Here is Part Six of Balladeer’s Blog’s look at the various mythological works in Ireland’s Lebor na hUidre, The Book of the Dun Cow. For Part One click HERE.
THE CATTLE RAID OF COOLEY (Tain Bo Cuailgne) – Because this is easily the most well-known tale from Irish Mythology I will be brief and I will also include another section of the Book of the Dun Cow in this same blog post.
I. In Connacht, as we saw in earlier installments, Queen Maeve lived with King Ailill in Cruachan. A bedroom squabble between the pair involved a comparison of each of their belongings. King Ailill edged out Queen Maeve by his possession of an incredibly fertile (and in some versions immortal) bull called Finnbhennach (white-horned).
Queen Maeve didn’t like that at all, and resolved to acquire the Donn Cuailnge (brown bull) of the Ulstermen, which creature was said to match Ailill’s bull in magnificence and fertility.
II. Maeve sent envoys to negotiate with her people’s enemies the Ulstermen in the north, because the owner of the Donn Cuailnge lived among them. Negotiations broke down, so the queen resolved to take the brown bull by force of arms.
III. As Queen Maeve and her army approached Ulster, most of the Ulstermen were incapacitated by labor pains, a curse from the goddess Macha that they would be thus afflicted for nine generations whenever Ulster faced peril. The only man of Ulster not affected by the curse was the demigod Cuchulainn, familiar to us from previous installments.
IV. Cuchulainn and his charioteer Laege waged guerilla warfare on the advancing army, slowing them down as best they could. At length, when Cuchulainn intercepted Maeve’s army as they were fording a river, he invoked the Right of Single Combat at Fords. (No, not the Right of Dual Combat at Isthmuses, the Right of Single Combat at Fords.)
V. For anywhere from nine days to nine months, depending on the version, Cuchulainn successfully defeated every Connacht warrior who took him on in single combat.
VI. As this pattern continued, assorted gods and goddesses helped or hindered Cuchulainn in his struggles, including his father, the sun god Lugh. Cuchulainn was even forced to slay his own foster brother Ferdiad, who had been pitted against him by Queen Maeve’s offer of a night of sex with her as well as the hand of her daughter Finnabair.
VII. Queen Maeve and her troops succeeded in rustling the Donn Cuailnge (and in some versions several other cattle). By that time, the supernatural period of being laid low by labor pains had passed and the Ulstermen rallied to Cuchulainn’s aid, led by King Conchobar himself.
VIII. Amid the monumental battle, in which multiple legendary figures clashed with each other, Cuchulainn came face to face with his foster father – Fergus mac Roich, himself a former Ulsterman. Much earlier, Fergus had turned on his former allies and had been living under political asylum in Cruachan with King Ailill and Queen Maeve. (see previous installments)
Cuchulainn invoked a previous encounter, when he obliged Fergus by withdrawing from combat. The honor-bound Fergus reciprocated, withdrawing from the field and taking all his soldiers with him.
IX. Without the mighty Fergus and his troops, the Connacht army was routed, but Queen Maeve still managed to get back to Cruachan with the Donn Cuailgne, even though Conchobar’s men took back the other rustled cattle.
Cuchulainn had a chance to stop the fleeing Queen Maeve, who was riding the brown bull, but she was having her period so he let her escape. (I swear I’m not making up any of that.)
X. Back at Cruachan, Queen Maeve flaunted the Donn Cuailgne to King Ailill, boasting that now their possessions were equal. The brown bull and Ailill’s white-horned bull fought, with the brown bull killing Finnbhennach, then going berserk and killing many bystanders before dropping dead itself.
THE DESTRUCTION OF DA DERGA’S HOSTEL (Togail bruidne Da Derga) – A story about Conaire Mor, a son of one of the High Kings of Ireland – Eterscel Mor.
I. Traveling along the coast, Conaire Mor, who had been forced through poor judgment and bad luck to break several taboos (geasas) placed on him, broke another by following three red men riding red horses into the place of someone red. (Da Derga means Red God.)
II. While he was spending the night at Da Derga’s Hostel, the rampaging army of his three exiled foster brothers – who returned to Ireland allied with the King of the Britons, Ingcel Caech – surrounded the hostel.
III. The army attacked, and in the days ahead, Conaire Mor was able to hold off the assault, aided as he was by two warriors from the usually feuding men of Ulster and Connacht – Conall Cernach and Mac Cecht (see previous installment).
IV. The attacking army tried burning down the hostel three times in one night, but all three times Conaire, Conall and Mac Cecht extinguished the flames, using up all the water they had on hand.
V. Conaire was struck with an incredible thirst, so Mac Cecht rode off to get water for the man. Another punishment fell on Conaire for breaking the taboos, and the rivers of Ireland refused to let Mac Cecht obtain water for him. At last he managed to get a mere cup full of water and raced back to Conaire’s side.
VI. Mac Cecht arrived just as the army had overwhelmed Conall Cernach and Conaire Mor. The latter was beheaded, but Mac Cecht fulfilled his mission by letting the severed head wet its lips from the cup of water. The head came to life and recited a poem praising Mac Cecht for his service.
VII. The battle continued for three more days, by the end of which Mac Cecht was slain, but the Ulsterman Conall managed to escape.
SOON I’LL EXAMINE THE NEXT SEVERAL INSTALLMENTS OF THE BOOK OF THE DUN COW.
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Thank you once again, sir!