousy, without fear'. Absence of jealousy is necessary 'for I was never without a man in the shadow of another' (i.e. without one lover quickly succeeding another). This was once seen as a reference to the loose morals of pre-Christian Ireland, but Medb's promiscuity has been more plausibly explained as a reflection of her original role as the mythic sovereignty figure, union with whom is constantly sought by candidates for the kingship.

For all that some contexts do identify Medb as a classic sovereignty figure, this aspect is certainly not to the fore in Táin Bó Cúailnge. O'Rahilly notes that here 'she is no longer a goddess but a masterful woman, with the inevitable result that her character has sadly degenerated, so much so that at times she is no better than a strong-willed virago with unconcealed leanings towards a multiplicity of husbands and paramours.' I suggest that O'Rahilly's view of Medb's 'degeneracy' is shared by her literary creator, and that it is a central purpose of the Táin to depict her in a thoroughly unflattering light.

Medb's conduct of her expedition is shown to be severely wanting. She makes an inauspicious start when she rejects the vision of the prophetess Fedelm, whom she has asked 'How do you see the fate of the army?' Fedelm replies three times, chillingly, 'Atchíu forderg, atchíu rúad', 'I see it bloody, I see it red'. Twice Medb disputes the veracity (fír) of this prediction, and finally dismisses it as of little significance (níbáa anísin trá). She proposes to kill the crack regiment, the Gaileóin, lest they gain all the credit for the success of the raid, or eventually turn against the Connacht forces and defeat them.

Ailill remarks laconically: 'Ni chélam as banchomairle', 'I shall not deny that is a woman's counsel'. That following a woman's advice can only have negative results is a topos in many texts, and in a later scene Fergus pleads with Ailill not to heed the 'foolish counsels of a woman' (banairle baetha) when Medb predicts victory. She airily discounts Fergus's lengthy eulogy of Cú Chulainn. When the river Cronn floods, Medb rejects the possibility of travelling upstream to its source to find a passage, but sets the troops three days and nights digging up the mountain to make a pass through it, since that will remain as a permanent insult to the Ulstermen. The Connacht leaders repeatedly violate the warriors' honour code (fírfer, literally 'truth of men', usually translated 'fair play') against Ulster warriors, but Medb is the only one who personally recommends this course: 'Brister fír fer fair', 'Let terms of fair play be broken against him'. Other characters make negative comments which reveal her reputation. When she plans a 'mock peace' (sída celci) to lure Cú Chulainn to a meeting unarmed, his charioteer warns: 'At móra glonna Medbi ... Atágur lám ar cúl aci', 'Many are Medb's treacherous deeds ... I fear that she has help behind the scenes'. Although she fights actively, and initially with success, in the final pitched battle, in the end she is in the ignominious position of having to beg Cú Chulainn to spare her.

The last scene in which Medb appears shows her viciously disparaged as a woman for aspiring to military leadership. Her admission to Fergus that their forces are routed elicits this savage riposte from him: 'Is bésad ... do cach graig remitét láir, rotgata, rotbrata, rotfeither a moín hi tóin mná misrairleastair', 'That is what usually happens ... to a herd of horses led by a mare. Their substance is taken and carried off and guarded as they follow a woman who has misled them.' The implication is that a 'stallion' would have been a more suitable choice of leader, and Fergus's patronymic mac Roeich 'son of great horse' marks him out as an ideal candidate. The final verdict of the narrative on Medb is therefore that she has usurped a man's function, and this is what has doomed the expedition from the start.

The positioning of this comment of Fergus's at a crucial point in the tale suggests that this aspect is of greater importance to the overall meaning of the Táin than has been acknowledged. Frank O'Connor noted 'the rancorous anti-feminist irony that occurs again and again through the story', and declared his conviction that 'the purpose of the original author would seem to have been to warn his readers against women, particularly women in positions of authority'. O'Connor's thesis is considered 'clearly extreme' by O'Leary, though even he concedes that 'distrust of women is by no means an insignificant theme' in the tale.

