The Táin, by Hutton and Campbell

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 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.

And Fergus

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.

The Prophetess

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!”

*John Campbell (1883-1962) An Artist Of The Irish Revival by Paul Larmour, 1998 Volume: 14, Pages: 62 – 73

24 thoughts

  1. I suggest the viewer enlarge the drawings on the computer to appreciate more fully the exquisite detail of flowing garments, gestures, expressions on people and horses as well as detailed decor on vehicles of war. So lovely.


  2. A wonderful book, and the illustrations are gorgeous. The text has a very stirring, heroic feel about it! What is a layna (is it a cloak?) and a bratt of bright grass-green? It sounds as if they wore very colourful clothing.


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