Ever wonder what is the Táin Bó Cúailgne? Or how to pronounce Táin Bó Cúailnge?! Here’s your guide, covering: a summary of the main storyline; the manuscript sources and recensions or versions it was recorded in; and even an audio reading so you can follow along!
I’ve written a review of the Táin before, here, or at least of one version of it.
When you’re a beginner though, it can be a little difficult to get your head around everything from the Táin Bó Cuilnge pronunciation, to the characters, to the locations and the action.
This is, after all, Ireland’s epic legendary tale, telling of the raiding of Ulster by the Connacht Queen Medb and a host of men and women from all over the island, to secure the Donn Cuailnge bull – which was the only match to her husband’s mighty Finnbhennach.
It is a long, long story, populated by many well known names of Irish mythology such as The Mórrígan, CúChulainn, Fergus Mac Roich, and of course Queen Medb and her husband Aillil.
Medb and Ailill had a disagreement one night (the Pillow Talk) as to who had the most wealth, due to him presuming that he was keeping her in a grand style – even with her being the original Queen of Connacht.
After rousing the household and counting it all, it was found they had an equal amount, except for Ailill having the white bull Finnbhennach (who had originally been in her herds, but decided he didn’t want to be kept by a woman, so the story goes).
Medb was a bit pissed off at this, on account of it changing the power dynamic in their relationship, according to Irish law and custom.
She sent envoys around Ireland looking for an equal or better bull, and found the match of him – the Donn Cuailnge on the peninsula of Cooley, in County Louth.
Then, her envoys messed up the treaty talks with the bull’s owner Dáire Mac Fiachna and put her in the position of having to go raid the bull.
Though she was warned against it by Fedelm the Prophetess, Medb was committed by then. She gathered an army from all the men of Ireland, and travelled from Cruachán in County Roscommon (Connacht), across counties Westmeath and Meath in the central province (Midhe), and on to County Louth in Ulster.
All along the journey (the Táin Trail) CúChulainn was trying to stop them – him being the only Ulster ‘man’ who was available, on account of the Curse of Macha. The majority of the action in the Táin Bó Cúailnge is fights between this boy, and various heroes that Medb has to send against him.
The Mórrígan makes a fair few appearances, as do her sisters, as there’s a lot of Otherworldly elements to the whole tale, and of course they’d be in the thick of all that.
Eventually, the brown bull of Cooley was located and taken back to Connacht, the two bulls fought each other from Rath na dTairbh at Cruachán, following a similar route as the Táin had taken.
Finnbhenach (the white bull) was killed, but the brown bull died too from the strain of it all, once he reached his home in Cúailnge.
Dublin, Trinity College, MS 1318 cols 573–958 = section of the Yellow Book of Lecan [s. xivex/xvin] pp. 17a–53a (facsimile) cols 573–644 Beginning missing.
Dublin, Royal Irish Academy, MS 23 E 25 (1229) = Lebor na hUidre [s. xi/xii] ff. 55a–82b Interpolated by H. End missing.
London, British Library, MS Egerton 1782 [1516-1518] ff. 88r–105v Interpolated. End missing.
Maynooth, Russell Library, MS C 1  pp. 1–76 Interpolated. Beginning and end missing.
Dublin, Trinity College, MS 1339 (H 2. 18) = Book of Leinster [s. xii2] ff. 53b–104b
Dublin, Royal Irish Academy, MS C vi 3 (740) [s. xvii] ff. 28ra–65vb
London, British Library, MS Egerton 93 [s. xv (?)] ff. 26r–35v. Fragment.
Dublin, Trinity College, MS 1319 (H 2. 17) [various] pp. 336–347, 334–335, 111–114, 348–349, 115–118, 350–351 Fragment.
Form – prose (primary), verse (secondary)
Source: CODECS main entry – here.
Want to hear the pronunciation? Go on a journey through the ancient Irish lore with me?
I’ll be adding episodes as often as possible to the playlist over on my YouTube Channel.
I’ll be reading from the English translation by Joseph Dunn (1914) with the Irish transcription of Ernst Windisch (1905) on screen side by side. If you want to get started yourself, you can find that here.
Uncovering the layers of Irish Mythology. On this site, you will find a regular podcast and articles about Irish Pagan Mythology by the Story Archaeologists, Chris Thompson and Isolde Carmody. This is the essential primer with regard to Irish pagan Podcasts. To find out what Story Archaeology is, and how we apply this method to the exploration of Irish stories, listen to this introductory mini-episode.
