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This quote was originally written by a monk transcribing various Irish stories for the book of Leinster in the 12th century. This book contains one version of The Tain. In Irish he offered a blessing to any who memorised the story but in Latin he added the story contained "demonic deceptions" as well as the above quote. I guess he was covering all bases. Still I found the quote most amusing - but then perhaps I am one of the simple minded he is referring to :)
The Tain is a small segment of the Heroic Ulster Cycle, and by far the best known of these stories. More correctly it would be referred to as the Tain Bo Cuainge, or the Cattle Raid of Cooley. Many will know simply as the story of Cu Chulainn - The Hound of Ulster. This is the oldest piece of literature in the Western Vernacular, with the first copies being written down in the 7th century. Prior to this, the story would have been passed down through the oral tradition, memorised by bards. The events themselves are meant to date back to the 1st century and this text is often referred to as a window to the iron age.
This book begins with a bit of jealousy between husband and Wife. Queen Medb of Connacht is arguing with her husband as to who has the most wealth ( Celtic women held their own wealth even after marriage). It seemed they were equal in all things but one. Ailill had a great white bull and she had nothing to match. Determined to better him she sought to acquire the Brown Bull of Cooley, in Ulster. Originally she sought to borrow the animal for breeding purposes and offered a fair payment to the owner - along with certain other privileges if he should so desire - apparently monogamy wasn't a big issue. The owner of the bull accepted and all would have been well, except that Medb's men had a bit too much to drink and announced it was just as well that he surrender the bull - as they would have taken it anyway. Now that his honour was insulted, he could not release the bull without shame, but Medb would not take no for an answer and so, through deceit and treachery, persuaded all the rest of Ireland of march against Ulster. In addition to having three of four provinces on her side, Medb also has many warriors of Ulster in her retinue. This book never explains their presence fully, and without knowledge of on of the other stories in this sage, one could miss out on a full understanding. The division of the men of Ulster is caused by a very shameful act on the part of King Conchobar, I would suggest reading the Exile of the Son's of Uisliu, or the tale of Deidriu and Noisiu before embarking on this tale.
According to legend the Men of Ulster were under a curse caused by another of Conchobar's more despicable deeds. A man had boasted that his wife could outrun the Kings chariot. The King ordered that the woman, Macha, be brought for him and forced to race against his horses. But she was heavy with child and her time had come, she begged to postpone the race until after the birth. Conchobar refused, saying she must run, and one presumes win, even in labour, or her husband must die. Macha wins, and letting out a great cry gives birth to twins on the finish line, but lays a curse upon the men of Ulster as retribution. In their time of greatest need - they would experience the pain of childbirth for 5 days. So - when Medb begins her war against Ulster, all of it's warriors are laid low by the pains of childbirth. Of course there is a wee flaw in this story - I'd bet after the first few hours they'd have given her the bull to leave, thus taking the threat and the curse with her, but no one seems to have thought of this. The seat of the Kings of Ulster was known ever since as Emain Macha, the suffering of Macha. The site is currently a tourist attraction.
Only CuChulainn is not affected, but he is not quite a son of Ulster - his father is Lugh Lamhfhada or Lugh of the long arm, the Celtic God of light whose festival is Lughnasa, and as such only he is exempt from the curse. As such he stands alone against the forces of Ireland. One would assume Conchobar would be coming to help him when the 5 days up but he takes three montsh to get around to doing it. Did I mention I don't like Conchobar? Read the rape of Deidru and you'll see why. But regardless the lazy sod sits in his hall feasting all winter as he feels he needs a few months to recover from the pangs. CuChulainn stands alone, resorting to guerrilla warfare at first, and then fighting, day after in single combat against all of Ireland's champions. Only when he is mortally wounded does any help come from Ulster - in the form of children, boys rather than men who fight and die as Cu Chulainn lies as in death for three days before being restored by Lugh. This story recounts his great deeds, and the most sorrowful of deeds he is forced to undertake, as well as the eventual battle between Ulster and Ireland and the fate of the brown bull.
This book is translated from several Gaelic sources, also leaning on previous English translations. Unlike many authors, Ciaran Carson praises and recommends the previous translations. He is a professor of Poetry at Queen's University in Belfast, and the fact that he is poet by trade is obvious in this. Still there is something missing, and the author admits this as well. He tells is of the original rhythm and rhyme of this verse, but in translating Gaelic to English, there is only so much he can do to capture this. I'm not faulting him on this. If you want a poetic version of this tale, this is the book to buy. I just do not believe it is possible to exactly recreate the cadence and flow of an archaic poem in another language. He has done his best alternating between simple story telling and lyrical poetry, but some of his verse are truly brilliant, Cu Chulains lament for his dearest friend is heart wrenching, his grief and sorrow and betrayal still touched by words of love. It s this section that Carson is clearly at his best.
But in spite of the man's skill, the story does drag in places as the noble deeds of warrior after warrior are recited, as well as details of place names etc.. and some segments which are purely ridiculous bragging. These are of course part of the story, and while some are ridiculous claims, one can understand how if ever there was a shred of truth in this story - and I suspect there was, it has been overlaid with greater and greater deeds over the passing centuries, and even at the time, heroes deeds were most likely exaggerated. We have only to look at modern Hollywood's depiction of war heroes today. But I did very much enjoy the part where the story moves back in time to the deeds of the boy Cu Chulainn, and how he earned his name.
I would also point out that this text casts women in a most unfavourable light. Medb is nothing short of evil, the Celtic goddess the Morrigan perhaps even worse, and a number of other women are portrayed as greedy scheming wretches. There were a few rather crude scenes that shocked me, but I doubt Iron age man had such prudish sensibilities so again, I believe this is fair enough. I was surprised to read about Medb encountering her time of the month - I didn't think primitive man spoke much about such things, but this biggest surprise was in the ending and that left me in total shock. I won't give it away, but I will say it is nothing like any other version of this tale I have read.
If you are looking for a very light hearted holioday read - I can not really recommend this. If you just want a fun and romantic story based loosely around this text I would suggest Morgan Llywelyn's Red Branch. But if you have a taste for poetry, if you like books such as the Illiad, or Beowolf, then I would very strongly recommend this, and all the more so if you have any interest in Ireland.
As a side note Cu Chulainn is one of the few stories shared equally by both cultures in Northern Ireland - although there is still a wee bit of "he's ours - not yours" on both sides. Fair enough, I could use this story as an excuse to reassert divisions - and trust me this has been done - but how much better to view this as a part of the shared culture of Ulster. When we really get thinking about it, there are a great many things we have in common if we don't allow history or myth to be twisted into a bludgeon to beat each other with. If you have any interest at all in shared history, then again, this is a must read.
I feel it would be unfair to take stars from this author for flaws that were not of his making. It would not have been right for him to have significantly altered the tale to cast women in a better light, or even to eliminate the deeds of combatants. I am uncertain whether to take stars from him for the ending or not, as he gives no explanation for the differences, but overall I enjoyed the story and I was impressed by the poetry, especially when realising under what harsh constraints he must have been in creating an epic verse from so different a language.
Finally speaking of language differences, I am well aware that names in this review are spelled incorrectly. I have no idea how to get the Irish fada or accent mark required, and many of the names and places have several spellings. For simplicities sake I am using the spellings given by the author. He does include a brief pronunciation guide as well as words are nothing like one would guess - for instance Medb is pronounced Maeve, but he does not give any pronunciation for Cu Chulainn. I have read some slight controversy here but when in doubt, I make a pronunciation and stick with it. It won't affect the quality of the story if I have it wrong.