The Tain, from the Irish epic Táin Bó Cuailnge
Translated by Thomas Kinsella and decorated by Louis Le Brocquy Dolmen Edition IX (Dolmen Press, 1969)
When this landmark in Irish culture appeared back in September 1969, I was living in London. I still recall the delighted pleasure with which I bought the original Dolmen Press edition in Zwemmers of Charing Cross Road. It cost all of £9.50 as I recall, a very large sum of money indeed for a young graduate then trying to get some kind of literary activity of his own going, writing articles to support the research on the books I wanted to write.
I still have that large volume in slip case. It looks down on me as I write from the book shelf in the upper room in which is housed – what the French would call my bureau.
I have never regretted the purchase. As we seem to be living in last days of real books this is certainly unusual. But this book is tied up in my mind and memory with much muddled thought about art archaeology and personal identity.
What made it remarkable was not only the nature and fluency of the poet’s version from the middle Irish, but the wonder of Louis Le Brocquy’s decorations. And they are decorations. They are not mere illustrations such as might once have suited a magazine. Le Brocquy was then moving into that period of dissolving landscapes and faces in a mist of colour from which the essential image seemed to emerge, as in the portraits of Joyce and Beckett. But these decorations are different: they are so speak an almost direct evocation of the Iron Age.
Kinsella is not long dead. And there is always a danger that a poet’s reputation will fade after his death, and take a long time to recover. This has always seemed a sad process. We have commissioned an appreciative assessment of Kinsella’s sub specie aeternitatis which will be published in due course.
But here I would like to comment on the significance of this particular achievement of the poet.
The Tain has become a collector’s item. But the Oxford University Press paperback with the decorations is not hard to find on the internet. But not only for one’s own pleasure, but also the enlightenment of your children. Parents ought certainly to be to be their family’s primary educators in poetry, if not in others things.
An Táin Bó Cuailnge, the centre-piece of the eighth-century Ulster cycle of heroic tales, is Ireland’s great epic, a Gaelic Iliad, and like all such epics it had a long life previously as an oral performance, such as we still find in Africa, the Balkans, and in Asia. Indeed cultures depending on memory were and are often reluctant to write down their great poetry.
The power of the epic resided in the spoken rather than the written word, in a way that modern cultures dependent on the printed word (now in the form of the digital image) often forget.
Thomas Kinsella’s very human, and unponderous translation is based on the partial texts in two medieval manuscripts, with elements from those other versions, as he explains in his own notes, along with some connected tales.
However looking at the book again for this appreciation, I am struck by the irony of the Tain’s survival in modern memory. How easily we have come to overlook that Cuchulainn is the hero of the Ulstermen defending to the death their native land against those arrogant and rapacious men of the south.
I wonder, reading the recent news, at how well Sir Jeffrey Donaldson is versed in the events of the Tain. That Ireland 2,000 years ago made an epic out of matters which are still in contention says much for the continuity of culture, or rather cultures, in this little island of ours.