Credit: Eric Jones under licence CC BY-SA 2.0

Ireland’s greatest story, An Táin

The statue of Donn Cúailnge, the Brown Bull of Cooley, on the Cooley Peninsula. He features prominently in the cycle of Ulster legends. Photo Credit: Eric Jones under CC licence

The Táin Bó Cúailgne –sometimes translated as The Cattle Raid of Cooley- is the longest and most significant tale of the Ulster Cycle. It has come down to us in three main recensions, with the earliest extant copies of these being transcribed around the 11th Century.  These different recensions overlap in many details and sequences of the story, but a deeper examination indicates that there were two schools of origin for the written story, and that around the 8th century these were put to parchment in the monasteries of Bangor in the North, and Clonmacnoise in the midlands.

There is some ambivalence as to the meaning of the word “Táin”. Thomas Kinsella gave it some scrutiny, not being convinced that a cattle raid was explicit meaning of the word. He thought it might mean a gathering or a host, and as such it might mean a raid. But the ambivalent nature of this etymology gives many other possibilities which frame the stories mythological function. For The Táin, similar to the Roman Aeneid, is a founding myth and as such it precipitates a cultural consciousness.

It is a host of stories that create a founding metanarrative. In it, a disparate tribal culture is linked by a common story, forging a new identity of cultural kinship – even though paradoxically that kinship is formed primarily in conflict. A shared story is a shared culture. The last thing Kinsella noted was that the Táin gathered words together on a page, so that the tale is the record of a people’s cultural compact. A culture needs its story and the Táin is the host of words and myths which give a conscious beginning to a Gaelic culture.

By the 8th Century, the Táin was being transcribed in the monasteries of Ireland. The current copies we have date back to the 11th century with the Book of Leinster dedicating 120 sheafs to the tale. It has an interesting colophon which admonishes people to recount faithfully without alteration or omission the story exactly as written. The scribes of The Book of Leinster seem to have taken this advice seriously, because the language seems to date back to the 8th Century. But the story dates back further than that, and it is clear from the descriptions of warfare and armour that it describes a society much older than the 8th Century.


Opening page of the Táin Bó Cúailnge in the Book of Leinster

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Roman historians of the warring Celts describe a world of warfare and arms similar to that in The Táin. Diodorus, Siculus, and Strabo tell of the battle customs of the Celts some of which are described similarly in the Táin. For example “some of them so far despise death that they descend to battle unclothed except for a girdle”. This romanticised and heroically reckless archetype was immortalised by in the third century BC marble sculpture, The Dying Gaul.

The Chariot warfare recorded in the Táin was noted by Julius Ceasar in Briton but not in Gaul, seeming to imply that it was a war custom that had had its day on the continent but may still have been in vogue in Ireland at the time of Ceasar.

T.F. O Rahilly argues that the Táin reflects a genuine state of warfare between the Iron Age Ulaid and Connachta.  Although An Táin takes place in a real topographical landscape as Paul Gosling has documented,  it is disputed that it, in fact, reflects any historical reality. Some hold that it seems to be an imagined mythological past, a projection of a cultural identity onto a founding mythology, but it does accurately reflect warfare and tactics of the early Celts as described by classical historians of nearly 1,000 years previous.

By the time it was committed to parchment in the 8th C it had been passed through an oral tradition. How much of The Táin is the deliberate art of the Christian age of its transcription, and how much is faithfully taken of the oral tradition?

The bare bones of The Táin are well known. Medb, the Queen of Connacht is envious of her husband’s wealth so she plans to steal a prize bull from Dáire the king of Cúailgne (Cooley) to match her husband, Ailil’s, prize bull.  She unites the tribes of the rest of Ireland and invades Ulster. Cú Chulain stands in her way and thwarts her every move. Eventually she sets Cú Chulain’s foster brother, Ferdia, against him.  Cú Chulain kills Ferdia after 3 savage days of duelling, but at a huge cost. Medb steals the Brown Bull of Cúailgne while Cú Chulain is incapacitated.

But the story is so much more than that. The very first scene is an intriguing domestic squabble which escalates out of control in the blink of an eye. This is the trap remarked upon by Thucydides; that radically different world-views, equally matched, will inevitably come into existential conflict. If it is in the nature of the beast to assert dominance, it will eventually happen (remember that lesson, for the story returns to it at the end) no matter how insignificant the trigger seems. Innocuously, the story starts in the royal bed chamber and the tension mounts until the course for disaster has been set.

Medb visits a seer, Fidelm, who in the tradition of seers sees the future clearly, but equivocates with her answer. Her prophesy is unclear, but it is the mind of the receiver that gives it meaning. Fidelm speaks of bloodshed on the Táin; Medb, ambitious and avaricious, sees it as a sign to proceed with the guarantee of fate on her side.

The Táin is set with powerful characters and themes. None are perfect and many have serious compromises. Even Cú Chulainn has deep flaws which cause him shame.

