The Cattle-Raid of Cualnge1 is the chief story belonging to the heroic cycle of Ulster, which had its centre in the deeds of the Ulster king, Conchobar Mac Nessa, and his nephew and chief warrior, Cú Chulainn Mac Sualtaim. Tradition places their date at the beginning of the Christian era.

The events leading up to this tale, the most famous of Irish mythical stories, may be shortly summarised here from the Book of Leinster introduction to the Táin, and from the other tales belonging to the Ulster cycle.

It is elsewhere narrated that the Dun Bull of Cualnge, for whose sake Ailill and Medb,2 the king and queen of Connacht, undertook this expedition, was one of two bulls in whom two rival swineherds, belonging to the supernatural race known as the people of the Sid, or fairy-mounds, were re-incarnated, after passing through various other forms. The other bull, Findbennach, the White-horned, was in the herd of Medb at Cruachan Ai, the Connacht capital, but left it to join Ailill’s herd. This caused Ailill’s possessions to exceed Medb’s, and to equalise matters she determined to secure the great Dun Bull, who alone equalled the White-horned. An embassy to the owner of the Dun Bull failed, and Ailill and Medb therefore began preparations for an invasion of Ulster, in which province (then ruled by Conchobar Mac Nessa) Cualnge was situated. A number of smaller Tana, or cattle-raids, prefatory to the great Táin Bo Cuailnge, relate some of their efforts to procure allies and provisions.

Medb chose for the expedition the time when Conchobar and all the warriors of Ulster, except Cú Chulainn and Sualtaim, were at their capital, Emain Macha, in a sickness which fell on them periodically, making them powerless for action; another story relates the cause of this sickness, the effect of a curse laid on them by a fairy woman. Ulster was therefore defended only by the seventeen-year old Cú Chulainn, for Sualtaim’s appearance is only spasmodic. Cú Chulainn (Culann’s Hound) was the son of Dechtire, the king’s sister, his father being, in different accounts, either Sualtaim, an Ulster warrior; Lug Mac Ethlend, one of the divine heroes from the Sid, or fairy-mound; or Conchobar himself. The two former both appear as Cú Chulainn’s father in the present narrative. Cú Chulainn is accompanied, throughout the adventures here told, by his charioteer, Loeg Mac Riangabra.

In Medb’s force were several Ulster heroes, including Cormac Condlongas, son of Conchobar, Conall Cernach, Dubthach Doeltenga, Fiacha Mac Fir-Febe, and Fergus Mac Roich. These were exiled from Ulster through a bitter quarrel with Conchobar, who had caused the betrayal and murder of the sons of Uisnech, when they had come to Ulster under the sworn protection of Fergus, as told in the Exile of the Sons of Uisnech.3 The Ulster mischief-maker, Bricriu of the Poison-tongue, was also with the Connacht army. Though fighting for Connacht, the exiles have a friendly feeling for their former comrades, and a keen jealousy for the credit of Ulster. There is a constant interchange of courtesies between them and their old pupil, Cú Chulainn, whom they do not scruple to exhort to fresh efforts for Ulster’s honour. An equally half-hearted warrior is Lugaid Mac Nois, king of Munster, who was bound in friendship to the Ulstermen.

Other characters who play an important part in the story are Findabair, daughter of Ailill and Medb, who is held out as a bribe to various heroes to induce them to fight Cú Chulainn, and is on one occasion offered to the latter in fraud on condition that he will give up his opposition to the host; and the war-goddess, variously styled the Nemain, the Badb (scald-crow), and the Morrigan (great queen), who takes part against Cú Chulainn in one of his chief fights. Findabair is the bait which induces several old comrades of Cú Chulainn’s, who had been his fellow-pupils under the sorceress Scathach, to fight him in single combat.

The tale may be divided into:—

  1. Introduction: Fedelm’s prophecy.
  2. Cú Chulainn’s first feats against the host, and the several geis, or taboos, which he lays on them.
  3. The narration of Cú Chulainn’s boyish deeds, by the Ulster exiles to the Connacht host.
  4. Cú Chulainn’s harassing of the host.
  5. The bargain and series of single combats, interrupted by breaches of the agreement on the part of Connacht.
  6. The visit of Lug Mac Ethlend.
  7. The fight with Fer Diad.
  8. The end: the muster of the Ulstermen.

The MSS.

