The American author of a thriller set in Ireland (The Gombeen Man, 1992) retells the greatest Irish tale of them all, the mythical Tain—the greatest tale in the sense that, as with the Iliad and the Odyssey in Greek literature, all Irish literature descends from it. Also known as the Tain Bo Cualigne, and, in English, as The Cattle Raid of Cooley, the epic concerns the rise of a hero, Cuchulainn, whose forebears were gods, and who even as a child was a mighty warrior. The story opens with a comic argument between the king and queen of Connacht, a powerful province in ancient Ireland. As the two lie in bed after making love, they take an elaborate inventory of their holdings, which are absolutely equal except that King Ailill owns a massive bull with mythic procreative powers. Queen Maeve, jealous, learns of another such bull in the weak neighboring province of Ulster and musters her armies to capture him. Adventures galore take place on the march, and, in epic style, soldiers declaim on their prowess in battle and in bed (The Raid is remarkably graphic in its depictions both of killing and of lust). Although Eickhoff renders some passages in verse, for the most part he tries to give the great epic the form of a modern novel. It's episodic all the same, rather like one of Robert E. Howard's Conan the Barbarian stories. The chief barbarian here, of course, is mighty Cuchulainn, who with strength, valor, and magic almost single-handedly defends Ulster from the invading Connachtmen, saving the mythic bull and securing his own immortality. As Eickhoff points out in his fine introduction, ``Sinn Fein'' means ``ourselves alone.'' Against the invading British, that is. A seamless blend of scholarship and storytelling, though perhaps too specialized for a wide American audience.
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