The Cattle Raid of Cooley, known in Irish as ‘Táin Bó Cúailnge’ and commonly referred to as ‘The Táin’ is one of the most epic and sensational pieces of Irish mythology. Such is the influence of this ancient tale on both Irish literature and culture that it is considered by many to be Ireland’s ‘national epic’.
The Táin is traditionally set in the 1st century in a pagan heroic age and is the central text of a group of tales known as the Ulster Cycle. It essentially revolves around Queen Medb of Connacht and her husband Ailill, both of whom plan to steal a sacred stud bull named Donn Cuailnge from Daire, the Chieftain of Ulster.
In this article, we will explore the narrative of The Cattle Raid of Cooley, its significance in the pantheon of Irish mythology, and where the famed Cú Chulainn comes into play.
The Táin: An Epic for the Ages
The Cattle Raid of Cooley was born out of Connacht’s Queen Medb and her husband Ailill comparing their riches. Equal in clothes, gold, horses, and basically everything else, Ailill boasted that he had a great white bull, which filled Queen Medb with rage and jealousy. The next day Queen Medb’s messenger Mac Roth informed her of the Brown Bull of Cooley, the only bull in Ireland that could match the strength of Ailill’s. Queen Medb was immediately taken with the idea of owning the bull.
After an initial deal for the bull between Queen Medb and Daire of Cooley goes sour, the Queen of Connacht wastes no time in assembling a band of warriors to march to Ulster and take the bull by force – thus inciting the cattle raid of Cooley.
This is where Cú Chulainn, both iconic and legendary in equal measure, comes into play. For legend has it that it’s Cú Chulainn who single-handedly fights to defend Ulster from the unreasonable desires of Queen. After a mysterious spell strikes down the Red Branch Knights of the Ulster army, Cú Chulainn is the only man to escape the strange sickness.
This leads Cú Chulainn to overpower 100 of Queen Medb’s warriors – fighting and killing them with little to no difficulty. A battle within the war takes place between Cú Chulainn and childhood friend Ferdia which lasts the better part of four days, only for the hero Cú Chulainn to eventually get the better of his companion.
However, between the perilous spell cast upon the Red Branch Knights and Cú Chulainn’s preoccupation with Ferdia, the remaining warriors fighting on behalf of Queen Medb do indeed manage to take the Brown Bull of Cooley back to Connacht.
Queen Medb orders the Cooley bull to be housed alongside Ailill’s white bull Finnbhennach. A mighty duel ensues between both beasts. The brown bull impales Finnbhennach on its mighty horns, killing the white bull almost instantly. The brown bull, in a fit of rage, turns and gallops home to Cooley, only to collapse on dying upon its return.
Over one hundred men dead, relations between the Queen of Connacht and Daire, the Chieftain of Ulster, entirely fractured, and both bulls dead, Medb and Ailill are left with no bulls and none richer than the other.
The Cattle Raid of Cooley: A Cultural Tale
What makes The Cattle Raid of Cooley so culturally significant and epic is that it forms just one part of a wider mythological saga. The events of Queen Medb’s quest to own the Brown Bull of Cooley and her ultimate failure largely due to Cú Chulainn sets in motion her plan to kill the folklore legend.
The Táin remains one of Ireland’s most popular legends alongside The Salmon of Knowledge, Oisín and Tír na nÓg, The Children of Lir, and countless others. They truly make for spectacular reading and offer first-hand insight into the minds of Ireland’s ancient writers and raconteurs.
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