“The wonder of all wandering…”

February 3, 2012 @ 5:50 pm | Filed under: ,

Today we read a chapter from H.E. Marshall’s English Literature for Boys and Girls:

But of one of the great treasures of old Irish literature we will talk. This is the Leabhar Na h-Uidhre, or Book of the Dun Cow. It is called so because the stories in it were first written down by St. Ciaran in a book made from the skin of a favorite cow of a dun color. That book has long been lost, and this copy of it was made in the eleventh century…

In the Book of the Dun Cow, and in another old book called the Book of Leinster, there is written the great Irish legend called the Tain Bo Chuailgne  or the Cattle Raid of Cooley.

This is a very old tale of the time soon after the birth of Christ. In the book we are told how this story had been written down long, long ago in a book called the Great Book Written on Skins.

That last bit cracked us up and we had to spend a while proclaiming the title in sonorous tones.

We enjoyed the story of the Book of the Dun Cow even more than the story in the Book of the Dun Cow, if you see what I mean. Marshall drops in intriguing details and doesn’t explain them: “But a learned man carried away that book to the East.” Who? Why? Where?

We’d have liked to hear more of Mary A. Hutton’s poem, “The Tain,” of which only a snippet was included—the Brown Bull’s death:

“He lay down
Against the hill, and his great heart broke there,
And sent a stream of blood down all the slope;
And thus, when all the war and Tain had ended,
In his own land, ‘midst his own hills, he died.”

Later we decided it was time for Rilla to meet The King of Ireland’s Son, and Padraic Colum’s rollicking, lilting prose swept us off on a grand adventure. Oh, such chills when the Eagle looks at the King’s Son with the “black films of death” covering her eyes!

Hmm, this is all sounding rather gruesome, but I guess I’m just calling out the gruesome bits. We were laughing ourselves silly at certain parts of the morning’s reading. And Colum weaves in such irresistible poetry:

His hound at his heel,
His hawk on his wrist;
A brave steed to carry him whither he list,
And the green ground under him,


I put the fastenings on my boat
For a year and for a day,
And I went where the rowans grow,
And where the moorhens lay;

And I went over the stepping-stones
And dipped my feet in the ford,
And came at last to the Swineherd’s house,–
The Youth without a Sword.

A swallow sang upon his porch
“Glu-ee, glu-ee, glu-ee,”
“The wonder of all wandering,
The wonder of the sea;”
A swallow soon to leave ground sang
“Glu-ee, glu-ee, glu-ee.”

I’m using Pinterest to create a little scrapbook of our Ireland rabbit trail—it suddenly made sense to me last night how that’s a perfect platform for collecting all the books, pictures, and websites we tend to explore in the pursuit of a particular interest.

Here’s a clip of some Irish musicians performing a version of the Tain—I’ll share this with my brood tomorrow.

an tain project from lorcan mac mathuna on Vimeo.

I love the surprising places our wandering brings us…full of wonder, indeed.

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7 Reponses | Comments Feed
  1. MelanieB says:

    Oh! I want to come play at your house! Can I come play? Please! My Irish lit geek self is so excited that you’re exploring the Tain– I read the whole thing, in translation, when I was in grad school. I love that musical version. (Incidentally, did you see the video clips of the performance of Beowulf in Old English that I linked to recently?)

    One of my Irish professors, Donna Wong, wrote a parody called the Táin Rúttapaca Cuailnge, The Rustling of the Rutabagas of Cooley. If you were nearby I’d lend you my copy. It’s got a contemporary health-conscious twist.

    But I’ve never read The King of Ireland’s Son, which is a gap I really should remedy. If Rilla’s enjoying it, I wonder if Bella would too.

  2. Melissa Wiley says:

    I think Bella would love it. It’s a giant fairy tale and it just BEGS to be read aloud. I would loooove to hear our old Irish monsignor read it…wonderful sonorous rolling voice, so captivating.

    Am AMAZED you read the whole Tain!! I’ve only seen bits and pieces.

    LOL the Rutabagas of Cooley

  3. Ellie says:

    Ooo, clicking and bookmarking 🙂 as we’re heading towards early Christian Ireland (erm, not literally, studiously!)

  4. Melanie B says:

    The Thomas Kinsella translation was the one we read –though I’m curious about Ciaran Carson’s 2007 translation which post dates my time in grad school. I know Carson’s poetry. The Kinsella is pretty readable if you or any want to give it a shot. The Tain is much stranger than the ancient Greeks, mostly because less familiar but also just stranger.

  5. Kimberlee says:

    Yes, I’m heading over to Amazon to remedy our lack of The King of Ireland’s Son as well, thank you! As you are on an Ireland rabbit trail, do you have a recommendation for studying the history of Ireland? Something to help a middle grader understand some of the political and religious conflicts?

  6. Lorcán Mac Mathúna says:

    “the surprising places our wandering brings us” -indeed! I did a search on a whim so we meet Melissa.