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.
Here we’ll look at the basics on Maedbh, the ‘Celtic’ warrior queen of Connacht (yes, that’s the correct spelling – ‘Connaught’ is the later anglicised version) – her home, family life, relationships, ruling from Rathcroghan, burial, and the cultural inspiration she has become.
It depends on which version of Gaeilge, the Irish language, you are using.
Medb (the Old Irish spelling) – in Middle Irish: Meḋḃ, Meaḋḃ; in early modern Irish: Meadhbh; in reformed modern Irish Méabh, Maedbh, Medbh; sometimes anglicised Maeve, Maev, Meave or Maive (all modern versions are pronounced May-v).
Most notably, the warrior priestess queen of Connacht, the western province of Ireland.
It is said that her father gifted her with Connacht, and no king could rule here unless they were married to Queen Maedbh. She had many husbands, and ruled for many years.
Maeve appears in much of the literature of the Ulster saga tales, and our most famous epic literary tale, the Táin Bó Cuailnge (Cattle Raid of Cooley) features her strongly as the protagonist. Or is that the antagonist…?
Historically, she would have lived sometime around the years 0 – 100AD, if she existed as a real flesh and blood queen. And that is the question – was she real?
A queen, or a Goddess of the land? A priestess of a sovereignty Goddess, who rose to power? An archetypal figure, representing… what? These are some of the riddles of Queen Maedbh.
Meadb of Cruachan, daughter of Eochaid Feidleach, another of Conchobar’s wives, mother of Amalgad, Conchobar’s son, so that Conchobar was Meadb’s first husband, and Meadb forsook Conchobar through pride of mind, and went to Tara, where was the High-King of Ireland.
The reason that the High-King of Ireland gave these daughters to Conchobar was that it was by Eochaid Feidleach that Fachtna Fathach had fallen in the battle of Lettir-ruad in the Corann, so that it was as his eric these were given to him, together with the forcible seizure of the kingship of Ulster, over Clan Rudraidhe: and the first cause of the stirring up of the Cattle-raid of Cuailnge was the desertion of Conchobar by Meadb against his will.
Eochaid Feidleach, Father, High King of Ireland at Tara
Crochen Crobh-Derg, Mother, Handmaid to Etain
Well, they weren’t, not originally, but Maedbh and Ailill did end up with seven sons, all called Maine.
Back when they all had other names, Maedbh asked a druid which of her sons would kill Conchobar (king of Ulster), and he replied, “Maine”. A little bit concerned that she didn’t have a son called Maine, she decided to rename all her sons as follows:
The prophecy was fulfilled when Maine Andoe went on to kill Conchobar, son of Arthur, son of Bruide — not Conchobar, son of Fachtna Fathach, as Maedbh had assumed the druid meant.
Maedbh and Ailill also had a daughter, Findabair. She got to keep her own name, but was offered around as a prize during the Táin – Maedbh was bribing Connacht warriors with marriage to the fine Findabair if they’d go against the Ulster warrior CúChulainn in single combat.
Cruachú Crobh-Dearg (the spelling varies, as ever in our wonderful collection of tales) is remembered as a handmaiden of Etain, appearing in the love story of Etain & Midir.
She may have an older, sovereignty or tribal Goddess function, which is being remembered and carried through the later legends.
Listen, ye warriors about Cruachu!
with its barrow for every noble couple:
O host whence springs lasting fame of laws!
O royal line of the men of Connacht!
O host of the true, long-remembered exploits,
with number of pleasant companies and of brave kings!
O people, quickest in havoc
to whom Erin has pledged various produce!
Manly in battle-rout multitudinous
is the seed of noble Brian, with their strong fleets:
in express submission to them have been sent
hostages from all Europe to Cruachu.
If we stay to recount its fame for every power,
we shall not be able to pour out the lore of noble science
for Cruachu, holy without austerity,
whose foemen are not few.
Known to me by smooth-spoken eulogy
is the designation of powerful Cruachu:
not slight the din, the uproar,
whence it got its name and fame for bright achievement.
Eochaid Airem — high career!
when the fierce, generous man was at Fremu,
the man who cherished feats of skill,
holding a meeting for horse-fights,
There came to them noble Midir
(he was no favourite with the gentle prince)
to carry off Etain in dreadful wise,
whence came lamentation of many tribes.
Ill-favoured was the man who bore off
Etain and hardy Crochen
the queen and her handmaid,
who was right lowly, yet ever-famous.
Westward Midir bore the fair captives
after boldly seizing them as booty,
to Sid Sinche of the ancient hosts,
because it was noble Midir’s hereditary possession.
Till three days were out he stayed
in the radiant noisy Sid:
after fruitful enterprise it is custom
to boast at board and banquet.
Then said strong Crochen
What fine house is this where we have halted?
O Midir of the splendid feats,
is this thy spacious dwelling?”
The answer of the famous man of arts
to Crochen blood-red of hue:
‘ Nearer to the sun, to its warmth,
is my bright and fruitful home.”
Said Cruachu the lovely,
in presence of the spacious tribes,
“O Midir, yet unconquered,
shall my name be on this Sid?”
