When I was young and foolish, I got lost in a labyrinthine story about the stealing of a cow and all the repercussions and ripples emanating from that. These ripples involve much fighting, poetry, sex, armies marauding through the night, unrequited love and the emergence of a godlike warrior whose death comes while upright, lashed to a stone, his enemies waiting until a raven lands on him.
The story is the Tain Bo Cuailnge (The Cattle Raid of Cooley) and it is the bedrock of Irish-language mythology. It’s a great, epic tale and it is central to Irish culture. It is also maddening in its meandering, cockeyed in its ceaseless naming of places and worship of physical strength and astute in its insights into greed and false heroism. When Game of Thrones arrived a few years ago, I was not one of those people instantly smitten with it. It seemed a pastiche, inauthentic. I knew a more uproarious and thrilling tale. Game of Thrones has nothing on the Tain Bo Cuailnge.
The epic tale, part of the Ulster Cycle of stories, exists in fragments and is based on three ancient manuscripts from the 11th to the 14th centuries. It is partly in prose and then erupts into acres of elated and elaborate poetry celebrating nature and feats of war. It is Ireland’s rough equivalent of Virgil’s The Aeneid.
It begins, if there is a true beginning, with pillow talk after canoodling. Maeve, queen of the province of Connacht, is sparring idly in bed with her husband, Aillil. Now, Maeve is both a sexual goddess and the boss, voracious in her appetite and a forceful leader. She married Aillil because he’s easygoing and not given to jealousy. She needs that in a fella.
They begin to count up all their possessions. It turns out, to Maeve’s ire, that her husband has something she doesn’t: a white bull named Finnbhennach. Outraged, she tells her messenger MacRoth to get a gang of her soldiers together and find a bull more powerful than Aillil’s.
They do. They travel to the land of the Ulster cattle baron, one Daire mac Fiachna. He has a famous bull, the Donn Cuailnge, the Brown Bull of Cooley. He agrees to loan it to Maeve for a year so it can sire a successor. Things go awry when Maeve’s men get drunk and boast that they could have simply taken the bull. A furious Daire declares the deal is off.
Let’s pause here. How did I get lost in all this? Well, when I was a lad in 1969 there appeared a new translation of the Tain by poet Thomas Kinsella. The publishers went all out and commissioned Irish artist Louis le Brocquy to illustrate it. The result is stunning: Kinsella’s muscular language, which rescues the story from an earlier version that offered it as cute fairy tale myth, is enhanced by le Brocquy’s simple, beautiful but macabre drawings of events in a primitive, prehistoric world.
The artist himself said it: “It is as shadows thrown by the text that they derive their substance.”
It was the most important book published in Ireland in a generation, an imaginative reshaping of a cultural touchstone into a fiercely contemporary context. Even as a kid I knew that. Kinsella’s dynamic description of Cuchulainn’s travails is, in part, this: “The first warp-spasm seized Cuchulainn, and made him into a monstrous thing, hideous and shapeless, unheard of. His shanks and his joints, every knuckle and angle and organ from head to foot, shook like a tree in the flood or a reed in the stream.”
So, in the story, Queen Maeve is now even more furious and organizes an army of supporters to overrun Ulster and abduct the bull. Here, the Cattle Raid of Cooley is truly under way. The men of Ulster are regrettably under a curse put upon them by the goddess Macha. She has inflicted the pain of childbirth on these men because they abused a pregnant woman – there is a lot of female rage in the Tain – and it will last for months. The only fella who is immune and can fight the invading Connacht army is the young, godlike Cuchulainn. They call him the Hound of Ulster.
Now Cuchulainn is introduced in a series of passages that are rhapsodic in their description of his physical strength. He is bigger, better, bolder and more fierce than any man alive. But courteous, too, and likes to play by the rules. In any case, he begins to fight back and does things like kill a hundred soldiers a day, no bother on him. Eventually, he agrees to fight Connacht one enemy at a time, and these individual fights go on and on. Maeve, meanwhile, has to use all her skills to persuade her best fighters to meet Cuchulainn alone. She offers them sex with her daughters as part of the package.
Day after day, Cuchulainn defeats each opponent until he meets Ferdia, his friend and foster brother. The battle is long and brutal and for Ferdia it ends in death. Cuchulainn weeps that it has all come to this, this mad war. The upshot is that the Brown Bull of Cooley is taken to Maeve’s land and fortress. But upon meeting the white bull, Finnbhennach, the two begin to fight. Their battle rages over miles and miles, until both die. The origin of all this war, sacrifice and savagery is negated; after all that, both bulls – the catalysts for all the carnage – are dead.
Another pause here. In mid-1970s Ireland, when I was a bit older and given to appreciating rock music, the Irish band Horslips released a sort-of concept album, The Tain. To describe Horslips as “Celtic rock” would be inaccurate. They were Irish rocker-artists giving traditional music a kick in the posterior. They were huge, this band, and their cultural influence is still discussed in academia today.
With The Tain, they distilled the entire elaborate epic into short stories, some of which are asides in the main epic. MacRoth is in love with Maeve, they’ve been lovers, and he is stuck in melancholy jealousy of Cuchulainn’s brawn. “I travel Ireland in a day/You just nod, I’m on my way/I’ve golden wings upon my feet/I seldom touch the ground/The only thing I’m not/Is faster than the Hound.” With one piece, Dearg Doom (Red Destroyer), they encapsulate Cuchulainn’s fury and might, amping up an ancient tune, O’Neill’s March, into a searing rock guitar riff. The music was used for Ireland’s theme song at the 1990 World Cup and is still heard in the dance halls of Ireland to this day. The album cover, with its fist in chain mail, is considered iconic, a small masterpiece of representation.
Since then, by the way, a new translation of The Tain by poet Ciaran Carson was published by Penguin in 2007. It’s peculiar but piquant how an ancient myth can have so may ripples and repercussions and enter into a country’s bloodstream, decade after decade, again and again.
Back in the story, with the two bulls killing each other, there ends officially the Cattle Raid of Cooley, with its moral about the futility of fighting over possessions. But Cuchulainn’s story isn’t over. In his many fights, he killed a man with a pregnant wife who had the power of sorcery. She gave birth to sextuplets – three boys and three girls – all gifted with strange powers. They set out for revenge on the Hound of Ulster. Through trickery, sorcery and flattery they persuade the great warrior into a fight. They strip him of his strength with necromancy. (There’s a side story about the goddess Morrigan refusing to protect him too, because he had rejected her advances.) In the end he dies, having lashed himself to that stone so he will not fall before his enemies, while onlookers wait until the bird sits on his shoulder, telling them he is finally dead.
A bronze cast, The Death of Cuchulainn, by Oliver Sheppard, has stood inside the General Post Office in central Dublin since the 1930s. The GPO was the site of the Easter Rising against British rule in 1916, which eventually led to an independent Ireland. Millions have seen it, passed by it: a warrior in death, refusing to fall. Its presence is an act of continuity with the ancient, brutal past chronicled in the Ulster Cycle of stories, of which the Tain Bo Cuailnge is central.
The bronze cast is less a commemoration than an acknowledgement that a country’s, a culture’s narrative is there, in one long labyrinthine story that starts with the stealing of a cow. And what we learn from it, as I did, is the terrible waste that tribal conflicts bring, no matter the beauty of their telling.
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