Friday, April 15, 2011

Tain Bo Cuailnge (The Cattle Raid of Cooley)

The greatness of Irish literature predates James Joyce by some eight hundred years at least. About five years ago I read Kinsela's translation of the Tain Bo Cuailnge (The Cattle Raid of Cooley), the great Irish epic of the twelfth century, and was not immediately convinced. I enjoyed the story, but was often by confused. Kinsela follows the odd mixed-bag style of the original, which I respect and even prefer, but I found myself marking up my paperback copy to make the odd line breaks an easier read. Also, the Tain, like the Iliad, starts in mid-story and ends unresolved, so the actions of many of the characters (notably Fergus) made no sense as far as I could tell.

More recently, however, I read the twelve or so remscela, the foretales, stories that prepare the reader for the action of The Tain itself (Kinsela included some, but not all). I then read several of the modern Deirdre plays (by Yeats, Synge and Wood) and a more recent (and more streamlined) translation of the Tain. Finally, I'm reading other works from the Ulster Cycle that tell, among other things, how the main characters eventually die. I'm hooked!

The Ulster Cycle is truly great literature that deserves to be more widely read. It's not clear to me why the tales themselves are not more completely and coherently presented in print or audio format. Morgan Llewelyn's 'Red Branch' is a good overall presentation of the entire story, but it is a novelization (though admittedly well-written). Rather than wait, I searched Mary Jones's truly excellent Celtic Encyclopedia. Some of the translations are a bit dated, but all are good reads. Highly recommended!

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