Follow TV Tropes


Literature / The Cattle Raid of Cooley

Go To
"Cú Chulainn in battle" by J.C. Leyendecker (1911)

"Is gleó ferge in ferachas."
(Courage has a brutal core.)note 
Cú Chulainn

Táin Bó Cúailnge pron. (The Cattle Raid of Cooley, though more often simply called The Táin in English) is an ancient Irish story from the Ulster Cycle of Celtic Mythology. It is considered the Irish national epic.

The oldest surviving manuscripts are in Middle Irish and date to the 12th century, but there are allusions to it in Old Irish poems of the 7th century, and elements of it are strikingly similar to things the Greeks and Romans used to say of the Celts.

Queen Medb of Connacht and her new husband Ailill are talking in bed one night, trying to figure out whose wealth is greater. They eventually conclude that their wealth is exactly equal except for one thing: Ailill owns a great prize bull, while Medb does not. So Medb commands the soldiers of Ireland to invade the kingdom of Ulster and steal its prized bull, Donn Cúailgne, the Brown Bull of Cooley, at any cost. This should be easy, since Ulster is under an unrelated curse that keeps the grown Ulstermen from fighting, and thus Ulster stands nearly defenseless before her army. Medb is thus opposed only by sixteen-year-old hero Cú Chulainn. Of course, Cú Chulainn is a hero in the classical sense, a demigod of amazing prowess, and the ensuing fight is epic, including several gods and a good deal of magic.

The Táin has been adapted into comics on a couple of occasions: An Táin (2006) by Colmán Ó Raghallaigh and the artists of Cartoon Saloon, The Cattle Raid of Cooley (2008-2015) by Patrick Brown, About a Bull (2011-2013) by M.K. Reed, Celtic Warrior: The Legend of Cú Chulainn (2013) by Will Sliney, and Hound (2014-2018) by Paul J. Bolger and Barry Devlin (from Horslips).

There are also two concept albums based on the story, both full of Epic Rocking — godfathers of Celtic Rock Horslips made a concept album, The Táin, based on the story in 1973, and The Decemberists' 2004 EP The Tain is Colin Meloy's interpretation/abridgment.

Though often simply referred to as "The Táin", technically a táin (cattle raid) was a whole genre of stories. Some of the lesser tána include the Táin Bó Flidhais and Táin Bó Regamon.

There is also an assortment of related tales called the remscéla. These are prequels (that is literally what remscéla means, "before-tales") to the main narrative, expanding on various characters' histories and explaining, for instance, where the bulls came from, why Fergus mac Róich is in exile in Connacht, and who various champions are; another tale, Ces Ulad (The Debility of the Ulstermen) while not actually considered one of the remscÚla, gives an important account of why the men of Ulster were cursed to begin with. Many published editions will include a selection of these (the Kinsella edition includes eight, for instance). The most famous is The Exile of the Sons of Uisnech.

Táin Bó Cúailnge provides examples of:

  • The Ace: Cú Chulainn. He shows shades of being a Broken Ace from time to time, though.
  • Action Girl: Medb. Though she is the irresponsible, greedy bitch that starts all this off, she gets down and dirty with a spear in the thick of the fighting at several points.
  • Anything That Moves: Cú Chulainn, despite his intimate friendship with Fer Diad, has a wife, and unintentionally allows the invasion to take Ulster because he's getting his end away with the King of Tara's wife (or her handmaid, according to a monkish emendation to the text), and has numerous female conquests in other stories.
  • Arch-Enemy: Not only Cú Chulainn and Medb, but the bulls Donn Cúailnge and Finnbhennach. They used to be human and hated each other in their first lives; as bulls, Finnbhennach tried to kill one of Donn's bull-calves, and the moment Medb brought Donn home, they started fighting immediately.
  • Ass Shove: How Cú Chulainn kills Fer Diad.
  • Badass Boast: EVERYONE does this at one point or another. Medb takes the cake though, claiming (through some creative compounding multiplication) that her army alone numbers some 40 billion-strong.
  • Battle Epic
  • Big Bad Duumvirate: Medb and Ailill, though mostly Medb.
  • Black Comedy: Quite often, particularly anything that involves Cethern.
  • Bull Seeing Red: Donn Cúailnge and Finnbhennach aren't normally bad-tempered, as both are extremely fertile studs with cushy lives, but once they see EACH OTHER, it's going to get messy.
  • Celtic Mythology: One of the classics of the Irish strand. Many of the characters and themes of Irish myth appear in this work.
  • Combat by Champion: Cú Chulainn makes a deal with Medb that he will fight one of her warriors in a duel each day, with her army only allowed to march while the fighting continues. Most of the champions die instantly, causing the army to make little progress.
  • Conservation of Ninjutsu: Justified and defied. Cú Chulainn's massive kill count owed much to his use of guerrilla tactics. Combat by Champion forces him out in the open and, while none of Medb's Elite Mooks have a chance against him, they can wear him down with fatigue and Scratch Damage while limiting the number of people he can kill at one time.
  • Costume Porn: Chapter 17 is very detailed in its description of Cú Chulainn's attire.
  • Does This Remind You of Anything?: Cú Chulainn defeats Fer Diad (his alleged lover) by ramming his spear through Fer Diad's anus.
    • Earlier on, Ailill sends one of his underlings to steal Fergus's sword while he and Medb are having sex as a way to humiliate him, rendering Fergus impotent as a warrior until Ailill begrudgingly returns the sword in the final battle.
  • Do Not Taunt Cthulhu: When Fergus goes to negotiate with Cú Chulainn, Medb's foster son Etarcomol insists on coming along, which Fergus allows only if Etarcomol can keep his mouth shut and not insult the unstoppable demigod that's been decimating their army. Etarcomol then proceeds to insult the unstoppable demigod. Then he challenges the unstoppable demigod to a duel. Then he insists on continuing after the unstoppable demigod quickly kicks his ass and tells him to scram.
  • Everyone Calls Him "Barkeep": Donn Cuailnge just translates to "(the) Brown Bull of Cuailnge / Cooley."
  • Exact Words: Medb and Ailill have a marital spat, where Ailill tells Medb that her wealth isn't QUITE equal to his, since he has an outstanding magical bull in his herd. Medb, being level-headed and modest, starts raising an army so she can get Ulster's prized bull for her OWN cattle and be equal to her husband. By the end of the story, hundreds of men are dead and the two bulls fight each other to death once they're in the same pen, which means NEITHER of them have a bull anymore and are finally "equal."
  • Expecting Someone Taller: Several times in regards to Cú Chulainn; in addition to his Bishonen looks, he was noted to be very slight and short for his age.
  • Face Death with Dignity: Medb, when Cú Chulainn confronts her after the final battle. May be the real reason he spared her.
  • Friendly Enemy: Fergus MacRoach. The one-time king of Ulster and leader of the Ulster Exiles who fight for Medb. He's also Cú Chulainn's foster father, and is the only person in Medb's ranks whom he never raises arms against. Cú Chulainn is likewise on friendly terms with Lugaid mac Nois, even sparing the man's brother during their Combat by Champion out of respect him.