As an epic foundation myth, it draws the tribes of the Gael beneath a single sky. Fergus Mac Róich might justifiably be called the first Irishman. He is an exiled king of Ulster, who joins the court of Medb and becomes an emissary between the camps. He is in a compromised position but he is respected and honoured in both camps. A man of no tribe yet of all tribes, he may be the first recorded Irish man.

The conflict between Cú Chulainn and Medb takes centre stage. This is asymmetric warfare, the single warrior pitched against an army of a thousand tribes. But for each encounter at the Ford there is a parallel scheme. Medb eventually perfects her tactics by pitching Ferdia, Cú Chulainn’s foster brother and his only equal in combat, against Cú Chulainn, and invading Cooley whilst he is occupied.

Her negotiations with Ferdia reveal the seedy morality of ambition to power, and the weakness of human vanity. Indeed, the twin follies of greed and vanity are two of the central themes of the Táin.  The propensity to be driven by these appetites are traps that the consummately aware and sensuous Medb exploits to their utmost. Her negotiations with all the kings of Ireland in her camp are an elaborate and audacious maze of mirrors and deception. She promises all wealth to everyone knowing full well that if she succeeds she won’t have to pay her debts. She bargains with the lives of others because it is within her gift to do so, including her own daughter, Findabhar, who euphemistically “dies of shame”. The truth is that she trafficks her own child and Findabhar’s trauma and “shame” causes her death.

The Táin frequently does this: express a complex sub-plot or chapter of events in breathtaking brevity.

Is it better to live by the honour code of heroes, or by the code of politics? The Táin makes a different statement, that these are intertwined because desire and power are corrupting.  It is for this reason that Medb is destined to succeed on The Táin, or so it seems.

The final twist in the Book of Leinster is what truly places The Táin amongst the greatest stories of the world. In the mad mêlée of the final battle of Gáireach and Illgáireach, the compromised Fergus fulfils a promise to depart the field and abandon his allies. The routed Connachta leave their Queen unprotected, and, in a strange pagan-like prohibition, Cú Chulainn offers her protection. The army of Connaught drive the brown bull of Cúailgne back to the plain of Maigh Aí and so it seems that the manipulative Medb has planned the consummate campaign and provided for all exigencies. Might and ambition has prevailed.

But the unexpected happens, and as the poet Robbie Burns would later observe “the best laid plans of mice and men gang aft agley”.

When the Brown Bull of Cúailgne enters the domain of the Findbheannach, the white bull of Maigh Aí, the two creatures do what comes of their nature, and fate – or nature rather than will – takes command of The Táin. Nothing in Medb’s careful orchestrations foresaw this, and once it is set in motion no-body can stop it.

To Medb’s frustration, in the words of the medieval scribe: “Each of the Bulls caught sight of the other and they pawed the ground and cast the earth over them. And each collided with the other with a crashing noise. Each of them began to gore and to pierce and to slay and slaughter the other.” (translation of An Táin from the Book of Leinster by Cecile O Rahilly, School of Celtic Studies, Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies, pub. 1967, Louth) .

The armies of Ireland could do naught but cower as the two bulls trampled in fury over the country. The camps of the men of Ireland were churned beneath their hooves, and men were slaughtered beneath the press and fury of their onslaught.

The Book of Leinster relates: “Not long were the men of Ireland there early on the morrow when they saw the Donn Cúailnge coming past Crúachú from the west with Findbennach Aí, a mangled mass on his horns.”

The Donn Cúailgne then returned to his home in Cúailgne and in his rage “attacked the women and boys of the territory of Cúailnge and inflicted great slaughter on them.”

After this he turned his back to the hill and his great heart “burst like a nut in his chest.”


The Rut and Carnage From An Táín by the Deep End of the Ford

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And so ends The Táin.

In modern parlance, the rut of the Bulls is a White Pill moment. After the removal of Cú Chulainn from the fray and the despoiling of Ulster, it might seem that the will of the powerful is inescapable; but the falling asunder of Medb’s plans is a hopeful commentary. It’s a reminder that the elites are not really as impressive as they assume, and that their hold on power may dissolve as unpredictably as the rage of the bulls struck havoc.

As Michael Malice, the darkly funny biographer of Kim Jong Il, says about the leaders of today, “these are mediocre people”. Remember, that was without even seeing our current crop of hapless woud-be chiefs.

The greatest trick of the elite is to make you think they are always in control of everything and that you are powerless. It’s an aspect of life that Patrick Pearse once observed at the graveside of O’Donovan Rossa; a man whose extraordinary life could easily place him on the plane of the characters of The Táin.

Like The Táin, those words of Pearse were wisdom for all ages: “They think that they have purchased half of us and intimidated the other half. They think that they have foreseen everything, think that they have provided against everything; but the fools, the fools, the fools!”…

How would he finish it today?



Lorcán Mac Mathúna


A copy of the First Trade Edition in cloth of The Táin, an Irish Epic translated by Thomas Kinsella

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