The Cattle Raid of Cooley (Tain Bo Cuailnge) is usually cited as the greatest work of classical Irish literature. It begins with a bedroom squabble between Medb, the queen of Connacht, and her husband, Ailill, over which of them is richer. Its climax—after a long-running battle between Connacht and Ulster across the entire north of Ireland—is a fight between two bulls, one white and one brown. At the outset, Medb concedes defeat in the bedroom: her husband’s white bull is indeed more valuable than anything she owns. But the queen intends to change that. Medb summons her army and the armies of her allies throughout the island to set out for Ulster to capture the most valuable bull in all of Ireland, the brown bull of Cooley. Stealing the bull, however, requires her to confront Cuchulain, the son of the king of Cooley and Ulster’s greatest hero.

In the episode that follows, Cuchulain, exhausted and seriously wounded after single-handedly battling the invaders for weeks, is talked into taking a nap by the god Lug, his divine father. The result is disastrous, but Cuchulain’s heroic rage is awesome, and the detailed descriptions of his clothes, weapons, tactics, and chariot (including the charioteer) seem historically inspired.

The earliest versions of the The Tain—containing sections in both prose and verse—date from the seventh and eighth centuries, with later versions appearing in The Book of the Dun Cow (c. 1100), The Book of Leinster (c. 1160), and The Yellow Book of Lecan (c. 1390). The modern Irish poet Thomas Kinsella made this translation.

THE FOUR PROVINCES OF Ireland settled down and camped on Murtheimne Plain, at Breslech Mór (the place of their great carnage). They sent their shares of cattle and plunder southward ahead of them to Clithar Bó Ulad, the Cattle-Shelter of Ulster. Cuchulain took his place near them at the gravemound in Lerga. At nightfall his charioteer Laeg mac Riangabra kindled a fire for him. And he saw in the distance over the heads of the four provinces of Ireland the fiery flickering of gold weapons in the evening sunset clouds. Rage and fury seized him at the sight of that army, at the great forces of his foes, the immensity of his enemies. He grasped his two spears, his shield and his sword and he shook the shield and rattled the spears and flourished the sword and gave the warrior’s scream from his throat, so that demons and devils and goblins of the glen and fiends of the air replied, so hideous was the call he uttered on high. Then the Nemain stirred the armies to confusion. The weapons and spear-points of the four armed provinces of Ireland shook with panic. One hundred warriors fell dead of fright and terror that night in the heart of the guarded camp.

Laeg stood in his place and saw a solitary man crossing between the camp of the men of Ireland straight toward him out of the northeast.

“There is a man coming toward us alone, Little Hound,” Laeg said.

“What kind of man is he?” Cuchulain said.

“It is soon told: a tall, broad, fair-seeming man. His close-crossed hair is blond and curled. A green cloak is wrapped about him, held at his breast by a bright silver brooch. He wears a knee-length tunic of kingly silk, red-embroidered in red gold, girded against his white skin. There is a knob of light gold on his black shield. He carries a five-pointed spear in his hand and a forked javelin. His feats and graceful displays are astonishing, yet no one is taking any notice of him and he heeds no one: it is as though they couldn’t see him.”

“They can’t, my young friend,” Cuchulain said. “This is some friendly one of the side [the other world] that has taken pity on me. They know my great distress now on the Táin Bó Cuailnge, alone against all four provinces of Ireland.”

Cuchulain was right. When the warrior came up to him he said in pity:

“This is a manly stand, Cuchulain.”

“It isn’t very much,” Cuchulain said.

“I am going to help you now,’ the warrior said.

“Who are you?” Cuchulain said.

“I am Lug mac Ethnenn, your father from the síde.”

“My wounds are heavy. It is time they were let heal.”

“Sleep a while, then, Cuchulain,” the warrior said, “a heavy sleep of three days and three nights by the gravemound at Lerga. I’ll stand against the armies for that time.”

