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The Tain Bo Cuailgne


Well-Known Member
The "Tain Bo Cuailgne" is essentially an Irish "Illiad" both in plot and renown. Translating as the "Cattle Raid of Cooley", the "Tain Bo Cuailgne" (tawn baw coo-aln-yal) is a series of myths and legends in which mortal superheroes and immortal gods influence the outcome of a war between Ulster and Connacht.

The cause of this war between Ulster and Connacht is similar to the cause of the war between Greece and Troy in the Illiad. However, in the Tain it is a stolen cow, and not a stolen woman, that incites all the conflict.

The Tain opens in the time of Fergus mac Roich, king of Ulster. Like most mythological kings, Fergus was a mortal, but no mere man. He was incredibly strong, with the might of hundreds of men, and he wielded a sword as long as a rainbow. He was also the very picture of masculine sexuality; suffice to say it took seven women to satisfy his lust. That lust eventually turned to his brother's widow, Nessa, who he convinced to marry him on the condition that her son, Conchobar, be king of Ulster for a year.

This agreement ended up being the end of Fergus's reign. Once Conchobar took the throne, he became immensely popular, and the people flat out refused to have Fergus back. A conflict which could have ended in a bloody battle over the throne was alleviated by Fergus's decision to yield to Conchobar.

Ulster became a powerful province under Conchobar's rule. Its warriors were known far and wide, and one particular branch of the army, the elite Knights of the Red Branch, were renowned for their martial prowess. Nobles all, the Knights of the Red Branch were headed by none other than Fergus mac Roich, the former king of Ulster. It was this branch of the military which gave rise to Cu Chulainn, the mighty warrior who single-handedly defeated Connacht.

However, before Cu Chulainn was Cu Chulainn, he was a boy named Setanta. The mortal son of the god Lugh and the nephew of King Conchobar, Setanta was sent at the age of seven to the king's palace, where he joined the youth brigade, a specially trained army of child warriors. He earned hsi adulthood name, Cu Chulainn (which means "Hound of Culann") after killing the watchdog of the smith Culann and being forced to take its place until he reared a new one. In his teenage years, he was sent to Scotland to learn heroic feats from a female warrior, Scathach, who gifted him a fierce weapon, the gae bolg, a deadly spear that shot thirty darts into the body of whatever victim it struck. Cu Chulainn was known for a battle-frenzy that gave him the might to kill hundreds of opponents with each strike.

After Cu Chulainn had reached manhood and become a hardened warrior, the trouble with Connacht started. One night Maeve, Queen of Connacht, and her husband Ailill lay in bed arguing about which of them was wealthier. After a long recitation of their possessions, Ailill won narrowly by citing the one thing that Maeve did not have: the White Horned Bull of Ai. Maeve, refusing to admit defeat, decided to steal Donn Cuailgne, the Brown Bull of Cooley, from Ulster. Because the bull's owner refused to part with the magnificient animal, Queen Maeve sent her entire army to take it by force.

Meanwhile, Ulster was caught up in troubles of its own. A man by the name of Crunnchru approached Conchobar, bragging that his wife, Macha, could outrun the king's fastest horses. You see, Macha was no mortal woman, but a divine queen, and she had skills beyond those of a mortal woman. Conchobar demanded her presense, and set up a race in his capital.

Macha, heavily pregnant with twins, begged him to put the race off until she had given birth, but he refused. Macha won the race, but died immediately after in childbirth, and with her last breath cursed the men of Ulster to suffer the pangs of childbirth for five days.

By this point, Fergus was convinced that Conchobar was a poor ruler, and the death of his own son Fiacha as the result of another of the king's blunders led Fergus to desert Ulster and defect to Connacht with three thousand of Ulster's best warriors.

Its warriors incapacitated and significantly fewer in number, Ulster was a pathetic place indeed.

Thus, as the armies of Connacht entered Ulster to steal the Brown Bull of Cooley, they found no opposition. Instead, the mighty warriors of Connacht lay groaning in their beds, unable to take up their weapons.

However, Cu Chulainn somehow managed to overcome this weakness, and he met the army of Connacht. First, he barred their way into Ulster with a great wooden hoop upon which was carved a challenge: every invading warrior must make a hoop in the same way, or they would be dishonored.

Because Cu Chulainn had made the hoop from an oak tree while standing on one leg and using only one arm and one eye, none of the warriors could match him. The Connacht army, not wanting to be dishonored, instead decided to take a detour and enter Ulster in another location. However, in every place they tried to cross, they found another impossible challenge from Cu Chulainn. Eventually, Queen Maeve got impatient with the delays, and ordered the army to cross into Ulster despite the dishonor.

