The Táin Bó Cúailnge (pronounced approximately tawn bow coolna), known in English as The Cattle Raid of Cooley, is one of the great Irish Sagas. There are many translations and illustrated versions, perhaps the most famous being that of Thomas Kinsella, illustrated by Louis LeBrocquy, published by the Dolmen Press in 1969. Almost forgotten now is the version by Mary Ann Hutton, illustrated by John Campbell – but it deserves to be remembered as one of the masterpieces of the Irish literary and artistic revival.
First of all, what is The Táin? It’s an epic tale, first written in the 7th century but preserved in various versions from the 11th to the 14th centuries with many modifications, additions and changes along the way. It tells the story of Queen Maeve, jealous of her husband’s white-horned bull, who determines to acquire the even more prestigious Brown Bull of Cooley from Ulster, ignoring the foretelling of a dreadful outcome should she proceed. The Ulstermen are rendered unable to fight by a curse, leaving the great warrior, Cuchulain, to fight alone – which, by the way, is no bother to him, especially once his warp-spasm, or battle-rage, comes on him. However, in the end he fights and kills his old friend and foster-brother, Ferdia. There’s a lot more to it, of course, and much of the tale is told by Fergus, who relates the whole story of Cuchulain as a youth and his many heroic deeds.
And what about the author and illustrator, neither of them now a household name, although justly acclaimed in their day? Mary Ann Hutton was born in England but had strong Irish connections and moved to Belfast when she married. She was highly educated, with an academic knowledge of Old and Middle Irish and became a fluent Irish speaker. She was an ardent supporter of Patrick Pearse and the Gaelic League and became a central figure in the Gaelic revival. Her version of The Táin was the result of ten years of intense scholarship. It is not a translation, but rather a rendition in blank verse of the story informed by her research into its various versions and iterations. She uses her own spellings as well – Maev and Cucullin, for example. I couldn’t find a photograph of Mary Ann, but here is the illustrator, below.
The illustrator was John Patrick Campbell, although in the spirit of the Gaelic Revival, he styled himself as Seaghan McCathmhaoil. There’s a wonderful biographical and appreciative sketch in the Irish Arts Review of 1998 by Paul Larmour* and that’s where I learned that he was also based in Belfast, that he produced illustrations for the first edition of Hutton’s Táin in 1907, but they were not used until the second edition, in 1924, and then only a selection of his illustrations were included. That’s a pity, because according to Larmour, Campbell’s illustrations for the Táin were ‘among his most impressive.’ They certainly capture the romantic spirit of the Celtic Revival period, and show his mastery of line drawing and strong black and white palette. Larmour says, This Irish epic poem conjuring up the ring of battle and the revelry of kings gave full scope to Campbell’s by now increasingly powerful expression and individuality, the drawings showing great strength of composition, dramatic power, and richness of decoration.
I couldn’t agree more, so here are a few selections from the text (it’s available online at good old archive.org) along with Campbell/MacCathmhaoil’s illustrations. The illustration above, captioned Maev’s Second Meeting with Fergus, is from Larmour’s article and is one of those that was, inexplicably, not eventually used in the book.
Came from the grave where five times five score years
He had been hidden. And a beautiful
And rich appearance was upon that warrior.
Brown hair was on him ; and a hooded layna
With red inweaving of red gold. A bratt
Of bright grass-green was round him ; and he wore
A golden-hilted sword, and round-toed shoes
Wrought all of bronze. And when that warrior, Fergus,
Perceived the holy men of Erin nigh him,
It was his wish to stand, and standing, tell
The Táin he had to tell.
This was the time wherein Maev called and spake
Unto her charioteer, and bade him catch
Her steeds and yoke her chariot, so that straightway
She might repair to speak with her own Druid
And ask for prophecy and knowledge. “ Wait
One while, O Queen,” the charioteer made answer,
“ That I may three times wheel the chariot round
Sunwise, to win a sign of luck and fortune.”
He wheeled the chariot sunwise, and then Maev
Rode to her Druid. When she reached the Druid,
She asked for prophecy and knowledge.
I see a man youthful and very fair,
Who will perform great deeds, and win his fill
Of hurts and wounds in his smooth fine-fair skin.
Upon his brow, which is a meeting-place
For victories, the hero’s light flames high.
Amidst each eye the seven dragon-gems
Of a pure hero-champion flame and burn.
Plain to perceive, his intellect is keen.
A red hooked layna folds him. His fresh face
Is beautiful and noble. He observes
Towards women courtesy and modesty.
Though a mere stripling, blooming, dainty-cheeked,
He in the battle shows a dragon’s form.
His fairness and his valour now resemble
Cucullin of Mweerhevna ; and though, truly,
Who this Cucullin of green Moy Mweerhevna
May be I know not, yet this thing I know
These hosts by him will all be very red.
Four little swords for feats of special skill
He carries in each hand : he will attain
To plying these upon the hosts : the hosts
Will flee from him on every road and way.
When, in addition to his spear and sword,
He brings his dread Gae Bulg, he plants his feet
On every slope and hill. Two spears project
O’er his bright chariot-wheels : he rides to battle.
Fury distorts him, battle-fury changes
That form which hitherto I have perceived.
He is Cucullin son of Sooaltim,
Hound of the Forge : he wends unto a battle.
Your hosts, now whole, he will hack down and fell.
He will compel your slain thickly to lie.
Strong men will leave their heads with him. This I,
Fedelm the Prophetess, will not conceal.
Red blood shall drip from the white skins of heroes
Lasting and long the memory shall be
Bodies shall there be torn, women shall wail,
Through deeds of that renowned Hound of the Forge,
Whom now, O Queen, I see.
Ended her prophecy : and Maev rode back
From seeking-out of prophecy and knowledge.
Said Laeg, “ here comes a chariot-rider towards us.”
“ Describe him, then, good Laeg,” Cucullin said;
And Laeg described him thus:
“ Larger,” said he,
Than is some heathy knoll, rising alone
From out a grassy level, seems to me
His noble chariot. Larger than the tree,
Reverenced and old, that stands upon the green
Of some king’s doon, appears to me the hair
That curls and waves in golden bright abundance
About that warrior’s head. A crimson fooan,
Fringed and embroidered, folds him round : a spike
Of graven gold secures it. In his hand
He holds a wide, red-flaming spear. A shield,
Carven, and compassed by a ridge of gold,
He has ; and a long sword-sheath, which for size
Is like the rudder of some kingly vessel,
Reposes on the huge and seated thighs
Of that great, haughty warrior, planted there
’Midst of his chariot.”
Then Cucullin cried :
“ Oh, welcome, ever welcome is the coming
Of that beloved guest ! I know that guest.
It is my guardian and my fosterer,
My gentle, noble Fergus, who comes there.”
Cucullin saw his weapon, red with blood,
Lying beside Faerdeeah ; and he said:
“ O my Faerdeeah, sorrowful the fate !
I, with my merciless weapon still unwashed :
Thou, pale in death upon a couch of gore.
Sad—what has come of our meeting here
I, wounded, sinking, covered with rough gore:
Thou, altogether dead ! Oh, dear to me
The friend to whom I have served a draught of blood!”