Táin Bó Cúailnge (The Cattle Raid of Cooley)

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Historical Context

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The Reinvention of Early Irish History
The Táin Bó Cúailnge floats within a period of over a thousand years. At one end is the generally assumed date of the essential action and characters of the first century A.D. At the other is the date of the earliest manuscript written in Clonmacnoise on the Shannon River in the first quarter of the twelfth century. Between these two dates is the great watershed of Irish history: the introduction of Christianity.

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Christianity and Roman culture, because of the proximity of the Roman empire in Britain, had begun to affect Ireland from at least the third century. Their influence was strengthened with the mission of St. Patrick in the second half of the fifth century. At that point, the Irish had already developed a script of their own: Ogham. This script shows signs of having been affected by a high-level understanding of Latin grammatical and linguistic theory. Within a century of St. Patrick's death, Ireland was producing good Latin scholars and fervent Christian missionaries. Irishmen were laying the basis for modern page presentation and the spread of literacy, both in Latin and vernacular across Western Europe.

Meanwhile, Ireland was in constant turmoil as new tribal and family groups like the Ui Neill remade not only the political landscape but the landscape of history, reinterpreting the past to establish political legitimacy. While the myth of the high kingship was being invented, the whole pre-Christian history of Ireland, or more properly, the pre-Patrician history of the island and its peoples, was overhauled. This was partially an attempt to integrate the Irish into the mainstream Mediterranean culture and Christian salvation history. It also represented an attempt to provide a basis for native Irish law acceptable to the new religion and learning. There was also an attempt at cultural one-upmanship. If the Jewish nation boasted of Moses the Greeks of Homer and Plato and the Franks and Romans of descent from Troy, the Irish would claim to be the descendants of a pharaoh's daughter, the foster mother of Moses. At some point in this intellectual and social ferment, Táin Bó Cúailnge as we have it in the earliest collection began to take shape.

Cattle and Cattle Raiding
Across Irish history, certain constants of Irish life emerge: endemic warfare, disunity, and cattle rearing as the basis of the economy. It is in this atmosphere that cattle raiding emerged almost as an institution and continued until the final imposition of English rule. The Táin Bó Cúailnge is only the most famous tale of a cattle raid. The names of thirteen such tales survive. The tale type and its popularity were a reflection of social reality. For most of Ireland's history, indeed up until the last twenty years, cattle rearing for meat, milk, butter, and hides was the mainstay of the economy. Prices in early medieval Ireland were expressed in cattle and slave girls at a ratio of seven cows to one slave. The integrity of a community vis-a-vis its neighbors were demonstrated by the successful cattle-raid. A king's authority was expressed in terms of the ability to enforce a tax of cattle over a given area. Cattle-raids were used regularly as a tool of local politics by both the native Irish and the Anglo-Norman settlers and were a constant fact of Irish life into the seventeenth century.

The Ulster Cycle
The Táin Bó Cúailnge is the centerpiece of the Ulster cycle of eighty heroic sagas, one of several cycles of medieval and early medieval Irish stories, the most famous being the Fianna cycle centered on the figure of Finn Mac Cool and his son Oisín. It is by far the longest of any of these early Irish tales. While the Fianna cycle was more generally popular up to the nineteenth century, Irish language poetic eulogies used stories, images, and characters from the Ulster cycle to great effect. Native works on word meanings and place names also drew heavily on the cycle.

