We know the Score
The Táin Legend
The Táin Bó Cuailnge, (Cattle Raid of Cooley) is the centre-piece of a group of heroic tales called “The Ulster Cycle”. It tells of the deeds of the warriors of the Red Branch and is the greatest of all Irish sagas.
These stories were part of the oral tradition until the 7th century and were written down by scholars in the 12th and 14th centuries in manuscripts such as the The Book of the Dun Cow, The Yellow Book of Lecan, and The Book of Leinster.
The events of the Táin are set in the Iron Age, in the century leading up to the birth of Christ, a time in which Celtic culture flourished in Ireland and Britain. Warfare was part of everyday life in Celtic Ireland and cattle raids were common.The country was divided into many small kingdoms or tuatha.
The warriors were held in high esteem, along with the blacksmiths who made their iron weapons, the druids for their wisdom and prophecies, and the filí, or poets for glorifying in verse the exploits of the warriors.
Setanta was the son of Deichtine and Lug, (the Celtic god of Light). He was raised at a fort in Muirtheimne, by Finnchaem, the sister of Conchobar, King of Ulster. Setanta was brought up as a warrior, according to the wishes of his father, Lug. At the age of six Setanta asked to go to Emain Macha to Conchobar’s school for warriors. He excelled at every aspect of battle and everyone agreed that Setanta was destined to become a legend.
One evening, on the way to a banquet at the smith Culann’s house, Conchobar stopped off at the school and observed Setanta in action. He was so impressed by the boy’s fighting skills that he invited him to come along to the banquet. Setanta said that he would join him later. When Conchobar arrived at Culann’s house he promptly forgot about the boy and told his host that all of the guests had arrived.
Culann then unleashed his fierce guard-dog to protect his home and property. Later, when Setanta arrived, the dog attacked him, but the young boy killed him with his bare hands. Setanta was hailed as a hero by all except Culann, who said that he would miss the security provided by the hound. To compensate for the loss Setanta promised to protect Culann, and that is how he was given the name of Cúchulainn, (the hound of Culann).
At the age of seven Cúchulainn took up arms and began to fight alongside the warriors of Ulster. Some years later he met and fell in love with a girl called Emer, whose father was opposed to their relationship.
He tricked Cúchulainn into going to Scotland to further his studies as a warrior, in the hope that this would end it.
Cúchulainn went to the isle of Skye and studied under the warrior Scáthach, who taught him all she knew. Scáthach possessed the Light of Foresight, and she told him about his future life and death. He then returned to Emain Macha and claimed Emer as his wife.
Maeve, the Queen of Connacht and her husband Ailill were having an argument over which one was wealthier. When Maeve discovered that Ailill had a magnificent white bull, superior to any in her herd, she decided to search the country for a better one. Such a creature was found on the Cooley Peninsula, which was then part of Ulster. Maeve sent a messenger to Cooley to see if Dáire, its owner would give her a loan of the bull for a year. When he refused she decided to take it by force.
Maeve and Ailill assembled a huge army and set out for Ulster. Along the way they met a prophetess called Fedelm, who foretold great bloodshed. Ailill was perplexed because he knew that all the warriors of Ulster were incapacitated and helpless as a result of a curse from the goddess Macha. Cúchulainn was the only warrior not suffering under this spell at that time.
The Connacht army started to attack Cooley and Cúchulainn mounted a singular defence, gradually wearing the army down. Many of the battles took place at river fords. Cúchulainn harassed the enemy day and night while the men of Ulster slept. The bull was safely hidden in the mountains while the battle raged on the plain of Muirtheimne. (See Iron Age sword, above)
Cúchulainn grew weary and Maeve and Ailill grew desperate as warrior after warrior was slain. They asked him for a truce and he agreed. Cúchulainn slept for three days and three nights to heal his wounds. At that point Maeve realised that it would take a remarkable warrior to defeat the Hound of Ulster.