Enduring yet another sleepless, angsty, migraine, allergy-filled night, I was trolling YouTube and I happened upon this video called “The Tain” by the Decemberists. This is definitely something I have never seen nor heard before, so I thought I would share it with you guys. I like folklore, history, and the like, and I think you will like this epic piece of prose as much as I did. Read the story about it before you watch the video if you aren’t familiar with it.
Táin Bó Cúailnge (Irish pronunciation: [t̪ˠaːnʲ boː ˈkuəlʲɲə]; “the driving-off of cows of Cooley”, commonly known as 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 Cú Chulainn.
Traditionally set in the 1st century AD in an essentially pre-Christian heroic age, the Táin is the central text of a group of tales known as the Ulster Cycle. It survives in three written versions or “recensions” in manuscripts of the 12th and later centuries, the first a compilation largely written in Old Irish, the second a more consistent work in Middle Irish, and the third an Early Modern Irish version.
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 being owned by a woman so decided to transfer himself to Ailill’s. Medb determines to get the equally potent Donn Cuailnge from Cooley to equal her wealth 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 Donn Cuailnge.
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 being 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 Cú Chulainn, and he lets the army take Ulster by surprise because he’s off on a tryst when he should be watching the border. Cú Chulainn, 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.
Cú Chulainn 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 Cú Chulainn 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 Cú Chulainn 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 himself to be Cú Chulainn’s father. Lugh puts Cú Chulainn to sleep for three days while he works his healing arts on him. While Cú Chulainn sleeps the youth corps of Ulster come to his aid but are all slaughtered. When Cú Chulainn wakes he undergoes a spectacular ríastrad or “distortion”, in which his body twists in its skin and he becomes an unrecognisable 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, Cú Chulainn agrees to yield to him on the condition that Fergus yields the next time they meet. Finally there is a physically and emotionally gruelling three-day duel between the hero and his foster-brother and best friend, Ferdiad. Cú Chulainn wins, killing Ferdiad.
Eventually the debilitated Ulstermen start to rouse, one by one at first, then en masse, and the final battle begins. To begin with Cú Chulainn sits it out, recovering from his wounds. Fergus has Conchobar at his mercy, but is prevented from killing him by Cormac Cond Longas, Conchobar’s son and Fergus’ foster-son, and in his rage cuts the tops off three hills with his sword. Finally, Cú Chulainn enters the fray and confronts Fergus, who makes good on his promise and yields to him, 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 the bull fights Finnbhennach, kills him, but is mortally wounded, and wanders around Ireland creating placenames before finally returning home to die of exhaustion.
The image of Cú Chulainn dying, tied to a post so that even in death he might face his enemies standing, a pose which was adopted by early 20th-century Irish republicans and by Ulster loyalists, 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 Cú Chulainn, like Donn Cuailnge, dies from wounds sustained during his final duel with Ferdiad.
The full text can be found here at The Cattle-Raid of Cooley (Táin Bó Cúalnge). Below is the video of the The Tain EP by the Decemberists.
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Till next time,