He gave the fine dwelling as reward for her journey
to Crochen, a fair recompense:
by Midir, report says, northward at his home,
by him her name was given to it as ye hear.
Hence men say Cruachu,
(it is not hidden from kindly tribes,)
since Midir brought (clear without falsehood)
his wife to Sinech of the Side.
As for Midir, he was no sluggard thereafter,
he went to Bri Leith maic Celtchair:
he carried with him the bright indolent lady, whitely radiant,
whom he bore off by force from Fremu.
Eochaid at the head of the numerous ranks
of his brave troop,
…was on the track of Midir, the great champion.
Said his druid to Eochaid,
“Thou shalt not be fortunate all thy life long:
lamentation for evil has come upon thee
for the loss of Etain of the golden tresses:”
“Come from the judgment-seat of Fotla
without warning, without royal proclamation;
bring with thee thereafter to Bri Leith
thy host — no cowards they — to sack it.”
“There shalt thou find thy wife
in noble beauty, beyond denial:
be not faint-hearted for long, O warrior;
bring her with thee by consent or by force.”
This is a beginning, with famous perils,
for the proud Wooing of Etain,
though it be a pithy tale to hear,
the tale when men came to Cruachu to listen to it.
It was Crochen of pure Cruachu
who was mother of Medb great of valour:
she was in Cruachu — it was an open reproach-
awhile with Etain’s spouse.
Ok, well, how long have you got? Yes, there were a serious amount of men who were getting it on with the Queen. She was a woman of large appetites.
There’s a whole Irish text devoted to this very topic called ‘Medb’s man-share’ (Ferchuitred Medba). The text was also called ‘Medb’s husband allowance’, ‘Medb’s men’, or Cath Boinde (the Battle of the Boyne), and you can find the translated version HERE. It originally comes from the Yellow Book of Lecan manuscript.
“Go there, Mac Roth,” orders Medb. “Ask Daire to lend me Donn Cuailnge for a year. At the end of the year he can have fifty yearling heifers in payment for the loan, and the Brown Bull of Cuailnge back. And you can offer him this too, Mac Roth, if the people of the country think badly of losing their fine jewel, the Donn Cuailnge: if Daire himself comes with the bull I’ll give him a portion of the fine Plain of Ai equal to his own lands, and a chariot worth thrice seven bondmaids, and my own friendly thighs on top of that.”
For a really interesting examination of Maedbh as a Lover, Initiator, and Intoxicator, you won’t go far wrong with this book.
The author is a Jungian Psychoanalyst, looking at the Maedbh myth in the context of her modern practice, which is a fascinating angle that makes for exploration of Queen Maedbh in directions we’d never thought of.
Publisher: Nicolas-Hays; 1 edition (October 2001) – it’s still available on Amazon HERE. (affiliate link)
Awww, she’s Dead? How?!
In her later years, Maedbh often went to bathe in a pool on Inchcleraun (Inis Cloithreann), an island on Lough Ree, near Knockcroghery in County Roscommon. Furbaide, who’s mother she had killed (so it is said), sought revenge, and set about planning her demise. He was quite dedicated about it. But I suppose it’s the type of thing that you’d really want to get right.
First, he took a rope and measured the distance between the pool and the shore, and practiced with his sling until he could hit an apple on top of a stake Maedbh’s height, from that distance. The next time he saw Maedbh bathing he put his practice to good use and killed her with a piece of cheese.
Yes cheese. Queen Maedbh was killed by cheese. Her son, Maine Athramail (he who was originally Cairbre, and most ‘like his mother’, ascended to the throne of Connacht in her place.
But buried in Sligo, right?
Well, not exactly. Maybe. ‘Maedbh’s Cairn’ in Co. Sligo, is the best known burial site of Queen Maedbh, but it is one of three possible sites. According to some legends, she is indeed buried in the 40ft (12m) high stone cairn on the summit of Knocknarea (Cnoc na Rí in Irish, Hill of the King/Queen) in County Sligo. The story goes that she is buried upright, facing her enemies in Ulster.
In Bronze or Iron Age burials though, it would be common enough to hack an important dead person apart and bury bits of them along different boundaries, for protection and guardianship. Another story goes that she is buried in the hill of Knockma (Cnoc Medb in Irish, Hill of Maeve), near Belclare in Co. Galway, which is also where Fionnbharr, King of the Connacht Sidhe, holds court. The Fairy connection is an interesting one, and maybe related to her later associations with Mab, the English Fairy Queen? The boundary theory holds here too though, as the views from the top of Knockma are spectacular. Very convenient for a guardianship position, I’d say.
Her home in Rathcroghan, County Roscommon is the third, and most likely burial site, with a long low slab named Misgaun Medb being given as the probable location. In the ‘she got chopped up in bitty bits and buried’ theory, this is where her soul (most likely to be contained in her head, according to thinking of the time) would be.
Or possibly her heart. Whatever bit of her was deemed the most important part would have stayed at home, with other bits spreading out at lesser sites along the boundaries.
