- Playing the Hero: Reading the Irish Saga Táin Bó Cúailnge
In the medieval Irish text Táin Bó Cúailnge, 'Cattle Raid of Cú ailnge' (the modern-day Cooley Peninsula in Co. Louth), there is an episode toward the end that features the story's hero, the defender of Ulster Cú Chulainn, in yet another situation of grave danger, brought about by his perennial nemesis Medb, the queen of Connacht. This crisis, however, occurs not on the battlefield but on the sidelines, where Cú Chulainn is champing at the bit, trying to recover from his many wounds and pull himself together so that he may join his fellow Ulstermen in their climactic battle against the cattle-raiding invaders of the province. The power of Cú Chulainn's heroic positive thinking notwithstanding, he suffers a setback: 'His wounds opened afresh; Medb had sent two handmaids to lament over him and make his wounds open again, telling him how Fergus [his beloved foster father] had fallen and Ulster broken in battle while he was kept from the fight. [None of this is true.] But he smashed their heads together, so that each was stained grey from the other's brains.'
Not only does this vignette exemplify the unique ability of medieval Irish heroic literature to be memorably 'over the top' and yet wry at the [End Page 225] same time, but it stands as a warning to those seeking to impose their critical agenda onto the hero of this text that they do so at their own risk. Cú Chulainn not only resists facile analysis but, like the text itself, can cause serious brain damage to the easy reader. Fortunately, Ann Dooley, the author of Playing the Hero, knows her man, and students of medieval Irish literature will emerge from her book not only with their grey matter intact, but inspired to return to the text(s) of the Táin themselves, with renewed vigour. A scholar who has already contributed mightily to our understanding of the Fenian, bardic, Arthurian, and apocryphal strands of the medieval Irish literary tradition, Dooley delivers a multi-layered and engaging study of the Táin and, at the centre of it, a 'very naughty boy' (to quote Monty Python, as Dooley does).
Chapter 1 examines both the scribal cues and the reflexive references to anticipations of writing (ogam inscriptions carved on wood or stone, wounds inflicted with weapons on bodies, and so on) that pointedly punctuate the text. Chapter 2 evaluates the profound difference between the openings of 'Recension 1' and '2' of the Táin, and chapter 3 the biases and interests that characterize the interpolations of 'H,' a notorious presence in the earliest extant version of Recension 1. Chapter 4 proposes a 'rite of passage' reading of the 'boyhood deed' episode in which little Cú Chulainn, having overslept, arrives late on the battlefield and encounters its 'horrors.' In the next chapter, the hero and his 'divine' father Lug take centre stage in a study that nicely complements Elizabeth A. Gray's 1989–90 essay on this 'King and Warrior, God and Man' pair. And the final chapter fittingly assesses whether the Táin succeeds in bringing its remarkable project in myth-collecting and -making to a conclusion that would satisfy the medieval Irish literary mentality.
Dooley's work is definitely not for the neophyte, who would be better served by Tomás Ó Cathasaigh's contribution to Hodder and Meagher's The Epic Voice, and it will irritate the jaded specialist who cannot imagine a subtext to a medieval Irish composition that transcends politics or the immediate interests of the writer or his patrons. On the other hand, those open to a more subtle reading of medieval Irish literature will welcome Dooley's Playing the Hero. It joins the ranks of works by Var`se Layzer, Jeremy Lowe, and other scholars who in recent times have shown us the value of looking at Irish heroic sagas with a modern critical appreciation for both the playfulness and the...