235. The Táin Bó Cúaillnge (The Cattle Raid of Cooley) (early 12th C)

King Ailill and Queen Medb of Connacht are comparing their individual wealth, which is evenly matched except for Ailill’s prize bull, Finnbhennach. Medb insists on forming an army to invade Ulster and steal their mighty brown bull Donn Cuailnge. The Ulster men are vulnerable just then as they are under a curse of sickness and cannot fight. Their lands and cattle must be protected solely by Cú Chulainn, a young and beardless warrior with superhuman powers of strength and skill.

This epic is part of a larger cycle of Irish folklore known as the Ulster Cycle.

Source : The Táin : a new translation of the Táin Bó Cúaillnge by Ciaran Carson, published by Viking Penguin, 2008.

Thoughts : At first we only see Cú Chulainn through stories told by the Connacht men, of amazing deeds done by a young boy of five.

“He set off with his toy shield and his toy javelin, and his hurley-stick and ball, and to shorten the journey he’d strike the ball a long way with his stick, then throw the stick after the ball, and the javelin after ball and stick. Then he would run after them and catch stick, ball and javelin before they touched the ground”      page 37

Later as Chulainn whittles away the army of Connacht in singles, groups and hundreds, he is like Grendel in Beowulf, a shadowy supernatural threat.

These guerilla tactics are replaced by Chulainn challenging the Connacht warriors one on one at the ford of the river Cronn. Then we start to see him as a man, his companionship with his charioteer Laeg, and his weariness in holding the ground alone, suffering from his wounds.

“I am alone against hordes, I cannot stop nor let go, I stand here in the long cold hours, alone against every foe …..

In my fight I have been free, but one stick will not make fire. Had I only two or three, then there’d be a blaze indeed”      page 95

Eventually Chulainn must face his foster brother Fer Diad in an epic duel that lasts four days. At nightfall, each ensures that his opponent has the same foods and medicines so they can fight again on an even footing the next day; and they take turns in choosing the weapons to be used. Fer Diad’s eventual defeat causes Chulaiin great sorrow.

Ailill and Madb begin to have difficulty in finding volunteers to take on Chulainn, and promise their beautiful daughter Finnabair to each warrior if they succeed. She has also been promised away to many of the kings fighting on the Connacht side, and when they discover they have all been lied to, the ensuing revenge in the Connacht camp costs seven hundred lives, and Finnabair’s suicide.

There are also supernatural elements at work. The goddess Morrigan tries to seduce Chulainn and on his refusal (he does have other things on his mind), she interferes in his battles, twirling around his feet as an eel in the river to unbalance him, and transforming firstly into a she-wolf and then a heifer to stampede the cattle at him. In all cases he wounds her and continues his battle with the warriors.

There are also “goblins and ghouls and sprites of the glen and fiends of the air” whose cries scare men to death. Chulainn has a magic torque which changes him into a monstrous giant warrior, “a contorted thing, unrecognizably horrible and grotesque” when he is particularly annoyed with someone.

The Ulster men finally recover and set forth in a massive army to deal with the invaders.

Ravens gnaw      men’s necks      blood gushes

Fierce fray      hacked flesh     battle-drunk

Men’s sides      blade-struck      war=torn

Raking fingers      battle-brave      men of Cruachan

ruination      bodies crushed      underfoot

long live Ulster     woe to Ireland

woe to Ulster      long live Ireland                                          page 197

Favourite quotes/scenes:

Fergus, an exiled king of Ulster fighting for the Connacht army, describes the young Chulainn to Queen Medb:

“You’ll not meet a tougher opponent – no spear-point sharper, quicker or more piercing; no fighter fiercer, no raven more ravenous, no one of his age a third as brave, no lion more ferocious; no bulwark in battle, no mighty sledgehammer, no shield of soldiers, no nemesis of armies, as able as him. There’s no one of his generation to match him for build, for gear, for fearsome looks … his doom-dealing fire and fury and his violence in victory, his skill in stalking and slaughtering game, his swiftness, sureness and unconquerable rage … there’s none to match Cú Chulainn” 

“Let’s not pay too much heed to that” said Medb.          page 36

(There’s just no telling some people)

Personal rating: 6/10

Kimmy’s rating: Too much shouting and bloodshed, not to mention killing of innocent dogs. No paws.

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