A further indication that Fergus's jibe may provide a clue to part of the central message of the Táin is that it echoes a phrase which occurs at other significant points in the narrative. The phrase is tóin mná, which has also been rendered less delicately as 'the rump of a woman' or 'a woman's buttocks'. The first use of the term in the tale certainly requires the literal translation. When the Morrígan in the guise of a beautiful young woman tries to distract Cú Chulainn from his task he dispatches her brusquely: 'Níar thóin mná dano gabus-sa inso', 'it is not for a woman's body that I have come'. Conall Cernach taunts Fergus by implying a dishonourable motive for his Connacht allegiance: "'Baramór in bríg sin,' ar Conall Cernach, 'for túaith cenél ar thóin mná drúithi', 'Too great is that force which you exert against (your own) people and race, following a wanton woman as you do,' said Conall Cernach". The editor's discreet rendering notwithstanding, the sexual innuendo is again clear.

Medb is therefore not just a 'heavily rationalized' reflex of the sovereignty goddess, but a negative manifestation of the figure. Granted, the classic 'straight' version of the myth of the sovereignty woman can depict her as mentally deranged or physically unattractive or deformed; but this when she is bereft of a suitable lover. The negative depiction of Medb in the Táin has also been interpreted in this light: 'It is of the essence of the myth that the beautiful sympathetic goddess is transformed into a harpy or a harridan whenever the cosmic plan is out of joint—as when usurpers or unworthy pretenders lay claim to her favours—and in this instance the monastic redactor has chosen to present her as a lusty and overbearing autocrat with a puppet husband'. Medb however retains all her beauty, and the focus of the text is not on Ailill's failings as a spouse, though of course they are a precondition for his wife's excesses. Of Medb's two male partners, it is Fergus who comes off the worst in the Táin; but he is rehabilitated as an honourable figure at the end.

One realization of the goddess which might be seen to merit the 'harpy or harridan' formulation is Sín, in Aided Muirchertaig meic Erca (The death of Muirchertach mac Erca). Sín is 'a diabolical sovereignty woman who bewitches the Tara monarch [Muirchertach], causes him to abandon his former wife, and leads him to conflict and death' (McCone 1990, 133). Here again, however, the narrative does not put the burden of blame on Muirchertach's inadequacy as king: 'Sín leads a hitherto flawless sovereign astray out of personal malice' (ibid). O'Hehir (1983, 168) characterizes this tale as an 'anti-goddess story, reversing the pagan polarities' and attributes it to a 'Christian redactor bent on discrediting otherworld goddesses as queens'. Aided Muirchertaig meic Erca can thus be seen as an inversion of the 'normal' sovereignty goddess story pattern, and this strengthens the case for reading the Táin in a similar way.

There is some support therefore for the view that the characterisation of Medb as a negative paradigm of the sovereignty goddess is a serious thematic concern of Táin Bó Cúailnge. Its author takes the matter a step further, however.

As we have seen, Medb does not confine herself to traditionally female spheres of activity. And the narrative judges her in accordance with the traditional criteria for the male role she aspires to. This can be seen in the legal implications of a number of incidents.

As mentioned above, in the final battle Medb is reduced to asking Cú Chulainn for his protection. He complies 'úair nád gonad mná', 'because he used not to kill women' (4117). Medb, however, is a would-be combatant and should maintain the warrior ethos she seeks to embody. And 'pleading for quarter' is listed by the laws among the seven things which 'reveal the falsehood of [one party in] a duel' (Kelly 1988, 212-213). That doing so amounts to an admission of cowardice is shown by a contrasting instance where a defeated adversary asks a favour of Cú Chulainn. The full import of the scene is spelled out in Recension II: the dying Lóch asks that his body be let fall in such a way as to allay any suspicion that he was killed in flight. He justifies his plea: 'Níascid anacail nó midlachais iarraim-se fort', 'No favour of quarter do I ask nor do I make a cowardly request', and Cú Chulainn concurs: 'is láechda ind ascid connaigi', 'it is a warrior's request you make' (TBCII2005-2010).

