The Ulster Cycle

The Ulster Cycle deals with the heroes of Ulaid, the northern province of Ireland, and the exploits of their greatest hero, the boy-warrior Cuchulainn, and of his uncle King Conchobor mac Nessa. The stories are placed at the time of the life of Christ, and Conchobor is said to have been born and died on the same days as Jesus of Nazareth.

The centerpiece of the cycle is the Tain Bo Cuailnge, "the Cattle Raid of Cooley," in which Queen Medb of Connacht steels the Brown Bull of Cuailgne--a plain in Ulaid--in order to win a bet with her husband. This begins a war between Medb and her ex-lover Conchobor, who owned the bull, and who had rejected her offers to obtain the bull. This brings into prominance the hero Cuchulainn, who is able to take on the entire province of Connacht, while the Ulstermen are laid up with birthpangs caused by the disgraced goddess Macha.

There has been some speculation that the cycle represents a type of creation myth, and indeed one can see that Cuchulainn, the solar god, battles over the evil dark bull in order to free his people from an invasion by evil powers. One can see certain elements of the Marduk-Tiamat in this.

Scholars generally believe that although the oldest copy of the Ulster Cycle can only be found in the tenth or eleventh century, it took on its present form around 400 AD, while the tale is even older than that. More interesting is that there are details which show the "primitive" nature of the cycle, such as the war chariots, which had fallen out of use by the time the cycle was being written, but about which Caesar testifies in De Bello Gallico.

Major figures associated with the Ulster Cycle include: Cuchulainn, Conchobor mac Nessa, Cathbad the druid, >a href="fergus.html">Fergus mac Roich, Deirdru of the Sorrows, Cu Roi mac Dairi, Queen Medb (a.k.a. Maeve), and Bricriu the Troublemaker.

The Ulster Cycle contains the following stories, most of which are found in the books of Fermoy, Dun Cow, and Leinster:

    * The Recovery of the Cattle Raid of Cooley
    * The Birth of Conchobhar
    * The Birth of Cuchulainn
    * The Boyhood Deeds of Cuchulainn
          o Cúchulainn Comes to Emain Macha
          o The War Between Eogan mac Durthacht and Conchobor
          o The Death of the Smith's Hound
          o The Death of the Three Sons of Nechta Scéne
          o The Deaths of Goll and Garb
          o Cúchulainn's Encounter With Senbecc
          o The Wooing of Emer
    * The Death of Derbforgaill
    * The Founding of Emain Macha
    * The Tragic Death of Connla, or, the Death of Aoife's Only Son
    * The Wasting Sickness of Cuchulain, and the One Jealousy of Emer
    * The Tale of Mac Datho's Pig
    * The Debility of the Ulstermen
    * The Quarrel of the Pig-Keepers
    * The Driving of Dartaid's Cattle
    * The Driving of Flidais's Cattle
    * The Dream of Óengus
    * The Birth of Athirne
    * Athirne the Unsociable
    * Does Greth Eat Curds?
    * The Great Slaughter on the Plain of Murtheimne
    * The Battle of Ros na Rig
    * The Cattle-Raid of Regamna
    * The Cattle-Raid of Freoch & The Wooing of Findabair
    * The Wooing of Treblann
    * The Intoxication of the Ulstermen
    * The Sorrow of Deirdru, or, the Exile of the Sons of Usench
    * The Adventures of Nera, or, the Cattle-Raid of Angen
    * Bricriu's Feast
    * The Cattle-Raid of Cuilghnhe, and the Tragic Death of Froech
    * The Tragic Death of Curoi mac Dairi
    * The Elopement of Emer
    * The Red Slaughter of Conall Cernach
    * The Wooing of Luaine
    * The Battle of Étair
    * The Death-Tales of the Ulster Heroes
          o The Death of Celtchar mac Uthechair
          o The Death of Lóegaire Buadach
          o The Death of Cúchulainn
          o The Death of Conchobor's Sons
          o The Death of Conchobor
          o Da Choca's Hostel
          o The Battle of Airtech
          o The Death of Cet mac Mágach
          o The Death of Fergus mac Róich
          o The Deaths of Ailill and Conall Cernach
          o The Death of Medb
    * The Phantom Chariot of Cuchulainn

Most (if not all) of these stories can be found at: The Ulster Cycle --an excellent site which contains many stories not often translated and published before.

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Mary Jones © 2003