The Gaelic Literature of Ireland is vast in extent and rich in quality. The inedited manuscript materials, if published, would occupy several hundred large volumes. Of this mass only a small portion has as yet been explored by scholars. Nevertheless three saga-cycles stand out from the rest, distinguished for their compass, age and literary worth, those, namely, of the gods, of the demigod Cuchulain, and of Finn son of Cumhall. The Cuchulain cycle, also called the Ulster cycle—from the home of its hero in the North of Ireland—forms the core of this great mass of epic material. It is also known as the cycle of Conchobar, the king round whom the Ulster warriors mustered, and, finally, it has been called the Red Branch Cycle from the name of the banqueting hall at Emain Macha in Ulster.
Only a few of the hundred or more tales which once belonged to this cycle have survived. There are some dozen in particular, technically known as Remscela or “Foretales,” because they lead up to and explain the great Tain, the Tain Bo Cualnge, “The Cualnge Cattle-raid,” the Iliad of Ireland, as it has been called, the queen of Irish epic tales, and the wildest and most fascinating saga-tale, not only of the entire Celtic world, but even of all western Europe.
The mediaeval Irish scholars catalogued their native literature under several heads, probably as an aid to the memory of the professional poets or story-tellers whose stock-in-trade it was, and to one of these divisions they gave the name Tainte, plural of Tain. By this term, which is most often followed by the genitive plural bo, “cows,” they meant “a driving,” or “a reaving,” or even “a drove” or “herd” of cattle. It is only by extension of meaning that this title is applied to the Tain Bo Cualnge, the most famous representative of the class, for it is not, strictly speaking, with the driving of cattle that it deals but with that of the Brown Bull of Cualnge. But, since to carry off the bull implies the carrying off of the herd of which he was the head, and as the “Brown” is always represented as accompanied by his fifty heifers, there were sufficient grounds for putting the Brown Bull Quest in the class of Cow-spoils.
The prominence accorded to this class of stories in the early literature of Ireland is not to be wondered at when the economic situation of the country and the stage of civilization of which they are the faithful mirror is borne in mind. Since all wars are waged for gain, and since among the Irish, who are still very much a nation of cattle raisers, cattle was the chief article of wealth and measure of value, so marauding expeditions from one district into another for cattle must have been of frequent occurrence, just as among the North American Indians tribal wars used to be waged for the acquisition of horses. That this had been a common practice among their kinsmen