Historical Fiction and the Place and Date of Composition
As part of a larger effort to integrate Irish history into biblical salvation history and place their past on a footing with that of Greece and Rome, medieval Irish scholars placed the action of the Táin Bó Cúailnge around the time of Christ. They worked tirelessly to ensure that their proofs for its date corresponded to accepted notions of chronology and historical evidence. O'Rahilly, a recent editor of the three versions of the Táin Bó Cúailnge believed that the earliest version of the work was written in the seventh century but composed three centuries earlier. But the language of the Táin Bó Cúailnge has been deeply affected by the introduction of Christianity and Latin. Further, archaeological study of artifacts, particularly of swords and their use suggests that the constant reference to beheading and the descriptions of the use of swords in general can only be explained in terms of the long sword, introduced during the Viking period. It would be nearly impossible to perform the actions recounted with the much shorter Iron Age or early Christian period swords. On this basis, the author of the Táin Bó Cúailnge should be seen as consciously attempting to recreate a past for which there were broad outlines but few particulars. To recreate that past, the author relied on whatever information could be gleaned from native Irish sources, undoubtedly including the memory of the warfare that lead to the downfall of the ancient Ulaid. The author would also have adapted information about other ancient peoples known through Latin texts, people who were understood as living at a similar level of civilization, perhaps including information from Roman writers on British and continental Celtic peoples of the first century B.C. and the first century A.D. It is also possible that this recreation was affected by pagan peoples that Irish missionaries had encountered in their work. The poetic speeches inserted in the prose narrative were once thought to be extremely early. Recently, however, it has been shown that writers working in the eighth century and later were capable of producing consciously archaic texts. It would be appropriate for an author attempting to recreate a period long past to attempt to reproduce what he and his audience would recognize as linguistically old-fashioned. Thus, if a modern writer set her story in the sixteenth century, she might attempt conversation using words and meanings of words familiar to her audience from Shakespeare. In the last thirty years, a number of scholars have attempted to assign a particular place and situation and even an author to the Táin Bó Cúailnge. As yet, no suggestion has gained general acceptance. It is fairly clear, however, that the Táin Bó Cúailnge must be one of the earliest sagas to reach a stable form because so many other of the tales depend on it in one way or another. It must also have been in existence by the ninth century since the story of its being exchanged for Isidore's Etymologiae and being recovered from the ghost of Fergus is preserved in the Triads of Ireland.

Literary Style

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Epic Features
An epic is a long narrative in which a crisis must be met and overcome, whether in the form of warfare or a quest. An epic almost always represents the summation of a culture's ideals at the point of when those ideas are in flux. The Táin Bó Cúailnge certainly qualifies as an epic because it is a long and complex narrative, treating a serious subject, the survival of a people in the terms of their ability to protect themselves, the integrity of their borders, and their means of survival. The action is centered on an outstanding hero, Cúchulainn, in whose hands lies the fate of his people. Around him are equally magnificent and compelling characters, subsidiary only in reference to Cúchulainn. The action springs from the clash of Medb and Ailill who are almost god-like in their detachment. The progress of the action is vitally affected by earlier decisions of Ulster kings: the command to Macha to race the king's chariot, despite her appeals, and Conchobor's treachery towards the sons of Uisliu. The first results in the warriors of Ulster being stricken with labor pains so that they cannot defend their homes; the second results in the desertion of many of their greatest warriors, splitting even the king's own family.

Point of View
The narrator in all versions of the Táin Bó Cúailnge sounds like a modern researcher. He is well informed about places, actions, and conversations, but anchors his story in remarks like, "They say it is here that Dubthach chanted," or, "Others say that the bird and the squirrel were both perched on Medb's shoulders." The narrator claims to do nothing more than report, noting the existence of alternate traditions and stories. In place of the help of the muses with their divine knowledge, there is, in one version, the ghost of Fergus or at least the traditions preserved by his descendants. Even when the narrator describes a character's mood, that mood is only what is apparent from either the character's plain admission or actions.

The earliest recession of Táin Bó Cúailnge notes a number of variant versions of the narrative. This reference to variant versions raises questions concerning the state and purpose of the text. Is it a reconstituted version of an original that cannot be exactly established from among the variants or is it a file of materials for the composition of an epic? Both opinions are worth considering.

The plot of the Táin Bó Cúailnge is remarkably thin, particularly when one strips away the preliminary material. There is the muster and march of the army of Medb and Ailill, punctuated by prophecies of doom. These actions are then followed by a long series of fights at a ford, which resolve into one long vindication of Ulster and the prowess of Cúchulainn. The fight of the two armies, when it finally comes, is punctuated with the confrontation of Fergus with Conchobor and of Cúchulainn with Medb. It ends with the final fight of the bulls. The self-cancelling victory of the Bull of Cooley over the Bull of Connacht is an ironic mirror of the waste of the human battle. The confrontations of the human battle reaffirm basic decency: Cúchulainn will not kill a woman and Fergus stops himself short of killing a kinsman.