The Táin Bo Cuailnge survives, in whole or in part, in a considerable number of MSS., most of which are, however, late. The most important are three in number:—

(1) Leabhar na h-Uidhri (LU), ‘The Book of the Dun Cow,’ a MS. dating from about 1100. The version here given is an old one, though with some late additions, in later language. The chief of these are the piece coming between the death of the herd Forgemen and the fight with Cur Mac Dalath (including Cú Chulainn’s meeting with Findabair, and the ‘woman-fight’ of Rochad), and the whole of what follows the Healing of the Morrigan. The tale is, like others in this MS., unfinished, the MS. being imperfect.

(2) The Yellow Book of Lecan (YBL), a late fourteenth-century MS. The Táin in this is substantially the same as in LU. The beginning is missing, but the end is given. Some of the late additions of LU are not found here; and YBL, late as it is, often gives an older and better text than the earlier MS.

(3) The Book of Leinster (LL), before 1160. The Táin here is longer, fuller, and later in both style and language than in LU or YBL. It is essentially a literary attempt to give a complete and consistent narrative, and is much less interesting than the older LU-YBL recension.

In the present version, I have collated LU, as far as it goes, with YBL, adding from the latter the concluding parts of the story, from the Fight with Fer Diad to the end. After the Fight with Fer Diad, YBL breaks off abruptly, leaving nearly a page blank; then follow several pages containing lists, alternative versions of some episodes given in LU (Rochad’s Woman-fight, the Warning to Conchobar), and one or two episodes which are narrated in LL. I omit about one page, where the narrative is broken and confused.

The pages which follow the Healing of the Morrigan in LU are altogether different in style from the rest of the story as told in LU, and are out of keeping with its simplicity. This whole portion is in the later manner of LL, with which, for the most part, it is in verbal agreement. Further, it is in part repetition of material already given (i.e. the coming of the boy-host of Ulster, and Cú Chulainn’s displaying himself to the Connacht troops).

Comparison of the Versions.

A German translation of the Leinster text of the Táin Bo Cuailnge will soon be accessible to all in Dr. Windisch’s promised edition of the text. It is therefore unnecessary to compare the two versions in detail. Some of the main differences may be pointed out, however.

Of our three copies none is the direct ancestor of any other. LU and YBL are from a common source, though the latter MS. is from an older copy; LL is independent. The two types differ entirely in aim and method. The writers of LU and YBL aimed at accuracy; the Leinster man, at presenting an intelligible version. Hence, where the two former reproduce obscurities and corruptions, the latter omits, paraphrases, or expands. The unfortunate result is that LL rarely, if ever, helps to clear up textual obscurities in the older copy.

On the other hand, it offers explanations of certain episodes not clearly stated in LU. Thus, for example, where LU, in the story of the sons of Nechta Scene, simply mentions ‘the withe that was on the pillar,’ LL explains that the withe had been placed there by the sons of Nechta Scene (as Cú Chulainn placed a similar withe in the path of the Connacht host), with an ogam inscription forbidding any to pass without combat; hence its removal was an insult and a breach of geis. Again, the various embassies to Cú Chulainn, and the terms made with him (that he should not harass the host if he were supplied daily with food, and with a champion to meet him in single combat), are more clearly described in LL.

Some of the episodes given in LU are not told in the Leinster version. Of the boyish deeds of Cú Chulainn, LL tells only three: his first appearance at Emain (told by Fergus), Culann’s feast (by Cormac), and the feats following Cú Chulainn’s taking of arms (by Fiacha). In the main narrative, the chief episodes omitted in LL are the fight with Fraech, the Fergus and Medb episode, and the meeting of Findabair and Cú Chulainn. The meeting with the Morrigan is missing, owing to the loss of a leaf. Other episodes are differently placed in LL: e.g. the Rochad story (an entirely different account), the fight of Amairgen and Curoi with stones, and the warning to Conchobar, all follow the fight with Fer Diad.

A peculiarity of the LU-YBL version is the number of passages which it has in common with the Dinnsenchas, an eleventh-century compilation of place-legends. The existing collections of Dinnsenchas contain over fifty entries derived from the Táin cycle, some corresponding with, others differing from those in LU.

This version has also embodied a considerable number of glosses in the text. As many of these are common to LU and YBL, they must go back to the common original, which must therefore have been a harmony of previously existing versions, since many of these passages give variants of incidents.

Age of the Versions.

There is no doubt that the version here translated is a very old one. The language in LU is almost uniformly Middle Irish, not more than a century earlier than the date of the MS.; thus it shows the post-thetic he, iat, etc. as object, the adverb with co, the confusion of ar and for, the extension of the b-future, etc. But YBL preserves forms as old as the Glosses:—

(1) The correct use of the infixed relative, e.g. rombith, ‘with which he struck.’ (LU, robith, 58a , 45.)

