Getting Into the Ulster Cycle

In April, here at the Blog we discussed the issue of Public Outreach in Celtic Studies, where we touched on the idea that while the public adores what we as students of the Celtic languages and associated cultures study, the proliferation of poor resources on the internet wildly misleads the public. This is particularly problematic for medieval Celtic literatures, where, while we as a field have created wonderful databases of edition,  translations, manuscripts, and articles available online, they are little-known by the public. What could be outstanding resources for public outreach are passed over and missed by the hungry minds that go searching online for answers.

Táin mural by Desmond Kinney. Featuring a guest pigeon.

As discussed in April's blog post, while this is an issue greater than any individual in the field, it is one that we as students often find ourselves working in our own small and disparate ways to resolve. However, there are only so many times one of us can write a long-winded Effortpost on a Discord Server, spend time fighting with Reddit's terrible post formatting interface that likes to eat long posts, or bleary-eyed try to put together a reading list for an eager 14 year old on Tumblr.

With this in mind, this post intends to be the first of a series that will look to put together reading lists that can be given to interested members of the public, directing them to accessible online versions of these stories. These lists will organize themselves by directing potential interested parties towards the more popular topics, characters, or trans-textual narratives, as well as presenting some special recommendations by the authors of these posts to direct interested readers towards more obscure tales that have failed to penetrate the public consciousness. 

This month, we will be talking about the Ulster Cycle of medieval Irish literature. While it is best known for the stories of Cú Chulainn, with his chief tale, Táin Bó Cúailnge ('Cattle Raid of Cooley') serving as the central star that all other tales in the cycle orbit, there are several tales that do not concern the little hound that will still interest a general reader.

We hope you find this collection useful, either for your own reading, or for passing along to an interested party. If you, as a student of medieval Celtic literature and are interested in putting together a similar blog post, get in contract with us! We would love to have you.

The Tales of Cú Chulainn

Here you can find a selection of tales giving a broad overview of the life of Cú Chulainn, going from his conception to his death. It must be noted to a general reader that, while I have assembled these tales in a specific order here, this is an imposition of my own, and we cannot guarantee that medieval audiences would have understood them to exist in a similar order.

It should also be remembered that, while we can see clear connections between these stories, the original authors and audiences of these tales may not have thought of these tales connected with each other. These tales are produced centuries apart, and the author of one tale may not have been aware of another on this list, or have been familiar with a different, now lost, version. If it is a helpful analogy, consider what we have here to be a collection of comics about Superman, but all from different decades and different runs. We might begin with Action Comics #1, jump to Superman: Red Son, an old crossover comic between Superman and Archie Comics, and to the script of Superman v. Batman. None of these stories were intended by their original authors to be read as part of the same cohesive narrative, even if they deal with broadly the same character and similar-ish events.

Compert Con Culainn ('Conception of Cú Chulainn') is one of the versions of how Cú Chulainn was conceived. Unfortunately, this story has no publicly available scholarly translation in English, but, for readers fluent in French, you can read Even Arzel's translation from Ogam: Tradition Celtique no. 5 (1953) right here.

Tochmarc Emire ('Wooing of Emer') tells the story of how Cú Chulainn woo'd his wife Emer and was trained as a warrior by Scáthach. I highly recommend this tale, and would draw a reader's attention to the character of Emer who is one of the unsung badasses of the Ulster Cycle.
You might be familiar with a different version of how Cú Chulainn is trained. This would be the later story Foglaim Con Culainn ('Training of Cú Chulainn').

Aided Óenfir Aífe ('Death of Aoife's Only Son') is the tragic tale of how Cú Chulainn kills his son Connla, though, the circumstances are vague. Did Cú Chulainn honestly misunderstand the situation? Did he kill his son out of compelled duty? Or, did he use the excuse of a mistaken ideneity to remove a threat to his status as supreme warrior?

Táin Bó Regamna ('Cattle Raid of the Important Calf') is a short, less popular story, but one that foreshadows the ever-popular appearance of The Morrígan in Táin Bó Cúailnge. Here we see Cú Chulainn come into conflict with The Morrígan, and the two of them verbally spar.

Fled Bricrenn ('Bricriu's Feast') is a tremendous text where we see Cú Chulainn, Conall Cernach, and Lóegaire Búadach clash over which of them is the supreme hero. For anyone interested in heroes in medieval Irish literature, or fans of Gawain and the Green Knight, it comes highly recommended.

Táin Bó Cúailnge ('Cattle Raid of Cooley') one of the best known works of medieval Irish literature, this story comes to us in several versions. The two earliest versions, called Recension 1 and Recension 2, are available online to read. While they are very similar, there are notable differences throughout, but often best remembered by students as the first is more concerned with supernatural features while the second is more invested in fleshing out the possible romance between Cú Chulainn and Fer Diad.

Tóruigheacht Gruaidhe Grainsholus ('Pursuit of Gruaidh Ghriansholus') is a personal favorite 17th century tale where we see the Ulster Cycle appear as a late medieval romance. Here, Cú Chulainn travels around the world, rescues a princess, makes out with a dragon (who is a princess), and the ever popular cat boys take their place in the Ulster Cycle.

Brislech Mór Maige Muirthemne ('Great Rout of the Plain of Muirthemne') is the earliest version of Cú Chulainn's death tale. For the general audience, I would draw their attention to the back half of this tale, often overlooked in modern retellings, which occurs after Cú Chulainn's death when Conall Cernach becomes the focal character.

