Táin Bó Cuailnge

The Cattle Raid of Cooley

(Pronunciation: Toyn Boe Cooaln-yeh)


The Táin is the great epic of Ireland -- "the Iliad of Ireland ... the queen of Irish epic tales, and the wildest and most fascinating saga-tale, not only of the entire Celtic world, but even of all western Europe" (from the preface to The Ancient Irish Epic Tale: Táin Bó Cúalnge, Joseph Dunn; David Nutt, London, 1914). There are other táinte -- Táin Bó Froích, Táin Bó Dartada, Táin Bó Flidais, Táin Bó Regamna, Táin Bó Aingen, Táin Bó Munad, Táin Bó Ros, Táin Bó Ruanadh, Táin Bó Sailin, and Táin Bó Erc -- but the Táin Bó Cuailnge is the only one called The Táin. It is the oldest vernacular epic in European literature; i.e., written in the language of the people, not the classical language, as were, for example, Homer's epics. Some of the language and forms in the manuscripts are very old, reflecting the fact that the Táin was probably first written down as early as the seventh century.

The old story-tellers used to spend a week of evenings telling the story of the Táin. It is filled with incident and side-tellings -- for example, why former Ulster king Fergus was on Maeve's side against Ulster. The story of Deirdre -- one of the Three Sorrowful Tales of Ireland -- has been called the most beautiful love story in all of European literature.

The Táin is the central story in a long war between Connacht and Ulster, caused by the desertion by Conor mac Nessa, king of Ulster, of his wife Queen Maeve of Connacht. She then married Eochaid Dala, but she fell in love with her grand-nephew Aillil. Aillil killed Eochaid and replaced him as her consort.

The plot in a nutshell: Maeve invaded Ulster to steal the Brown Bull of Cooley so she would be equal in wealth with her husband, Aillil, who owned the White-horned Bull. Cúchulainn defended Ulster single-handed, because the Ulster warriors were afflicted by the Curse of Macha. Maeve brought the Brown back to Connacht. When the White-horned Bull saw the Brown, they fought and killed each other. The end. Back to the beginning.

Conor and Fergus

Nessa was a head-strong and ambitious young woman living at Emain Macha [ow-en makha], the royal seat of Ulster, near the present city of Armagh. One day, she asked the druid Cathbad [cahvah], "What is today a good day for?" "For begetting a king," Cathbad answered. "Come with me," said Nessa, "and we'll see what happens."

Conor was the result. Nessa wanted him to be king. Fergus mac Roich ["manly force, son of big horse"] was king of Ulster. (It would be said of him later that it took 30 men a day to satisfy Maeve -- or Fergus once.) Fergus wanted Nessa.

"You can have me," she said, "if you let my son Conor be king for a year, so that his sons can say they are sons of a king." Fergus agreed. During the year, Nessa and Conor gave all the Ulster nobles great gifts, both from their own wealth and from the royal treasury.

At the end of the year, Fergus said, "I'll take the crown back now." The nobles said, "Fergus, we need to discuss this. You thought so little of the kingship, that you let Conor take it for a year. We've been quite satisfied with Conor as king, and we've decided to keep him on." So Fergus became arms master to the boy-troop.

WB Yeats, in a play about this story, comments that a man who does another man wrong holds a grudge against him, because he was the cause of the wrong-doing. Keep this in mind.

The Birth of Cúchulainn

Conor's sister, Dechtire, married one of the Red Branch warriors (vaguely equivalent to King Arthur's knights), Suailtim. Suailtim was a border guard living at Dún Dealgan (the fort of Dealga), which can be seen now as a 12th-century motte topped by the ruins of an 18th-century house near Dundalk, County Louth, 50 miles north of Dublin.

On the wedding night, Dechtire was visited by a mysterious man, who told her she would bear his son. The man was the sun-god Lugh [loo], one-time ad hoc king and war leader of the Tuatha Dé Danaan.

(The village of Louth [Irish "Lú"] in County Louth was the centre of a pre-Christian Lugh cult. St Patrick founded a church there, and a heavy Christian presence was maintained at least until the 16th century. Ruins of churches abound.)

