Cattle-raid of Cooley (Co. Louth). Here we find ourselves in a world of barbaric splendour, and we are constantly reminded of the Iliad, though the Irish epic from a purely literary point of view cannot bear comparison with the work of Homer. The main actors in the drama are Conchobar, king of Ulster, the great warrior Cúchulinn (see Cúchulinn), Ailill and Medb, king and queen of Connaught, The “Táin.” and Fergus, Conchobar’s predecessor as king of Ulster, now in exile in Connaught. These persons may or may not have actually lived, but the Irish annalists and synchronists agree in placing them about the beginning of the Christian era. And there cannot be any doubt as to the antiquity of the state of civilization disclosed in this great saga. It has been repeatedly pointed out that the Irish heroes are equipped and conduct themselves in the same manner as the Gauls described by the Greek traveller Posidonius, and Prof. W. Ridgeway has shown recently that several articles of dress and armour correspond exactly to the La Tène types of the continent. To mention a few primitive traits among many—the Irish champions of the Táin still fight in chariots, war-dogs are employed, whilst the heads of the slain are carried off in triumph and slung round the necks of the horses. It may also be mentioned that Emain Macha, Conchobar’s residence, is reported by the annalists to have been destroyed in A.D. 323, and that portions of Meath, which is stated to have been made into a separate province in the 2nd century A.D., are in the Táin regarded as forming part of Ulster. Noteworthy is the exalted position occupied by the druid in the Ulster sagas, showing how little the romances were influenced by Christianity. No Roman soldier ever set foot in Ireland, and this early epic literature is of supreme value as a monument of primitive Celtic civilization. Ireland has always been a pastoral country. In early times no native coins were in circulation: the land belonged to the tribe. Consequently a man’s property consisted mainly of cattle. Cattle-raids were an event of daily occurrence, and Sir Walter Scott has made us familiar with similar expeditions on the part of the Scottish Highlanders in the 18th century. Hence it is not a matter for surprise that the theme of the greatest Irish epic is a cattle-raid. At the time there were two wonderful bulls in Ireland, the Bond or Brown Bull of Cualnge, and the Findbennach or White-horn, belonging to Medb. These two animals are of no ordinary nature. Other stories represent them as having existed under many different forms before they were reborn as bulls. First they appear as swineherds belonging to the supernatural people of the síd of fairy mounds; then they are metamorphosed successively as ravens, warriors, sea-monsters and insects. It was Queen Medb’s ambition to gain possession of the Brown Bull of Cualnge, and for this purpose she collected the united hosts of Ireland to raid the province of Ulster and carry him off. Medb chooses the season when she knows the Ulstermen are all incapacitated as the result of a curse laid upon them by a fairy woman. Cúchulinn alone is exempt from this debility.
The story is divided into a number of sections, and has been summarized by Miss Hull as follows:—(1) the prologue, relating, in the form of a night dialogue between Ailill and Medb, the dispute between them which brought about the raid; (2) the collecting of Medb’s hosts and the preliminary movements of the army, during which period she first became aware of the presence and powers of Cúchulinn. Her inquiry of Fergus as to who this formidable foe is leads to a long section called (3) Cúchulinn’s boy-deeds, in which Fergus relates the remarkable prodigies of Cúchulinn’s youth, and warns Medb that, though the hero is but a beardless youth of seventeen, he will be more than a match for all her forces. (4) A long series of single combats, of which the first part of the tale is made up; they are at first gay and bombastic in character, but become more grave as they proceed, and culminate in the combat of Cúchulinn with his old companion, Fer Diad. This section contains the account of Cúchulinn’s “distortion” or frenzy, which always occurred before any great output of the hero’s energy, and of the rout of the hosts of Medb which followed it. (5) The general awakening of the warriors of Ulster from their lethargy, and their gathering by septs upon the Hill of Slane, clan by clan being described as it comes up in order. (6) The final Battle of Gairech and Ilgairech, followed (7) by the rout of Medb’s army and (8) the tragic death of the bulls.
The text of the Táin has come down to us as a whole or in part in nearly a score of MSS., most of which, however, are modern. The most important MSS. containing the story are LU., LL. and YBL. Of these LU. and YBL. are substantially the same, whilst LL. contains a longer and fuller text later in both style and language. LL. attempts to give a complete and consistent narrative in more polished form. In ancient times there were doubtless other versions now lost, but from the middle of the 12th century the scribes seem to have taken few liberties with the text, whilst previously the filid were constantly transforming the material and adding fresh matter. The YBL. version preserves a number of forms as old as the O. Ir. glosses (i.e. 8th century or earlier), and a curious story contained in LL. seems to point to the fact that the Táin was first committed to writing in the 7th century. Senchán Torpeist, who lived in the first half of the 7th century and succeeded Dallán Forgaill as chief ollam of Ireland, summoned the filid to inquire which of them knew the Táin in its entirety. As they were only familiar with fragments he despatched them to discover it. One of them seated himself at the grave of Fergus MacRoig, who appeared to him in a mist and dictated the whole story to him in three days and three nights.
At this point it will be well to say a few words about the form of the Táin. The old Irish epic is invariably in prose with poems of varying length interspersed. The narrative and descriptive portions are in prose and are frequently followed by a brief epitome in verse. Dialogues, eulogies and laments also appear in metrical form. The oldest poems, termed rhetoric, which are best represented in LU., seem to be declamatory passages in rhythmical prose, not unlike the poetical passages in the Old Testament, and the original Táin may have consisted of such rhetorics bound together with short connecting pieces of prose. At a later date poems were inserted in the metres of the filid (particularly the quatrain of four heptasyllabic lines) which Thurneysen and Windisch consider to have been developed out of medieval Latin verse. When in course of time the old rhetorics became unintelligible they were often omitted altogether or new poems substituted. Thus the LL. version contains a larger number of poems than the LU.-YBL. copy, whilst LU. preserves a number of rhetorics which do not appear in the later MS. The prose portions in LU. are very poor from a literary point of view. These passages are abrupt, condensed and frequently obscure, with no striving after literary effect such as we find in LL. The form in which many episodes are cast is not unlike a mnemonic, leaving the story-teller to fill in the details himself. In the 11th century certain portions of the theme possessing great human interest were vastly extended, new poems were added, and in this manner such episodes come to form sagas complete in themselves. The most notable instance of this is the “Fight with Fer Diad,” which is not contained in LU. The genesis of the Táin may thus be briefly summarized as follows. The story was first committed to writing in the 7th or 8th century, after which it was worked up by the filid. Extended versions existing in the 10th or 11th century form the basis of the copies we now possess.
Though the sagas of the Ulster cycle are eminently Irish and pagan in character and origin, it cannot be denied that traces of foreign influence are to be observed. A number of Latin and Norse loan-words occur in them, and there can be little doubt that the monkish scribes consciously thrust the supernatural element into the background. However, although figures of Vikings are unmistakable in a few cases, and in one story Cúchulinn is made to fight with Hercules, such foreign elements can easily be detected in the older tales. They only affect minor details, and do not influence the body of the romances.
From what we have already said it will be plain that the Irish epic is in a fluid state. The Táin is of interest in the history of literature as representing the preliminary stage through which the great verse epics of other nations have had to pass, but its