(2) The infixed accusative pronoun, e.g. nachndiusced, ‘that he should not wake him.’ (LU, nach diusced, 62a , 30.)

(3) no with a secondary tense, e.g. nolinad, ‘he used to fill.’ (LU, rolinad, 60b , 6.)

(4) Very frequently YBL keeps the right aspirated or non-aspirated consonant, where LU shows a general confusion, etc.

LL has no very archaic forms, though it cultivates a pseudo-archaic style; and it is unlikely that the Leinster version goes back much earlier than 1050. The latter part of the LU Táin shows that a version of the Leinster type was known to the compiler. The style of this part, with its piling-up of epithets, is that of eleventh-century narrative, as exemplified in texts like the Cath Ruis na Rig and the Cogadh Gaidhil; long strings of alliterative epithets, introduced for sound rather than sense, are characteristic of the period. The descriptions of chariots and horses in the Fer Diad episode in YBL are similar, and evidently belong to the same recension.

The inferences from the facts noted in the foregoing sections may be stated as follows: A version of the Táin goes back to the early eighth, or seventh century, and is preserved under the YBL text; an opinion based on linguistic evidence, but coinciding with the tradition which ascribes the ‘Recovery of the Táin’ to Senchan Torpeist, a bard of the later seventh century. This version continued to be copied down to the eleventh century, gradually changing as the language changed. Meanwhile, varying accounts of parts of the story came into existence, and some time in the eleventh century a new redaction was made, the oldest representative of which is the LL text. Parts of this were embodied in or added to the older version hence the interpolations in LU.

The Fer Diad Episode.

There is much difference between the two versions of this episode. In YBL, the introductory portion is long and full, the actual fight very short, while in LL the fight is long drawn-out, and much more stress is laid on the pathetic aspect of the situation. Hence it is generally assumed that LL preserves an old version of the episode, and that the scribe of the Yellow Book has compressed the latter part. It is not, however, usual, in primitive story-telling, to linger over scenes of pathos. Such lingering is, like the painted tears of late Italian masters, invariably a sign of decadence. It is one of the marks of romance, which recognises tragedy only when it is voluble, and prodigal of lamentation. The older version of the Táin is throughout singularly free from pathos of the feebler sort; the humorous side is always uppermost, and the tragic suggestions interwoven with it.

But it is still a matter of question whether the whole Fer Diad episode may not be late. Professor Zimmer thinks it is; but even the greatest scholar, with a theory to prove, is not quite free. It will of course be noticed, on this side, that the chief motives of the Fer Diad episode all appear previously in other episodes (e.g. the fights with Ferbaeth and with Loch). Further, the account even in YBL is not marked by old linguistic forms as are other parts of the tale, while much of it is in the bombastic descriptive style of LL. In the condition in which we have the tale, however, this adventure is treated as the climax of the story. Its motive is to remove Cú Chulainn from the field, in order to give the rest of Ulster a chance. But in the account of the final great fight in YBL, Cú Chulainn’s absence is said to be due to his having been wounded in a combat against odds (crechtnugud i n-ecomlund). Considering, therefore, that even in YBL the Fer Diad episode is late in language, it seems possible that it may have replaced some earlier account in which Cú Chulainn was so severely wounded that he was obliged to retire from the field.

Previous Work on the ‘Táin’.

Up to the present time the Táin has never been either printed or translated, though the LU version has been for thirty years easily accessible in facsimile. Dr. Windisch’s promised edition will shortly be out, containing the LL and LU texts, with a German translation of the former. The most useful piece of work done hitherto for the Táin is the analysis by Professor Zimmer of the LU text (conclusion from the Book of Leinster), in the fifth of his Keltische Studien (Zeitschrift für vergl. Sprachforschung, xxviii.). Another analysis of the story, by Mr. S. H. O’Grady, appeared in Miss Eleanor Hull’s The Cuchullin Saga; it is based on a late paper MS. in the British Museum, giving substantially the same version as LL. This work contains also a map of ancient Ireland, showing the route of the Connacht forces; but a careful working-out of the topography of the Táin is much needed, many names being still unidentified. Several of the small introductory Tana have been published in Windisch and Stokes’s Irische Texte; and separate episodes from the great Táin have been printed and translated from time to time. The Fight with Fer Diad (LL) was printed with translation by O’Curry in the Manners and Customs of the Ancient Irish. The story of the Two Swineherds, with their successive re-incarnations until they became the Dun Bull and the White-horned (an introductory story to the Táin), is edited with translation in Irische Texte, and Mr. Nutt printed an abridged English version in the Voyage of Bran.