However, as they crossed into Ulster, they were attacked by Cu Chulainn, who slaughtered them by the hundreds, and they of course died in dishonor. However, they still had the upperhand: eventually Cu Chulainn would be unable to stop their approach... but how many desperately-needed warriors would die before Connacht was able to kill Cu Chulainn?

The leaders of the Connacht army, dismayed at how quickly their men were dying, worked hard to compromise with Cu Chulainn. Finally an agreement was reached. Every day Cu Chulainn would meet in single combat with one of the warriors of Connacht, and as the battle occured the army of Maeve would be allowed to advance. At night there would be no fighting, and the army would stop and camp. This compromise served both sides well--Connaucht's warriors would not be destroyed as quickly and Connacht would not advance into Ulster as rapidly--and so Cu Chulainn agreed.

One battle a day occured, and one by one the men of Connacht died. Maeve, impatient for this farce to be over, finally ordered Fergus himself to battle Cu Chulainn. Fergus had a definite advantage over the other men who had fought Cu Chulainn, having been one of the people who trained him, but he was unable to deliver to Maeve; he and Cu Chulainn had once sworn not to fight each other. Thus, during the battle between them, Cu Chulainn pretended to run away, after extracting Fergus's promise to return the favor later on demand.

The one-on-one battles continued until gradually the men of Connacht feared to face Cu Chulainn. They knew that to do so was certain death. In order to get challengers to step foward, Maeve was forced to begin bribing her soldiers to fight. The bribes gradually grew greater and greater, but none of the soldiers ever lived long enough to claim their prize.

The battles and deaths continued until at last Queen Maeve sent her secret weapon, Ferdia. Ferdia was one of the three-thousand warriors who had defected to Connacht, and had trained alongside Cu Chulainn. He knew all of Cu Chulainn's tricks, having had the exact same teachers.

Maeve was sure that this time Ulster's greatest warrior would die, and she would be able to continue her advance unchecked.

Unfortunately for Ferdia, Cu Chulainn possessed one thing that he lacked: the great gae bolg. Even so, the battle between the two lasted far longer than the others. For three days the best friends fought, resting only at night. Neither was able to gain the upper hand. Then, on the fourth day, Ferdia finally succeeded in severely wounding Cu Chulainn... but died in doing so.

Connacht's greatest warrior had been defeated. Cu Chulainn, however, lay senseless for days, and Connacht was able to advance further yet into Ulster.

Luckily for Cu Chulainn, and for Ulster as well, the curse that Macha had laid upon the men of Ulster was lifted, and Ulster's warriors were finally able to join the battle. Nevertheless, the Connachtmen, unwearied and feeling confident now that Cu Chulainn was indisposed, were winning the day. Ulster's men, weak from days of pain and sleeplessness, desperately needed something to turn the tide of the battle.

That something was, of ccourse, Cu Chulainn. From his sickbed Cu Chulainn heard the sounds of battle, and he finally woke and rose to join the fray. There on the field he encountered Fergus, and reminding the man of his earlier promise, demanded that Fergus flee from him. Fergus obeyed, and retreated with his three-thousdand warriors.

Maeve was suddenly left alone on the battlefield, with only her own soldiers around her. The battle quickly turned in favor of Ulster, and the Connacht army was forced into full retreat. At one moment Cu Chulainn even had the opportunity to slay Maeve, but decided she was too insignificant to kill. She fled back to her castle in Connacht.

Meanwhile, as the battles between the men of Ulster and Connacht had been raging, another battle was being fought out privately. The Brown Bull of Cooley and the White Bull of Ai battled for a day and a night, and finally the Brown Bull proved victorous over its White opponent. He scattered the Connacht bull's remains across Ireland, and then, in the sunset of his victory, collapsed and died on Ulster's soil.

-Fleming, Gergus. "The Ulster Wars". Heroes of the Dawn: Celtic Myth.
-Tain Bo Cuailgne (trans. Joseph Dunn): http://vassun.vassar.edu/~sttaylor/Cooley/Pillow-talk.html
I love the Táin I read Kinsella’s translation a couple of years ago and I am reading Ciarán Carson’stranslation as of last night,( I am up to the boyhood deeds of Chú Chulainn)

I have to say I prefer Carson, he lends a more poetic flow and it is more informal and his emphasis is more on telling the story, you hear the cadence of the Irish language and accent throughout his work, and he has a gift for building the drama to it’s obviously ominous conclusion.

I loved his translation of Dante’s 'Inferno' also even though (because?) you can sense the Northern Irish accent in most of his dialogue.