This is the podcast from The National Folklore Collection, University College Dublin, and is a platform to explore Irish and wider European folk tradition across an array of subject areas and topics. Hosts Jonny Dillon and Claire Doohan hope this informal and friendly tour through the folklore furrow will appeal to those who wish to learn about the richness and depth of our traditional cultural heritage; that a knowledge and understanding of our past might inform our present and guide our future. Check it on Sound Cloud here.
A series of interviews with Neil Jackman and a number of Ireland’s archaeologists and specialists, to discuss the key periods in Ireland’s past, the different types of sites and artefacts and how people lived in the past. An insight into the profession and practice of archaeology, and the various techniques and scientific methods that help to build the picture of Ireland’s history. View the website here.
With Irish Pagan Author and Guide Lora O’Brien. Authentic connection to Ireland with a native voice on mythology, indigenous spirituality, archaeology, history, culture, society, storytelling, and travel round the island. This one ticks the box for Irish Pagan Podcasts specifically – the first series is a reading of a dissertation on the Mórrígan – Listen Here.
Behind the wall of grammar homework lies the amazing world of the Irish language, and Darach (that @theirishfor guy) wants to take you there. With a crack team of the internet’s soundest Irish speakers, Darach will explore topics like differences between the Irish and English versions of the Constitution, silent letters, Gaeilge and technology, how new words get added to the dictionary and which old words have fallen out. It’s an all slammer, no grammar half hour. Get it in your ears here.
It’s about the culture, history and politics of Ireland, with journalist Naomi O’Leary and lecturer Tim Mc Inerney. They tie current events to the history and culture that explain them. Get your passport to Ireland here.
Fin Dwyer is a historian, author and podcaster. There are hundreds of free podcasts on Irish History, including things like the story of the Norman Invasion to the Great Famine. Irish Pagans will be particularly interested in the Witches and Witchcraft series here.
If you like listening to Irish folk talk about topics relevant to Irish Paganism, or Paganism in general, you’ll enjoy my YouTube Channel here.
And if you want to know about Irish Paganism – Start Here!
Pagan Holidays (Holy Days) worldwide are coming back to a more general use and understanding, with folk often asking questions about whether Christmas is a Pagan Holiday (it is, sort of), and observing the 8-fold Wheel of the Year.
The current Neo Pagan calendar (and its primarily Wiccan holidays) is ostensibly based off the ‘Celtic Wheel of the Year’, as the early creators and authors of our modern traditions were very fond of their romantic notions of Celtic culture, and very sure that it was ok to just… take what they wanted, and change or use it however they wanted.
*cough* Coilíní *cough*
The problem with this (one of the problems) is that we now have a sort of tangled, much mangled, view of the original pre-christian Irish Pagan festivals, that even many Irish Pagans adhere to.
In this post, I’d like to break this down a bit, and clarify some of the basics, so that we can (hopefully), start fresh. With a somewhat cleaner slate for Irish Pagan practice. Le do thoil.
To begin with, the ‘traditional’ eight Pagan Holidays, are actually 2 sets of four. So the wheel of the year is maybe 2 wheels, rotating side by side.
This can be a little confusing if you’re not used to considering things this way, but I do remember being quite frustrated back in my baby Pagan days by how the festivals seemed to just be copies of each other. Like, within the Wiccan traditions, there’s not a huge difference between how you’re celebrating the Summer Solstice (Litha) and Beltane, for example.
In my native practice, I break the focus, themes or concerns out as follows:
The Pagan Calendar names I use are in modern Irish, and the associated Gaeilge video is also my schoolgirl modern Irish pronunciation, to be clear.
Irish is a living language, and while I’m the first one to honour the Primitive Irish and Old Irish source material, they are different languages. We have modern Irish terminology for every single Pagan Holiday name, and a wealth of associated folklore and traditions within our living memory in Irish communities. So let’s use that.
Admittedly now, some of the folklore has gotten crossed over and shifted around with the Christian influences, eg. Summer Solstice bonfires now happen on St. John’s Eve, on the 23rd June, and the animal sacrifice tradition has moved from Samhain to St. Martin’s Day, on the 11th November. But that’s ok too.
At least the traditions still exist, and have grown and moved with the communities as we did.
Focus on Community, Hearth & Home, the Otherworld (an Saol Eile).
When people first walked this land, there were 2 seasons: summer and winter. They signified the change and move between camping grounds, as theirs was a Hunter/Gatherer lifestyle.
These times of moving and changing were dangerous and uncertain, and this still holds true in the primary Irish Pagan holidays of Bealtaine, and Samhain, which remain times of great change and uncertainty.