In keeping with the view that Táin Bó Cúailnge is epic or heroic literature, the main thematic concern has been formulated as 'the celebration of the martial heroism of Cú Chulainn; of his courage and ingenuity, his mastery of the martial arts, his unswerving loyalty'. Certainly the greatest bulk of the tale is devoted to Cú Chulainn's exploits, and he is depicted in a wholly favourable light. This rubs off on the Ulaid, who are the victors in the contention. Some scholars however dispute the apparent corollary that the whole heroic age in general is also being celebrated. Radner notes that the tale emphasises the negative effects of war, summarised in Cú Chulainn's statement on hearing the clamour of the final battle: 'conscar bara bith', 'anger destroys the world'. 'Thematically', she argues, 'the Ulster Cycle as a whole tends to present the tragic breakdown of those relationships on which early Irish society was founded: the relationships between host and guest, between kindred, between foster-brothers, between men and women, between lords and clients and kings and overkings, between the human world and the gods. Behind the immense vitality, humor and imagination of the Ulster stories is a picture of society moving to dysfunction and self-destruction'.

Yet the blame for the breakdown of social order is not laid impartially on both sides, or on all participants. As far as 'societal' virtues such as goire 'filial piety' and condalbae 'love of kin, patriotism' are concerned, as exemplified in the behaviour of the Ulster characters, they prove resilient in the end. Fergus's kin-love (condalbae) causes him to sabotage the Connacht venture, he can be prevailed upon to desist from attacking the Ulaid in the final battle, and his ties of fostership with Cú Chulainn preclude their engaging in direct combat. The Ulaid are presented as strongly motivated by condalbae in relation to Conchobar's grandson. It is Medb who sets foster-brothers, foster-fathers and foster-sons against each other, who offers her daughter as a bribe to any likely opponent of Cú Chulainn, and who seduces Fergus into disloyalty to his kin.

The most negative point about the Ulaid is their inability to support Cú Chulainn through the winter months, and Radner makes the attractive suggestion that their mysterious sickness, the ces noínden, is 'the tangible and persistent symbol of a radical flaw in the Ulstermen'. Aitchison also notes the ambiguous tone in the depiction of Ulster glory, but his conclusion that the Ulster Cycle is anti-Ulaid propaganda is informed less by the Táin than by other Ulster tales. In the Táin the Ulaid are certainly not singled out for criticism, but I would agree that whole-hearted approval of war is withheld. The tale does not dwell indulgently on descriptions of the large-scale battle, and the final encounters, between Fergus on the one hand and Conall Cernach and Cú Chulainn on the other, pass off without human casualties. This I would interpret as a reflection of a general pacifist stance, which would accord well with a hypothesis of clerical authorship.

The immediate catalyst for the chaos and killing is the cattle raid itself. Though such raiding may have been 'the most typical and abiding event recorded in the annals down the centuries' and 'a commonplace, not to say routine, experience to every individual in the population', there is evidence that efforts were made by the Church to put a stop to it, or to alleviate the destruction it could entail. Killing plough oxen and stealing milch kine are said to be among the three most serious offences which Patrick proscribed. The canons of Adamnán, no later than the ninth century, lay down that 'cattle seized in a raid are not to be taken by Christians whether in trade or as gifts'. An ecclesiastical Cáin attributed to a sixth-century nun Dar Í enjoined 'not to kill cattle'. The annals record its promulgation four times between 810 and 826. This concern with the destructive potential of cattle-raiding is perhaps only implied in the narrative message of Táin Bó Cúailnge, but may have found more explicit literary reflection elsewhere in the Ulster Cycle: a passage in Táin Bó Regamna has been interpreted as advice to Cú Chulainn to give up cattle-raiding.

As the instigator of the cattle raid, Medb is the primary culprit, who as a woman has unjustifiably arrogated power and status to herself. It is her challenge to male superiority, the bedrock of a patriarchal society, which upsets the natural balance and destabilises society. One of the thematic concerns of the tale, then, is the perennial question of the relative roles in society of men and women. More specifically, it concentrates on Medb's unseemly aspirations towards the supreme male role, that of the king.

Style and Structure
It is generally agreed that one of the best features of early Irish storytelling is the terse, fast-paced style, consisting of taut, almost elliptical, sentences or phrases. It is deployed to striking advantage in conversation, lending passages of direct speech a staccato-like effect. As an example I quote from the touching exchange between Cú Chulainn and his mother in the first section of the macgnímrada:

"Cú Chulainn asked his mother to let him go to join the boys.

'You shall not go,' said his mother, till you be escorted by some of the Ulster warriors.'