Imagery and Symbolism
Imagery in the Táin Bó Cúailnge has been described as Kelly suggests, "limpid." Her example, the description of the prophetess Fedelm, consists of concrete description in short sentences using only two comparisons in describing fourteen separate items. Looking at similar descriptions, the Fedelma description emerges as unusual in having even two comparisons. There is, however, a famous extended description that functions essentially as a metaphor using the messenger/interpreter, watchman/interpreter technique. Mac Roth, Medb's messenger, reports a scene of unnatural phenomena that functions as a metaphor of the army of Ulster since Fergus is able to read these phenomena for what they really are—the effects of the army of Ulster on the march. The basic symbols of the Táin Bó Cúailnge are hound/wolf, cow/bull, and horse. In general, the first is largely reserved for Cúchulainn, but is connected with a social type: the young warrior. The second is used of humans in general, but more particularly in the comparison of cows and women. Finally, horses are used as symbols of kingship. This symbol is exploited ironically when a mare is used to characterize Medb's incompetence as a leader of men. An image that passes into symbol in Cúchulainn's lament for Ferdia is the gold brooch that Medb gave to Ferdia as part of the inducement to fight his foster brother. In Cúchulainn's grief, the brooch is transformed into a symbol of all that Ferdia was.

Style and Prosody
The Táin Bó Cúailnge is unusual in the epic tradition in that it is written largely in prose with inset passages of syllabic verse. Some of these passages, for example, the prophecy of the Morrígan, the unrhymed, alliterative rosc(ad) or rhetoric gives the impression of being older than the surrounding prose text. It has been suggested, however, that they are the products of poets who are trying to compose in what they thought was an ancient style. This text was probably not an attempt to confuse the audience about the age of their compositions, but to create the proper atmosphere of antiquity and give an exalted and heroic quality to the characters who spoke them.

Description and Narrative
The Táin Bó Cúailnge uses a number of narrative/descriptive techniques, for example, the watchman device. The watchman device is when a character whose knowledge and sense has been established and who is involved in the events gives action, scene, or character descriptions. A variation of this device has an uninformed but carefully observant character relaying a description to a knowledgeable character who then identifies what is observed.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Aitchison, N. B., "The Ulster Cycle: Heroic Image and Historical Reality," in Journal of Medieval History, 13, 1987.

Carney, James, Studies in Irish Literature and History, Dublin Institute, 1955.

Hillers, Barbara, "The Heroes of the Ulster Cycle," in Ulidia, Proceedings of the First International Conference on the Ulster Cycle of Tales, edited by J. P. Mallory and Gerard Stockman, December Publications, 1995, pp. 99-106.

Kelly, Patricia, "The Táin as Literature," in Aspects of the Táin, edited by J. P. Mallory, December Publications, 1992, pp. 69-102.

Kinsella, Thomas, trans., The Táin, Oxford University Press, 1969.

Lambkin, B. K., "Navan Fort and the Arrival of 'Cultural Heritage,'" in Emania: Bulletin of the Navan Research Group, No. 11, 1993, pp. 61–4.

Lambkin, B. K., "The Ulster Cycle, The Navan Centre, and the Improvement of Community Relations in Northern Ireland," in Ulidia, Proceedings of the First International Conference on the Ulster Cycle of Tales, edited by J. P. Mallory and Gerard Stockman, December Publications, 1995, pp. 281-90.

Murphy, Gerard, Saga and Myth in Ancient Ireland, Published for the Cultural Relations Committee of Ireland by Colm O'Lochlainn, 1955.

O'Corrain, Pádraig, "The Táin: A Clue to its Origins," in Ulidia, Proceedings of the First International Conference on the Ulster Cycle of Tales, edited by J. P. Mallory and Gerard Stockman, December Publications, 1995, pp. 31—7.

Yeats, W. B., Selected Plays, edited by Richard Allen Cave, Penguin Books, 1997.

Further Reading
Dillon, Myles, ed., Early Irish Society, Published for the Cultural Relations Committee of Ireland by Colm O'Lochlainn, 1954. In need of updating, but there is still no introduction so well suited to the student. Dillon loved his subject, and his love is infectious.

Dillon, Myles, ed., Irish Sagas, Thomas Davis Lectures, Published for Radio Éireann by the Stationary Office, 1959. Another classic from the Thomas Davis Lectures, each scholar retells and discusses one of the Irish legendary tales. It is almost impossible to put this little book down.

Kelly, Patricia, "The Táin as Literature," in Aspects of the Táin, edited by J. P. Mallory, December Publications, 1992, pp. 69-102. A clearly written introduction to the literary qualities of Táin Bó Cúailnge. Studies of the Táin Bó Cúailnge as literature are few and far between. Kelly's discussion goes some way to make good this lack, particularly for the student.

