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Review of section 1
Having worked through the previous section, you should be aware - where the Britons and the Irish thought they came from. - who the Tatha D Danann were, and what role their main characters played, particularly the Dagda and Lug. - what the importance of Merlin and Arthur was.

Lesson II: The Ulster Cycle and Tin B Cuailnge

The Ulster Cycle got its name from the fact that all its texts are set in the North of Ireland, mainly in the province of Ulster. These texts display a thematic unity of topics and participants. The central tale of the cycle is the epic Tin B Cuailnge 'The Cattle Raid of Cooley' .

The background
Tin B Cuailnge, also known as An Tin, can be translated as The Cattle Raid of Cooley. This story is the most extensive narrative text in early Irish. This text is found in some of the most important early manuscripts, namely: 1. Lebor na hUidre, 'The Book of the Dun Cow' (in short LU). 2. Lebor Laigneach, 'The Book of Leinster' (LL). The Tin is also found in the Yellow Book of Lecan (YBL). Details of these manuscripts will be found in the section 'Early Manuscripts'.

The Tin has been transmitted to us in three different recensions or versions. Recension I is the earliest and dates in its present form to the 11th century but also contains earlier (possibly 8th century) material. The two later recensions represent reworkings of the first version in which the language has been modernised, inconsistencies removed and new material added.

The tale
The events of the Tin may be summarised as follows: Medb and Aillil, the queen and king of Connacht, lead an expedition into Ulster to capture the famous Brown Bull of Cooley. All of the Ulstermen, except for C Chulainn, are suffering from a sickness which leaves them as weak as women in childbirth. So C Chulainn must defend the province of Ulster single-handed and a large part of the tale recounts a series of single combats between C Chulainn and members of the Connacht army. Towards the end of the tale the Ulstermen revive from their sickness and the Connacht army is defeated. The tale ends with an account of how the Brown Bull meets the Connacht bull (Findbennach) and how the two fight. The Brown Bull is victorious, but its heart bursts when it reaches home.

The remscla or the 'Fore-tales'

There is not only the text of the Tin, in its different versions, but also a number of shorter texts connected to it. These stories provide introductions and notes on the background of the Tin, and they also give us further information about its participants.

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These remscla consist of: 1. De Gabil in tSda The Taking of the Fairy Mound; 2. Aislinge in Maic ic The Vision the Young Son; 3. De Chophur in d Mucado The Tale of the Two Swineherds; 4. Tin B Regamna The Cattle Raid of Regaman; 5. Echtrae Nerai The Outing of Nera; 6. Compert Conchobair The Conception of Conchobur; 7. Tochmarc Feirbe The Wooing of Ferb; 8. Compert Con Culainn The Conception of C Chulainn; 9. Tin B Flidais The Cattle Raid of Flidas; 10. Tochmarc Emire The Wooing of Emer. In an interesting article (in the journal Cambridge Medieval Celtic Studies 19, 1990, pages 19-26), Backhaus has pointed out that Tales 1- 5 deal with super-human and non-human characters, i.e. the Tatha D Danann and the two bulls; and titles 6-10 feature human characters, who appear in the Tin itself. The tales in the two groups deal with parallel topics which lead up to the climax of the Tin: 1 and 6: youth and acquiring property; 2 and 7: marriage; 3 and 8: birth and transformations; 4 and 9: cattle raids and provisions and 5 and 10: journeys to the otherworld and marriage.

The above tales are listed by medieval Irish scholars as fore-tales to the Tin. It has often been remarked that some of these tales (e.g. Tale 1) have in fact little connection to the Tin, while other tales which are necessary for an understanding of circumstances not explained in the Tin itself are not included in the list. One of these has to do with the debility or curse of the Ulstermen which renders them inactive throughout most of the Tin. This curse was allegedly put on them by a woman called Macha. There are three different explanations as to how this came about. The one most frequently found is that when her husband boasted about Macha's superb skills in the presence of the king of Ulster, she was forced to run a race against his horses, even though she was heavily pregnant. She wins the race, but dies as a result, not without first putting a curse on the men of Ulster that when they need strength most they should only have the strength of a woman giving birth.

The Tin along with a number of the fore-tales are translated in Thomas Kinsella, The Tin. Oxford University Press (repr.) 2002. The other tales can be found in the collections referred to in 'Course Content' and also on the Mary Jones website.

2. The meaning of the Tin

The ideas that various people had as to what the Tin means differ greatly. Earlier scholars considered the Tin to be a story about ancient gods, viewing the main protagonists as literary re-creations of Celtic gods. Whatever about this, it has been suggested that the fight between the two Bulls, with which the Tin concludes, is a cosmogonic legend in origin and that this was the core around which the other events of the Tin were formed (David Greene, Irish Sagas). It was also thought that it provided a genuine picture of pagan Irish life in the fourth century AD and that it provided 'A Window on the Iron Age' (Kenneth Jackson in The Capuchin Annal, 1963), although this view is no longer generally accepted.