'I think it too long to wait for that,' said Cú Chulainn. 'Point out to me in what direction is Emain.'

'To the north there,' said his mother, 'and the journey is hard. Slíab Fúait lies between you and Emain.'

'I shall make an attempt at it at all events.' said Cú Chulainn"

In general, the older the text, the more economical the prose. A comparison with the Recension II version of the above scene may serve to illustrate the development in style between the ninth and twelfth centuries:

"'It is too soon for you to go, my son,' said his mother, 'until there go with you a champion of the champions of Ulster or some of the attendants of Conchobar to ensure your safety and protection from the youths.'" The effect is smoother, but tends to the verbose.

In another instance from Recension I, the succinctness of Medb's speech is a perfect vehicle for the stark message it conveys. She feels threatened by the superiority of the Gaileóin. Ailill tries to divine her intentions:

'Well then, what shall be done with them,' asked Ailill, 'since neither their staying nor their going pleases you?'

'Kill them!' said Medb.

The limpid quality prevails even in descriptive passages, as in the following extended word portrait of the prophetess Fedelm, which consists largely of verb-free nominal phrases:

'She had yellow hair. She wore a vari-coloured cloak with a golden pin in it and a hooded tunic with red embroidery. She had shoes with golden fastenings. Her face was oval, narrow below, broad above. Her eyebrows were dark and black. Her beautiful black eyelashes cast a shadow on to the middle of her cheeks. Her lips seemed to be made of partaing. Her teeth were like a shower of pearls between her lips. She had three plaits of hair: two plaits wound around her head, the third hanging down her back, touching her calves behind. In her hand she carried a weaver's beam of white bronze, with golden inlay. There were three pupils in each of her eyes. The maiden was armed and her chariot was drawn by two black horses'.

An eleventh-century addition to Recension I, which contains a description of Cú Chulainn's hair, provides a contrast and highlights the later tendency to heap up adjectives: 'Fair was the arrangement of that hair with three coils in the hollow in the nape of his neck, and like gold thread was each fine hair, loose-flowing, bright-golden, excellent, long-tressed, splendid and of beautiful colour, which fell back over his shoulder. A hundred bright crimson ringlets of flaming red-gold encircled his neck'.

Some stretches of direct speech in the Táin are in a rhythmical alliterative style called rosc(ad) or retoiric. Their syntax is frequently marked, and they have therefore often been held to belong to an older linguistic stratum of the text. Corthals points out, however, that in the Táin such passages are fully integrated into the surrounding 'straight' prose as regards narrative content. Rather than reflecting a chronological divide, they exemplify one of the possible varieties in the 'supple stylistic continuum' of early Irish writing. A lengthy stretch of roscad occurs in the exchange between Ailill, Fergus and Medb after the love-making scene. Another context which features this style is the Morrígan' s prophecy to the bull. The style here is even more highly marked, through the use of metre for the words of the actual prophecy, contained in the two central lines below, which are linked by alliteration to the surrounding rhetorical prose (alliterating consonants in boldface):

' ... I have a secret which the Black one will find out: 'If he will (=would) eat in May (?) the very green grass of the bogland, he would be overpowered (and driven) out of his field by fire (and) contest of strong warriors.' The flowering splendour of the host seduces the Bodb'.

Another variation in style is brought about by an alternation between prose and syllabic verse. Some sections have no syllabic verse at all, e.g. the macgnímrada, while the eleventh century Fer Diad episode (2567-3142) features almost a half-and-half distribution between these two modes. After this episode the remaining thousand or so lines are entirely in prose, with some short passages of roscad.

The narrative technique also features diversity. A popular means of ringing the changes on conventional exposition is the 'watchman device'. This consists of description presented by a knowledgeable participant in the events (the 'watchman'), rather than by an omniscient narrator. The device has not found favour with the taste of modern scholars, who have dismissed instances in other texts as 'long and tedious', or 'repetitive and wearisome'. With an effort of empathy, however, it is possible to see some virtue in its employment in the Táin.

