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English 380: Read-along Questions for "Before The Táin Bó Cuailnge" (pp. 1-50 of Kinsella translation)

Vocabulary: bard, druid, folk epic, etiology, imbas forasnai, litotes, toponyms

Character Identification: the bard Senchán, Nes, Fergus mac Roich, Cathbad the Druid, the landlord Crunniuc and his pregnant wife Macha, the doomed lovers Noisu and Derdriu, Cúchulainn (Setente), Scathach, Aife, Emer, Connla, King Conchobor, the two pigkeepers

Other identifications of places and things: battle-feats, the white bull Finnbennach and the brown bull Don Cuailnge, the gae bolga, Teamhair (Tara), Emain Macha

NB: Setanta is the same character as Cúchulainn, it's just his boyhood name rather than his adult nick-name. Don't be confused by this!

Lecture Notes:

  • What are some possible remnants of ancient pagan fertility rites that still appear in The Tain?
  • Why is the spancel-hoop appropriate as something to leave in the path of the on-coming warriors if you want to indicate they should stop their approach?
  • What are some subtle signs of unified Celtic culture across Ireland, Britain, Scotland, and Europe that appear in this poem?
  • Note the signs of hidden or lost customs unfamiliar to modern readers in The Tain. What do you make in general about Conchobor's "old oath" that means he can never turn down an invitation to an ale-feast (p. 14)? What about Derdriu's actions when she grabs Noisiu by the ears and calls out "two ears of shame and mockery" upon him (p. 12)?
  • Note the appearance of all the iron chariots with scythed wheels in this work. When was the last time iron chariots were used in Britain? What does that suggest about the age of the story details in The Táin, and how does that compare to the age of the medieval manuscript?
  • To what degree does it make sense to read The Táin as being a work focused on gender and the conflict of the sexes?
  • Given the work's obsessive interest in spears and swords, with piercing and penetration, men fighting women, to what degree does it make sense to read The Táin as being a Freudian work? To what extent does the violence merely sublimated sex? To what extent is the sex merely sublimated violence?
  • The poem repeatedly pits men against their loved ones and relatives in battle. Fergus and Cuchulainn, best friends, must face off against each other or strive to find a way to avoid direct confrontation. Cúchulainn ends up killing his son, Connla, even as Ever begs him not to fight. Does this seem stupid to you? Noble? Which matters more--people or principles? Is it better to live up to your word or to let your loved ones live and break your vows? Does honor and glory matter more for the Irish than familial bonds in this poem?

Reading Questions:

Before the Táin

  • In the opening of "How The Tain Bó Cuailnge was Found Again," what problem are the bards having?
  • When Senchán is traveling past the grave of Fergus mac Roich, who appears in a vision to recite the entire Taín for him?
  • How does Princess Nes end up sleeping with Cathbad? Do you believe his prophecy? Or is this a bit of opportunistic flim-flam?
  • How long is Nes pregnant?
  • Because of Conchobor's popularity, all the men in Ulster allow him to do what before they get married?
  • How do the men of Ulster wind up cursed so that they experience the pains of childbirth each year for five days and four nights or five nights and four days?
  • What disturbing sound comes from the belly of Fedlimid's wife? What does Cathbad prophesy concerning this?
  • When Noisiu talks to Derdriu about "a fine heifer going by"--what is he actually referring to? Is this complimentary or insulting?
  • Why do 150 men and 150 women of Uisliu's people flee to Alba? Where is Alba?
  • Why do 3,000 of the Ulstermen flee to Connacht?
  • King Conchobor and his brother Eogan killed Noisiu and took Derdriu as a slave after she attempted to run off with him. In desperation, what unusual method does she use to kill herself to avoid this fate?

How Cúchulainn Was Begotten

  • In the opening of "How Cúchulainn Was Begotten," the men at Emain Plain are hunting birds. What jewelry do these birds wear as they fly in couples? Do you think there is something symbolic about this? What about the idea that there are no walls or fences dividing up the land yet? What does that suggest about the people in this mythic past of Ireland?

His Training in Arms

  • The chariot-warriors of Ulster know a number of impressive or unusual battle feats, which The Táin catalogs at length with little explanation. List any one of those impressive battle feats, and compare their skills on pages 25-26 with those Scathach teaches on page 34. How much overlap is there in the skill sets?
  • How is Setanta (Cúchulainn's) early education handled? Who teaches him and what does he learn?
  • Explain (if you aren't too embarassed!) the double-entendre Cúchulainn uses as he speaks with Emer regarding fair countries and resting places for weapons.
  • What do you make of the fact that Fogall Monach visits Emain Macha dressed in Gaulish clothes? Who or what are the Gauls and how do they connect (or fail to connect) with the peoples of Ireland in terms of race and geography?
  • When Uathach considers sleeping with the hot and attractive young, Cuchulainn, she tells her mother "it would be no hardship" to perform this act. What literary device is this? (Consult the list of relevant vocabulary at the top of this page for possibilities.)
  • After Aife shatters Cúchulainn's sword, what trick does he use to distract her? After he gains the upper hand, he asks for what three things in order to spare her life?

The Death of Aife's One Son

  • Explain the pun Cúchulainn makes after Connla chops off his hair. Does this seem appropriate as a time for puns? Why or why not?
  • Cúchulainn uses a gae bolga to kill Connla. What is a gae bolga?
  • How do the Ulstermen honor Connla's death and Cúchulainn's hard choice in killing the boy, i.e., what do they do with calves across the country-side?

How the Bulls Were Begotten

  • What triggers a quarrel between the two pig-keepers?
  • The two pig-keepers, as part of their magical duel after cursing each other's pigs, begin a contest of shape-changing as they fight each other. List any three animal forms they take. What final forms do they wind up in?


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