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The Cattle Raid of Cualnge

L. Winifred Faraday


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Description

One of the masterpieces of Irish literature, this is a translation of a story cycle which lies at the core of the saga of Cuchulainn, the son of the God Lug and the daughter of the king of Ulster. Cuchulainn had the strength of Hercules, but was slow in gaining control over his powers, which turned him into a monster, leaving a trail of mayhem in his wake. At the age of seventeen, still beardless, Cuchulainn single-handedly repeals an invasion of Ulster by Queen Mebd of Connacht to steal the mythic bull Donn Cuailnge. Another translation of this story is also on the Global Grey site; The Cattle-Raid of Cooley by Joseph Dunn.

This book has 142 pages in the PDF version, and was originally published in 1904.

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Excerpt from 'The Cattle Raid of Cualnge'

The Cattle-Raid of Cualnge 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, Cuchulainn 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 Tain, 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, the king and queen of Connaught, 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 Connaught 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 Tain 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 Cuchulainn 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 Cuchulainn, for Sualtaim's appearance is only spasmodic. Cuchulainn (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 Cuchulainn's father in the present narrative. Cuchulainn 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 Firfebe, 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. The Ulster mischief-maker, Bricriu of the Poison-tongue, was also with the Connaught army. Though fighting for Connaught, 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, Cuchulainn, whom they do not scruple to exhort to fresh efforts for Ulster's honour. An equally halfhearted 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 Cuchulainn, 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 Cuchulainn in one of his chief fights. Findabair is the bait which induces several old comrades of Cuchulainn'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. Cuchulainn's first feats against the host, and the several geis, or taboos, which he lays on them.

3. The narration of Cuchulainn's boyish deeds, by the Ulster exiles to the Connaught host.

4. Cuchulainn's harassing of the host.

5. The bargain and series of single combats, interrupted by breaches of the agreement on the part of Connaught.

6. The visit of Lug Mac Ethlend.

7. The fight with Fer Diad.

8. The end: the muster of the Ulstermen.

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