If it is correct to suggest that it is no concern of the tale to glorify war, the author is faced with the problem of how to create a credible battle scenario without direct description of the carnage. He conveys a sense of the strength of the defending army in the lengthy account of the approach of the Ulster warriors as viewed by the Connachtmen. The use of the watchman device here is far from mechanical: a reconnaissance man is sent out and returns with descriptions of individual warriors, who Fergus, their one-time comrade, is asked to identify. His answers are not stereotyped, and his personal reactions are varied. Another sophisticated use of the technique furnishes a post hoc and indirect account of bloody combat in 'The hard fight of Cethern'. The wounded Ulsterman Cethern will not suffer any physician near him, so the diagnosis of his injuries is conducted at a distance: he describes the warriors who wounded him, and here it is Cú Chulainn, all too familiar with the Connacht adversaries, who identifies them. In contrast, the account of Cú Chulainn’s own participation in the final fray is a gem of understatement:

‘It was midday when Cú Chulainn came to the battle.
When the sun was sinking behind the trees in the
wood, he overcame the last of the bands, and of the
chariot there remained only a handful of the ribs of the
framework and a handful of the shafts round the wheel’.

This stunning image is expressed with all the eloquence and brevity of the most admired passages of early Irish prose, but the other narrative responses to the task of describing the battle need not therefore be denied structural validity and artistic intent.
The structure of the opening scenes of the Táin has evoked unanimous critical approval. Some of the best literary effects here have been analysed by Carney. In the initial portion, some eight hundred lines, from the mustering of the Connacht forces to the end of the macgnímrada, he detects the hand of a literary personality, ‘not a mere story-teller’. The pièce-de-résistance is undoubtedly the ‘Boyhood deeds’. After the advance of the Connachtmen has been held up by some displays of Cú Chulainn’s prowess, the forward movement of the narrative is interrupted with a flashback to enable the exiled Ulstermen to recall the most striking martial feats of his precocious childhood. The build-up to this flashback is also impressive. The narrator’s attention is initially directed entirely to the Connacht side. The prophecy of Fedelm soon casts an ominous shadow on their proceedings. Cú Chulainn only slowly comes into focus: he is first referred to, but not named, in the prophecy of Dubthach (194), as the army traverses the centre of the country. When they reach the east, Fergus sends him a warning. From then on, Cú Chulainn’s presence is increasingly felt, until he kills four of the vanguard of the invading army and sets their heads up on spits to confront the Connachtmen when they arrive. It is at this point that Ailill and Medb inquire about their formidable opponent, and the Ulstermen each contribute their memories of his ‘boyhood deeds’: this sets the scene for the ultimate triumph of the Ulster defence, and reinforces the sense of foreboding which dogs the Connacht forces throughout. Such ‘tricks of presentation’ Carney (ibid 71) considers to be evidence of a wholly literary sophistication, of a quality rare even in the early texts.
The remainder of the tale has not received anything like the same accolades. Greene’s judgement (1954, 32) that ‘the long series of single combats becomes wearisome and the story tails off badly’ is probably representative of modern scholarly opinion. For Carney (1955, 67) the decline in the quality of the narration sets in with the very first of the single combats, the interpolated ‘Death of Fróech’. Admittedly ‘after this point … there are a greater number of incidents which are merely of antiquarian interest’ (ibid), but perhaps there are some points of significance encoded in the placenames or personal names in the single encounters which may yet be elucidated. However that may be, O’Rahilly concedes that ‘the skill with which these encounters are varied in circumstance and detail is remarkable’.

Source: Patricia Kelly, “The Táin as Literature,” in Aspects of the Tain, edited by J. P. Mallory, December Publications, 1992, pp. 69–95.

The Táin Bó Cúailnge

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

People who deal with early Irish literature, usually refer to Táin Bó Cúailnge simply as 'the Táin'. This is partly a handy abbreviation, but it is also the usage in Irish literature and it tells us something about the story; it is the original Táin, and the other stories whose titles begin with Táin Bó are all either later stories or old ones which have been re-worked to bring them into relationship with the Táin as remscéla—preliminary stories ...

