The Recovery of the Tain

In days long gone, at a time that is long past, Guaire, the King of Connacht, hosted a huge gathering of poets.  The King was famed for his generosity, but this gathering was testing his goodwill; they ate and drank everything they saw.  Now even in the hardest of times, poetry is regarded as a treasure by the Irish, but these poets had abused their position. The King’s brother Marban, annoyed that the poets’ demands and appetite had included his favourite pig, resolved to discredit them. 

He declared that his servant’s wife’s grandmother was a poet’s great grandchild. Even with this remote connection to the art, he showed he knew more than all the other poets.  He asked them questions they couldn’t answer and for performances they couldn’t deliver.  Finally, he challenged them, ‘tell the most famous and celebrated Irish story, The Tain bo Cuilange’.  There was a long silence. Then the poets had to admit that no one knew more than a few fragments.  The story had been lost.

The chief bard, Sanchan Torpiest, resolved to recover the story, and the honour of the poets.  The story had been written down in Ogham and taken by a bard to Italy.  A band of Sanchan’s followers, and his son Muirgen, set off to seek this bard. They stopped for the night at Enloch in Connacht.  Muirgen, exhausted, asked the others to go on and find a place to stay while he rested against a large stone.  Alone, Muirgen noticed carving on the stone.  The strokes and lines of Ogham spelled out the name of Fergus Mac Roich, hero of the Tain.  

The companions returned to fetch Muirgen, they found the stone encircled in dense fog, so cold they could barely breathe. They tried to reach their friend but became confused and arrived back outside the wall of fog.

In three days the fog receded.  Then they found Muirgen, elated.  He told them Fergus Mac Roich had appeared to him, dressed in a green cloak over a red tunic with a great sword that had a pommel of bronze.  The spirit of Fergus had told Muirgen the whole story of The Tain, calling up other long forgotten players to bear witness.

The band of poets returned and a crowd gathered to hear the story.  The hall was perfectly still as Muirgen conjured up the Tain; they could hear Cuchulain’s war cry, smell the fires of battle, feel the cold steel of weapons, and they could taste the salt of Deirdre’s tears.

The story survives to this day, written down by the monks of Clonmacnoise. 

The Ogham Stone
by David Rooney. 

A visual interpretation of the story available to purchase as a screen print.