The Irish poet and author best known in the United States for his wonderful autobiography The Star Factory (1998) offers a new translation of his country’s ebullient epic tale, also known as “The Cattle Raid of Cooley.”
It’s actually one segment of the larger Táin Bó Cúailnge, itself part of the 8th-century Ulster Cycle, which celebrates the deeds of the prehistoric inhabitants of Northern Ireland. In an introductory section, Carson mostly suggests that his Táin be viewed as “commentary” on and “tribute” to Thomas Kinsella’s near-legendary 1969 translation. Yet the elegant introductory section bespeaks his authority as much as do the vigorous rhythms of the agreeably blood-drenched narrative he translates: a combination of prose and verse, as it happens, with roots in and debts to the epics of Homer and Virgil and the stories of the Christian Bible. The story begins when Queen Medb of Connacht, jealous of her husband King Ailill’s possession of a fertile white bull, negotiates the loan of a great brown bull owned by the king of Ulster. When it is learned the men of Connacht were prepared to use force, agreements are voided and a catastrophic “raid” ensues—in which Ulster’s stalwart teenaged hero Cú Chulainn prevails in single combat against successive Connacht challengers (including those who shape-shift into fearsome nonhuman creatures). Hyperbole attends both the combatants’ frequently exchanged boasts and the core narrative (e.g., “In that great massacre…Cú Chullain slew seven score and ten kings as well as innumerable dogs and horses, women and children, not to mention underlings and rabble”). Ominous visions attend the climactic three-day battle between Cú Chullain and Connacht’s champion Fer Diad (the former’s foster brother and friend)—which is succeeded by the clashing of the great bulls themselves, then the arrangement of a peace between Ulster and Connacht.
A great story, too little known in this country, and an invaluable treasure for both its suggestive contemporary relevance and its elemental beauty and power.