When the people settled, and began to farm the land, the seasons of Growth and Harvest were marked, with Imbolg and Lúnasa, and so began the 4 Fire Festivals.
[Download this Chart as a PDF Below]
Personally, I use the name Imbolg for this festival. That’s from the Irish i mBolg, meaning ‘in the belly’, for the pregnancy aspects (animals as well as humans, because if we get pregnant at Bealtaine we give birth around now). Imbolc is commonly used too though, and may have associations with washing or a ‘spring clean’ after winter, from Folc, meaning ‘bathe or wash’. I’m honestly not sure which language the term Oimelc comes from, though it’s been given to mean ‘ewe’s milk’. That would be Bainne na Caoirigh in modern Irish though, which doesn’t have quite the same ring to it.
We have this clearly in old Irish as Belltaine (with various other spellings, the manuscripts weren’t always precise or standardised), meaning the month of May, or even ‘the month of the beacon-fire) according to the eDIL. It may have associations with an Old Celtic God Boleros, ‘the flashing one’ (Ó hÓgáin) or Balar/Balor in Ireland, he of the single, blazing destructive eye (often thought to be symbolic of the sun), and form the word Bealtaine from Balor’s Fire (tine).
There are multiple spellings out there, and I know some of them are based on the Gaelic language of Scotland, which I don’t speak. But as we still use the word Bealtaine in modern Irish for the month of May, and again – this is a living language, and it’d be great not to have to deal with bastardised or anglicised versions of it anymore please and thank you – let’s go with that eh?!
Irish Language Resource – https://www.teanglann.ie/en/fgb/Bealtaine
You’ll often see this written as Lughnasadh, and indeed, I’ve done so myself. As above though, I prefer the modern Irish spelling, and in Gaeilge, Lúnasa is the word for the month of August. I mean, I wasn’t joking about these Pagan holidays still being a part of our culture.
You’ll see references too, to Lammas, which we don’t have in modern Irish. My basic exploration of Old Irish suggests it MIGHT be a version of a ‘fine, handsome or excellent hand’ (from n. Lám and adj. Mass?)… but be warned, that is a very rudimentary look at a compound word! I definitely don’t use it as a Pagan Holiday name anyway.
Irish Language Resource – https://www.teanglann.ie/en/fgb/Lúnasa
It’s not pronounced Sam-Hane. Never. I don’t care what your esteemed Elders passed down to you not-so-very-long-ago (in the grand scheme of things).
This is a LIVING LANGUAGE. Respect it, and the people who still speak it every day. Stop that Sam-Hane shit immediately.
It probably comes from the Old Irish samfuin, meaning ‘death of Summer’: eDIL. Samhain in modern Irish is the word for the month of November.
So yes, we know how to pronounce it properly. (Are you getting a sense for how many times I’ve had U.S. Pagans correct my pronunciation? Like, I’m not sure how to even communicate how infuriating that is, especially when it happens consistently!)
Irish Language Resource – https://www.teanglann.ie/en/fgb/Samhain
Focus on Community, Land & Sovereignty, this World (an Saol Sin – or Seo).
We know these times were important to our ancestors due, at least, to the sacred sites they constructed and used to observe and celebrate them. Massive monuments all over the island still attest to the power and value that was placed upon aligning ourselves, our communities, and our leadership, with these turning times of the Pagan year.
Please note: the common names Ostara, Litha, Mabon, and Yule, are at best culturally appropriated and co-opted into Neo Paganism, and at worst, carry entirely fabricated pseudo histories. I’m looking at you, Mabon.
They have NO place in native Irish paganism.
The Irish names below are simply the names of our seasons, as Gaeilge, and have always suited my personal practice around the Irish Pagan Holidays best.
[Download this Chart as a PDF Below]
The balance of day and night.
Irish Language Resource – https://www.teanglann.ie/en/fgb/Earrach
Mid Summer, the longest day.
Irish Language Resource – https://www.teanglann.ie/en/fgb/Samhradh
The balance of night and day.
Irish Language Resource – https://www.teanglann.ie/en/fgb/Fómhar
Mid Winter, the longest night.
Irish Language Resource – https://www.teanglann.ie/en/fgb/Geimhreadh
If you’d like more detail on any of the Irish Pagan Holidays, comment below and let me know. There’s already extensive sections in my books (see Publications – coming soon), but I can try and get some more blog posts and YouTube videos together for them if there’s an interest, and maybe even a wee course through our Irish Pagan School.
Let me know which of the Pagan holidays you want to see more on?!