The Story of the Cattle Raid of Cooley
UR earliest literature was history and poetry. Indeed, we might
say poetry only, for in those
Now the people who lived in the British Isles long ago were not English. It will be simplest for us to call them all Celts and to divide them into two families, the Gaels and the Cymry. The Gaels lived in Ireland and in Scotland, and the Cymry in England and Wales.
It is to Ireland that we must go for the very beginnings of our
Literature, for the Roman conquest did not touch Ireland, and the
English, who later conquered and took possession of Britain,
hardly troubled the Green Isle. So for centuries the Gaels of
Ireland told their tales and handed them on from father to son
undisturbed, and in Ireland a great many old writings have been
kept which tell of
It was from Ireland that the Scots came to Scotland, and when they came they brought with them many tales. So it comes about that in old Scottish and in old Irish manuscripts we find the same stories.
Many of the manuscripts which are kept in Ireland have never been
translated out of the old Irish in which they were written, so
they are closed books to all but a few scholars, and we need not
talk about them. But of one of the great treasures of old Irish
literature we will talk. This is the
The name of this old book helps us to remember that long ago
there was no paper, and that books were written on vellum made
In the Book of the Dun Cow, and in another old book called the Book of Leinster, there is written the great Irish legend called the Tain Bo Chuailgne or the Cattle Raid of Cooley.
This is a very old tale of the time soon after the birth of Christ. In the book we are told how this story had been written down long, long ago in a book called the Great Book Written on Skins. But a learned man carried away that book to the East. Then, when many years had passed, people began to forget the story of the Cattle Raid. So the chief minstrel called all the other minstrels together to ask if any of them knew the tale. But none of them could remember more than a few verses of it. Therefore the chief minstrel asked all his pupils to travel into far countries to search for the rest which was lost.
What followed is told differently in different books, but all agree in this, that a great chief called Fergus came back from the dead in order to tell the tale, which was again written down.
The story is one of the beautiful Queen Meav of Connaught. For many years she had lived happily with her husband and her children. But one day the Queen and her husband began to argue as to which of them was the richer. As they could not agree, they ordered all their treasures to be brought before them that they might be compared.
So first all their wooden and metal vessels were brought. But they were both alike.
Then all their jewels, their rings and bracelets, necklets and crowns were brought, but they, too, were equal.
Then all their robes were brought, crimson and blue, green, yellow, checked and striped, black and white. They, too, were equal.
Next from the fields and pastures great herds of sheep were brought. They, too, were equal.
Then from the green plains fleet horses, champing steeds came. Great herds of swine from forest and glen were brought. They, too, were equal.
Lastly, droves and droves of cattle were brought. In the King's
herd there was a young bull named
Then Meav's sorrow was bitter, and calling a messenger, she asked if he knew where might be found a young bull to match with White-horned.
The messenger replied that he knew of a much finer bull called Donn Chuailgne, or Brown Bull of Cooley, which belonged to Dawra, the chief of Ulster.
"Go then," said Meav, "and ask Dawra to lend me the Bull for a
year. Tell him that he shall be well repaid, that he shall
receive fifty heifers and Brown Bull back again at the end of
that time. And if Dawra should seem unwilling to lend Brown
Bull, tell him that he may come with it himself, and that he
shall receive here land equal to his own, a chariot worth
So taking with him nine others, the messenger set out and soon arrived at Cooley. And when Dawra heard why the messengers had come, he received them kindly, and said at once that they should have Brown Bull.
Then the messengers began to speak and boast among themselves. "It was well," said one, "that Dawra granted us the Bull willingly, otherwise we had taken it by force."
As he spoke, a servant of Dawra came with food and drink for the strangers, and hearing how they spoke among themselves, he hastily and in wrath dashed the food upon the table, and returning to his master repeated to him the words of the messenger.
Then was Dawra very wrathful. And when, in the morning, the messengers came before him asking that he should fulfill his promise, he refused them.
So, empty-handed, the messengers returned to Queen Meav. And she, full of anger, decided to make good the boastful words of her messenger and take Brown Bull by force.
Then began a mighty war between the men of Ulster and the men of Connaught. And after many fights there was a great battle in which Meav was defeated. Yet was she triumphant, for she had gained possession of the Brown Bull.
But the Queen had little cause for triumph, for when Brown Bull
and White-horned met there was a fearful combat between them.
The whole land echoed with their bellowing. The earth shook
beneath their feet and the sky grew dark with flying sods of
earth and with flecks of foam. After long fighting Brown Bull
conquered, and goring
But Brown Bull, too, was wounded to death. Mad with pain and wounds, he turned to his own land, and there
The Cattle Raid of Cooley is a strange wild tale, yet from it we
can learn a great deal about the life of these old,
"He took the goads to his horses, and his whip inlaid in his
right hand. He took the reins to hold back his horses in his
left hand. Then he put the iron inlaid breast-plate on his
horses, so that they were covered from forehead to
We can almost see that wild charioteer and his horses, sheathed in bristling armor with "every front a way of tearing," as they dash amid the foe. And all through we come on lines like these full of color and detail, which tell us of the life of those folk of long ago.