Táin Bó Cúailnge ("the driving-off of cows of Cooley," more usually rendered The Cattle Raid of Cooley or The Táin) is a legendary tale from early Irish literature, often considered an epic, although it is written primarily in prose rather than verse. It tells of a war against Ulster by the Connacht queen Medb and her husband Ailill, who intend to steal the stud bull Donn Cuailnge, opposed only by the teenage Ulster hero Cúchulainn.
Traditionally set in the first century C.E. in an essentially pre-Christian heroic age, the Táin is the central text of a group of tales known as the Ulster Cycle. The Táin Bo Cúailgne, or "Cattle-Raid of Cooley," a district in modern County Louth, is the best known and greatest of the Ulster Cycle. It gives a full account of the struggle between Connacht and Ulster, and the hero of the piece, as indeed of the whole Ulster Cycle, is the youthful Cúchulainn, the Hector of Ireland, the most chivalrous of enemies. This long saga contains many episodes drawn together and formed into a single whole, a kind of Irish Iliad, and the state of society which it describes from the point of culture-development is considerably older and more primitive than that of the Greek epic. The number of stories that belong to this cycle is considerable. Standish Hayes O'Grady has reckoned ninety-six (appendix to Eleanor Hull's Cuchullin Saga), of which eighteen seem now to be wholly lost, and many others very much abbreviated, though they were all doubtless at one time told at considerable length.
The tone is terse, violent, sometimes comic, and mostly realistic, although supernatural elements intrude from time to time. Cúchulainn in particular has superhuman fighting skills, the result of his semi-divine ancestry, and when particularly aroused his battle frenzy or ríastrad transforms him into an unrecognizable monster who knows neither friend nor foe. Evident deities like Lugh, the Morrígan, Aengus and Midir also make occasional appearances.
The Táin is preceded by a number of remscéla, or pre-tales, which provide background on the main characters and explain the presence of certain characters from Ulster in the Connacht camp, the curse that causes the temporary inability of the remaining Ulstermen to fight and the magic origins of the bulls Donn Cuailnge and Finnbhennach. The eight remscéla chosen by Thomas Kinsella for his 1969 translation are sometimes taken to be part of the Táin itself, but come from a variety of manuscripts of different dates. Several other tales exist which are described as remscéla to the Táin, some of which have only a tangential relation to it.
The first recension begins with Ailill and Medb assembling their army in Cruachan, the purpose of this military build-up taken for granted. The second recension adds a prologue in which Ailill and Medb compare their respective wealths and find that the only thing that distinguishes them is Ailill's possession of the phenomenally fertile bull, Finnbhennach, who had been born into Medb's herd but scorned the ownership of a woman so decided to transfer himself to Ailill's. Medb determines to get the equally potent Donn Cuailnge from Cooley to balance the books with her husband. She successfully negotiates with the bull's owner, Dáire mac Fiachna, to rent the animal for a year until her messengers, drunk, reveal that they would have taken the bull by force even if they had not been allowed to borrow it. The deal breaks down, and Medb raises an army, including Ulster exiles led by Fergus mac Róich and other allies, and sets out to capture him.
The men of Ulster are disabled by an apparent illness, the ces noínden (literally "debility of nine (days)," although it lasts several months). A separate tale explains this as the curse of the goddess Macha, who imposed it after she was forced by the king of Ulster to race against a chariot while heavily pregnant. The only person fit to defend Ulster is seventeen-year-old Cúchulainn, and he lets the army take Ulster by surprise because he's off on a tryst when he should be watching the border. Cúchulainn, assisted by his charioteer Láeg, wages a guerrilla campaign against the advancing army, then halts it by invoking the right of single combat at fords, defeating champion after champion in a stand-off lasting months. However, he is unable to prevent Medb from capturing the bull.
Cúchulainn is both helped and hindered by supernatural figures. Before one combat the Morrígan visits him in the form of a beautiful young woman and offers him her love, but he spurns her. She then reveals herself and threatens to interfere in his next fight. She does so, first in the form of an eel who trips him in the ford, then as a wolf who stampedes cattle across the ford, and finally as a heifer at the head of the stampede, but in each form Cúchulainn wounds her. After he defeats his opponent, the Morrígan appears to him in the form of an old woman milking a cow, with wounds corresponding to the ones Cúchulainn gave her in her animal forms. She offers him three drinks of milk. With each drink he blesses her, and the blessings heal her wounds.
After a particularly arduous combat he is visited by another supernatural figure, Lugh, who reveals he is his father. He puts Cúchulainn to sleep for three days while he works his healing arts on him. While he sleeps the youth corps of Ulster come to his aid but are all slaughtered. When Cúchulainn wakes he undergoes a spectacular ríastrad or "distortion," in which his body twists in its skin and he becomes an unrecognizable monster who knows neither friend nor foe. He makes a bloody assault on the Connacht camp and avenges the youth corps sixfold.