He sang to Cuchulain, as men sing to men, until he slept. Then he examined each wound and cleaned it. Lug made this chant:

“Rise son of mighty Ulster
    with your wounds made whole
a fair man faces your foes
    in the long night over the ford
rest in his human care
    everywhere hosts hewn down
succour has come from the side
    to save you in this place
your vigil on the hound fords
    a boy left on lonely guard
defending cattle and doom
    kill phantoms while I kill
they have none to match your span
    of force or fiery wrath your
force with the deadly foe
    when chariots travel the valleys
then arise arise my son.”

Cuchulain slept three days and three nights, and well he might; for if his sleep was deep so was his weariness. From the Monday after the feast of Samain at summer’s end to the Wednesday after the feast of Imbolc at spring’s beginning, Cuchulain never slept—unless against his spear for an instant after the middle of the day, with head on fist and fist on spear and the spear against his knee—for hacking and hewing and smiting and slaughtering the four great provinces of Ireland.

Then the warrior from the síde dropped wholesome healing herbs and grasses into Cuchulain’s aching wounds and several sores, so that he began to recover in his sleep without knowing it.

The boy-troop in Ulster spoke among themselves at this time.

“It is terrible,” they said, “that our friend Cuchulain must do without help.”

“Let us choose a company to help him,” Fiachna Fuilech, the Bloodspiller, said—a brother of Fiacha Fialdána mac Fir Febe.

Then the boy-troop came down from Emain Macha in the north carrying their hurling-sticks, three times fifty sons of Ulster kings—a third of their whole troop—led by Follamain, Conchobor’s son. The army saw them coming over the plain.

“There is a great number crossing the plain toward us,” Ailill said.

Fergus went to look.

“These are some of the boy-troop of Ulster coming to help Cuchulain,” he said.

“Send out a company against them,” Ailill said, “before Cuchulain sees them. If they join up with him you’ll never stand against them.”

Three times fifty warriors went out to meet them, and they all fell at one another’s hands at Lia Toll, the Pierced Standing-Stone. Not a soul came out alive of all those choice children except Follomain mac Conchoboir. Follamain swore he would never go back to Emain while he drew breath, unless he took Ailill’s [the husband of Queen Medb] head with him, with the gold crown on top. But that was no easy thing to swear; the two sons of Bethe mac Bain, sons of Ailill’s foster-mother and foster-father, went out and attacked him, and he died at their hands.

“Make haste,” Ailill said, “and ask Cuchulain to let you move on from here. There will be no forcing past him once his hero-halo springs up.”

Cuchulain, meanwhile, was sunk in his sleep of three days and nights by the gravemound at Lerga. When it was done he rose up and passed his hand over his face and turned crimson from head to foot with whirling excitement. His spirit was strong in him; he felt fit for a festival, or for marching or mating, or for an ale-house or the mightiest assembly in Ireland.

“Warrior!” Cuchulain said. “How long have I been in this sleep?”

“Three days and three nights,” the warrior said.

“Alas for that!” Cuchulain said.

“Why?” the warrior said.

“Because their armies were free from attack all that time,” Cuchulain said.

“They were not,” the warrior said.

“Tell me what happened,” Cuchulain said.

“The boy-troop came south from Emain Macha, three times fifty sons of Ulster kings, led by Follamain, Conchobor’s son, and they fought three battles with the armies in the three days and nights you slept, and they slew three times their own number. All the boy-troop perished except Follamain mac Conchoboir. Follamain swore to take home Ailill’s head, but that was no easy thing, and he too was killed.”

“Shame,” Cuchulain said, “that I hadn’t my strength for this! If I had, the boy-troop wouldn’t have perished as they did and Follamain mac Conchoboir wouldn’t have fallen.”

“Onward, Little Hound; there is no stain on your good name, no slight on your courage.”

“Stay with us tonight,” Cuchulain said, “and we’ll avenge the boy-troop together.”

“I will not stay,” the warrior said. “No matter what deeds of craft or courage a man does in your company the glory and fame and name go to you, not to him. So I will not stay. Go bravely against the army by yourself. They have no power over your life at this time.”

“The sickle chariot, friend Laeg,” Cuchulain said, “can you yoke it? Have you everything needed? If you have, get it ready. If you haven’t, leave it be.”

