#69: THE TAIN. Among the tales and legends rediscovered by Irish scholars and folklorists in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries—along with the myths of the Tuatha De Danaan and the tales of the Fianna—is the Ulster Cycle, the tales of the Red Branch, of King Conchobor and the great warrior Cuchulain. All these—Finn Mac Cumaill, Oisin, Deirdre, Medb, Aoife—are the characters who came to populate the poems and plays of Yeats, the plays of Lady Gregory, and the last of John M. Synge’s six plays, “Deirdre of the Sorrows”—not to mention a now enormous library of translations, paraphrases, retellings, adaptations, still more plays, graphic novels, you name it. But the centerpiece of the Ulster literature, the oldest vernacular epic of Europe, the Tain Bo Cuailnge—“The Cattle Raid of Cooley”—remained elusive, the retellings bowdlerized, the straight translations unreadable. A good deal of this was due to the appalling textual situation, with no complete recension existing, and the manuscripts suffering from gaps, inconsistencies, erasures, vastly varying narrative styles, whole chunks of plot and setting relegated to side texts, passages of cryptic and indecipherable verse—a literary bomb site. The Ulster poet Thomas Kinsella, working for a decade and a half, pieced the texts together, gathered the necessary background tales, and in 1969 published with the Dolmen Press The Tain. Of the translations and retellings, from Lady Gregory to Ciaran Carson’s recent (2007) version, no one has better caught the barbarism, the abruptness, the adamantine shock of the tale. The heroes of the Ulster cycle live in a violent otherworld, with bloody curses, severed heads, cries that deafen all who hear them, and the gae bolga, a mysterious weapon of disembowelment: the rages of tribal warfare as everyday reality. The cattle raid itself erupts from a lovers’ bragging match and comes to earth with a wrenching existential thud, the death of the Brown Bull of Cuailnge. But no summary will convey the blood-running dreamlike quality of the tale—the comings and goings of the warriors and gods of the Mahabharata and the other Indian epics are not stranger than these. Kinsella has opened a fascinating, convincing window onto a world like no other, along with Louis Le Brocquy’s splendid, entirely individual illustrations. The book, too, republished as an Oxford paperback, is a handsome piece of bookmaking. Of the dramatic versions, the five Cuchulain plays of W.B. Yeats—“At the Hawk’s Well,” “On Baile’s Strand,” “The Green Helmet,” “The Only Jealousy of Emer” and “The Death of Cuchulain”—are among the very best of his plays, drawing on Ezra Pound’s Noh translations; they are in the Collected Plays (Macmillan). Synge’s “Deirdre of the Sorrows” is in his Complete Plays (Vintage). Lady Gregory’s version of the Ulster stories, Cuchulain of Muirthemne, is in print as well, from Colin Smythe.
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