Táin Bό Cuailnge

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TÁIN BÓ CUAILNGE (The cattle raid of Cuailnge) is the longest and the most famous of the early Irish heroic tales. It exists in three recensions. The first of them is preserved in Lebhor na hUidhre (The book of the dun cow), dated circa 1100 ce, and in the Yellow Book of Lecan, a late fourteenth-century manuscript. The second is preserved in the Book of Leinster, written in the mid-twelfth century, and the third in two manuscripts of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. However, as with many other early Irish tales, the date of the earliest extant manuscript provides only a terminus ante quem for the first recording as well as for the composition of the text, and even in the first recension of Táin Bó Cuailnge there are several linguistic strata which make it possible to trace the earlier written history of the tale back to the seventh or eighth century. This recension seems to have been compiled about the middle of the eleventh century from at least two variant written versions dating from about the ninth century, but may also have drawn upon sources in oral tradition. On linguistic and other grounds Rudolf Thurneysen (1921) concluded that the saga may have been recorded for the first time in the middle of the seventh century. Moreover, there is a poem composed not later than the seventh century in which the supernatural woman Scáthach addresses the principal hero of Táin Bó Cuailnge, Cú Chulainn, and foretells, cryptically and laconically, some of the main events of the tale; but whether the poet was drawing upon an oral tradition or a written version of the tale is uncertain.

In its extant form, the story tells of an attack on the province of Ulster organized by Ailill and Medhbh, king and queen of Connacht, and supported by the rest of Ireland. The object of the attack is to carry off the great bull of the Ulster people, the Donn Cuailnge ("the brown bull of Cuailnge"). Such was the prestige of Táin Bó Cuailnge in early medieval Ireland that it generated an extensive complex of ancillary tales and traditions and came to be accepted by native men of learning as the classic statement of the heroic ethos.

As it stands, the saga reflects something of Irish political conditions at the beginning of the historical period (fifth century) or earlier, but some scholars have suggested that its original theme was the rivalry of two bulls. The background to this rivalry is given in a separate tale: the bulls had formerly been magical swineherds who had quarreled and passed through a series of metamorphoses before reaching their actual form. Bruce Lincoln has argued that the account of the fight between the bulls at the end of Táin Bó Cuailnge is a reflex of an Indo-European cosmogonic myth: "a man and a bull are killed and dismembered, and from their bodies the world is constructed" (Priests, Warriors, and Cattle, Berkeley, 1981, pp. 8692). However, several difficulties remain to be resolved before this attractive hypothesis can be accepted.


Carney, James. "Early Irish Literature: The State of Research." In Proceedings of the Sixth International Conference of Celtic Studies, pp. 113ff. Dublin, 1983. This lecture refers to recent philological studies on the early history of Táin Bó Cuailnge.

O'Rahilly, Cecile, ed. Táin Bó Cúailnge from the Book of Leinster. Dublin, 1967.

O'Rahilly, Cecile, ed. Táin Bó Cúailnge: Recension I. Dublin, 1976. This and the preceding entry refer to the two main recensions of the saga. Both recensions provide an introduction and translation.

Thurneysen, Rudolf. Die irische Helden- und Königsage bis zum siebzehnten Jahrhundert. 2 vols. (Halle, 1921). See pages 96ff. This is the classic study of Táin Bó Cuailnge and the Ulster cycle in general. The approach is predominantly textual and philological; the main shortcoming is its inadequate comprehension of the oral and mythological dimensions of early Irish literary tradition.

Proinsias Mac Cana (1987 and 2005)