Dechtire and her 50 maid-servants disappeared for 9 months. They were found the morning Dechtire gave birth to her son, Setanta, at Brú na Bóinne (a neolithic passage tomb now called Newgrange), the home of the gods. Suailtim more or less drops out of the story at this point. Dechtire and Setanta lived at Dún Dealgan.

How Cúchulainn Got His Name

Setanta went to Emain Macha at the age of 5 to become a Red Branch warrior. When he was about 10, he was invited by his uncle Conor to a feast at Culain's house.

"I'm busy playing hurling [still a popular Irish sport, like lacrosse and field hockey]," said Setanta. "Go on ahead. I'll follow your chariot tracks and catch up with you later."

When the men arrived at Culain's house, Culain asked if anyone else was coming, as he wanted to let his guard dog loose. Forgetting about Setanta, Conor said that no one else was expected. The dog was let loose.

Setanta finally arrived, batting the sliotar [ball] into the air with his hurley [stick], throwing the hurley after it, and catching them both before they fell to the ground. The dog attacked him. The men heard the commotion, but they couldn't get out of the house in time to save Setanta. But Setanta hit the sliotar with his hurley down the dog's throat and killed him.

Conor and the rest of the men were relieved that Setanta was safe, but Culain complained about the loss of his guard dog. "It took me a year to raise and train that dog. Now I'll have no guard dog to protect my house until I can train another one."

"Don't worry," said Setanta. "I'll be your guard dog until you can replace the one I killed. I'll be the Hound of Culain [Cú Chulainn]." And that is how Cúchulainn got his name.

The Curse of Macha

Maeve's combined armies, her own warriors and her allies -- "the men of Ireland" -- began to move toward the borders of Ulster, and all the Ulstermen suddenly took to their beds, "as weak and sick as a woman in childbirth". What was the reason for this?

Crunniuc was a wealthy land owner in Ulster. He was sitting in front of his house one day, and he saw a beautiful woman walking down the road toward him. He had never seen her before, and it was a sad thing for him to think of all the time he had wasted in not being able to look at her, because she was the most beautiful woman he had ever seen.

To his surprise, she turned in at his gate and walked up to the door as if she lived there. She walked past Crunniuc without a word, into the house and into the kitchen, where she began preparing dinner. After a fine dinner fit for a king, but not often cooked by so queenly a woman, the strange woman, still without a word, got into Crunniuc's bed with him. In time, he learned that her name was Macha.

Macha was strange, and one of the strangest things about her was that she could run faster than any animal Crunniuc had ever seen. He knew by this that she was not from this world. Macha became pregnant, and Crunniuc went to a fair to celebrate. King Conor's horse were running in the races at the fair, and they won. Crunniuc, in his foolish, drunken pride, said, "My wife can run faster than the king's horses."

Conor heard this and said, "Prove that, or off with your head." Much sobered, Crunniuc went home and told Macha she would have to race against Conor's horses. Macha said, "I can't run now, heavy as I am with child and about to give birth any moment. We'll go to Conor and show him, and he'll understand."

But Conor insisted that she race against his horses to prove that Crunniuc was not lying. Macha turned to the warriors and said, "Men of Ulster, persuade Conor to change his mind. Don't let him make me race now."

But the men of Ulster turned their backs on her. Macha ran the race and won, but she fell down dying at the finish, as she gave birth to twins.

As she died, she cursed the men of Ulster: "May the men of Ulster be as weak and sick as a woman in childbirth at the moment of their greatest danger."

And that is why, as the men of Ireland began to move toward the borders of Ulster, all the men of Ulster lay in their beds, as weak and sick as a woman in childbirth.

But Cúchulainn was not entirely human, as his father was the god Lugh, and he wasn't even a man yet. He was only 17.

Cúchulainn Stands Alone

The pangs of the Ulstermen were to last only 9 days. Cúchulainn intercepted Maeve's army at what is now the village of Crossakeel, Co. Meath, to try to delay their march to Ulster.

(At Crossakeel, you can see Sliabh na Callaí -- the Hill of the Hag -- a neolithic passage tomb cemetery. The tomb of Ollamh Fodhla [ullav foe-la], poet-king of Ireland who instituted the tri-ennial feis at Tara in 1335 BC, stands out on the skyline.)

