“The Cattle Raid of Cooley”, also known as Táin Bó Cúailnge is one of the most renowned stories in the Ulster Cycle in Irish mythology. Unlike the Mythological cycle in Irish mythology, which is about magic and folklore, the Ulster Cycle tells the tales of heroes, wars, and legendary figures. The Ulster Cycle is centered around a certain group of people known as Ulaid, who, according to ancient studies, were dwelling in the North-Eastern parts of Ireland. Most of the stories focus on the conflicts they have with the other Ulaid and Connachta, a group of people who lived in the western parts of Ireland thousands of years ago.
One such story is the Táin Bó Cúailnge or Cattle Raid of Cooley. This is said to be the longest of the Ulster Cycle hero tales.
Táin Bó Cúailnge or “the Cattle Raid of Cooley”
The story starts during a normal husband-wife conversation between Queen Medb of Connacht and her King Ailill. Both were very powerful rulers, but, one day, King Aillil proclaimed that Queen Medb was better off now than at the time of their wedding. This offended her as she felt that her husband thought of himself as wealthier than her.
Both the king and the queen started comparing their assets and wealth. All their servants were ordered to gather their clothes, jewels, animals, and all other valuable goods. After days of evaluation, it was finalised that the only difference, where Ailill wins, is the white-horned “Finnbennach”, an astonishing bull. Medb knew that none of her bulls would match the capability of Ailill’s Finnbennach.
There was another bull in Ulster, owned by Dáire mac Fiachna, which qualified to match with the Finnbennach. Queen Medb sent a message to the Dáire of Ulster, asking him to loan his bull for a year and, in return, the queen would gift him with land and her friendship. Dáire agreed instantly.
He arranged a celebration for this and invited everyone.
During the party, a rumor was spread, saying that, even if Dáire had rejected the offer, the queen would have taken the bull from him forcefully. This made him furious and broke the negotiation, which was not taken well by Medb and, true to the rumor, she initiated a war against Ulster. Aillil also joined forces with his wife. But the major issue lay with the men of Ulster.
A long time ago, the men in Ulster were cursed with terrible pain, similar to a woman’s labor pain, that they had to bear for 5 consecutive days in a year. During the time of war, the Ulster men were suffering from this curse and were in no form to fight a battle. This was an added advantage for Medb.
The Battle Begins
The 17-year-old Cú Chulainn was the only man left in the whole of Ulster. Thousands of Medb’s men marched towards Ulster. But, as soon as they were near the battlefield, they had to go through young Cú Chulainn. Cú Chulainn would kill hundreds of men every day just by picking them off with his slingshot or by hunting down troops.
This created a sense of anxiety and Medb tried to bribe Cú Chulainn to side with her. All her efforts were in vain. As a silver lining, Cú Chulainn agreed to stop the attacks but to still fight one soldier per day. Medb agreed because she thought there would be at least one man in her battalion who could defeat Cú Chulainn.
It did not take long before Medb realised she was out of men. As an ultimate option, Medb commanded Fergus, Cú Chulainn’s stepfather, to fight against his foster son. But, after reaching the battlefield, Fergus changed his mind. He couldn’t fight his son.
Cú Chulainn agreed to let his guard down and yield, but there were conditions: Fergus would have to return the favour.
This left Medb with just one other option, Ferdia, the son of Fergus and of Cú Chulainn’s stepbrother. Medb got Ferdia drunk and promised him her daughter’s hand in marriage. But, when Ferdia let her down, she lied and told him thatCú Chulainn said that he doesn’t even have to consider fighting his brother since that is the easiest battle that he might ever have fought and that winning a battle with Ferdia can never be considered a triumph.
This agitated Ferdia, so he gave his word to Medb and agreed to fight his brother.
It was evident that the brothers had evenly matched strength and skills. But both of them had unique selling points; Cú Chulainn had the Gae Bolga, a spear-like weapon made with the bone of a sea monster which died fighting another sea monster, while Ferdia had horn-like armour that was impenetrable by any normal weapon.
The brothers were not ready to give up the fight and soon this news spread throughout Ireland. The battle between the brothers extended for several days as they brought a new choice of weapon each day. The contest became exhausting for both of them. Ferdia waited for a perfect moment to pierce Cú Chulainn’s chest with his sword but Cú Chulainn had finally hurled his Gae Bolga which penetrated Ferdia’s armour. The rage had covered Cú Cchulainn’s senses, but with a sudden realisation, he opened his eyes to see his dead stepbrother covered in blood.
Awakening of Ulster
After losing his brother in the battle, Cú Chulainn grew tired of all the clashes and he finally decided to rest for some time as he had halted Medb’s progress enough so that her warriors would not sacrifice their lives for a brown bull. However, Medb managed to find the bull and sent it to her camp. This caused many warriors to gather, including King Conchobhar of Ulster, Fergus, and Ailill, as they prepared for a final battle on who would get the bull.
Cú Chulainn realised that the war was not over until he yielded as he could hear the roars of his two stepfathers, Conchobhar and Fergus, from his bed. So, he approached Fergus to give up the fight. Fergus agreed and deserted the battle with his 3,000 troops, This made Medb and Ailill realise that the battle could not be continued as they had already lost many soldiers. Medb decided to send the bull back to her kingdom in Cruachan, with fifty heifers and eight messengers.
En Route to Medb’s kingdom, the brown bull (Donn Cuailnge) met Ailill’s White bull (Finnbennach) on a hill. People decided to make them fight and they chose a man named Bricriu to judge. The two bulls engaged in a brutal fight where Bricriu was trapped and crushed by the bulls. The fight lasted for a day and, the next morning, people found that the brown bull had finally killed the white bull, the mangled remains of Finnbennach hanging from his horns.
Seeing the wrath of the battle, Ailill and Medb later made peace with Ulster and Cú Chulainn. From then on, peace prevailed and no one else was killed.