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Presumed God-like Characters in the Tin

One of the most central characters is Medb. She is the paragon of the strong female. She was often seen by earlier scholars as evidence that Celtic women were very powerful and promiscuous. Her role is, however, to be interpreted as that of a sovereignty and fertility goddess, embodying the land. However, here she does not represent the good powers of the Mother-Goddess, but is turned into a destructive force. It is sometimes stated that the reason for this is that the natural order of kingship is disturbed which makes her negative aspects come through. King Ailill, Medb's husband, has very little personality. Particularly in the later version, Recension II in the Book of Leinster, he is portrayed as a weak king, who is dominated by his wife. Fergus Mac Rich, on the other hand, is a former king of the northern province of Ulster. He is Medb's consort, and Ailill seems to condone this relationship. He is sometimes seen as a virile warrior-god, partly based on the fact that his family name can be derived from 'ro' + 'ech' which would mean 'great horse'. He is sometimes seen as Medbs appropriate spouse. He is a great fighter, and also the former foster-father of C Chulainn. This, of course, places him into a conflict of loyalities which shows in his behaviour. Finally, the the central character and the greatest hero is undoubtedly C Chulainn. He is a super-hero, who defends Ulster on his own for half a year against Ailill and Medb. Due to allegedly being the son of the god Lugh (who we met in the Battle of Moytura, of course), he is the only person exempt from a sickness that always befalls the Ulster people. If C Chulainn is under attack, he undergoes a warp-spasm during which time he is nearly invincible.

Modern Historical Approaches to the Tin

In contrast to earlier, mythological interpretations, more recent scholarship has put an emphasis on trying to connect the events narrated in the Tin to historical events. Two important volumes which have made these approaches accessible to students and scholars are Aspects of the Tin, edited by J.P. Mallory in 1994, and Ulidia, edited by J.P. Mallory and G. Stockmann, also in 1994. In the first of these volumes, Ruair hUiginn argues that the Tin is not in fact based on Iron Age lore, but that it was deliberately composed around the 9th century. He argues that it was deliberately set in an atmosphere of the pagan past at the time of Christ, and that this was done to put this story in line with other early documents of world history, as found in classical, especially Greek, culture. The tale has its footing in native tradition, but also shows influences from classical and biblical sources. The first recension is thought to have been compiled around the 9th century, and rather than being a story about the mythic past, it is an allegory on political struggles at the time. Pdraig Riain suggests that the first Tin copy emerged in Monasterboice, County Louth. He argues that it is based on the struggle for the Abbacy of Armagh, Patrick's main and very powerful church. Armagh is actually very close to the alleged royal seat of the king of Ulster, Conchobor. In the early 9th century, the County Louth Bishop Torbach and his opponent, Nuadu from the province of Connacht, fought heatedly about who was to become abbot of Armagh. Interestingly, Nuadu was from the area of Easter snow, which is right next door to Crachan, which is of course, where Medb and Ailill are supposed to have had their royal seat. According to Riain, the struggle for the bulls is an allegory for a famous prize fought over by Ulster and Connacht. This famous prize is portrayed by bulls. These are chosen for more than one reason: on the one hand, because of the value of cattle. On the other hand, there was another political event going on at the time: a new law was being introduced that was known as Cin Dire 'The law of Dire' (Saint Dire was a female saint from Connacht). She was instrumental in introducing a law against stealing cattle. This was around 810. Note that in the story, the person who owns the bull that Medb wants to steal is also called Dire. Riain argues that the Tin satirizes contemporary events by portraying the Connacht side in the story as wanting to steal the famous bull from the Ulster people. All this is supposed to be a satire that discredits the contender for the abbacy, who comes from Connacht.

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Mallory, J. P. 1994 (ed.): Aspects of the Tin. Belfast: December. Mallory, J. P. & G. Stockmann (eds.) 1994: Ulidia. Belfast: December. hUiginn, R. (in Mallory & Stockmann): The Background and Development of Tin B Cuailgne, 29-62. Riain, P. (in Mallory & Stockmann): The Tin: A Clue to its Origins, 31-37.

Please read Myles Dillon's Chapter II of Early Irish literature on 'The Ulster Cycle' carefully. Please also read a version of the Tin. Recension 1 can be found at the following internet location:

Recension II, from the Book of Leinster, can be found here:

Alternatively, you can read Thomas Kinsella's translation referred to above (Thomas Kinsella, The Tin. Oxford University Press (repr.) 2002).

Pick one story from the Ulster cycle (e.g. one mentioned as a fore-tale above or a tale given in Myles Dillon's book) and describe in 100-150 words in what relationship this story stands to Tin B Cuailgne. Enter your discussion in the Ulster Cycle section on the discussion forum by the 30th of March.