Cúchulainn stood on one foot, pulled an oak sapling out of the ground and tied it in a knot with one hand and stuck it into the middle of the road. He left an ogham inscription describing what he had done and placing geis (taboo) on the army to not pass that point unless one man from among them could duplicate the feat. Of course, no one could. Fergus, who was with Maeve, explained the geis. Maeve's army had to go around the sapling, cutting their way through a dense forest, thereby delaying their march.

Why was Fergus, former king of Ulster, invading Ulster on the side of Maeve of Connacht?

The Death of the Sons of Uisliu

Conor and the Red Branch were at a feast, when they heard an unearthly screech. The warriors stood up and reached for their swords. The druid Cathbad said:

"It is the screech of an unborn baby girl, who will bring sorrow to the Red Branch, setting brother against brother. There will be rivers of red blood from the Red Branch. The girl's name will be Deirdre [grief]."

"Let's kill her as soon as she is born," said the great heroes of the Red Branch, "and prevent this happening." "That wouldn't be right," said Conor. "I have a better idea."

So Deirdre was raised apart from men until she reached the age of marriage, when Conor himself would marry her, and so prevent trouble. Deirdre was raised in the forest by the nurse Levorcham.

One night, Deirdre was awakened by a vivid dream, and in that dream she saw a vision of a young man. She had never seen a man before, except Conor. She went to her window and looked out.

A raven was eating a freshly killed rabbit in the snow. "That's what he looks like," Deirdre said to herself. "Hair as black as the raven, lips as red as blood, and skin as white as the snow."

Meanwhile, Naoise [nee-sheh] and his brothers, Aedán and Ainle, were hunting and camping in the forest. Naoise was awakened by a dream, and in that dream he saw a vision of a young woman, and he fell in love with her. The next day, Deirdre happened to be walking in the forest, and Naoise also happened to be walking in the forest. They saw each other and recognised the vision of their dreams. But they were shy, not knowing that the other had a similar vision. Naoise spoke first:

"The heifers grow large in this forest."

Deirdre answered: "Perhaps that is because they have no bulls to look after them."

Naoise guessed who she was. "But you have the Bull of Ulster (i.e., Conor) to look after you."

"Perhaps I would prefer a younger bull like yourself," Deirdre answered.

Women in those days were even more strong-willed and independent than they are now. They could put geis (an injunction, in this case) on a man and bind him by his honour to do something. Deirdre went up to Naoise and grabbed him by his two ears and said, "I put geis on you to take me away with you."

This was a dilemma for Naoise. To take the king's intended wife was treason, but he could not violate his honour as a warrior by refusing to obey Deirdre's geis. He thought long and hard about it for at least five seconds, then said, "All right, Deirdre, let's go."

Conor and some of the Red Branch chased Deirdre and Naoise and his brothers around Ireland, until they had to go to Scotland to get away. When the king of Scotland saw Deirdre, they had to run again. Eventually, they settled on an island in the west of Scotland, where they lived rough for 10 years. The Red Branch warriors missed Naoise and his brothers and persuaded Conor -- or so they thought -- to forgive them.

Conor agreed -- or seemed to agree -- but Fergus said, "They won't trust you, and for that matter, I don't trust you either."

"Very well," said Conor. "You can go and bring them back and act as their surety."

Fergus and his two sons went to accompany Deirdre and Naoise and his brothers, Aedan and Ainle, back to Ireland. Deirdre said, "No, I think it's a trick. I had a dream last night, and all I saw was blood."

But Naoise wanted to be with his Red Branch comrades again, and he paid no attention to Deirdre's fears. Deirdre sang a farewell song to Scotland, "Ardi Cuan". (This song is still popular in Ireland in its Irish version. Outside Ireland, it is familiar as the tune of "In the Quiet Land of Erin".) They arrived back at Ballycastle, Co. Antrim, on the northeast coast of Ireland, where a rock on the beach is still pointed out as their landing place.

Fergus was greeted by a messenger from the local king, inviting him to an ale-feast. It was geis (taboo) on Fergus to refuse an invitation to an ale-feast. Who ordered the local king to issue the invitation? Do you remember what Yeats said in his play?

So Fergus had to go to the ale-feast, but he left his two sons as surety for Deirdre and Naoise and Aedán and Ainle, and they all proceeded to Emain Macha. Deirdre and Naoise and the brothers went into the house of the Red Branch.

