There are few legends from Irish mythology as frequently told as that of the Tain Bo Cuailnge – AKA ‘the Cattle Raid of Cooley’.
The Tain is a story from early Ireland that’s generally told to many of those growing up in Ireland when they’re kids (at least I hope it still is!).
The Táin Bo tells the story of an epic battle brought against the province of Ulster by the mighty Queen Maeve. Below, you’ll find the version of this Irish myth that I was told as a child.
The Tain Bo Cuailnge
The story of the Táin all begins in Ireland during the first century. If you read our guide to Irish mythology, you’ll know that this was known as the Ulster Cycle.
The Ulster Cylce of Irish literature is filled with myths about Queen Medbh and the warrior Cu Chulainn. However, few tales are as famous as the one below.
The Tain all began with Queen Medb
Queen Medb of Connacht was a mighty warrior and ruler. Her power and influence were vast and this was only boosted when she married a man named Ailill.
Now, given the fierceness of Queen Medb and her vast reputation and a highly ruthless and capable warrior, you’d imagine that showing her respect would go without saying.
Alas, that wasn’t the case. One night in bed, her husband mentioned to Medb that since he became her partner her life improved hugely.
Medb’s father was the High King of Ireland… she was pretty well off, to say the least, yet this offended her and brought out her competitive streak.
A Comparison of Wealth
Medb and Ailill decided to compare their wealth to solve the disagreement once and for all. Servents were called and instructed to gather all of the pair’s valuables and to place them in piles before them.
When the servants had finished the task, there were two enormous piles that contained everything from jewels and ancient Irish coins to deeds to land and other expensive items.
After a lengthy comparison, it was clear that the King had one thing that his fierce Queen did not – a stud bull with a pedigree so rich that people travelled from across the world to avail of its power.
Medb was infuriated. But she accepted that her husband was in fact wealthier. Was she going to let this lie? Of course not.
A Lend of a Bull
Medbh knew of a bull in Ireland that, if she possessed it, would help her beat her husband. It was owned by a man named Daire Mac Fiachna, a wealthy land owner in Ulster.
Medb sent one of her messengers to request a lend of the bull for one year. In return, Medb would provide Mac Fiachna with fifty of her finest cows, the finest plot of land in Connacht and a golden chariot.
He requested some time to think. Mac Fiachna was no fool. He knew that saying no to Medb would end badly for him and besides, her offer was more generous than he would have thought possible.
While he sat in thought, the messenger sent by Queen Medb decided to kill some time in the local pub/tavern. He became drunk and started to tell locals how that if Mac Fiachna had said no, they would have forcefully taken the bull.
Word got back to Mac Fiachna and he was enraged. He sent the messengers on their way with a message to Medb that the bull would remain where it was.
War and the Táin Bó Cúailnge
Medb took the news as a sign of the greatest disrespect. She decided immediately that she would go to war to seize the bull. She was more than happy to kill Mac Fiachna if it had to happen.
She assembled a fierce army of Irish warriors from across Ireland and told them to prepare for battle. Now, Medb was more confident than usual about entering this fight.
It just so happened that the fighting men of Ulster were still hit by what is known as the ‘Pangs of Ulster’. Funnily enough, the Pangs of Ulster was a curse put upon the men of Ulster by Macha, a goddess of ancient Ireland (another story from the Ulster Cycle).
The curse forced the men of Ulster to be incapacitated by the very same pain that women feel while going through labour. It happened every year for five whole days. Naturally enough, fighting was the last thing on their minds.
Cú Chulainn and the Tain
OK, back to the impending battle. Medb was in the midst of preparing herself for the war when a servant knocked on her door to tell her of the arrival of a fortune-teller by the name of Fedelm.
The fortune-teller told Medb about a horrific vision that they had the previous night that scared Medb. It told of a young warrior from Ulster who was more powerful than any in Ireland.
His name was Cú Chulainn. He was just 17 years old and he was said to be ready and waiting for Medb’s army. Like many at the time, Medb was superstitious. She fully believed in what the fortune-teller told her.
But surely Cú Chulainn would be no match for her army of thousands. She decided to put her theory to the test and the Táin Bó Cúailnge began. It soon became clear that she was right to worry.
Cú Chulainn killed the first 300 men that Queen Medb sent into battle. Word got back to her about what was happening and she decided to send a messenger to Cú Chulainn to offer him great riches to change sides. He declined.
Cú Chulainn’s Promise
As the days went by, Cú Chulainn killed hundreds of more men using only his slingshot. It’s the section of the story that follows that made the Táin Bó Cúailnge one of the most popular stories from Irish literature.
