The Tain, translated by Thomas Kinsella from the Irish Epic Tain Bo Cuailnge (`The Cattle-Raid of Cooley’), with brush drawings by Louis le Brocquy (Oxford, Oxford University Press and Dublin, Dolmen Press, 1970).
It is hard to imagine that (and how, and why) this potent, powerful, unforgettable story is so little known. When people of all kinds and capacities like to prose on about the possibility of a real King Arthur or how many St Patricks were there, this major text of great antiquity, compelling richness and continuing mystery has hardly been heard of. It is as if we thought we could think about the renaissance without Hamlet or the nineteenth century without Notre Dame de Paris.
The manuscripts are early medieval, but the text was written down before that and its origins are in misty antiquity. K. H. Jackson, a rigorous-minded linguistic scholar went so far as to say it offered `a window on the Iron Age’, meaning that the stories and attitudes looked back to the heroic time of the Celts, before Romans, Christians, Anglo-Saxons and Vikings found their way to north-western Europe. Though the story was undoubtedly copied by Irish monks it, like much else of that culture’s ancient wealth, was irresistibly pagan.
The story of the great cattle-raid is simple – like the siege of Troy or Aeneas’s taking of Rome. Connaught has a king and queen, Ailill and Mebd, who are equal in power. When they compare their possessions, she finds to her fury that Ailill has a great white bull she cannot match. So she mobilises the army to head north and steal the great dun bull of Cooley, pride of Ulster’s bovine masculinity. There are remscela, pre-tales, added to explain things like why Fergus, former king of Ulster, is now an exile with Connaught – that story also relates to the tragedy of Queen Derdriu and her fated love for the handsome Noisiu.
On the raid, Connaught has high hopes. They are deliberately attacking during the period when the warriors of Ulster are all as weak as women in childbirth, a curse laid on them by the goddess Macha for making her run a foot-race when heavily pregnant. Gender is a recurring issue, and some scholars have thought the whole subtext of the Tain is to justify the shift from matriarchy to patriarchy in early Celtic culture.
But Connaught discovers a problem. The great hero of Ulster is Cuchullain. That’s a sort of nickname: he was born Sentanta, but had to act in the place of a mighty hound (after he killed it) and so become called `Cullain’s hound’ or `the Hound of Ulster’ or even `Little Hound’ – he was still a boy then. He is not in fact an Ulsterman and so he patrols the border, fighting alone against the Connaughtmen for several weeks –he die shave a brief rest when his father from the sidhe – the fairy gods – named Lug (often called the Celtic Apollo, and the alleged founder of London, Lille, Laon, Leiden etc) gives him a break. He deserves to be tired: he is no ordinary fighter. When he prepares for battle he goes into his `heroic distortions’. A pillar of blood rises from his head; one eye grows larger than a dinner plate; the other is so small a crane cannot pluck it from his head.’
Along with the single combats we are told the name and origin of many a hero of Ireland – a personalised history is interwoven with the text, as well as the places they come from, and often how they gained their names. But like many a great epic, it is a dark story. The warriors of Ulster grow strong again; they gather in their many troops, each led by a famous ferocious hero. The great battle follows, and it is slaughter, on both sides. The heroic ethos is fully realised, but so is its massive cost in human lives and effective government. The last thing that happens is the two bulls fight. Finally the great dun bull of Ulster wins, and makes his way back to Ulster with the carcase of Finnbennach, the white bull of Connaught on its horns. Finally it reaches its home, where it tears up the earth, and falls dead.
A text that actually became almost forgotten in Ireland—the more popular stories of Finn MacCool and mere fairies pushed aside the mythic, cosmic Tain – the story, as heroic as it is tragic and, amazingly, as comic as well, was revived in the nationalist period of the nineteenth century as a crucial document asserting the ancient power of Irish civilisation. It used to be taught widely, along with other early Irish texts, in big departments of language and culture, and many of the major scholars were German – not just because they were just great scholars. Quite a few of the manuscripts come from Germany and Austria because Irish monks were so important an element in Christian learning in those areas: Regensburg has a magnificent early medieval Itish Celtic church front.
But not only in Ireland and Germany: I studied the Tain when I was a young lecturer at Sydney. That was in the early 1970s a huge English department, with over fifty lecturers, and fifteen of us were medievalists. Bernard Martin, a New Zealander who had studied in Cambridge and Dublin, taught Old Irish to fourth year honours. We used to read and check our translations against the very fine version by Thomas Kinsella, the major Irish poet, and above all wonder at the power and drama the Tain continues to transmit. And we could also admire the pictures. Louis de Brocquy was a brilliant choice: his bold, freehand black-ink drawings seem to catch in their own mode the raw vigour of the text: they remind me of Derain’s ink drawings for Apollinaire’s L’Enchanteur Pourrisant. You can see Cuchullain undergoing his distortions or the grim, understated impact of four heads spiked on a tree branch.
In many ways the Tain, both in detail and overall, challenges the simple certainties of liberal humanist culture: gods, men and animals interchange here, and forces beyond the banally personal are seen to operate. Cathbad the druid prophesies the melodramatic tragedy of Derdriu’s life when she screams in her mother’s womb. But there is also human realisation: she herself foresees the colours of the face of her beloved Noisiu long before she meets him.
It will be a banal reader who is not stirred by experiencing the Tain.