(Emain Macha can be seen now as a high, grassy mound about a mile outside Armagh City. A smaller mound nearby was the house of the Red Branch. The townland is called Craobh Rua -- Red Branch.)

Conor sent Deirdre's old nurse, Levorcham, to report back to him on Deirdre's condition after 10 years in the wilderness. Levorcham didn't trust Conor, and after seeing that Deirdre was even more beautiful in spite of her rough living, she told Conor: "Ach, the puir thing, she's all skin and bone and aged 40 years. You wouldn't recognise her."

Conor knew he couldn't rely on Levorcham, so he sent a trusted servant to spy on Deirdre. He climbed up a ladder to a window of the Red Branch house and looked in. Deirdre and Naoise were playing fidchell (like chess, but a hunting game, not war). Naoise saw him and threw a fidchell piece at him and took out an eye. The servant scrambled down the ladder and reported to Conor:

"I lost an eye, but it was worth it. Deirdre in the full bloom of womanhood is even more beautiful than before." Conor ordered the Red Branch to attack Naoise and his brothers in the Red Branch house.

Some of the Red Branch remained loyal to Conor, others revolted. Brother fought brother. The king's druids cast a spell that made Naoise and his brothers think they were waist-deep in water. One of Fergus' sons went to Conor's side. The other was killed. Naoise was killed by Eoghan [owen] Dubhtach. Aedán and Ainle were killed. Conor took Deirdre to live with him.

At the end of a year, with never a smile from Deirdre or an upward turn of her eyes, Conor said, "Who do you hate most in the world besides me?"

"Eoghan Dubhtach," said Deirdre.

"Right," said Conor. "You'll spend the next year with Eoghan."

Conor gave her to Eoghan, saying, "You look like a sheep between two rams, between Eoghan and me." She was riding in the chariot behind Eoghan. As they were driving along a narrow road next to a cliff, Deirdre saw a rock projecting from the cliff ahead. She put her head out of the chariot and the rock dashed against her head and killed her.

That is the story of the Death of the Sons of Uisliu, one of the Three Sorrowful Tales of Ireland. And that is why Fergus was with Maeve when she invaded Ulster.

Fergus' Revenge

Fergus burned Emain Macha as he left. Later, he was involved in an invasion of Ulster. Archaeologists have learned that Emain Macha was rebuilt about 2000 years ago, then filled with stones, burned, and covered over with earth. At the same time, the Dorsey Entrenchment (locally called The Ramparts), a defensive earthwork on one of the roads to Emain Macha, was reinforced with oak stakes and then thoroughly burned.

This sounds like a ritual destruction of a civilisation, it times perfectly with the story of the Táin, and it is a historical fact that the Ulaid's (Ulster people's) power was broken forever at that time. The story of the Táin is set about the time of Christ. When Conor heard that Christ had been crucified, he went mad and tried to cut down trees with his sword. The exertion killed him.

The Táin is probably a historical fiction, but historians say it accurately reflects the lifestyle of Iron Age Ireland, and something like the Táin really did happen about that time.

In view of current events in the North of Ireland, it is interesting to note that the people of Ulster have always been different from the rest of Ireland, since long before the Catholic/Protestant split. Mindful of Russian paranoia about invasion during the Cold War, I theorize that Fergus' ritual destruction of the Ulaid remains in the folk memory of the Protestant Unionists in the North.

For the whole story of the Táin read:

Lady Gregory's Complete Irish Mythology (comprising Gods and Fighting Men (all major stories except The Táin) [1904] and Cuchulain of Muirthemne (The Táin) [1902]); The Slaney Press, 1994; ISBN 1-85152-680-3. Also in paperback: Bounty Books, 2000; ISBN 0-75370-391-2.

Cuchulain of Muirthemne (The Táin) [1902] Colin Smythe (on its own)

The Táin, a poet's translation by Thomas Kinsella, The Dolmen Press, Oxford Unversity Press, 1969; ISBN 0-85105-178-2

The Cattle-Raid of Cooley - complete Irish with side-by-side English translation by L. Winifred Faraday, 1904; plus facimile of a page from the Book of Leinster

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