So I just finished reading The Tain, translated from the Old Irish by Ciaran Carson. I've heard a lot about this story. It's a pretty big deal in Irish literature and history so it's mentioned and referenced a lot. For good reason I think. It was a very powerful and emotive story. Basic story line:
King Ailill and Queen Medb have a matrimonial fracas over who has brought the most wealth to their marriage. They count all of their possessions only to find that they are equally matched except for one Bull which really belongs to Medb but goes over to Ailill so as not to be counted as a woman's property. So Medb decides to steal another bull to match him. This leads them into a series of cattle raids and battles between the hero Cu Chulainn who single handed wards off forces from all over Ireland and protects Ulster for months. It all ends with the two Bulls fighting and killing each other and the armies calling a truce.
One thing that really stood out to me is how women are portrayed.
First you have Queen Medb who is a powerful warrior getting into a feminist little tiff with her husband and then to prove her worth instigates this series of events. Several times through out the story she asks for favors from men offering "the friendship of her thighs" as a reward for their service. She causes their great ally Fergus to lose his sword by sleeping with him. Her pride and fickleness are continually sited as the reason men are losing their lives.
Then you have Finnabair, Ailill and Medb's daughter. She apparently is very beautiful because her hand in marriage is offered up as the prize for many different men if they will join the army and/or defeat Cu Chulainn. She is the reason Cu Chulainn's foster brother and greatest friend Fer Diad is tricked into combating Cu Chulainn which battle ends with his death. She eventually dies of shame when it is discovered how many men have been promised her hand and 700 men are killed as a result.
The other women are either mentioned as pleasure giving objects, Cu Chulainn's wife, or vindictive bit players in the greater story, the Morrigan. At the same time there are women who are strong characters (though really only mentioned as background characters) like Scathach who is Cu Chulainn's foster mother and the one who trained him and Fer Diad in the martial arts.
A very interesting look at the role of women/how they were seen in ancient Irish society.
Perhaps it is emphasized more in this translation, but I can completely understand how the Northern Irish unionists have taken this story as their own. The pitting of Ulster against the rest of Ireland is very clear and a very powerful part of the story. There always has been something a bit seperate about Ulster and I think this is something I want to explore further.
The one thing I really loved was when the Ulstermen begin assembling for the war and King Ailill's scout, Mac Roth, is relaying the information about all the different companies and their warrior leaders. Then the chapter closes with this:
"And many more companies were still arriving as I left. Wherever I cast my eye," said Mac Roth, "on any hill or height from Fer Diad's Ford to Slane in Meath, all I could see was men and horses." "What you saw was a people coming together," said Fergus.
So powerful, so moving. That is what we need now in Northern Ireland. A rallying cry. A reason for all the people to come together.