And why was this black bull of Cooley so badly wanted? Well, one of the versions of the Táin—not the oldest—gives us a nice rational interpretation. Ailill, king of Connacht, and his wife Maeve, chatting in bed one night, begin to argue about what each of them brought into the marriage. The argument grows so heated that they decide to compare their property on the spot, and, for every treasure that Ailill can produce, Maeve can find one to match it—except for one, a fine bull called Finnbheannach—Whitehorned—which had originally belonged to Maeve but had refused to be a woman's property and had joined the king's herd. When Maeve realises this, the rest of her wealth isn't worth a penny to her and she swears to get as good a bull for herself. The only one which is known to be good enough is the black bull of Cooley, owned by a certain Dáire. Maeve immediately sends messengers to Dáire to offer him the most generous terms for the bull, and all goes well until the Connacht emissaries get drunk and are overheard boasting that if the bull were not given freely they would take it by force. Tempers rise, negotiations are broken off, and war is the only possible solution.

It's a human enough incident, very well told in the Book of Leinster ... but I don't think it's part of the original story. At the very end of the Táin the two bulls, the white one from Connacht and the black one from Ulster, sweep aside the fighting men and finish the war for themselves; the Connacht bull is defeated and the black bull makes his way home triumphantly to Cooley before he, too, dies of his wounds. It is plain that these are no mere animals, but heroic and god-like creatures; we have memories here, however altered, of a cult of bull-gods, such as is well known from the ancient civilisations of the Mediterranean.

The Táin, then, like the rest of the Ulster sagas, preserves pre-Christian traditions—but of what period? The German scholar Windisch and the English archaeologist Ridgeway were struck, over fifty years ago, by the resemblances between the chariot-fighting warriors of the Táin and the Celts of Britain and Gaul described by classical writers in the first century B.C., and Windisch pointed out, reasonably enough, that this way of life could have survived considerably longer in Ireland, free from Roman observers and Roman invaders. But, while the Romans seem to have regarded the Gauls as fairly civilised people, the contemporary Irish were not so acceptable; the chariots in the Táin were often decorated with newly acquired human heads, and scholars educated in the classical tradition felt that the Táin stories would be more fittingly placed in a vague and distant past ...

This view lingers on; it's only a year or so since I read an article which said that 'it is an acknowledged fact that the Táin cycle embodies memories of the Celtic way of life and of Celtic beliefs in the centuries from 500 B.C. to 100 A.D.' I think that talking in terms of Celts, and more especially of Celtic gentlemen, is liable to distract our attention from the main point. We know that Celts came to Ireland, since Irish is a Celtic language, and we know that early Irish society has many points in common with that of Celtic Gaul, as well as more distant relationships with early Rome and India. But that Irish society, and the literature it produced, are neither Indo-European nor Celtic, but simply Irish, and must be studied on that basis. Certain elements belonging to the coherent society portrayed in the Táin—totem and tabu, headhunting, fighting from chariots—are unknown in early Christian Ireland and cannot, therefore, be inventions of literary men influenced by Latin learning; we need not go too far in the other direction, however, and regard them as memories of an infinitely remote past. You may remember that some of the antiquarian writers after the end of the Old Irish period like to put the death of Conchobhar Mac Neasa, the king of Ulster in these stories, as coincidental with the death of Christ, but that is, of course, just a conjecture or invention. Remembering that writing was little known in Ireland before the fifth century, and writing in Irish not much before the seventh, we have to ask ourselves how long we should allow for an oral tradition which would preserve all these archaic features, free from any admixture of Christian lore. Not too long, I would suggest; the most important fact that occurs to me is that the same antiquarian writers put the abandonment of Emhain Mhacha, the capital of the Ulstermen in all these tales, somewhere about the middle of the fourth century. It's a common enough device to choose, as the subject of a national epic, a people or kingdom which has no longer any real political existence—it prevents any charges of undue favouritism against the literary men. If the Ulaid, this warlike people who gave their name to the whole province, if they preserved what we might call the Táin way of life up to the fourth century, and then were overwhelmed by an alliance of their enemies, it is not impossible that, just before the coming of Christianity and writing, the stories about them should have become part of the stock-in-trade of the literary men. These stories would hardly have been popular in the first flush of missionary enthusiasm—not popular, that is to say, with the propagators of the new learning. But in no country did the church make its peace with the old learning as quickly or as thoroughly as in Ireland; the elegiac poem in the old bardic style on St. Columba, who died in 597, is sufficient proof that a complete understanding had been arrived at by that date. And I think we might accept one more deduction from the antiquarian writers and say that the alleged finding of the Táin by the poet Seanchán Torpéist in the seventh century—he had to call up Fergus from the dead to tell it—that this finding of the Táin is just the antiquarians' way of saying that it then became respectable to write it down.

