The Tain Bo Cuailnge

           Irish Mythology is expressed in four main cycles that make up the bulk of Irish oral tradition: the Mythological Cycle, the Ulster Cycle, the Fianna Cycle, and the Cycle of the Kings (Rees, 26).  Each of these cycles is further broken down into collections of shorter stories with a shared focus or theme.  The Ulster Cycle, for example, centres on a continual war waged between Ulster and Connacht, and the plight of the men of Ulster.  In one of the central tales of the Ulster Cycle, the Táin Bó Cuailnge (The Cattle Raid of Cooley), Connacht invades Ulster to steal the Donn Cuailgne (the Brown Bull of Cooley), and the Ulstermen leave the young hero Cuchúlainn alone to face the invading Connacht troops (Táin Bó Cuailnge). Much of early Irish literature has been lost through the ages, but some medieval manuscripts still survive. The Táin Bó Cuailnge for example survives in its earliest form in Lebor na hUidre, familarly known as the Book of the Dun Cow. The manuscript was composed at Clonmacnoise in the twelfth century.
            The Táin Bó Cuailnge represents the oldest vernacular tale of Western Europe, predating both Beowulf and Homer’s Odyssey (Butler).   It was In addition to its historical interests, it has been profoundly significant within the Irish literary tradition, influencing such giants as WB Yeats, Lady Augusta Gregory, JM Synge, Frank McCourt, and Seamus Heaney (Fadave).

The saga of the Táin Bó Cúailnge begins at Cruachain, stronghold of Queen Medb and her husband Ailill. Medb and Ailill are in bed comparing their possessions. It is found that their possessions are equal with the exception of Ailill's great white bull, to which no equal can be found within Medb's herd. The only match to this bull is the Brown Bull of Cúailnge, Donn Cúailnge, which is kept in Dáire MacFiachna's house in the Ulster province's Cooley Mountains. When Dáire refuses to part with the bull, Medb assembles a great army and marches into Ulster to raid and take the bull. So begins the Táin Bó Cúailnge (the Cattle Raid of Cooley) and the tales of the young hero Cuchúlainn who fights to defend Ulster from the invading Connacht forces.

Map of Ireland Ulster Connacht Meath Leinster Munster

Táin Referenced Sites
Modern Correspondence
Ferdia's Ford in Ardee
The ford at which Cúchulainn kills his best friend and foster-brother Ferdia (The Táin, 204).
Athlone, on the Shannon, on the borders of Connacht and Meath.
"[The Brown Bull] drank again at Ath Luain, and left Finnbennach's loins there - that is how the place was named Ath Luain, the Ford of the Loins" (The Táin, 252).
The Windy Gap on the Border of Ulster.
"[Medb] chose[s] to cross the summit itself and mark their tracks forever as a mark of dishonor to Ulster. It took them three days and three nights, tearing up the earth before them, to form the gap Bernas Bó Cuailnge" (The Táin, 102).
Rathcroghan in County Limerick, Connacht.
The Táin begins here at Medb's fort in Connacht with the famous 'pillow talk' between Ailill and Medb (The Táin, 52).
Navan Fort in County Armagh.
Home of King Conchobar and the men of the Red Branch of Ulster. This is where the hero Cúchulainn comes to join the boy troop when he leaves his home on the Murtheimne Plain.
A height just south of Emain Macha, in Ulster.
After leaving Ath Luain the Brown Bull "uttered a bellow at Iraird Cuillenn that was heard through the whole province" (The Táin, 252).
Tara, the seat of the High Kings of Ireland, near Navan, in County Meath.
The boyhood Cúchulainn asks his charioteer to name and describe the entire landscape around them. "In this way he gave the name of every fort of any size between Temair and Cenannos. And he recited to him also all fields and fords, all habitations and places of note, and every fastness and fortress" (The Táin, 87).