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Táin Bó Cúailnge (The Cattle Raid of Cooley)

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The location of many an Irish legend is still immediately identifiable thanks to a wealth of extant place names, and perhaps no more so than in the case of the Táin Bó Cúailnge. Set around 500 BC, many of the events in perhaps the greatest of the Celtic epics clearly take place in the mountains of the Cooley Peninsula. The villainess of the tale is Medb, the great Queen of Connacht, who so envies her husband Aillil’s White Bull (Finnbenach) that she determines to capture the Brown Bull of Cooley (Donn Cúailnge). Drawing Aillil into her campaign she begins a war against the east of Ireland, targeting Ulster in particular. All the Ulster men are rendered immobile by a curse except the tale’s hero, Cúchullain, who is left to confront Medb’s armies single-handedly. Much of the plot concerns his feats and victories, often achieved in bloodthirsty fashion, and the text is also brought to life by vivid topographical detail. The first known written version of the saga was included in the twelfth-century Book of the Dun Cow, and Thomas Kinsella’s twentieth-century English translation encapsulates much of the vivacity of the Irish-language version. In 1973 the legend formed the basis for one of Ireland’s most successful concept albums, The Táin, by the traditional-rock pioneers Horslips.

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