Not only writing down this traditional material, but re-arranging it as well. Most of our early sagas are quite short—about the length of this lecture, say. But even the earliest version of the Táin is about ten times that length and the Book of Leinster version longer still; they are no longer stories, but literary works. This, I suppose, was partly due to the fact that the story-tellers now had pen and vellum and could spread themselves, and there's probably a good deal of truth in the suggestion of Thurneysen that the Táin in its present form has been influenced by the Aeneid; the writers were out to provide Ireland with a national epic.

I find that I have been talking as though this seventh century Táin had been preserved, but the fact of the matter is that we can only deduce its existence from later evidence ...

... Our earliest literary manuscripts in Irish are as late as the twelfth century. One of these, Leabhar na hUidhre, or the Book of the Dun Cow, contains the earliest version of the Táin known to us, and there is another copy of the same version in the Yellow Book of Lecan. But this version is not a straightforward story at all; it is a compilation by somebody who was interested in collecting as much of the varying traditions of the Táin as possible. He does not attempt to conceal the fact; he interjects remarks such as 'They say it is here that Dubhthach sang the lay', 'But other books have the following version', 'According to another version, however', and so on. These are the remarks a modern editor would reserve for footnotes or a preface; here they are jumbled in with the text and, as they suggest, we often find two versions of the same incident told one after the other.

This arises, of course, from the popularity of the story. Once it had been established as the national epic, it became the common property of saga-writers who remoulded it to the taste of their period. We have plenty of parallels from other literatures; you will remember Professor Stanford's researches on the figure of Ulysses throughout the ages, and the play by Giraudoux, called Amphitryon 38, because it was the thirty-eighth handling of the theme, by the dramatist's own reckoning. From this point of view we can regard Yeats' s use of Irish saga themes in his verse plays as a perfectly legitimate continuation of a process that had been going on since the beginning of Irish literature. But, to return to the Táin, it is sad that we do not possess one of the early versions in its entirety, instead of having to piece a story together from the very varied material gathered together by the industrious compiler ...

... The original material of the Táin lay in the rivalry between the divine bulls, with which the story still begins and ends; Cú Chulainn's part, originally just an incident in the story, has been enormously expanded, in two ways. The first was to describe, not just one or two of his fights on the ford, while delaying the Connacht troops, but all of them, and in great detail; the most famous of these, the fight with Fer Diad, although occurring in the earliest version, is still so late in style and language as to show beyond doubt that it cannot be a great deal older than the twelfth-century manuscript in which it is written down. You remember the story: Fer Diad, Cú Chulainn's old friend and comrade, is plied with drink and women, threatened with satire, and cajoled with promises of wealth, until he promises to fight Cú Chulainn, by whom, of course, he falls. Cú Chulainn's lament over him has been well rendered by Sigerson:

'Every other combat and fight that ever I have made
was to me but a game or a sport, compared to the
combat and the fight of Ferdia. And he spake
these words:
Play was each, pleasure each,
Till Ferdia faced the beach ...'

This is fine stuff, as is the quarrel between Ailill and Maeve to which I have already referred, but it is not part of the original story, and neither, in all probability, are most of the fights on the ford, the best of which are by the same hand as wrote the 'boyish deeds'—the Prose-writer, as O'Connor calls him because, though his language is much older than that of the Fer Diad episode, it is not interspersed either with verse or with rhetorics—those passages in obscure alliterative rhythmic language which are characteristic of the older sagas and which we find in long passages between Ailill, Maeve and Fergus in the Táin. The language is barer here and the background more barbarous; take the death of Etarcomol, who forces a fight on Cú Chulainn against Fergus' advice:

