The Cattle Raid of Cooley, Irish Táin bó Cuailnge, Old Irish epiclike tale that is the longest of the Ulster cycle of hero tales and deals with the conflict between Ulster and Connaught over possession of the brown bull of Cooley. The tale was composed in prose with verse passages in the 7th and 8th centuries. It is partially preserved in The Book of the Dun Cow (c. 1100) and is also found in The Book of Leinster (c. 1160) and The Yellow Book of Lecan (late 14th century). Although it contains passages of lively narrative and witty dialogue, it is not a coherent work of art, and its text has been marred by revisions and interpolations. It has particular value for the literary historian in that the reworkings provide a record of the degeneration of Irish style; for example, the bare prose of the earlier passages is later replaced by bombast and alliteration, and ruthless humour becomes sentimentality.
The tale’s plot is as follows. Medb (Maeve), the warrior queen of Connaught, disputes with her husband, Ailill, over their respective wealth. Because possession of the white-horned bull guarantees Ailill’s superiority, Medb resolves to secure the even-more-famous brown bull of Cooley from the Ulstermen. Although Medb is warned of impending doom by a prophetess, the Connaught army proceeds to Ulster. The Ulster warriors are temporarily disabled by a curse, but Cú Chulainn, the youthful Ulster champion, is exempt from the curse and single-handedly holds off the Connaughtmen. The climax of the fighting is a three-day combat between Cú Chulainn and Fer Díad, his friend and foster brother, who is in exile and fighting with the Connaught forces. Cú Chulainn is victorious, and, nearly dead from wounds and exhaustion, he is joined by the Ulster army, which routs the enemy. The brown bull, however, has been captured by Connaught and defeats Ailill’s white-horned bull, after which peace is made.
The tale’s loose construction has preserved intact a few outstanding dramatic episodes, such as Medb’s dialogue with the soothsayer and Cú Chulainn’s dealings with the Connaught scouts. Undoubtedly the finest section is that in which Fergus, an exile from Ulster at the Connaught court, recalls for Medb and Ailill the heroic deeds of Cú Chulainn’s youth.
The Táin Bó Cúailnge appears alien, primitive, and unimaginably ancient. There are unmistakable signs that this atmosphere is a sophisticated construction of the past, making its historicity a scholarly donné (a thing in a literary work that is taken for granted or expected by virtue of the genre or milieu in which it is contained) well into the twentieth century. As B. K. Lambkin notes, the clarity of perception of its earliest critic, the scribe of the twelfth century Book of Leinster who said, "But I who have written this story, or rather this fable, give no credence to the various incidents related in it. For some things in it are deceptions of demons, others poetic figments; some are probable, others improbable" was forgotten in a desire to have a reliable historical source. It was its apparent 'primitiveness' that caught the imagination of nineteenth-century scholars whose obsession with the presumed and desired antiquity of the Táin quickly became part of the Irish strain of nineteenth-century romantic nationalism. Scholarship under its influence, and not only in Ireland, often justified itself in the search for the pure, unsullied national character of a people. As editor Barbara Hillers notes, even the greatest nineteenth-century scholars approached the Ulster cycle of tales as history and its characters as real people. The Táin Bó Cúailnge was a rich source of historical, mythological, and linguistic information. As Gerard Murphy notes, the question of literary technique hardly entered into their consideration, its artlessness was a positive virtue, if only as a proof of its great antiquity, their origin in "the youth of the world, before the heart had been trained to bow before the head or the imagination to be troubled by logic."
The critical situation of the Táin Bó Cúailnge is somewhat better than Irish saga...
(The entire section is 773 words.)