The Tain Bo Culaigne
The Occasion of the Táin
Then were brought to them the
least precious of their possessions, that they
might know which of them had the more treasures, riches and wealth. Their pails
and their cauldrons and their iron-wrought vessels, their jugs and their keeves
and their eared pitchers were fetched to them.
Likewise, their rings and their bracelets and their thumbrings and their
golden treasures were fetched to them, and their apparel, both purple and blue
and black and green, yellow, vari-coloured and gray, dun, mottled and brindled.
Their numerous flocks of sheep were led in from fields and meeds and plains.
These were counted and compared, and found to be equal, of like size, of like
number; however, there was an uncommonly fine ram over Medb's sheep, and he was
equal in worth to a bondmaid, but a corresponding ram was over the ewes of
Their horses and steeds and studs were brought from pastures and paddocks.
There was a noteworthy horse in Medb's herd and he was of the value of a
bondmaid; a horse to match was found among Ailill's.
Then were their numerous droves of swine driven from woods and shelving glens
and wolds. These were numbered and counted and claimed. There was a noteworthy
boar with Medb, and yet another with Ailill.
Next they brought before them their droves of cattle and their herds and
their roaming flocks from the brakes and wastes of the province.
These were counted and numbered and claimed, and were the same for both,
equal in size, equal in number, except only there was an especial bull of the
bawn of Ailill, and he was a calf of one of Medb's cows, and Finnbennach ('the
Whitehorned') was his name. But he, deeming it no honour to be in a woman's
possession, had left and gone over to the kine of the king. And it was the same
to Medb as if she owned not a pennyworth, forasmuch as she had not a bull of his
size amongst her cattle.
Then it was that macRoth the messenger was summoned to Medb, and Medb
strictly bade macRoth to learn where there might be found a bull of that
likeness in any of the provinces of Erin. "Verily," said macRoth, "I know where
the bull is that is best and better again, in the province of Ulster, in the
hundred of Cualnge, in the house of Darè son of Fiachna; even Donn Cualnge ('the
Brown Bull of Cualnge') he is called."
"Go thou to him, macRoth, and ask for me of Darè the loan for a year of the
Brown Bull of Cualnge, and at the year's end he shall have the meed of the loan,
to wit, fifty heifers and the Donn Cualnge himself. And bear thou a further boon
with thee, macRoth. Should the borderfolk and those of the country grudge the
loan of that rare jewel that is the Brown Bull of Cualnge, let Darè himself come
with his bull, and he shall get a measure equalling his own land of the smooth
Plain of Ai and a chariot of the worth of thrice seven bondmaids and he shall
enjoy my own close friendship."
Thereupon the messengers fared forth to the house of Darè son of Fiachna.
This was the number wherewith macRoth went, namely, nine couriers. Anon welcome
was lavished on macRoth in Darè's house-- fitting welcome it was-- chief
messenger of all was macRoth. Darè asked of macRoth what had brought him upon
the journey and why he was come.
The messenger announced the cause for which he was come and related the
contention between Medb and Ailill. "And it is to beg the loan of the Brown Bull
of Cualnge to match the Whitehorned that I am come," said he; "and thou shalt
receive the hire of his loan, even fifty heifers and the Brown of Cualnge
himself. And yet more I may add: Come thyself with thy bull and thou shalt have
of the land of the smooth soil of Mag Ai as much as thou ownest here, and a
chariot of the worth of thrice seven bondmaids and enjoy Medb's friendship to
At these words Darè was well pleased, and he leaped for joy so that the seams
of his flock-bed rent in twain beneath him. "By the truth of our conscience,"
said he; "however the Ulstermen take it, whether ill or well, this time this
jewel shall be delivered to Ailill and to Medb, the Brown of Cualnge to wit,
into the land of Connacht." Well pleased was macRoth at the words of the son of
Thereupon they were served, and straw and fresh rushes were spread under
them. The choicest of food was brought to them and a feast was served to them
and soon they were noisy and drunken. And a discourse took place between two of
the messengers." 'Tis true what I say," spoke the one; "good is the man in whose
house we are." "Of a truth, he is good." "Nay, is there one among all the men of
Ulster better than he?" persisted the first. "In sooth, there is," answered the
second messenger. "Better is Conchobar whose man he is, Conchobar who holds the
kingship of the province. And though all the Ulstermen gathered around him, it
were no shame for them. Yet is it passing good of Darè, that what had been a
task for the four mighty provinces of Erin to bear away from the land of Ulster,
even the Brown Bull of Cualnge, is surrendered so freely to us nine footmen."
Hereupon a third runner had his say: " What is this ye dispute about?" he
asked. "Yon runner says, 'A good man is the man in whose house we are.'" "Yea,
he is good," saith the other. "Is there among all the Ulstermen any that is
better than he?" demanded the first runner further. "Aye, there is," answered
the second runner; "better is Conchobar whose man he is; and though all the
Ulstermen gathered around him, it were no shame for them. Yet, truly good it is
of Darè, that what had been a task for four of the grand provinces of Erin to
bear away out of the borders of Ulster is handed over even unto us nine
footmen." "I would not grudge to see a retch of blood and gore in the mouth
whereout that was said; for, were the bull not given willingly, yet should he be
taken by force!"
At that moment it was that Darè macFiachna's chief steward came into the
house and with him a man with drink and another with food, and he heard the
foolish words of the runners; and anger came upon him, and he set down their
food and drink for them and he neither said to them, "Eat," nor did he say, "Eat
Straightway he went into the house where was Darè macFiachna and said: "Was
it thou that hast given that notable jewel to the messengers, the Brown Bull of
Cualnge?" "Yea, it was I," Darè made answer. "Verily, it was not the part of a
king to give him. For it is true what they say: Unless thou hadst bestowed him
of thine own free will, so wouldst thou yield him in despite of thee by the host
of Ailill and Medb and by the great cunning of Fergus macRoig." "I swear by the
gods whom I worship," spoke Darè, " they shall in no wise take by foul means
what they cannot take by fair!"
There they abide till morning. Betimes on the morrow the runners arise and
proceed to the house where is Darè. "Acquaint us, lord, how we may reach the
place where the Brown Bull of Cualnge is kept." "Nay then," saith Darè; "but
were it my wont to deal foully with messengers or with travelling folk or with
them that go by the road, not one of you would depart alive!" "How sayest thou?"
quoth macRoth. "Great cause there is," replied Darè; "ye said, unless I yielded
in good sort, I should yield to the might of Ailill's host and Medb's and the
great cunning of Fergus."
"Even so," said macRoth, "whatever the runners drunken with thine ale and thy
viands have said, 'tis not for thee to heed nor mind, nor yet to be charged on
Ailill and on Medb." "For all that, macRoth, this time I will not give my bull,
if ever I can help it!"
Back then the messengers go till they arrive at Cruachan, the stronghold of
Connacht. Medb asks their tidings, and macRoth makes known the same: that they
had not brought his bull from Darè. "And the reason?" demanded Medb. MacRoth
recounts to her how the dispute arose. "There is no need to polish knots over
such affairs as that, macRoth; for it was known," said Medb, "if the Brown Bull
of Cualnge would not be given with their will, he would be taken in their
despite, and taken he shall be!"