Loeg said to Cú Chulainn: 'The chariot is back again and it has turned its left side to us'. 'That is not an obligation that can be refused', said Cú Chulainn, 'we will go down to the ford to meet it and see about it'. 'I do not wish what you ask of me', said Cú Chulainn. 'You must do it', said Etarcomol. Cú Chulainn cut the sod from under his foot, so that he fell with the sod on his belly. 'Get away from me', said Cú Chulainn, 'I don't want to have to clean my hands on your account. I would have you cut into many pieces long ago had it not been for Fergus'. 'We will not part this way', said Etarcomol, 'I will bring away your head or leave my head with you'. 'That is what will happen', said Cú Chulainn and struck with his sword under his two armpits, so that his clothes fell off him, but his skin was not touched. 'Go away now', said Cú Chulainn. 'No', said Etarcomol. Cú Chulainn swept him then with the edge of his sword and took his hair off as though it had been shaved with a razor. And, since the boor was still tiresome and persistent, he struck him on the top of the head and split him to the navel.

We can imagine how popular this murderous sort of slap-stick was with early Irish audiences, especially when connected with the great name of Cú Chulainn, and they were given plenty of it. But the second and greater triumph of the Prose-writer was his introduction of the stories of the hero's boyhood, given as the reminiscences of Fergus and the other Ulster exiles with Connacht forces—exiles, you will remember, since the death of Deirdre and the sons of Uisliu. This is the technique familiar to us in the modern cinema as the 'flash-back', and it is used here with remarkable effect, with little naturalistic touches such as 'that took place in the presence of Bricriu here', and 'I met him in the door of the lios and I badly wounded' and 'nine of the boys dashed past Conchobhar and myself, who were playing chess'. It is more than a little surprising to find so sophisticated a style allied to very primitive, not to say barbarous material; the language of these stories shows that they can hardly have been written much before the ninth century, but there is no admixture at all of classical or ecclesiastical elements. They are one of the happiest examples of the process I have mentioned before, the remoulding of a traditional theme; extraneous though they may be to the action of the Táin, they came to form an integral part of it—indeed, to modern taste, by far the most attractive part ...

... For example:

'I haven't had enough of my game yet, uncle Conchobhar', said the boy, 'I will go after you'. When they all reached the feast Culann said to Conchobhar, 'Is anyone coming after you?' 'No', said Conchobhar; he did not remember that he had told his foster-son to follow him. 'I have a fierce dog', said Culann, 'there are three chains on it, and three men on each chain. Let it be loosed to protect our cattle and let the lios be closed?' The boy comes along then. The dog makes for him. He kept on his game meanwhile; he was throwing his ball and throwing his hurling stick after it so that it struck the ball. This shocked Conchobhar and his people so that they were unable to move; they thought they could not reach him alive, even if the lios had been open. When the hound reached him, he threw away his ball and stick and seized the hound with his two hands, one on its throat and the other at the back of its head, and swung it against a pillar-stone which was nearby, so that every limb of it sprang asunder. The Ulstermen rushed towards him, some over the wall, others through the door of the lios, and he was placed in Conchobhar's arms. They raised a great clash of arms, because the son of the king's sister had nearly been killed.

Well, the smith comes along then, and while rejoicing over the boy's escape, laments the death of the dog which protected his wealth, and Sétanta offers to take its place until another dog can be reared; and Cathbhadh, the druid, says 'Cú Chulainn shall be your name' ...

... For the Táin, taken as a whole, can hardly be called an artistic success; if it's really intended as an imitation of the Aeneid, it's a very bad one. Of course, we have to make allowances for the fact that the earliest version we possess is the merest hotchpotch; how much we would give for a sight of those alii libri, those other books to which the compiler so often refers! But, even to the present day, the native genius has felt more at home with short stories than with long works of complicated construction; certainly there is nothing in the fragmentary Táin we have that would allow us to suspect the existence of a planned and developed prose epic—nothing to suggest that the Táin was ever otherwise than jerky and episodic. I have suggested that later revisers threw the original story of the contest between the two bulls considerably out of proportion by devoting more and more attention to the attractive figure of the hero Cú Chulainn. And yet the Táin ends, as it begins, with the bulls, with the picture of the Black Bull of Cooley making his way home from Connacht with the carcase of his broken rival on his horns.

Source: David Greene, "The Táin Bó Cúailnge," in Irish Sagas, edited by Myles Dillon, Stationary Office, Dublin, 1959, pp. 94-106.


Cualnge, Táin Bó