  • Game Face: Cú Chulainn's ríastrad, variously translated to English as the 'warp-spasm' or 'the Torque'.
  • God Save Us from the Queen!: Medb.
  • Heroic BSoD: Cú Chulainn, after killing his best friend (and hinted lover) Fer Diad.
  • Heterosexual Life-Partners: Cú Chulainn and Fer Diad.
    • The former kills the latter by shoving his spear up his anus. Make of that what you will.
    • And, "We were heart companions, We were forest comrades, We were men of one bed..." If they were friends, they were very weird friends.
  • Historical Fantasy: Possibly. Though set in the pre-Christian Iron Age, it was first written down by Christians in the early Middle Ages. It's anyone's guess how much of it was actual oral history and how much was added by the people who committed it to manuscript.
  • Hulking Out: What Cúchulainn's "warp-spasm" is described as, to a particularly gruesome degree:
    The first warp-spasm seized Cúchulainn, and made him into a monstrous thing, hideous and shapeless. His shanks and his joints, every knuckle and angle and organ from head to foot, shook like a tree in a flood. His body made a furious twist inside his skin, such that his feet and shins switched to the rear and his heels and calves switched to the front. On his head the temple-sinews stretched to the nape of his neck, each immense and measureless knob as big as the head of a month-old child.
  • I Am X, Son of Y: Near the start of the story this line pops up: "the High King of Erin himself was my sire, Eocho Fedlech ('the Enduring') son of Finn, by name, who was son of Findoman, son of Finden, son of Findguin, son of Rogen Ruad ('the Red'), son of Rigen, son of Blathacht, son of Beothacht, son of Enna Agnech, son of Oengus Turbech."
  • I Can Still Fight!: Cú Chulainn insists on fighting even while heavily injured and going months without sleep. Lugh himself has to show up and knock him out for three days to give him a chance to heal.
  • Impaled with Extreme Prejudice: The magical spear Gáe Bolga, when prepared in a certain way and thrown with the toes, sprouts countless long barbs upon striking a human target and completely impales them from the inside out.
    • Donn and Finnbhennach fight so hard that Donn eventually impales Finnbhennach on his horns.
  • Improvised Weapon: Cú Chulainn kills Cur MacDalath by throwing an apple hard enough to go straight through his head
  • Inspirational Insult: Laeg's favorite means of aiding Cú Chulainn in a fight is to taunt him from the sidelines.
  • If It's You, It's Okay: Cú Chulainn has numerous lady friends, but there's only one Fer Diad.
  • It's All My Fault: Upon hearing of the slaughter of the youths of Ulster, Cú Chulainn blames himself, as he thinks he could have saved him if he wasn't recuperating from his wounds at the time, and insists upon avenging them immediately.
  • I Want Grandkids: Medb and Ailill use this as an excuse when they start offering their daughter Finnabhair to ANYONE who's able to kill Cú Chulainn for them. Cú Chulainn ensures she dies a virgin.
  • Just a Kid: Medb's reaction upon first hearing of Cú Chulainn. He often gets this reaction from enemies because he's a seventeen-year-old Pretty Boy with no beard.
  • Karma Houdini: Subverted. Medb manages to beat her enemies, but in the end she is not able to accomplish her goals. See Meaningless Villain Victory below. Even ignoring that, her deplorable actions would alienate her own people severely and earn her enough enemies that it later led to her demise.
  • Killer Rabbit: At its heart, the Tain Bo Cuailnge is an extended Dread Killer Puppy of Ulster sketch, wherein an entire army gets wrecked by one small-for-his-age teenager, much to their enduring disbelief.
  • Lady of War: Medb rarely joins the fighting, but when the fighting comes to her, she knows how to throw down.
  • Let's You and Him Fight: Shortly before the story, the Morrigan bred one of her heifers to Donn and got an exceptional bull-calf from the mating. A few years later, they encountered Finnbhennach, Donn's mortal enemy. The older bull INSTANTLY fought her calf and narrowly won, so the Morrigan (being a Blood Knight) wanted to see what happened when Finnbhennach met his real enemy.
  • Lock-and-Load Montage: Cú Chulainn, shortly before his first warp spasm.
