The Quest for the Tain-bo-Cuailgne

Patrick Kennedy
1891 (2nd Edition)

The party who brought such timely succour were descendants of the Nemedians, who had been driven out of Ireland by the Fomorian pirates after the defeat at Tory Island, and afterwards got the name of Firbolgs (Men of the Bags), from their forced employment in Greece. Keating says that King Heremon, jealous of this colony who succoured the Wexford men, obliged them, by a kind of moral pressure, to proceed to Scotland, where the children of the Irish ladies enjoyed ascendency over the rest. The Picts, according to the same authority, were the offspring of these people, and their country was called Caledonia, from Cathluan, the young chief of the tale. The western Highlands and Islands being colonized by other Irish tribes, got the name of Alba.

A high antiquity must be assigned to some of the Irish fictions, both in prose and poetry. We have mentioned some poems attributed to Oisin, preserved in the Book of Leinster, written in the early part of the twelfth century. The poems were copies in a dialect antiquated even then. The Tain-bo-Cuailgne [1] was copied into the Book of the Dun Cow by Maolmuire, a monk of Clonmacnois, whose death occurred in 1107; and the tale, in its construction and orthography, was less familiar to the scholars of the time than the first book printed by Caxton would be to a student of this day, whose favourite researches were bounded by the London journals. Moreover, there is a significant absence of religious rites, or reverence for beings higher than the hill folk—the men and women fairies residing in caverns, and favouring or persecuting the worthies of the epic according to circumstances.


Among the Celtic fictional remains, the "Tain-bo-Cuailgne" is one of the most remarkable. It was in such high consideration, that the author of the Proceedings of the Bards ascribed its production to the spirit of a dead hero. Seanchan, the chief bard of Erinn (contemporary with the magnanimous Guaire of Conacht), and his numerous suite, not only tried the patience of Guaire's people and Guaire himself, but even that of his sainted brother, Marvan, the swineherd (hence, probably, the saying, "You'd try the patience of a saint"). He bore all like a Christian, till they demanded that his favourite boar should be sacrificed for their entertainment. Under this last impertinence his patience broke down. For this valued pig used to search for, and drive home before him, all the vagrant silly swine that were attempting to get out at any of the nine passes of the valley on cold evenings. When the saint's feet were bleeding after the day's fatigue, as he lay resting himself in his hut before the fire, this boar would completely stop the blood, and heal the scratches, by licking them with his tongue. When the saint required a little relaxation from mental and bodily fatigue, he nudged his bristly servant with his foot, and he forthwith emitted Cronan (purring) music, such as could not be excelled by thrush or blackbird.

So in his resentment he laid geasa on the whole bardic body, that they should at once lose their powers of invention and composition, and that they should never sleep for two consecutive nights in the same place till they discovered and were able to repeat the tale of the Tain in perfection. They repaired to the palace of the King of Leinster at Naas, they crossed the sea to Mann, they explored the hills and lochs of Alba, and at last were obliged to return and implore St. Marvan to relieve them. Being satisfied with the amount of punishment already inflicted, he directed them to collect the Twelve Apostles (bishops or saints) of Erinn, including St. Colum Cille and St. Kiaran, to the grave of Fergus Mac Roigh, in Mayo, in order that they might induce the spirit of that defunct warrior (himself one of the personages in the great cattle spoil), to appear and reveal the story to them. The ecclesiastics assembled, and after three days' invocations, the shade of Fergus, " high, mighty as in life," issued from his mound, and told the weird, heroic legend. St. Kiaran, of Clonmacnois, produced the skin of his pet dun cow, on which he engrossed the narrative as it came from the mouth of the ghost, and when the task was achieved he re-entered his dark abode in the Tulach. This first draft has been lost, but we have the defective copy made (as already specified) some time prior to 1106; and the volume in which it is preserved derives its name from the skin on which the saint penned the original.[2]

Seanchan and his companions, having their proper faculties now restored, were ordered by the saint to disperse, and never again oppress or annoy king or chief by visitations in a large body, extravagant demands, or unlawful use of the terrible powers of satire. Evil usages and principles seem possessed of surprising vitality. Kings, and chiefs, and common men—even rats (if legends tell truth)—feared satire in the sixth century when St. Kiaran ruled Clonmacnois. So late as 1800, poetic satirists by profession had free bed and board in the provinces among the gentry and farmers, by whom a lampoon for stinginess or some domestic scandal was very much dreaded.

End of this Story


[1] The Cattle Raid of Cuailgne.

[2] This copy is reverently preserved in the Royal Irish Academy, Dawson-street.