Communication from Frater Docet Umbra, 2012
This article first appeared in the Journal of the Irish Order of Thelema, ‘Fortified Island’, Issue #1, in March 2013.
I started through the Man of Earth initiation cycle as a personal journey, a challenge to myself that is one in a long series of such challenges. A lifetime’s worth, or more, one might say. I came from a firm family grounding in Irish heritage and nature exploration, exceedingly boring to the child I was, but ever appreciated since. From personal Gnosis in my teens, I found training and connection in a Traditional Wiccan coven, working through their triple degree system and learning a whole lot. Moving from there I found myself in Roscommon. Not quite knowing how or why that had happened, I set to explore, and found I had landed in Cruachan. Ancient Royal Capital, perhaps one of the first sites in Ireland of consistent ritual and ceremonial use.
Connection to the land became about more than just local entities and legends, as I had previously experienced. A small group, just four of us, remained of our previous working group, and we were three intensely dedicated sisters and one male; who was learning a lot, but in some ways along for the ride. And we began working through the worlds.
There is value to be had, even if at times it might only be useful in an inspirational sense, from the literature that is available. As modern seekers, we can study the source material available, understand what we can from that, review and share experiences and theories with other seekers, and work consistently on developing our own connection from this point; the only place we have from which to work.
And so, that is what we did. Looking at the Táin, an integral tale to this complex of sites, as well as it’s broader value in Irish Literature, we developed the idea of the Earth, Sea, and Sky model, the three worlds. How would we learn this, experience this, with no one to teach it? How could it be taught? What would the journey of an initiation cycle look like when based around this core concept? How could we make that work?
There were many late night conversations, many heated debates, and even a few all round arguments. A loose plan was formed to work through each world on an annual basis, with a programme of rituals and exercises for each, culminating in an intense practical initiatory experience of the particular elements of that world. We put ourselves through the wringer – physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually. We survived Earth, we survived Sea, we survived Sky.
Then everything blew apart, in quite a spectacular fashion. The small sparks suddenly exploded out of all proportion. Family relationships, careers, friendships, even a marriage, all burned up in the unplanned extra, the middle of the triple spiral that touches all three worlds, the sacred centre of every circle. The world of Fire.
We survived Fire, but we did it as individuals. Our work exploded and imploded, and, speaking for myself at least, evened out (eventually) into a steady, burning core of power and connection that touches all the worlds. And it is that connection that has been my most important lesson. Nothing stands alone. There are stories within stories, sites within sites, people within people. Inter-linking circles, spirals, which join place to place, people to people, and one time to another. None of our sacred sites is just one thing, at one time. None of our deities or archetypal characters stand alone, none are confined to one location, one function, one relationship. None of the Daoine Eile are restricted to one role, one aspect, one place. Recognising and studying the layers, the overlap, the bridging points, is essential. Working between worlds can be a key to understanding Irish traditions.
There’s lots of stories with Táin in the title, but this article relates specifically to the best known of them – the Táin Bó Cuailnge, or ‘Cattle Raid of Cooley’.
Early Irish manuscripts are the oldest remaining extant literary source material in Europe, opening a fascinating window to the Medieval society in which they were written down, and the older tales and oral traditions which they record for us to enjoy today.
The Táin Bó Cuailnge, the ‘Cattle Raid of Cooley’, (often just called “the Táin” – pronounced TAWn – though there are actually a number of different Táin stories as we said) lies at the heart of Ireland’s epic storytelling legacy.
This is a great battle saga tale set around the 1st Century CE, in the middle of the Iron Age – told and re-told through the ages. The story survives in a couple of different versions, called ‘recensions’; there are 3 of these remaining to us today.
The Book of Leinster scribe may have thought the tale worth re-telling, or perhaps he was reluctant and had been ordered to just get on with it, as there are elements of the Táin that didn’t sit well with him at all. His note in the margins, written in formal Latin script, tells its own tale:
But I who have written this story, or rather this fable, give no credence to the various incidents related in it. For some things in it are the deceptions of demons, other poetic figments; some are probable, others improbable; while still others are intended for the delectation of foolish men.
For those of us who want to have a look through the text today, we don’t have to go digging through the library archives of ancient manuscripts (thankfully, those things are dusty as all hell). There’s many options available to us both (free) online, and in tree book format if you like the paper stuff.
This is the most accurate translation of the epic Irish tale, the Táin Bó Cuailnge, and includes the major remscéla or pre-tales which go a long way towards putting some of the madder stuff into a bit of context.
There’s still a lot of mad stuff in there, but sure it’s all good.
Starting at Rathcroghan, in County Roscommon, the story wends its way across the country to Cooley in County Louth. Featuring CúChulainn, Lugh, the Morrigan, Ferdia, Conor MacNessa, Fergus Mac Roich, and the notorious warrior Queen of Connacht, Medb (Maeve) – you won’t be short of an interesting character to keep track of.
I really like the artwork included in this version, by Louis le Brocquy; it captures well the tenuous nature of the meanings and symbolism that are woven into the fabric of this teaching tale.