  • Loophole Abuse: When a recurrence of an ancient curse sees the men of Ulster bedridden and unable to fight as they suffer from magic-induced birth pangs ('s a long story... involving a horse...)note  the only person able to stand in the kingdom's defense is a teenage boy who was not even born in Ulster.
  • Luke, I Am Your Father: Lugh the Long Handed reveals himself as Cú Chulainn's father.
  • Meaningless Villain Victory: Medb technically wins. Despite Cú Chulainn's valiant efforts to delay her, not only does her army capture Donn Cuailgne and bring him back to Connacht, she also lays waste to much of Ulster (which she considers a personal bonus). Everything unravels for her in the end, however, when Donn Cuailgne and Finnbennach are placed in the same pen and they they kill one another—meaning the whole táin was all for nothing in the end.
  • My Girl Is a Slut: Ailill is well aware of Medb's (often politically motivated) promiscuity and has no problem with it - Medb made it clear from day one that she's "never had one man without another waiting in his shadow," after all.
  • Names to Run Away from Really Fast : Cú Chulainn, Morrígan, Badb, Nemain, Cethern... lots and lots of this.
  • Nonchalant Dodge: Cú Chulainn spends most of his first encounter with Nadcranntail completely ignoring him in favor of catching birds. When Nadcranntail throws nine spears at him, Cú Chulainn just uses them as Stepping Stones in the Sky to continue chasing the birds Nadcranntail had just scared off.
  • Older Than Feudalism: The events told are supposed to have taken place in Iron Age Ireland, roughly 2000 years ago.
  • One-Man Army: Why did Medb agree to a daily Combat by Champion between her forces and Cú Chulainn when she has a massive advantage in numbers? Because otherwise he'd be killing a hundred of her men a day.
  • Pretty Boy: Cú Chulainn, often said to be a smooth-faced pretty boy, is described as fitting this trope... Most of the time. Totally subverted with his ríastrad (see Game Face above.)
  • Remember the New Guy?: Fer Diad has never been mentioned before he's introduced as Cú Chulainn's best friend from way back.
  • The Rival: Fer Diad to Cú Chulainn. Medb and Ailill hire him to face Cú Chulainn because he's said to be Cú Chulainn's only equal. Cú Chulainn kills him.
  • Roaring Rampage of Revenge: Cú Chulainn after the boys are slaughtered.
  • The Rustler: The plot runs on Medb herself sending her ARMY to raid a prized magical bull.
  • Servile Snarker: Cú Chulainn's charioteer, Laeg, is probably the only person who can give Cú Chulainn lip and not die for it.
  • Shoot the Shaggy Dog: Medb starts the war because her husband Ailill has a magic bull (Finnbennach), and she doesn't. She practically burns Ulster to the ground and loses hundreds (possibly thousands) of her own soldiers trying to get her hands on Donn Cuailgne, only for Donn Cuailgne and Finnbennach to kill one another, thus rendering Medb and Ailill equal—in their lack of a magic bull.
  • Superpowered Evil Side: Cú Chulainn's warp-spasm.
  • Talking in Bed: Medb and Ailill at the beginning.
  • Too Dumb to Live: Everyone on either side agrees that Etarcomol was incredibly stupid for taunting Cú Chulainn.
  • Treacherous Advisor: Fergus does a great deal to undermine Medb and Ailill's raid out of lingering ties to Ulster. Medb's rather aware of this, but doesn't have any better options, and simply tries to minimize his treachery via sex.
  • War Is Glorious: Cú Chulainn thinks this.
  • War Is Hell: Medb demonstrates this.
  • Wave Motion Sword: Fergus's Caladbolg.
  • We Can Rule Together: After enduring Cú Chulainn's guerrilla-style assault on her men for quite some time, Medb offers to pay for all the ruin she's caused to Ulster, give him all the booze and women he could wish for, and pay him ridiculously well if he simply quits this whole thing and enters service under her. This only pisses Cú Chulainn off more.
  • Whole Episode Flashback: The action stops for some time as Fergus and the other exiles tell their Connacht allies stories of Cú Chulainn's childhood adventures.
  • Would Hit a Girl: Cú Chulainn, with added Gorn. As he's resting, two female bards sing to him that the battle is lost, giving him a Heroic BSoD. When he learns the truth, he grabs them and hits their heads together so hard that their brains spill on the ground. Charming.
  • You Wouldn't Like Me When I'm Angry!: Cú Chulainn's warp-spasm.

Alternative Title(s): Tain Bo Cuailnge