Táin Bó Cúailnge

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How's the scheming today, Medb?


The Táin Bó Cúailnge, a.k.a. The Cattle Raid of Cooley, is an ancient Irish story from the Ulster Cycle of Celtic Mythology. The oldest surviving manuscripts date to the 12th century, but there are allusions to it in poems of the 7th century, and elements of it are strikingly similar to things the Greeks and Romans used to say of the Celts.

Queen Medb of Connacht commands the soldiers of Ireland to invade the kingdom of Ulster and steal its prized bull, Donn Cúailgne, the Brown Bull of Cooley, at any cost. Though Ulster stands defenseless before her army, she is opposed only by sixteen-year-old hero Cú Chulainn. Some magic, and a few gods make appearances.

A graphic novel based on the epic can be found here. The Decemberists' EP The Tain is a setting of Colin Meloy's interpretation/abridgment of the epic to Epic Rocking.

Tropes used in Táin Bó Cúailnge include:
  • The Ace: Cú Chulainn. He shows shades of being a Broken Ace from time to time, though.
  • Action Girl: Medb. Though she is the irresponsible, greedy bitch that starts all this off, she gets down and dirty with a spear in the thick of the fighting at several points.
  • Anything That Moves: Cú Chulainn, despite his intimate friendship with Fer Diad, has a wife, and allows the invasion to take Ulster unawares because he's off getting his end away with the wife of the King of Tara (or her handmaid, according to a monkish emendation to the text), and has numerous other female conquests in other stories.
  • Badass Boast: EVERYONE does this at one point or another. At one point, Medb claims (through simple multiplication) that her army alone numbers some 40 billion-strong.
  • Battle Epic
  • Big Bad Duumvirate: Medb and Ailill, though mostly Medb.
  • Bishonen: Cú Chulainn is described as fitting this trope. Most of the time. Totally subverted with his ríastrad (see Game Face below.)
  • Celtic Mythology
  • Combat by Champion
  • Costume Porn: Chapter 17 is very detailed in its description of Cú Chulainn's attire.
  • Does This Remind You of Anything?: Cú Chulainn defeats Fer Diad (his alleged lover) by ramming his spear through Fer Diad's anus.
  • Friendly Enemy: Fergus MacRoach. The one-time king of Ulster and leader of the Ulster Exiles who fight for Medb. He's also Cú Chulainn's foster father, and is the only person in Medb's ranks whom he never raises arms against.
  • Game Face: Cú Chulainn's ríastrad, variously described to English as the 'warp-spasm' or 'the Torque'.
  • God Save Us From the Queen: Medb.
  • Heroic BSOD: Cú Chulainn, after killing his best friend (and hinted lover) Fer Diad.
  • Heterosexual Life Partners: Cú Chulainn and Fer Diad.
  • Historical Fantasy: Possibly. Though set in the pre-Christian Iron Age, it was first written down by Christians in the early Middle Ages. It's anyone's guess how much of it was actual oral history and how much was added by the people who committed it to manuscript.
    • Well it is probable that people did steal cattle at that time.
  • I Am X, Son of Y: Near the start of the story this line pops up: "the High King of Erin himself was my sire, Eocho Fedlech ('the Enduring') son of Finn, by name, who was son of Findoman, son of Finden, son of Findguin, son of Rogen Ruad ('the Red'), son of Rigen, son of Blathacht, son of Beothacht, son of Enna Agnech, son of Oengus Turbech."
  • If It's You It's Okay: Cú Chulainn has numerous lady friends, but there's only one Fer Diad.
  • Infinity+1 Blade on a Stick: Cú Chulainn's Gáe Bolga.
  • It's All My Fault: Upon hearing of the slaughter of the youths of Ulster, Cú Chulainn blames himself, as he thinks he could have saved him if he wasn't recuperating from his wounds at the time, and insists upon avenging them immediately.
  • I Want Grandkids: Medb and Ailill use this as an excuse when they start offering their daughter Finnabhair to ANYONE who's able to kill Cú Chulainn for them. Cú Chulainn ensures she dies a virgin.
  • Just a Kid: Medb's reaction upon first hearing of Cú Chulainn.
  • Karma Houdini: Medb.
  • Lady of War: Medb rarely joins the fighting, but when the fighting comes to her, she knows how to throw down.
  • Lock and Load Montage: Cú Chulainn, shortly before his first warp spasm.
  • Luke, I Am Your Father: Lugh the Long Handed reveals himself as Cú Chulainn's father.
  • Names to Run Away From Really Fast : Cú Chulainn, Morrígan, Badb, Nemain, Cethern... lots and lots of this.
  • Older Than Feudalism: The events told are supposed to have taken place in Iron Age Ireland, roughly 2000 years ago.
  • One-Man Army: Why did Medb agree to a daily Combat by Champion between her forces and Cú Chulainn when she has a massive advantage in numbers? Because otherwise he'd be killing a hundred of her men a day.
  • Pyrrhic Villainy: Medb technically wins. Despite Cú Chulainn's valiant efforts to delay her, not only does her army capture Donn Cuailgne and bring him back to Connacht, she also lays waste to much of Ulster (which she considers a personal bonus). Everything unravels for her in the end, however, when Donn Cuailgne and Finnbennach are placed in the same pen and they they kill one another--meaning the whole táin was all for nothing in the end.
  • Remember the New Guy?: Fer Diad has never been mentioned before he's introduced as Cú Chulainn's best friend from way back.
  • The Rival: Fer Diad to Cú Chulainn. Medb and Ailill hire him to face Cú Chulainn because he's said to be Cú Chulainn's only equal. Cú Chulainn kills him.
  • Roaring Rampage of Revenge: Cú Chulainn after the boys are slaughtered.
  • The Rustler: It's about a cattle raid of course.
  • Shoot the Shaggy Dog: Medb starts the war because her husband Ailill has a magic bull (Finnbennach), and she doesn't. She practically burns Ulster to the ground and loses hundreds (possibly thousands) of her own soldiers trying to get her hands on Donn Cuailgne, only for Donn Cuailgne and Finnbennach to kill one another, thus rendering Medb and Ailill equal--in their lack of a magic bull.
  • Super-Powered Evil Side: Cú Chulainn's warp-spasm.
  • Talking in Bed: Medb and Ailill at the beginning.
  • The Unpronounceable: It can be assured that most of the names in this (including the title--The Toy-n Boh Coon-yah) are NOT pronounced as they look. See Irish Names for pronunciation help.
  • War Is Glorious: Cú Chulainn thinks this.
  • War Is Hell: Medb demonstrates this.
  • Wave Motion Sword: Fergus's Caladbolg.
  • We Can Rule Together: After enduring Cú Chulainn's guerrilla-style assault on her men for quite some time, Medb offers to pay for all the ruin she's caused to Ulster, give him all the booze and women he could wish for, and pay him ridiculously well if he simply quits this whole thing and enters service under her. This only pisses Cú Chulainn off more.
  • Whole-Episode Flashback: The action stops for some time as Fergus and the other exiles tell their Connacht allies stories of Cú Chulainn's childhood adventures.
  • You Wouldn't Like Me When I'm Angry: Cú Chulainn's warp-spasm.