The Tain

by Ciaran Carson
223 pages, Historical Fiction
Reviewed by Jenny

An epic story of ancient Ireland, but lacking in morals, violent, and crude.


Translated by Ciaran Carson.

Who is wealthier: Ailill, or his queen Medb? The question is a result of a curious and not exactly warm session of pillow-talk between the Irish aristocrats, and having no immediate answer, the two determine to get to the root of the matter. All their possessions are brought out and counted, and for a while it is found that their wealth is comparable...until it is discovered that the great White Bull, born in Medb’s herd, has gone over to Ailill’s herd, and Medb has no bull to compare. Disgruntled, the proud queen sends word to the men of neighboring Ulster to let her ‘borrow’ their prize Brown Bull. When the answer comes back as no, Ailill and Medb gather their warriors to take the Brown Bull by force.

Unfortunately for them, the Ulstermen have the famed and mighty Cú Chulainn on their side.


Cú Chulainn is usually fair in battle, though not always; people are generally breaking the rules of fair combat in order to defeat him, since he is so powerful, and his vengeance is usually swift and brutal. All manner of cunning schemes, tricks, deceptions, and the like, are used and not repented of by all trying to defeat Cú Chulainn and capture the Brown Bull of Ulster.

Medb is devious, as most women are shown to be, and uses all her feminine wiles, as well as the wiles of some other women, to get her way.

Spiritual Content

As in the Iliad and the Odyssey of the Greeks, the gods of the ancient Irish appear at times to mortals, but this is rare, and their amount of overt meddling with the mortals is small compared to Greek tales. Druids, of which there are a plethora, are generally content to chant their visions of the future. The Celtic gods are sworn by. Cú Chulainn has the ability to call on the elements to come to his aid against his enemies. Various spells are cast at times.


There is plenty of violence in this story, as it deals mainly with war and warriors. People get their heads chopped off, various other limbs removed, dismembered, and the like; a dog gets a ball shot down its throat which, under its momentum, carries its insides out its back end. Songs are sung of the crows’ feast on the battlefield. This is most certainly a story about war.

The Ulstermen are reputedly under ‘the Curse,’ which is referenced to have begun when a woman, very swift, was boasted as being as fast as a king’s horses. Though she was late into a pregnancy, she was called on to race the Ulster king’s horses. When she reached the end of the field she gave birth, and in her pain cried out that all Ulstermen who could hear her would suffer the same pains for nearly a week in their time of greatest difficulty. The Ulstermen suffer this Curse as Ailill and Medb come upon them.

Drug and Alcohol Content

Being a tale of the Irish, it is not surprising that there are instances of drinking and recorded drunkenness. Because Cú Chulainn is such a formidable warrior to approach, plenty of men are got drunk in order to be wheedled into accepting single combat with him.

Sexual Content

At one point a warrior is seen approaching a town in full battle splendor and the leaders, terrified for themselves, command that the naked women be sent out to appease the man. The identity of the warrior was mistaken and nothing comes of the instance, but it shows that this practice was prevalent among the culture.

Queen Medb is involved in a few affairs, both actual and proposed — thankfully these are not described in detail by this particular translator. As was common with advancing armies, defeated villages were raped and despoiled. This, too, is not described in detail.

Crude or Profane Language or Content

When Cú Chulainn asks a man if the army is afraid him, the man assures the warrior that not one man will relieve himself outside the camp for fear of death at Cú Chulainn’s hand.

There are mentions of bodily parts and functions.


While lacking in morals and gruesome at times, this story is an engrossing tale of ancient Ireland and its heroes. It is said that the Irish are never happy unless they are picking a fight, and the Táin Bó Cúailnge depicts this perfectly. While the story is one of bloodshed, jealousy, and strife among tribes, the atmosphere of the story is humorous and light. The climax of the tale is exhilarating to read as all of Ulster come together against the approaching enemy and the biggest battle of Ireland, begun over two bulls, is fought. Both ridiculous in its beginning and tremendous in its conclusion, the Táin is a timeless story of the Irish people.

Fun Score: 4.5
Values Score: 1
Written for Age: adult

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