The Tales of Conall Cernach

Conall Cernach, Cú Chulainn's older cousin, is a terribly exciting character who is often overlooked on account of his appearance in Fled Bricrenn presenting him as Cú Chulainn's lesser. But, as the #1 Conall Cernach fan, I am compelled to note that Conall is recognized as superior to Cú Chulainn in Aided Chonchobair. He breaks Space-Time, has a violent rivalry with his uncle Cet mac Mágach, reflects on the tragedy of heroism in his old age, and has a monstrous hound-headed man-eating horse. What more could you want?

Compert Conaill Chernaig ('Conception of Conall Cernach') is a lost text referenced in the medieval tale lists. While its absence is a tragedy, it is possible that we have a truncated retelling of this story in Cóir Anmann ('Fitness of Names') which you can read here under entry no. 251.

Togail Bruidne Da Derga ('Destruction of Da Derga's Hostel') tells the story of how a world ends with the semi-apocalyptic death of the high king Conare Mór. Here we see Conall Cernach stand as one of the last surviving warriors in the king's service.  

Scéla Mucce Meic Da Thó ('Stories of Mac Da Thó's Pig') is a dramatic tale of debate and dialogue between the heroes of Ulster and Connacht as they argue over which of them is the supreme warrior. Here the antagonism between Conall and his uncles, the Connacht warrior band the Sons of Mágach takes the main stage.

Talland Étair ('Siege of Howth') describes the dangers of a malignant poet, and how his unnecessary cruelty drags the Ulstermen into a disastrous siege where Conall Cernach's brother is slain. Arriving late (a common theme in Conall's tales), he hunts down and kills the king of Leinster who killed his brother and disarms a fiendishly clever trap built into a severed head intended to kill him.

Cath Ruis na Ríg ('Battle of Ruis na Ríg') takes place after the disaster of Táin Bó Cúailnge, and sees Conchobar mac Nessa seek to avenge the destruction of Ulster by attacking Ireland. Here, Conall Cernach emerges as the chief warrior, arriving from overseas where he had been collecting taxes to rescue the Ulster army when it had impatiently began its war without him.

Aided Chonchobair ('Death of Conchobar') takes signals the end of the Ulster Cycle, with Conchobar slain by Cet mac Mágach using Conall Cernach's trophy calcified head he claimed in Talland Étair!

Bruiden Da Choca ('Da Choca's Hostel') (part 2) (part 3) has the Ulstermen searching for a new king after the death of Conchobar, with Conchobar's son, Cormac Cond Longas, selected to rule in his father's place. Cormac makes some poor decisions under pressure from his warrior aristocracy, and shortly dies.

Cath Airtig ('Battle of Airtech') has the Ulstermen once again searching for a king. When it is offered to Conall, he rejects it and describes in tragic detail his aging body, his fear that he has become useless now that he has become old, and how isolated he feels now that all his friends have died.

Aided Cheit Maic Mágach ('Death of Cet mac Mágach') has Conall's feud with his uncle come to a dramatic conclusion, with the two warriors coming to blows one final time and Conall emerging victorious, if horribly wounded from his experience.

Aided Ailella 7 Chonaill Chernaig ('Death of Ailill and Conall Cernach') concludes Conall's long life as he avenges the death of one of his friends, and dies fighting off the warriors of Connacht as he makes his escape.

Other Ulster Cycle Tales

The Ulster Cycle is not limited to the tales of Cú Chulainn and Conall Cernach, with a myriad of other tales and characters appearing throughout the tradition. For people desperate to read everything they possibly can, you can check out the CODECS database's page for the Ulster Cycle where you can see the entire corpus of more than a hundred tales that have been catalogued by the database. While not all of them have digitally available translations, you can find available academic translations which you can try to track down through a local library's inter-library loan program.


 Longes mac nUislenn ('Exile of the Sons of Uisliu') is one of the most popular Ulster Cycle tales, often referred to modernly as 'Deirdre of the Sorrows'. The earlier version of the tale (you can read the later version here), this story details how Deirdre compels Noisiu to elope with her, Conchobar's betrayal of his people and failed kingship, and sets the stage for the disaster that is Táin Bó Cúailnge.

Táin Bó Flidais ('Cattle Raid of Flidais') describes what the exiled Ulster warriors are doing in Connacht between the events of Longes mac nUislenn and Táin Bó Cúailnge.

Táin Bó Fraích ('Cattle Raid of Fráech') concerns the romance between the hero Fráech and the princess of Connacht Findabair, before transitioning into a buddy adventure tale where Conall Cernach and Fráech travel to the Alps to track down raiders who plundered his land.

Aided Fergusa Meic Roich ('Death of Fergus mac Roich') concludes one of the B-Plots of the Ulster Cycle, the affair of Fergus and Medb, with Ailill arranging Fergus' death (and leading into the events of Aided Ailella). 

Tochmarc Fe(i)rbe ('Wooing of Ferb') a tremendous text that delves into Conchobar's villainous behavior where he hires a foreign mercenary army of Fomori to enforce his malignant will.

Comments

  1. This is really important work. I've been working on things like this, myself. (I recently created a hyperlinked index to the Dindsenchas translations by Stokes and Gwynn, for example, hoping to encourage more people to explore them, not that they are all on archive)

    I am interested in that throwaway phrase 'scholarly translation'. What do we really mean by that? Peer reviewed? Produced by someone with the right degree? Or are we really seeking work by able translators? I'm not criticising, but it's something to think about. For example, this might be worthy of being adder to your list: https://ulstercycle.wordpress.com/2009/11/07/the-conception-of-cu-chulainn-version-1/

    Hoping my inclusion of a link doesn't make this comment disappear in a puff of smoke.

    Keep up the good work!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. "now" that they are all on archive. It's late ...

      Delete

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