Táin Bó Cúailnge

views updated

Táin Bó Cúailnge

Táin Bó Cúailnge (Cattle Raid of Cooley) is the central narrative in the Ulster cycle of tales, which depict the heyday of the Ulster kingdom and its pagan heroic culture, dated by the medieval Irish scholars to the first centuries b.c.e. and c.e. The oldest version of the tale is preserved in an early twelfth-century manuscript, Leabhar na hUidhre (Book of the Dun Cow); the tale consists largely of a ninth-century core, amplified by extensive passages in later language.

The story line of the Táin is deceptively simple: Ailill and Maeve, king and queen of Connaught, longstanding enemies of the Ulster people, and their rivals for political supremacy, lead an army of the other Irish provinces into Ulster to raid their cattle, and in particular to seize a prize bull. In an economy based on livestock, where political submission is expressed by the imposition of cattle tribute, this amounts to a declaration of war. The Ulstermen cannot resist, as they are suffering from a strange recurring debility, and the single-handed defense of the province falls on their youthful seventeen-year-old champion Cú Chulainn, an avatar of his divine father Lug. When the Ulstermen finally emerge from their weakness, they give battle to the invaders and ward off the danger, but at a heavy cost of life and material wealth.

If the plot is relatively straightforward, the analysis is less so, and the variety of interpretations advanced testify to the underlying complexities of the tale. Since Eugene O'Curry first introduced the Táin to a wider public in the mid-nineteenth century, parallels have been drawn with the Classical epics, and Cú Chulainn has been compared with the youthful heroes Achilles and Aeneas. The idea that the Táin originated in disparate short tales drawn together to create an Irish Aeneid received the support of the great Thurneysen (1921). Alternatively, the Ulster cycle in general may reflect an old inheritance, being less an imitation than a lateattested congener of the heroic literature of ancient Greece (Chadwick and Chadwick 1932).

As the supremacy of Ulster did not persist into the Christian period, it has been suggested that the tales celebrating its days of glory derive from pagan times. If this were so, much reliance could be placed on the contents as a record of events, persons, and customs, and the Táin would be a precious repository of information about a pre-literate society. O'Curry, for one, believed that the Táin was "all through founded upon authentic historical facts" (O'Curry 1861, p. 33). Yet some features of the tale, such as the role of Otherworld denizens, the extravagant behavior especially of Cú Chulainn, the flights of exaggeration, are far from realistic. A number of characters, including Maeve, Cú Chulainn, and Fergus the Ulster exile, show superhuman traits which reveal them to be semi-divine figures. The plot itself, which culminates in the fight of the Ulster bull against his Connaught counterpart, places the narrative in the realm of myth. T. F. O'Rahilly (1946, p. 271) held that tales such as the Táin have no historical basis whatsoever, being in origin pure mythology.

A more subtle case for historicity in the Táin was made by K. H. Jackson (1964). Acknowledging that the characters and events in the tales may be in part mythological, and are certainly wholly legend, he argued that the lineaments of society, the material culture and customs described therein could be a genuine record of ancient times in Ireland, as they offer impressive corroboration of the Greek and Roman accounts of the Celts of the continent and Britain. The "window on the Iron Age"—in Jackson's vivid phrase—need not be projected back too far into prehistory, since the lack of Roman occupation allowed an Iron Age La Tène culture to flourish up to the threshold of the Christian era in the fifth century. According to Jackson, tales composed at this time could have been recounted orally until captured in writing in the historical period.

The theory that Early Irish literature in general is indebted to an orally transmitted pre-Christian inheritance has since been widely challenged. Some aspects of the material culture in the Ulster tales also appear on closer scrutiny to owe more to early Christian times (Mallory 1992), suggesting that the Táin is at least in part a historical fiction. There is a striking discrepancy, for example, between the written and the archaeological record of the function attributed to Emain Macha: in the Táin it is the location of the royal residence, whereas excavation has shown no evidence of occupation, only of ritual use. Another divergence, the contrast between repeated references to chariots in the Ulster cycle and the lack of archaeological evidence in Ireland for such vehicles, is often cited against Jackson's theory, but could equally be adduced for an even greater antiquity, reaching back to the Continental Celts, for the traditions depicted in the Táin.

