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.
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
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