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The T?in

The main legend in Irish mythology concerns the "Cattle Raid of Cooley", or the T?in B? C?ailgne in Irish. Usually referred to simply as "The T?in", it is a story of a power struggle between the vicious Queen Medhbh of Connacht (also spelt as Maeve and Medb) and King Conchobhar Mac Naoise of Ulster, and the hero is the mighty C?chulainn.

First, though, a bit of context. If you find it difficult to imagine how a whole national epic can be written about a bit of cow-thievery, then remember that this was an Ireland where values were somewhat different from the money driven Celtic Tiger economic miracle we have now. The rich had gold, servants, big fancy forts, armies, poets, personal priests, and huge herds of cattle at their service. The poor had mud, rain, firewood, a few clay bowls, and one or two cows, and were happy with their lot. The REALLY poor had mud, rain, firewood, a few clay bowls, and no cows.

The humble bovine was the lowest common denominator in Celtic society. They provided milk, cheese, butter, cream and dung for fires and bricks (I kid you not). If they were suitable they provided lots and lots of meat, as well as leather. If they were REALLY good cows they even provided more cows. Don't forget that this was the pre-supermarket era; you couldn't just nip down to the local shop and buy a ready made burger like you can today, although admittedly it's not likely that they contain any real cow anyway (are you deliberately trying to provoke McDonald's? - ed.). A good herd meant that you could afford to have cows you didn't need to eat just yet, and the most prized status symbol of all was a top class stud bull. To own one of these beasties was the equivalent of owning your very own space shuttle or MacClaren F1 roadcar today; probably the latter come to think of it because bulls have impressive horns too.

And it is in this bovocentric society that the T?in takes place. The two mightiest bulls in the land were the White Bull, which belonged to the aforementioned Medhbh and her wimpy (by comparison) husband Ailill, and Finnbannach, the huge brown bull belonging to the Ulsterman Cuailgne, or Cooley. Medhbh grew fierce jealous, taunted as she was by Ailill on a nightly basis, because the White Bull was technically his and that made her less wealthy. She decided to launch a campaign on Ulster and take the Brown Bull for herself. Naturally, the Ulstermen were a bit upset about this, but when they tried to do something about it they fell to the ground in agony, fulfilling an ancient curse that promised to strike them down in their hour of greatest need. Thus, they were not hugely effective against the army of the sassy queen of Connacht.

To cut a long story short (ish), the bull of Cooley lived in Co. Louth, along with Cooley himself as it happens, and the only man left standing from the armies of Ulster was the aforementioned C?chulainn. He raged a vicious guerilla war against the forces of Medhbh, and had them so terrorized they refused to fight. Thus, Medhbh put her greatest warrior out to face the berserk Ultonian; his foster-brother and best friend Ferdia. They met at Ardee (Atha Fherdia in Irish; Ferdia's Ford), and fought every day until the river ran red, meeting at night to bandage each other's wounds and eat together. One day, however, C?chulainn won the fight, throwing his spear the Gae Bolga, (literally the belly shredder) through Ferdia's body.

C?chulainn's fate is a different story, but in the meantime the Brown Bull had been captured, and brought back to Connacht. There, the two bulls had their own mighty battle, and the Bull of Ulster was victorious, if mortally wounded. It ran all the way back to the Cooley Peninsula on the coast of Co. Louth with the mangled remains of the Bull of Connacht in its horns, only to die itself when it got home. Its body was dismembered and distributed around the country, as a reminder of the folly of the war between the provinces. (See the Holidayhound article on Athlone for more on that.) I suppose the moral of the story is that there's always someone out there with more bull to offer than you (that should leave you with some consolation at least - ed.), but if you don't accept that you might end up with nothing at all. Or perhaps that two bulls in the one place leaves you with nothing with but a few prime steaks and some offal. Or that it's silly to go to war over cattle.

Whatever the moral actually was, it's a cool story.
Staff Comments

This resource, reprinted with permission from The holiday hound.


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