The charioteer rose up then and donned his charioteer’s war-harness. This war-harness that he wore was: a skin-soft tunic of stitched deer’s leather, light as a breath, kneaded supple and smooth not to hinder his free arm movements. He put on over this his feathery outer mantle, made (some say) by Simon Magus for Darius king of the Romans, and given by Darius to Conchobor, and by Conchobor to Cuchulain, and by Cuchulain to his charioteer. Then the charioteer set down on his shoulders his plated, four-pointed, crested battle-cap, rich in colour and shape; it suited him well and was no burden. To set him apart from his master, he placed the charioteer’s sign on his brow with his hand: a circle of deep yellow like a single red-gold strip of burning gold shaped on an anvil’s edge. He took the long horse-spancel and the ornamental goad in his right hand. In his left hand he grasped the steed-ruling reins that give the charioteer control. Then he threw the decorated iron armour-plate over the horses, covering them from head to foot with spears and spit-points, blades and barbs. Every inch of the chariot bristled. Every angle and corner, front and rear, was a tearing-place.

He cast a protecting spell on his horses and his companion-in-arms and made them obscure to all in the camp, while everything remained clear to themselves. It was well he cast such a spell, for he was to need his three greatest charioteering skills that day: leaping a gap, straight steering and the use of the goad.

Then the high hero Cuchulain, Sualdam’s son, builder of the [battle goddess] Badb’s fold with walls of human bodies, seized his warrior’s battle-harness. This was the warlike battle-harness he wore: twenty-seven tunics of waxed skin, plated and pressed together, and fastened with strings and cords and straps against his clear skin, so that his senses or his brain wouldn’t burst their bonds at the onset of his fury. Over them he put on his heroic deep battle-belt of stiff, tough, tanned leather from the choicest parts of the hides of seven yearlings, covering him from his narrow waist to the thickness of his armpit; this he wore to repel spears or spikes, javelins, lances or arrows—they fell from it as though dashed at stone or horn or hard rock. Then he drew his silk-smooth apron, with its light-gold speckled border, up to the softness of his belly. Over this silky skin-like apron he put on a dark apron of well-softened black leather from the choicest parts of the hides of four yearlings, with a battle-belt of cowhide to hold it. Then the kingly champion gripped his warlike battle-weapons. These were the warlike weapons he chose: eight short swords with his flashing, ivory-hilted sword; eight small spears with his five-pronged spear, and a quiver also; eight light javelins with his ivory javelin; eight small darts with his feat-playing dart, the del chliss; eight feat-playing shields with his dark-red curved shield that could hold a prize boar in its hollow, its whole rim so razor sharp it could sever a single hair against the stream. When Cuchulain did the feat of the shield-rim he could shear with his shield as sharply as spear or sword. He placed on his head his warlike, crested battle-helmet, from whose every nook and cranny his longdrawn scream re-echoed like the screams of a hundred warriors; so it was that the demons and devils and goblins of the glen and fiends of the air cried out from that helmet, before him, above him and around him, whenever he went out to spill the blood of warriors and heroes. His concealing cloak was spread about him, made of cloth from Tír Tairngire, the Land of Promise [an otherworldly paradise]. It was given to him by his magical foster-father [Lug].

The first warp-spasm seized Cuchulain, and made him into a monstrous thing, hideous and shapeless, unheard of. His shanks and his joints, every knuckle and angle and organ from head to foot, shook like a tree in the flood or a reed in the stream. His body made a furious twist inside his skin, so that his feet and shins and knees switched to the rear and his heels and calves switched to the front. The ballad sinews of his calves switched to the front of his shins, each big knot the size of a warrior’s bunched fist. On his head the temple-sinews stretched to the nape of his neck, each mighty, immense, measureless knob as big as the head of a month-old child. His face and features became a red bowl: he sucked one eye so deep into his head that a wild crane couldn’t probe it onto his cheek out of the depths of his skull; the other eye fell out along his cheek. His mouth weirdly distorted: his cheek peeled back from his jaws until the gullet appeared, his lungs and liver flapped in his mouth and throat, his lower jaw struck the upper a lion-killing blow, and fiery flakes large as a ram’s fleece reached his mouth from his throat. His heart boomed loud in his breast like the baying of a watch-dog at its feed or the sound of a lion among bears. Malignant mists and spurts of fire—the torches of the Badb—flickered red in the vaporous clouds that rose boiling above his head, so fierce was his fury. The hair of his head twisted like the tangle of a red thornbush stuck in a gap; if a royal apple tree with all its kingly fruit were shaken above him, scarce an apple would reach the ground but each would be spiked on a bristle of his hair as it stood up on his scalp with rage. The hero-halo rose out of his brow, long and broad as a warrior’s whetstone, long as a snout, and he went mad rattling his shields, urging on his charioteer and harassing the hosts. Then, tall and thick, steady and strong, high as the mast of a noble ship, rose up from the dead centre of his skull a straight spout of black blood darkly and magically smoking like the smoke from a royal hostel when a king is coming to be cared for at the close of a winter day.

