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Ancient Celtic Centers — Cruachain and the Tale of the Tain

Ancient Celtic Centers — Cruachain and the Tale of the Tain

In this post, Christian author Mark Fisher summarizes the Tale of the Tain, which begins the Ulster Cycle, a series of Celtic mythological tales that begin and end in Cruachain.  We’ve been looking at ancient Celtic centers, of which Cruachain was the capital of ancient Connacht.

The Palace of Cruachain

Of the history of Cruachain and what went on there, we know little. The mythical Tale of the Tain, or Táin Bó Fraích, gives us a tantalizing view of what Cruachain might have looked like. The tale begins and ends in the palace of Cruachain, a great round building with wooden pillars supporting a second story. Inside is a maze of rooms paneled in red yew. The royal hall and bedroom occupy the house’s center.

The Tale of the Táin

As summarized from How the Irish Saved Civilization, by Thomas Cahill, here is the gist of the conversation between Ailill and Medb (Maeve) as the Táin opens:

Medb of Connacht

King Ailill, who was once Queen Medb’s chief bodyguard, is lying in bed with her.The bedroom is “guarded by screens of copper with bars of silver and gold birds on the screen, and precious jewels in the birds’ heads for eyes.”

Foolishly, Ailill remarks that Medb is now better off than when he married her.

Medb replies she was already wealthy before she married him. She reminds him her father was high king of Ireland and that she was the “highest and haughtiest” of his daughters. “I outdid them in grace and giving and battle and warlike combat,” she says, then proceeds to brag about the fifteen hundred soldiers under her royal command and the number of her household servants. “My father gave me a whole province of Ireland, this province ruled from Cruachan, which is why I am called ‘Medb of Cruachan’.” She then recounts the number of suitors who wooed her and how only Ailill met her qualifications—“the absence of meanness and jealousy and fear.”

Ailill joins the fray by bringing up his royal lineage and that, “I never heard, in all Ireland, of a province run by a woman except this one, which is why I came and took the kingship there.”

The argument between them heats up, and they begin comparing their fortunes, but cannot agree on whose is greater. They decide to take an inventory. This they proceed to do, counting and comparing the number of buckets, tubs, jugs, finger-rings, bracelets, thumb-rings, and cloths of purple—blue, black, green and yellow. When each found the other’s possessions to be equal to theirs, they moved to the fields, where they compared and counted their herds of sheep. These, too, were equal, even matching two great rams of comparable worth from each flock.

From the far pastures, they brought in their horses and stallions and great herds of pigs. But these too were fairly matched, even finding a great boar in each herd of comparable worth. Finally, they began to compare their vast herds of cattle. But here, to her great dismay, Medb could find no match for Ailill’s great bull Finnbennach, the White-Horned.

Upset over losing this encounter, Medb sends her messenger to Daire, the King of Ulster, in whose possession is the Donn Cuailnge, the great Brown Bull, the only beast in all Ireland known to be of equal worth to Finnbennach. “Ask Daire to lend me Donn Cuailnge for a year,” she says to the messenger. “At the end of the year he can have fifty yearling heifers in payment for the loan, and the Brown Bull of Cualigne back. And you can offer him this too … if Daire himself comes with the bull, I’ll give him a portion of the Plain of Aí equal to his own lands, and a chariot worth thrice seven bondmaids, and my own friendly thighs on top of that.”

Daire accepts, but afterward, the messengers get drunk with their hosts and foolishly claim they would have taken the bull anyway. This causes Daire to rescind the offer he’d just made. This, in turn, leads Medb to start the great cattle raid on Ulster that the rest of the story recounts.

If you read my last post, you already know how promiscuous and unfaithful was Medb. And if it suited her ends, she, like most of the Irish kings, thought nothing of murder. Here, also we find pride and revenge. There’s enough palace intrigue, treachery, and guile here to fuel a host of Shakespearean plots.

Mark is the author of The Bonfires of Beltane, a novel of Christian historical fiction set in ancient, Celtic Ireland at the time of St. Patrick. To learn more about his book, click on the link above.

Sources for this post were How the Irish Saved Civilization, by Thomas Cahill  and Wikipedia.