Táin Bó Cúailgne – Cattle Raid of Cooley: A Beginner’s Guide
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.
The Cattle Raid of Cooley – Summary:
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.
The Táin Bó Cúailnge – Sources
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
Recension III (Early Modern Irish version):
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.
- Old Irish, Middle Irish, Early Modern Irish
- Old Irish and Middle Irish; Early Modern Irish (Recension III)
Form – prose (primary), verse (secondary)
Source: CODECS main entry – here.
A Reading of the Táin
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.
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