Cú Chulainn sent word to Queen Medb that he would stop killing her men in mass numbers if she agreed to send just one man per day. The Queen was also made to promise that, during this battle, she would not attempt to steal one bull from the land of Ulster.
She agreed. Surely, she thought, this would give her the time needed to find a warrior that could match Cú Chulainn’s strength.
As was expected, Cú Chulainn continued to kill Medb’s men one by one. As the weeks passed, Medb’s army dwindled and dwindled. Then she had an idea – she’d ask Fergus, Cú Chulainn’s stepfather, to enter the battle.
Alas, this was no use. Although Fergus agreed after the promise of land and riches, once he arrived at the battle he realised that he could not go through with it. Cú Chulainn agreed to let Fergus walk free if Fergus agreed to return the favour if needed.
The Cattle Raid of Cooley takes a turn
Medb then discovered that Cú Chulainn had a foster brother by the name of Ferdia. However, it became clear quickly that Ferdia didn’t want to go up against Cú Chulainn.
Ferdia refused to meet with Medb’s messenger. Medb was furious. In an attempt to influence his decision, the Queen spread the word that Ferdia was a coward, and that he was scared of Cú Chulainn.
Ferdia agreed to meet with Medb, but let it be known that it was just to share with her his displeasure at her rumour. When he arrived at the meeting point, he discovered a great feast had been prepared.
He also noticed a beautiful woman sat at the table next to Medb. It was her daughter. Medbh encouraged Ferdia to drink, and drink he did. He became drunk and when Medb promised him her daughter’s hand in marriage, he agreed.
The Tain Bo Cuailnge: The Battle Begins
Ferdia travelled to meet Cú Chulainn the following day. Cú Chulainn realised that Ferdia was drunk with love and that there was no point in trying to persuade him to walk away.
The two began to fight and it quickly became clear that they were evenly matched. Ferdia was a strong and skilful fighter. Only two things separated the two men.
Cú Chulainn possessed the Gae Bolga – this was a notched spear that was given to him by the one who thought him how to fight – Scáthach, a mythical warrior queen.
Ferdia, who was also taught the art of war by Scáthach had in his possession a coat of armour made from horn that could withstand the sharpest of blades.
The 5-day Battle of the Táin Bó
The two fought tirelessly for five long days and nights, making it one of the most notable battles in Irish literature from the Ulster Cycle of Irish mythology. The battle had the attention of every man, woman and child across Ireland.
The battle was taking effect on the two warriors. Ferdia, noticing that Cú Chulainn was tiring, managed to catch his great opponent with a stab in the chest.
Knowing that the end was near, Cú Chulainn picked up the Gae Bolga (the spear) and used all of his strength to throw it at Ferdia. The spear connected with Ferdia’s chest and instantly killed him.
The end was finally in sight
The battle of Cooley had exhausted Cú Chulainn. He retreated to a quiet corner of Ulster and rested. Had he won the battle? He believed so, however, he didn’t realise that Medb, during his fight with Ferdia, had managed to find the brown bull and steal it.
All was not lost, however. Just after Medb stole the bull, the men of Ulster came out of the curse of the pangs. She was trapped. A final battle was imminent.
Warriors from across Ireland assembled for what would be one of the biggest battles in Irish literature. Luckily for Medb, Cú Chulainn was unable to take part, as he was still recovering.
Remember the promise made by Fergus?
Cú Chulainn could only hear pieces of the battle. Then, by chance, he heard the screams of his two stepfathers as they began to battle each other.
Cú Chulainn was torn. He needed more time to recover but he also needed to enter the battle. He mustered up the last bit of strength that he had and ran to where the battle between Ulster and Connacht was taking place.
He quickly found Fergus and he demanded that Fergus keep his promise. Fergus agreed and he left the battle, taking with him the 3,000 men that he brought with him
This desertion left Medb and Ailill with a very small number of remaining fighters. They quickly realised that they could not win the battle. However, Medb still managed to send the Bull of Cooley back to her kingdom in Connacht.
A fight to the death
When they arrived in Connacht, it was time for Medb’s bull to face off against Ailill’s and a man by the name of Bricriu was summoned to judge the battle.
As it happened, the bulls saw Bricriu as a common enemy. They charged at him and killed him instantly. Then they turned to each other. The two fought for one whole day and night.
The following morning, the people of Connacht awoke to realise that the bull from Cooley had killed Ailill’s bull.
The Cooley bull paraded around Ireland with his opponents remains hanging from his horns. He finally returned to Ulster where he made his home on the Cooley Peninsula.