The Táin

I would say many of you lit students must have read the Illiad or the Odyssey. Maybe you haven’t read it yet but you want to. Perhaps you’ve only heard of it. Or maybe you’re a epic folklore fiend and you’ve read Greek, Norse, Scandinavian, Germanic…every form of folk literature under the sun. Perhaps you’re just curious about language and the origin of storytelling.

No matter what category you fall into (be it all of the above, or none) I would strongly recommend that you pick up a copy of The Táin.

John Burnside classes it as ‘Ireland’s own Illiad … [it is] a lovely, engaging and wonderfully vernacular telling of a great tale.’

For jealousy of her husband’s prized bull, Medb, Queen of Connacht, takes her people to war to steal its match from Ulster – the legendary Brown Bull of Cúailnge. With the Ulstermen stricken by a curse, only the youthful Cú Chulainn stands against Connacht’s assembled armies, but in feats of supernatural strength, and extravagant violence, he sets about bloodily assembling them.

It really is no exaggeration to say that this text is wrought with bloody violence; it is in the nature of traditional epic tales like The Odyssey. When reading this text you should be prepared for the medieval brutality and gory descriptions, but don’t let it put you off reading; it is this element which makes the tale so strong and visceral.

Cú Chulainn is Ireland’s answer to Homer’s Oddyseus. He is strong (he can crack a man’s skull by simply throwing a stone at his opponent’s head), ruthless, instinctive to the point of animalistic, young, and engaging. There is never really any doubt as to whether he is going to be successful; Cú Chulainn is the traditional hero who is called to action, and is merciless in his aim for success.

The book is full of black comedy and brutal action. The Táin – the longest and most important tale of the Ultster Cycle – is the great epic of Irish folk literature, and the heroic (yet monstrous) Cú Chulainn is one of the most mercurial and engaging characters in folk literature.

Despite the text being a translation, Ciaran Carson still manages to retain the beauty within the description and Irish names, as well as capturing the dynamic action, humour and bawdiness of the original Irish tale. Whether people agree with Burnside’s statement or not, I think after analysing the text in terms of style and narrative, it can be agreed that this tale is an exemplary part of folklore literature.

Let me go into some brief reasons why:

In traditional folk tale, details and conversation are kept at a minimum in favour of the plot, however, in this text the characters are quite individualised. They have their own particular voices, and the story is filled with exclamations and direct speech. This is a positive aspect as it can be seen as reminiscent of oral storytelling, it clearly marks the tale as an artistic production by ornamenting the story with individuality and details.

There are a lot of moments in the text when you can see that that the teller (and translator) has strived for a high level of poetic devices.

‘One man equal to a force
protects Muirthemne’s cattle.
Since two swineherds once were friends,
crows drink the milk of battle.’

This is a typical feature. The language coupled with the visceral images disguises the ugliness; substituting the blood of battle for ‘milk’ gives the image a haunting level of beauty. To hear this said out-loud, in adherence with the oral tradition, gives a gripping quality to the words. It is a result of the folkloristic tendency to use rhythm, everyday language and repetitions that gives the piece texture and poignancy; to capture the attention of the listener, your images, descriptions and speech have to be so strong and clear that the listener is able to remember what they’ve heard and repeat to others.

Obviously, in a folk tale, the narrator is ideally the actual person sitting right here telling the story. In the modern world in which these words and tales are actually recorded in books, the effect isn’t exactly the same. This is because it is your job to become both listener and teller. Yes, this changes the nature of the narrative, but it shouldn’t be a hinderance because the quality of the spoken word (recorded) is not diminished; particularly in this version of the tale.

According to scholarly work, all of the great folktales and fairy tales follow the structure of the ‘actantial model’ If you’ve read the text and are curious as to whether it is true for the case of The Táin, spend some time bearing the next few bullet points in mind (use the diagram as guidance).


  • Can you locate the protagonist (the subject) and the receiver in the text. Is an object given away?
  • Who is the helper in this tale? Are there any antagonists (opponents) and what kinds of tests must the hero go through (the subject)? Note: There might be more than one set of tests.
  • Who is finally the giver in this text? Are they a giver by choice or by force?

Have you read the The Táin before? Do you love folktales or are you a complete newbie? Let me know in the comments and lets get a bit of a discussion going!

Laura Marie

Copyright: Laura Davis © 2018, all rights reserved.

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