The atmosphere surrounding the little boy vibrated with tension. He could not see the stifled anger and baffled desire, but he sensed their residue accumulating like dustballs in the corners of the fort. Unspoken recriminations crowded the silences; bitter glances were hurled like spears over small Setanta’s head.
When I first read this book I wrote the month and year inside the cover, so I know that I first read it in February 1994, but I’ve reread it plenty of times in the past 13 years. It has been one of my favourite books ever since. That might possibly be because it is based on the Irish legend of the Táin Bó Cúalnge, or Cattle-Raid of Cooley. The Táin is made up of a collection of stories, based around the heroes of the Red Branch, the warriors of Ulster, and especially Cúchulainn.
See, Maeve wants a bull to equal her husband’s. And the only animal that could match Fionnbanach was an animal in Ulster, the Brown Bull of Cooley, or Donn Cuailgne. So obviously a cattle raid is called for. Or a whole scale invasion, because the warriors of Ulster aren’t likely to give up such a prized possession. Unfortunately for them, they are all under a curse and in the times of greatest need will suffer from nine days and nine nights of labour pains. Cúchulainn alone does not suffer. In the legend there are a number of reasons given for this, in this book it is because he is beardless, and the curse specified bearded warriors.
Like I said, I’ve read this loads of times, so probably amn’t the best person to judge it. I know it so well that I probably ignore its flaws and concentrate on the bits that I like. However, it obviously made a good impression that first time I read it.
The legend of Cúchulainn has always been my favourite of Irish myths, but in this book I actually prefer the character of Ferdiad, Cúchulainn’s best friend. Course Show Spoiler ▼
, but that is honour for you.
The book does a good job of retelling the story, obviously details are changes and altered, it is a retelling, not a translation after all. And myth isn’t static. Myths were oral stories and so subject to change and alteration to fit their audiences and time. That is why much of the stories surrounding Fionn and the Fianna have references to religion and Christianity, the monks who wrote them down stuck in a bit of propaganda.
This book is also published under the title Red Branch
Random fact: some loyalists in Northern Ireland point to the fact that Cúchulainn defended Ulster from the rest of Ireland as an indication that Ulster was always separate and different from what is now the republic. Obviously this is a little silly, especially considering that Cúchulainn is supposed to be from Dún Dealgan, which today is called Dundalk, in county Louth, in Leinster.