The Leinster version seems to have been the favourite with modern workers, probably because it is complete and consistent; possibly its more sentimental style has also served to commend it.

Aim of this Translation.

It is perhaps unnecessary to say that the present version is intended for those who cannot read the tale in the original; it is therefore inadvisable to overload the volume with notes, variant readings, or explanations of the readings adopted, which might repel the readers to whom it is offered.

At the present time, an enthusiasm for Irish literature is not always accompanied by a knowledge of the Irish language. It seems therefore to be the translator’s duty, if any true estimate of this literature is to be formed, to keep fairly close to the original, since nothing is to be gained by attributing beauties which it does not possess, while obscuring its true merits, which are not few. For the same reason, while keeping the Irish second person singular in verses and formal speech, I have in ordinary dialogue substituted the pronoun you, which suggests the colloquial style of the original better than the obsolete thou.

The so-called rhetorics are omitted in translating; they are passages known in Irish as rose, often partly alliterative, but not measured. They are usually meaningless strings of words, with occasional intelligible phrases. In all probability the passages aimed at sound, with only a general suggestion of the drift. Any other omissions are marked where they occur; many obscure words in the long descriptive passages are of necessity left untranslated. In two places I have made slight verbal changes without altering the sense, a liberty which is very rarely necessary in Irish.

Of the headings, those printed in capitals are in the text in the MS.; those italicised are marginal. I have bracketed obvious scribal glosses which have crept into the text. Some of the marginal glosses are translated in the footnotes.

Geographical Names.

As a considerable part of the Táin is occupied by connecting episodes with place-names, an explanation of some of the commonest elements in these may be of use to those who know no Irish:

Ath = a ford; e.g. Ath Gabla (Ford of the Fork), Ath Traiged (Ford of the Foot), Ath Carpat (Ford of Chariots), Ath Fraich (Fraech’s Ford), etc.

Belat = cross-roads; e.g. Belat Alioin.

Bernas = a pass, or gap; e.g. Bernas Bo Ulad or Bernas Bo Cuailnge (Pass of the Cows of Ulster, or of Cualnge).

Clithar = a shelter; e.g. Clithar Bo Ulad (shelter of the Cows of Ulster).

Cul = a corner; e.g. Cul Airthir (eastern corner).

Dun = a fort; e.g. Dun Sobairche.

Fid = a wood; e.g. Fid Mor Drualle (Great Wood of the Sword-sheath).

Glass = a brook, stream; e.g. Glass Chrau (the stream of Blood), Glass Cruind, Glass Gatlaig (gatt = a withe, laig = a calf).

Glenn = a glen; e.g. Glenn Gatt (Glen of the Withe), Glenn Firbaith (Ferbaeth’s Glen), Glenn Gatlaig.

Grellach = a bog; e.g. Grellach Doluid.

Guala = a hill-shoulder; e.g. Gulo Mulchai (Mulcha’s shoulder).

Loch = a lake; e.g. Loch Reoin, Loch Echtra.

Mag = a plain; e.g. Mag Ai, Mag Murthemne, Mag Breg, Mag Clochair (cloch = a stone). Methe, explained as if from meth (death); Methe Togmaill (death of the Squirrel), Methe n-Eoin (death of the Bird).

Reid, gen. Rede = a plain; e.g. Ath Rede Locha (Ford of Locha’s Plain).

Sid = a fairy mound; e.g. Sid Fraich (Fraech’s Mound).

Sliab = a mountain; e.g. Sliab Fuait.

I need perhaps hardly say that many of the etymologies given in Irish sources are pure invention, stories being often made up to account for the names, the real meaning of which was unknown to the mediaeval story-teller or scribe.

In conclusion, I have to express my most sincere thanks to Professor Strachan, whose pupil I am proud to be. I have had the advantage of his wide knowledge and experience in dealing with many obscurities in the text, and he has also read the proofs. I am indebted also to Mr. E. Gwynn, who has collated at Trinity College, Dublin, a number of passages in the Yellow Book of Lecan, which are illegible or incorrect in the facsimile; and to Dr. Whitley Stokes for notes and suggestions on many obscure words.

Llandaff, November 1903.

1 Pronounce Cooley.

2 Pronounce Maive.

3 Text in Windisch and Stokes’s Irische Texte; English translation in Miss Hull’s Cuchullin Saga.