Modern approaches to early Irish tales focus less on their ultimate putative origins than on their significance for the society in which they received their final written form. An allegorical reading of the Táin explains the prize bull of Cúailnge as code for the wealthy monastery of Armagh, and the warring Ulster and Connaught armies as the ecclesiastical factions and families competing for its control in the ninth century (Kelleher 1971).

Themes of more general import in the Táin are the destructive impact of war (Radner 1982) and the dangerous potential of the practice of cattle-raiding to escalate into major conflict. A very specific contemporary relevance for the latter is perhaps indicated by the early ninth-century re-promulgation of a law against cattle-raiding (Kelly 1992). These themes could plausibly be seen as the contribution of a clerical redactor.

Notwithstanding such pacifist overtones, the Táin celebrates the heroic age by providing a showcase for the supreme prowess of the youthful Cú Chulainn. His glory is magnified primarily by his own spectacular exploits but also by contrast with the shortcomings of his main adversary, Queen Maeve. She is depicted throughout as a strong but headstrong woman, whose efforts to excel in male domains are ridiculed. Her military invasion is thwarted, and her army disparaged by her Ulster ally and lover Fergus as "a herd of horses led by a mare" (O'Rahilly 1976, p. 237). This animal image recalls the pagan belief in the sovereignty goddess in equine form and evokes the divine figure of which Maeve is a euhemerization. Yet her affair with Fergus does not validate any aspirations of his to kingship, as other narratives using this convention would lead us to expect; it merely exposes him to dishonour and contempt. Thus the tale thematizes not just the appropriate codes of conduct for the sexes but also the enduring literary appeal of the sovereignty-goddess trope. Here, too, in the unmistakeable misogyny, one might discern a clerical input.

The Táin, then, affords more than a "window on the Iron Age." In recalling or imaginatively reconstructing the heroic Ulster society of pre-Christian Ireland, it weaves together a stratum of myth and the legendary history of competing dynasties and peoples into a multi-layered tapestry of themes of local, general, time-bound and timeless resonance and appeal. Its literary and artistic success may therefore be greater than is at first apparent from the disjointed form in which it has come down to us.

SEE ALSO Cú Chulainn; Emain Macha (Navan Fort); Literature: Early and Medieval Literature; Myth and Saga; Prehistoric and Celtic Ireland


Chadwick, Henry Munro, and Nora Kershaw Chadwick. The Growth of Literature. Vol. 1, The Ancient Literatures of Europe. 1932. Reprint, 1968.

Jackson, Kenneth Hurlstone. The Oldest Irish Tradition: A Window on the Iron Age. 1964.

Kelleher, John V. "The Táin and the Annals." Ériu 22 (1971): 107–127.

Kelly, Patricia. "The Táin as Literature." In Aspects of the Táin, edited by J. P. Mallory. 1992.

Mallory, J. P. "The World of Cú Chulainn: The Archaeology of Táin Bó Cúailnge." In Aspects of the Táin, edited by J. P. Mallory. 1992.

O'Curry, Eugene. Lectures on the Manuscript Materials of Ancient Irish History. 1861.

O'Rahilly, Cecile. Táin Bó Cuáilnge. Recension I. 1976.

O'Rahilly, T. F. Early Irish History and Mythology. 1946.

Radner, Joan N. "'Fury Destroys the World': Historical Strategy in Ireland's Ulster Epic." Mankind Quarterly 23 (1982): 41–60.

Thurneysen, Rudolf. Die irische Heldenund Königsage bis zum siebzehnten Jahrhundert. 1921.

Patricia Kelly