After this extraordinary incident, the sequence of single combats resumes, although on several occasions Medb breaks the agreement by sending several men against him at once. When Fergus, his foster-father, is sent to fight him, Cúchulainn agrees to yield to him on the condition that Fergus yields the next time they meet. Finally there is a physically and emotionally grueling three-day duel between the hero and his foster-brother and best friend, Ferdiad.
Eventually the Ulstermen start to rouse, one by one at first, then en masse, and the final battle begins. It ends after Fergus makes good on his promise and yields to Cúchulainn, pulling his forces off the field. Connacht's other allies panic and Medb is forced to retreat. She does, however, manage to bring Donn Cuailnge back to Connacht, where he fights Finnbhennach, kills him, but, mortally wounded himself, wanders around Ireland creating placenames before finally returning home to die of exhaustion.
The image of Cúchulainn dying, tied to a post so that even in death he might face his enemies standing, adopted by early twentieth century Irish republicans, does not come from the Táin but from a later story. However it has been incorporated into some oral versions of the Táin, in which Cúchulainn dies from wounds sustained during his final duel with Ferdiad.
The Táin Bó Cúailnge has survived in two main recensions. The first consists of a partial text in the Lebor na hUidre (the "Book of the Dun Cow"), a late 11th/early twelfth century manuscript compiled in the monastery at Clonmacnoise, and another partial text of the same version in the fourteenth century manuscript called the Yellow Book of Lecan. The language of the earliest stories is dateable to the eighth century, and events and characters are referred to in poems dating to the 7th.
These two sources overlap, and a complete text can be reconstructed by combining them. This recension is a compilation of two or more earlier versions, indicated by the number of duplicated episodes and references to "other versions" in the text. Many of the episodes are superb, written in the characteristic terse prose of the best Old Irish literature, but others are cryptic summaries, and the whole is rather disjointed. Parts of this recension can be dated from linguistic evidence to the eighth century, and some of the verse passages may be even older.
The second recension is found in the twelfth century manuscript known as the Book of Leinster. This appears to have been a syncretic exercise by a scribe who brought together the Lebor na hUidre materials and unknown sources for the Yellow Book of Lecan materials to create a coherent version of the epic. While the result is a satisfactory narrative whole, the language has been modernized into a much more florid style, with all of the spareness of expression of the earlier recension lost in the process.
The Book of Leinster version ends with a colophon in Latin which says:
But I who have written this story, or rather this fable, give no credence to the various incidents related in it. For some things in it are the deceptions of demons, other poetic figments; some are probable, others improbable; while still others are intended for the delectation of foolish men.
An incomplete third recension is known from fragments in a number of later manuscripts.
There is reason to suspect that the Táin had a considerable oral history before any of it was committed to writing: for example, the poem Conailla Medb michuru ("Medb enjoined illegal contracts") by Luccreth moccu Chiara, dated to c. 600, tells the story of Fergus' exile with Ailill and Medb, which the poet describes as sen-eolas ("old knowledge"). Two further seventh century poems also allude to elements of the story: in Verba Scáthaige ("Words of Scáthach"), the warrior-woman Scáthach prophesies Cúchulainn's combats at the ford; and Ro-mbáe laithi rordu rind ("We had a great day of plying spear-points"), attributed to Cúchulainn himself, refers to an incident in the Boyhood Deeds section of the Táin.
Two translations by Irish poets are available in mass market editions: Thomas Kinsella's The Táin (1969, Oxford University Press) and Ciarán Carson's The Táin (2007, Penguin Classics). Both are based primarily on the first recension with passages added from the second, although they differ slightly in their selection and arrangement of material. Kinsella's translation is illustrated by Louis le Brocquy (see Louis le Brocquy Táin illustrations) and also contains translations of a selection of remscéla.
Cecile O'Rahilly has published academic editions/translations of both recensions, Táin Bó Cúailnge from the Book of Leinster (1967) and Táin Bó Cúailnge Recension 1 (1976), as well as an edition of the later Stowe Version (1984), a variant version of recension 2 in more modern language, with a few extra passages. Winifred Faraday's The Cattle-Raid of Cualnge (1904) translates the first recension, and Joseph Dunn's The Ancient Irish Epic Tale Táin Bó Cúailnge (1914) translates the second, with passages added from the first recension and the Stowe version.
The stories of the cycle are written in Old and Middle Irish, mostly in prose, interspersed with occasional verse passages. They are preserved in manuscripts of the 12th to 15th centuries, but in many cases are much older. They are among the most important extant examples of the period.
The Tain Bo Cuailnge has exercised an enormous influence over the cultural imagination of Ireland. It has served as the basis for numerous cultural adaptations into numerous literary and artistic forms, including novels, dramas and even comics, as well as music.
This article incorporates text from the public-domain Catholic Encyclopedia of 1913.
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