When that spasm had run through the high hero Cuchulain he stepped into his sickle war-chariot that bristled with points of iron and narrow blades, with hooks and hard prongs and heroic frontal spikes, with ripping instruments and tearing nails on its shafts and straps and loops and cords. The body of the chariot was spare and slight and erect, fitted for the feats of a champion, with space for a lordly warrior’s eight weapons, speedy as the wind or as a swallow or a deer darting over the level plain. The chariot was settled down on two fast steeds, wild and wicked, neat-headed and narrow-bodied, with slender quarters and roan breast, firm in hoof and harness—a notable sight in the trim chariot-shafts. One horse was lithe and swift-leaping, high-arched and powerful, long-bodied and with great hooves. The other flowing-maned and shining, slight and slender in hoof and heel.

In that style, then, he drove out to find his enemies and did his thunder-feat and killed a hundred, then two hundred, then three hundred, then four hundred, then five hundred, where he stopped—he didn’t think it too many to kill in that first attack, his first full battle with the provinces of Ireland. Then he circled the outer lines of [the armies of] the four great provinces of Ireland in his chariot and he attacked them in hatred. He had the chariot driven so heavily that its iron wheels sank into the earth. So deeply the chariot-wheels sank in the earth that clods and boulders were torn up, with rocks and flagstones and the gravel of the ground, in a dyke as high as the iron wheels, enough for a fortress-wall. He threw up this circle of the Badb round about the four great provinces of Ireland to stop them fleeing and scattering from him, and corner them where he could wreak vengeance for the boy-troop. He went into the middle of them and beyond, and mowed down great ramparts of his enemies’ corpses, circling completely around the armies three times, attacking them in hatred. They fell sole to sole and neck to headless neck, so dense was that destruction. He circled them three times more in the same way, and left a bed of them six deep in a great circuit, the soles of three to the necks of three in a ring around the camp. This slaughter on the Tain was given the name Seisrech Bresligi, the Sixfold Slaughter. It is one of the three uncountable slaughters on the Tain: Seisrech Bresligi, Imslige Glennamnach—the mutual slaughter at Glenn Domain—and the Great Battle at Gáirech and Irgairech (though this time it was horses and dogs as well as men.) Any count or estimate of the number of the rabble who fell there is unknown, and unknowable. Only the chiefs have been counted. The following are the names of these nobles and chiefs: two called Cruaid, two named Calad, two named Cír, two named Cíar, two named Ecell, three named Crom, three named Caur, three named Combirge, four named Feochar, four named Furechar, four named Cass, four named Fota, five named Aurith, five named Cerman, five named Cobthach, six named Saxan, six named Dach, six named Dáire, seven named Rochad, seven named Ronan, seven named Rurthech, eight named Rochlad, eight named Rochtad, eight named Rinnach, eight named Coirpre, eight named Mulach, nine named Daithi, nine more named Dáire, nine named Damach, ten named Fiac, ten named Fiacha and ten named Feidlimid.

In this great Carnage on Murtheimne Plain Cuchulain slew one hundred and thirty kings, as well as an uncountable horde of dogs and horses, women and boys and children and rabble of all kinds. Not one man in three escaped without his thighbone or his head or his eye being smashed, or without some blemish for the rest of his life. And when the battle was over Cuchulain left without a scratch or a stain on himself, his helper or either of his horses.

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