The Táin Bó Cuailnge is the great Irish epic that describes devastating episodes of battle instigated by what is essentially a lovers’ quarrel: Queen Medb and her husband Aillil set to comparing their riches in bed one night; in an effort to match her husband’s fortunes, Medb stages a raid on neighboring Ulster to snatch one particular bull. The amount of individuals ready for a good fight prove that they are clashing over more than a couple and their cows, but that is another topic entirely.
The events in the tale lead to the naming of many aspects of the land, so it seems only right that the story should be “earthy” in every respect. One of my favorite professors always used to say that Irish myth “out moderned the modern” and one of the many ways these stories do that is by proving our Victorian-inspired sensibilities really are recent constructs; legends like these endured long enough to be written down because they were made of all of the stuff of life including passion and revenge and cowardice and more than a few bodily fluids.
A strange angle to take on The Táin, I know, but it is a valid one in light of the discussion, or, well truth be told, “pissing contest” that I engaged in over the subject of Irish myth and language today. Pardon me for putting it like that, I don’t quite have the brashness of Medb to say that without apology, but putting it any other way seems a disservice to this metaphor I am trying to construct. I was introduced to an eager, newly minted PhD who has just joined the faculty. As always, I was introduced with a mention of my own credentials. In such situations I tend to smile mutely, caught between shrugging off Irish Studies as a lovely little phase and fumbling around for an vaguely related arcane witticism in a faltering attempt to flatter myself. By the end of the conversation today, I felt like a fraud hiding for behind knowledge I half remembered, nodding sagely as this lovely seeming woman compared the difficulty of translating medieval Irish to the Norse.
In the car on the way home I cranked up the Decemberists’ EP The Táin and felt a little less ridiculous about the conversation. I had not spoken my truth exactly, but I certainly had permission to talk about Irish myth since it was clearly still a part of my life – in this case it was blasted with heavy guitar and bizarre circus music.
One of the hardest things about working in academia at the same time that I pursue knowledge that is not necessarily wrapped in a scholarly, footnoted package is that one often feels robbed of the ability to speak about issues she cares about with any real authority. I know that subjects co-opted by college and university departments tend to become sanitized or problematized ghosts – how many people would recognize themselves as described by anthropology or folklore or ethnic studies faculty?
The exchange today gave me a new appreciation for the enduring versatility of myth, the ways these origin stories can color so many lives in different ways. They can be fireside diversion or fodder for a professional career, respected tales of a people’s genesis or wisdom imparting vignettes. When I lived and breathed the words and history of Ireland these stories were all about illuminated manuscripts and goddesses and warrior queens who could be read as precursors to the feminist age. Freed of the thesis scribbling imperative, they can take on a new life for me, something much closer perhaps, to their original intention.
Artwork by Louis le Brocquy as it appears in Thomas Kinsella’s 1969 version of The Táin.