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The Cattle Raid of Cooley is our national epic - and still has resonance for modern rural life

John Connell, author of The Cow Book, ruminates on how the extraordinary tale of the Táin still runs through the veins of Ireland.

John Connell Author of The Cow Book

This is an extract from The Cow Book: A story of life on an Irish family farm, by John Connell, out now from Granta Books.

THE AUROCH* NEVER lived in Ireland, for not all species made it to this island. It was the Taurine that came here, with the Celts. In the long ago, before the founding of nations, we were a nomadic people, the Maasai of the north, for we traversed these lands through the seasons herding our cattle.

It was the cow and not money that was the basis on which all wealth was measured. It was also the cow that gave us our founding myth: the Táin bó Cuailnge, or The Cattle Raid of Cooley.

All my life, I have lived upon the Táin. It is our Beowulf, the epic of our world, where history and myth converge and where the cow takes centre stage. It was a queen who started this legend, and it was a bull that caused it.

The story begins in a bed chamber, where the Queen of Connacht, Medb, lies with her husband, Ailill. Together they compare their wealth, for in Celtic society the partner with the most would be in control. The value of their possessions is equal but for the fact that Ailill has a white bull, Finnbhennach (a forebear of the real-life White Park cattle breed).

As has happened so often, drink is the downfall

Determined not to cede power to her husband, Medb sends messengers to the Ulster cattle lord Dáire mac Fiachna.

Dáire owns a bull, Donn Cuailnge, the Brown Bull of Cooley, the only rival in the land to the white bull.

Being a good man, Dáire agrees to Medb’s request and a deal is struck. She may borrow the bull for a year until such time as he breeds for her an heir.

But, as has happened so often in Ireland, drink is the downfall of men, for Medb’s messengers boast that, had Dáire not agreed, they would have taken the animal by force. Ireland being Ireland, this news is heard quickly and fully by Dáire and the deal is broken. There will be no bull. From her seat in modern-day Roscommon, the Queen summons an army to raid Ulster and steal the bull. The táin bó Cuailnge, the cattle raid of Cooley, begins.

I think of my mother

When I think of the story of Medb, I think of my mother, for she has built her own small empire through these lands and fields. It was she who suggested to Da that we have a farm in the first place. It was she who invested her profits into fields rather than flats or houses. She has bought cows and bulls and knows their worth. In a man’s world, she has proved herself; in a man’s world, she has staked her claim. I think too of our neighbour and great friend, Mary Ann Tynan, who runs two farms. She has succeeded where men have failed; she too has built her kingdom.

There have been times at marts when I have looked at the faces of the farmers there and seen the traces of our mythic past. The surroundings have changed, but the people have stayed the same. Our relationship with the beasts has stayed the same, too: they are still the foundation of our rural world, our link with nature, and our livelihood.

Medb’s raiding party moved through the midlands, through our home of Longford, through the very fields of Birchview, and from there to Louth and the lair of the bull Donn Cuailnge.

The men of Ulster could not defend themselves from Medb’s forces, for they had been cursed by a goddess in vengeance for the king’s cruelty towards her while she was heavily pregnant, and were stricken down with the pains of childbirth at their greatest hour of need. Despite her advantages, Medb’s raid was a failure, for a spirit called the Morrígan appeared to the bull in the form of a crow, telling it to flee and evade capture. In his rampage, the brown bull of Cuailnge killed many Connacht men.

A stampeding cow

Ulster lay prone and bare and there was but one man who could defend them: Cúchulainn, the Hound of Ulster, who gained his title as a child when he killed a guard-dog in self-defence and then offered to serve in its place until a replacement could be reared. Now, still only seventeen years old, Cúchulainn found himself standing alone against the force. He invoked the ancient right to single combat and faced Medb’s army one by one, day after day.

During this time, Cúchulainn successfully faced the Morrígan too, who appeared to him in various forms, some alluring, some violent, including as a stampeding cow. It is, however, his fight with his best friend and foster brother, Ferdiad, that is remembered by every Irish school child.

Ferdiad was the champion of Connacht, the bravest and best of men of that province, and through Medb’s guile and cunning he was forced to fight his beloved brother. For three days and nights the pair faced one another, with swords, spears, lances and shields. In the end Cúchulainn slayed his friend, though it was with great sadness.

It is said he shouted as the final mortal blow to his brother was delivered, ‘Thou to die, I to remain. Ever sad our long farewell.’

Our own bloody history

In their tragic battle, I see a part of our own history reflected, from the Civil War up unto the modern day and the bloodshed of Northern Ireland, with its war and bombs and terrible violence on both sides.

After several months of man-to-man fighting, Cúchulainn pitted against Medb’s warriors, the men of Ulster finally began to rise from their pain and slumber, the army mustered and with that the final battle began. Medb’s forces lost the day but they did manage to take with them the brown bull.

Finnbhennach the White, and Donn Cuailnge the Brown met at last and began an epic battle themselves. In a long and brutal fight, Donn Cuailnge killed his foe, but in the doing was mortally wounded himself. He then wandered around Ireland before finally returning home and succumbing to his wounds. And so ends the great Ulster Cycle.

The story is a part of my life, a part of every cattle man’s life in this country. Revisiting it now, I see perhaps it is not just some epic tale of war and bloodshed, but a morality lesson on the covetous nature of man and the worthlessness of possessions. In it we also see that animals have their own intentions, for Donn Cuailnge, despite whatever the Morrígan did, did not wish to be dominated and fought against his imprisonment.

Interestingly, the Táin was written down for the first time in the twelfth century in the Book of the Dun Cow, the Lebor na hUidre, so named because the manuscript was said to be made from a dun (meaning greyish-brown) cow hide. In it are contained the legends of pagan Ireland as well as Christian works of faith and history pieces. The Book of the Dun Cow is the earliest extant Gaelic manuscript and without it we should not have so beautiful a telling of the Táin. It shows what great respect these Christian monks held for the old stories. Even as men of a new god, they did not cast them aside as mere idolatrous tales.

News of modern cattle raids

How much of this myth is based in real events, we can only guess. How true were the deeds of Perseus or Heracles? And yet there is always some fact in fiction. It is strange to talk and think of cattle raids in the twenty-first century, but in recent weeks I have heard news of several cattle raids in the area. It is the worst crime that we farmers can imagine.

Since the collapse of the Celtic Tiger some five years ago, lawlessness has increased in rural Ireland. People no longer feel safe in their homes, for gangs of thieves roam the once-quiet countryside. I do not know a farmer without a gun now, for the police are fewer and we are all but alone.

In the last three years, over 10,000 cattle have been stolen. The raiders are most active along the border with Northern Ireland, where the warriors raged in the long ago. In our hardship, we have resorted to the old ways. The stolen cattle are butchered hastily and their meat sold; few are ever recovered alive. Their bones are often found dumped on lonely back roads. The Táin is not dead, it has but changed its form.

* an extinct species of large wild cattle that is the ancestor of domestic cattle

  • Cover image is a depiction of Queen Medb by JC Leyendecker (1911). Image: Corbis via Getty Images

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About the author:

John Connell  / Author of The Cow Book

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