Táin Bó Cuailnge: Medieval Epic for Our Time

First published 18 September 2011

Recently I received a very exciting graphic novel through the post and it has been giving me a delightfully Old World break from the slew of New 52s. So, just to be contrary I thought I’d try a discussion this week of that comic, An Táin by Colmán Ó Raghalliagh. This discussion will also include reference to other iterations of the Irish myth that can be found online and in print. The graphic novel that started me off was An Táin a beautifully rendered version of the Old Irish epic Táin Bó Cuailnge. This central story of early mediaeval Ireland, sometimes referred to as Ireland’s Iliad, tells the tale of the cattle-raid of Cooley. Queen Medb and king Ailill of Connacht lead an army consisting of all the provinces of Ireland to Ulster in order to steal the fantastically large bull, Donn Cuailnge. Due to a previous disagreement with the fey-folk the men of Ulster are struck down with the pains of a woman at child-birth and cannot defend their territory. This leaves the defence of the province in the hands of Cú Chulainn, a seventeen year old boy with the miraculous ability to go into ‘warp spasm’, a body altering destructive frenzy. The young boy challenges the invading army to a series of single combats in order to delay the invasion until the men of Ulster have recovered. These single combats culminate in the fight between Cú Chulainn and his foster-brother Fer Diad. The Irish epic peters out with the death of Donn Cuailgne and his Connacht counterpart Finnbennach, but Ó Raghallaigh’s tale appends the death of Cú Chulainn, a separate tale in the mediaeval tradition, but one that lends the graphic novel a pleasingly nihilistic conclusion. The artwork and colouring tread a fine line between naturalistic representation and stylistic abstraction, the latter being one of the few ways, in my view, an artist can successfully approach this strange text. The crosshatching and strange coronae that sometimes appear in the air around character’s heads lends the whole an air of the mystical it deserves, artist Barry Reynolds and colourist Adrien Merigeau working together well.

Colmán Ó Raghallaigh has done a good job in condensing what can be a rambling text and giving the narrative a tighter and more aesthetically pleasing structure. This means that the tale culminates cathartically enough with the death of Cú Chulainn. It is not without reason then, that it won the 2006 Oireachtas na Gaelige Irish language Book of the Year award for Young People. Yes, the words, and indeed sound-effects, are in Irish. In a bilingual setting an author’s choise of language is one that merits attention that it rarely receives. It is not helped by geek culture’s rampant monolingualism, something I hope to address in future but for now am going to skip over. It would be a shame for this little gem to be ignored because it is written in a minority language and I would urge any readers to look it up.

Despite the prevalence of English in this medium, comics give us one of the best ways to aid communication between languages and cultures as most of the message is rendered in the universally intelligible pictures. The universality of the picture and the interchangeable nature of the language has been exploited well on the internet. To find a good example of this I would draw your attention to www.oghme.com a series of webcomics which explore the Ulster Cycle and the various myths surrounding Cú Chulainn. The artists are clearly attempting a visual style that is historically accurate for the Iron Age setting but this inevitably uses some interpretation and stylisation, just see their feather obsession. However, what is most striking about this site is their dedication to the multilingual nature of a worldwide web and their comics come in English, French, German and most heartening for a dyed in the wool Celtophile, Breton and Irish.

Other versions of the story to be found in comic form online are solely in English, for example Paddy Brown’s, to be found at www.paddybrown.co.uk and About a Bull, www.aboutabull.com. I find that the latter’s art style (save the work of Matt Wiegle) leaves me cold, trying as it does to closely represent the supposed medieval setting. The nature of the story behind the comics though, is such that any po-faced, representative artwork will by necessity do the story an injustice. Paddy Brown’s distinctive stroke-work and use of a single colour throughout gives something of the Otherworldly air but there is, to my mind, only one true graphic representation of the Táin: the illustrations by Louis Le Brocquy in the 1969 translation of the Táin. Le Brocquy himself admits in his introduction that he is trying to create an extension to the text and the almost impossible nature of such a task: “Any graphic accompaniment to a story which owes its existence to the memory and concern of a people over some twelve hundred years, should decently be as impersonal as possible. The illuminations of early Celtic manuscripts express not personality but temperament. They provide not graphic comment on the text but an extension of it” (The Táin, T. Kinsella, Oxford 1969). His splashes of printer’s ink really do chime in well with the bloody, loose and expressive nature of the story; a story which does not stand up to logical examination of the plot and ends much more on a squib than on the grand climax modern audiences expect from a narrative. This is why Colmán Ó Raghallaigh has had to edit and reshape the narrative for his graphic novel. This saves a modern audience from being distracted by the disconnected nature of some of the episodes and presents them with a narrative structure they have come to expect. The familiar structure means that the temperament of the characters can shine forth and the combat between Cú Chulainn and Fer Diad was as moving in the comic as it was in the original.

In this day and age when popular culture seems to be mining its own brief back catalogue for new ideas it is a relief to see that we can still mine the back-catalogue of human artistic endeavour to create something beautiful and moving for a twenty-first century audience. If you can get your hands on a copy of An Táin, if only to look at the pictures and maybe pick up a bit of a fascinating language, then do so. The translations of the Táin in novel form are also worth a read, Kinsella’s being still the classic with Ciaran Carson writing a looser translation more recently. I hope that I have opened up a crack through which more people will cone to enjoy this exciting and unusual tale in any form that it is told.

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