Kinsella, Thomas, trans., The Táin, Oxford University Press 1969. This is the most useful translation for the non-specialist. It introduces the reader to all the beauties as well as all the scholarly puzzles of the Táin Bó Cúailnge. There are careful, but not overwhelming notes, including the identification of manuscript sources of the additional material. Louis le Brocquy's brush drawings make it one of the high points of twentieth-century book illustration.

Mallory, J. P., "The World of Cú Chulainn: The Archaeology of Táin Bó Cúailnge," in Aspects of the Táin, edited by J. P. Mallory, December Publications, 1992, pp. 103-59. This study will prove useful in two ways. First, it is an absolutely vital study for our understanding of the development and historical source of the Táin Bó Cúailnge. Second, it is a nearly flawless example of how literature and archaeology ought to be used to illuminate one another.

ÓUiginn, Ruairi, "The Background and Development of the Táin Bó Cúailnge," in Aspects of the Táin, edited by J. P. Mallory, December Publications, 1992, pp. 29-68. Another excellent essay from the Mallory collection. ÓUiginn gives a thorough and clear overview of the theories of how the Táin Bó Cúailnge of the manuscripts came into being.

Compare and Contrast

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The setting of Táin Bó Cúailnge: Hurling plays an important role in the Ulster society. Not only does it serve as a great social event, it emphasizes the qualities and traits of courage and physical aptitude that the society admires.

1999: Mentioned at several points in the Ulster cycle of stories, hurling is the Irish national game and is promoted, with several other native sports, by a national association: the Gaelic Athletic Association. It is played in nearly every school in Ireland. Local club teams feed their best players into county teams, which then compete on the national level. County and provincial finals are as hotly contested as any ancient raid. The All Ireland Hurling Champions were County Cork in the men's game and County Tipperrary in the women's game.

The setting of Táin Bó Cúailnge: Cattle and the care and breeding of livestock is another important aspect of Ulster society. The number and quality of livestock a person maintains reflects highly on his or her character. This importance explains why Medb and Ailill emphasize the quality of their catttle during their pillow talk.

2000: Cattle rearing still dominates Irish agriculture. Irish butter and beef is exported all over the world. Irish cheese makers have developed an international reputation in the last twenty years. Although artificial insemination is used almost exclusively on modern Irish farms, the pursuit of the best bull is still important; league tables of available bulls are published in farming journals. Most cattle reared in Ireland are now from breeds developed on mainland Europe, but a native breed, the small, hardy, Kerry Cow is still bred.

The setting of Táin Bó Cúailnge: Although Medb is queen, she still is only second in power to Ailill. Throughout the Ulster cycles, she has to resort to her powers of cunning and manipulation to assert her dominance in society.

2000: In contrast to the treatment of Medb in the Táin Bó Cúailnge, the last two Irish presidents have been women. Both were formerly professors of law at Trinity College Dublin. Ironically, the first, Mary Robinson, is a Connacht woman, while the present incumbent, Mary MacAleese, is from Ulster.

The setting of Táin Bó Cúailnge: Place names play a key role throughout the Ulster cycles. Place names spring from the locations where specific battles or important events took place. At the end of the epic, the bulls do battle. The places where the Donn Cúailnge and Finnbennach fight are remembered by the people present and throughout the generations.

2000: Although some of the place names in the Táin Bó Cúailnge cannot be identified in the modern landscape, most of the action of the raid can still be followed across the modern landscape. The Cooley peninsula is in County Louth where Táin walks are regularly held. Louth is still an area of cattle rearing, although the port of Duddalk is important for bulk shipping.

Media Adaptations

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While the character of Cúchulainn has proved a potent image in the expression of Irish identity in the last century and a half, there have been remarkably few media adaptations. Yeats wrote a series of plays using material from the Ulster Cycle, although not from the Táin Bó Cúailnge proper. On Bailie's Stran was first performed on 27 December, 1904, Dublin; The Green Helmet was first performed on February 1910, Dublin; Deirdre was first performed on 24 November, 1906; At the Hawks Well was first performed on April 1, 1916, London; The Only Jealousy of Emer was first performed in Amsterdam, 1922; and The Death of Cuchulain was produced after Yeat's death in Dublin in December, 1949.

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