Published: 15th March 2016
As part of the preparations for this years ‘Táin March’, Longford Tourism in partnership with Longford Heritage Office have organised a lecture by Dr Paul Gosling GMIT.
The fascinating story of the route of the march through County Longford, and its leader, the legendary Queen Maeve.
What is Táin Bó Cúailnge?
Táin Bó Cúailnge is the story of a cattle-raid reputed to have taken place during winter sometime about the time of Christ. Set in a rural, tribal and pagan Ireland, it is peopled with fearless warriors, haughty queens and kings and prize bulls. It is often ranked alongside Ireland’s greatest literary classics and frequently described as ‘epic literature’. This sobriquet arises from its comparison to the heroic tales of Greece and recent scholarship suggests that that the stimulus for its composition was the translation of Togail Troí (Destruction of Troy) into Irish in the 10th century. The more traditional ‘nativist’ view sees the Táin as originating, fully-formed, from oral tradition to be set down on vellum in the 7th century. What is clear is that Táin Bó Cúailnge is not unique but forms part of a small group of tána bó – cattle-raiding stories – themselves part of the Ulster Cycle, one of four great categories of medieval Irish literature. This cycle comprises c.50 stories, Táin Bó Cúailnge being acknowledged as the central tale.
Táin Bó Cúailnge is preserved in a number of medieval manuscripts of which the Book of the Dun Cow (Lebor na hUidre, c.1100) and the Book of Leinster (c.1200) are the best known. A number of versions or ‘recensions’ of the story exist, that known as Recension I being the richest from a topographical viewpoint. By the early 1800s, Táin Bó Cúailnge had fallen out of popular memory but was revived at the turn of the 20th century through a series of classic translations and re-tellings of which Lady Gregory’s Cuchulain of Muirthemne (1902) is perhaps the most memorable.
Tracing the Route
The route of the Táin is often spoken about as if it was a specific path or track across Ireland. The various cycling and walking routes developed by the tourism agencies – The Táin Trail, The Táin Way – add to this impression of certainty. In reality, re-tracing the route of Queen Medb’s forces is a somewhat illogical undertaking. For the Táin is a story about a cattle-raid that probably never took place 2000 years ago! The medieval texts provide no map, only sequential lists of c.70 obscure placenames supposedly extending from Roscommon through Longford, Westmeath and Meath to Louth. Moreover, these lists are at variance with the main text of the story and do not cover the homeward journey which saw Medb’s forces returning to the west via Kells, Mullingar and Athlone.
But re-tracing the course of a fictional army led by a mythical queen is an engrossing exercise which has stirred the minds of scholars and poets from Standish Hayes O’Grady to Thomas Kinsella. In pursuing it, the researcher must embrace many areas of scholarship, particularly the long neglected study of Ireland’s medieval routeways. The texts of the Táin are key, for those who composed the story deliberately rooted it in placelore and plotted it through specific landscapes. Many of the set pieces were clearly inspired by particular placenames, landforms and individual monuments. By re-reading the texts, examining old road networks, identifying river-fords, climbing hills and taking note of community lore, it is possible to imagine in detail the footfalls of Queen Medb on her bull-quest.
Reading and Walking
Táin Bó Cúailnge is available in various online and print formats. The translations by Thomas Kinsella (Oxford University Press 1970) and Ciaran Carson (Penguin 2007) are widely regarded as the most accessible. Gene Haley, who provided the detail for the route maps in Kinsella’s translation, has a website – Places in the Táin – devoted to the placenames (http://genehaleytbc.wordpress.com ).
The Táin can be enjoyed not only in the armchair but also on foot, bike or car via the Táin Trail, the Táin Way and The Táin March walking festival; https://www.facebook.com/TheTainMarch/
The interpretative centres at Rathcroghan, Tulsk, Co. Roscommon and at Navan, Co. Armagh provide in-depth information on two of the major sites.