You may have heard the tale of The Cattle Raid of Cooley, the famous Irish myth about Queen Medhbh of Connacht and her war against the hero Cú Chulainn of Ulster in the name of a prize bull. But did you know that the story had a prequel?
The Cattle Raid of Mayo is an epic tale set in the 1st Century AD. Táin Bó Fliodhaise, as it’s called in Irish, has all the ingredients of a Game of Thrones episode: power struggles, shaky alliances, war, betrayal, infidelity and revenge. It’s all there, plus added cattle rustling.
Revival of the Tale
The story had fallen into the forgotten annals of Irish myth until two years ago when a group of people decided to bring it to a wider audience. The Táin Bó Fliodhaise Project Steering Committee is composed of volunteers from across the county of Mayo, and operates with the backing of Comhar Dún Chaocháin Teo (a community development co-operative based in the village of Ceathrú Thaidhg). The committee has organized festivals and an art exhibition, and now they have written a book called ‘Táin Bó Mhaigh Eo / The Cattle Raid of Mayo – The History and Heritage of The Táin Bó Fliodhaise.‘
As with all ancient stories of the oral tradition, there is more than one version of this myth. While locally it was passed down through generations, it was also recorded in writing by Scottish monks. It appeared in the 15th century Glenmasan Manuscript which is thought to be a transcript from an earlier manuscript. In the early 20th century, the entire story was translated into English by Professor Donald MacKinnon. It is this telling of the story that forms the basis for the book.
However, the book does more than merely retell a little-known myth. There are many contributions which serve to give the story greater depth. There’s an examination of the cattle raid routes, an analysis of the relationship between two principal characters, and much more. The story is also presented in Irish alongside the north Mayo folklore version. It’s a must for anyone interested in Irish mythology.
The tale begins with a tribal people called the Gamhanraidh, who were descended from the Fir Bolg (one of the earliest races to settle in Ireland). Their king, Oilill Fionn, who was married to a beautiful woman called Fliodhais, ruled a large swathe of the west of Ireland from Limerick to North Mayo.
The Gamhanraidh were less privileged than the dominant Gaels but they were, nevertheless, a wealthy and prosperous people with large herds of cattle. Their prized cow, the Maol, was said to supply enough milk daily for three hundred men, their wives and children.
Enter the hero of the story, Fergus Mac Róigh (who appears in many of the Ulster Cycle myths). Fergus and his followers had been involved in a series of bloody battles in Ulster. They fled southwards seeking protection and were welcomed by Queen Medhbh and her husband Ailill at Ráth Chruacháin in County Roscommon, the royal seat of Connacht.
Fergus was in fact made very welcome by Medhbh, who had a fling with him. However, as time went on it was clear that Fergus and his followers were a burden on their hosts. To address this problem, the warrior sent the scheming bard Bricriu westwards to seek aid from the Gamhanraidh.
Upon his return to Medhbh’s castle, Bricriu was full of praise for King Oilill’s palace and wealth. He also had a special message for Fergus: Oilill’s wife, Fliodhais had put Fergus under a ‘geis’ to carry her away with him from the fort of Ráth Muireagáin. A geis was an obligation of the highest order. Failure to carry it out could result in said party being cursed, so Fergus had to act.
Fergus and his warriors ventured west to Ráth Muireagáin. All went well at first; they received a warm welcome as Celtic tradition dictated. But the good times didn’t last. As you might expect, when Oilill discovered the real purpose of Fergus’ visit he wasn’t too pleased. Fighting ensued and Fergus was captured. Bound and trussed up, he was subjected to daily humiliations by the Gamhanraidh.
From the royal seat of Connacht, Queen Medhbh planned revenge. She set out with her vast army and the Fir Éireann (Men of Ireland) who had gathered at her stronghold in preparation for the raid on Ulster (i.e. the Cattle Raid of Cooley).
Their route took them westwards through open terrain. Along the way there were many tribal skirmishes and single combats with local warriors. When the invading army finally arrived at the fort at Ráth Muireagáin they discovered that several of the Gamhanraidh tribes had gathered there in force.
But Medhbh was cunning. She bribed the other Gamhanraidh chieftains, informing each one that she would offer him the kingship of the Gamhanraidh and her friendship if he would withdraw his support of Oilill. Each chieftain believed the offer was exclusive to him alone. All agreed to stand back.
Many days of fierce and brutal fighting took place and thousands were killed. Meanwhile inside the fort, Fergus boasted to Oilill that if he were released the fort would be destroyed and the Gamhanraidh roundly defeated. In a moment of weakness, Oilill freed the prisoner who re-joined the invading army. For seven days thereafter Medhbh’s army continued their attack and hundreds of warriors were killed on both sides.
Oilill and his small band of warriors bravely defended their fort but were outnumbered. In the end, they were forced to retreat to the coast where Oilill’s steward Ciortán was expected to have his ship ready for his escape.
After battling bravely along the way with his surviving followers, Oilill reached the meeting point only to be betrayed once again. Ciortán accused Oilill of seducing his wife. In spite of Oilill’s protests to the contrary, he sailed the ship away from shore leaving the king and his company stranded.
Fergus and Oilill engaged in a long and hard battle until Fergus, with his enchanted sword, overcame and killed the valiant Oilill. He carried Oilill’s severed head back to Ráth Muireagáin as a trophy for Fliodhais, who shrieked in horror. As the result of her actions dawned on her, she became full of remorse and lamented loudly her husband’s death. Fergus brought her with him against her will, and the cattle herds were rounded up to begin the journey back to Ráth Chruacháin.
The Maol cow had lain down when her master was slain and refused to join the rest of the herds. No amount of enticement or force would make her rise to her feet. Her groans and bellows were said to be heard throughout the province. It was only after Bricriu intervened with coaxing words that she stood and led her herd away.
And More Revenge
When word of Oilill’s violent death reached his father, Dónal Dualbhuí, he mustered the chieftains of the Gamhanraidh. They had by now realised Medhbh’s deception and came to his aid seeking revenge. They pursued the retreating army mercilessly, inflicting great losses on them. Dónal and his ferocious war hounds slaughtered and beheaded all in their path. He finally caught up with Fergus, who with the power of the enchanted sword, killed him in single combat.
Oilill Fionn’s son, Muireadach the Stammerer, arrived with a force of men from Nephin. He succeeded in routing the enemy, and returning Fliodhais, the Maol and the rustled cattle herds back to Ráth Muireagáin. After receiving a hero’s welcome he became the new King of the Gamhanraidh. Medhbh and her army limped back to Roscommon, battle scarred from their encounters with the chieftains and warriors of Mayo. And so, this fascinating epic draws to a close.
This compelling book (published by Comhar Dún Chaocháin Teo) is available at Ballina Arts Centre and in several Mayo bookshops. It’s not currently available online, but you can e-mail the secretary of the Táin Bó Fliodaise Committee, Treasa Ní Ghearraigh at [email protected] to purchase a copy directly.