Cycling the Táin: the Ulster Cycle on wheels! Part 2

The Hero Light, my one-man performance of the stories of Cú Chulainn, is now touring. In 2010 I cycled the 350-mile route of The Táin, its central story, across Ireland. To mark the performance’s completion, I decided to serialise excerpts from my account of the cycle trip here  (scroll down a little further to read the first excerpt). ______________________________________________________________ 3 Rain-soaked Connaught from inside a plastic bag Could the eastern Connaught plain be much different now than in the Bronze/Iron-Age origins of the Ulster Cycle tales? The landscape I cycled across for ten hours felt old, and impossible to categorize: waterlogged, spiked with rushes, scattered with sprawls of hazel, and dotted with mini heathlands; the boundaries between marshland, woodland and farmland almost non-existent. This geographical anarchy is alien to the order of England. I loved it – even if I had to capture it through the transparent drybag that sheltered my camera. Much of it was dominated by cattle still, as it was two thousand years ago. They were spread across the plain as if scattered at random by some giant hand. 6 Connaught looking no different to the Iron Age Medb, Queen of Connaught, came this way to raid Ulster for the only bull in Ireland that could match her husband’s. Unbeknownst to them, both bulls in question had a long mutual history. They were once great fiends, and royal pig-keepers of two kings of the Sidh, the supernatural people of the otherworld. In a friendly game of one-upmanship, each put a spell on the other’s pigs. But these left the animals so thin, their skins hung from little more than bones, and the furious kings banished the pigkeepers. The erstwhile friends blamed each other for their fate. They transformed into hawks and fought each other for two whole years; then as sea creatures for two years more; then as stags… and warriors… and ghosts… and as dragons – from whose bodies snow fell on the lands beneath as they battled. Exhausted, they finally shrank into two maggots and let the winds carry them away.

One was carried west, landed in a Connaught river and was accidentally swallowed by a cow drinking at the riverside. The other was blown east and landed in the hills of Cooley, in another river… to be swallowed by a second cow. On opposite sides of Ireland, the cows gave birth to two huge bulls the like of which had never been seen and would never be seen again. And unwittingly, Medb was now conspiring to bring them face to face…

Midway through the day I was cycling towards Granard (from where Fergus – Cú Chulainn’s foster father and Medb’s ally – sent a warning to Cú Chulainn of the coming of Medb’s army). By the roadside I passed a monument from one of Ireland’s many historical conflicts that so mirror the battles of mythology. In this place on 2nd February 1921, the IRA’s North Longford Flying Column lay in wait for a convoy of ‘Auxiliaries’ – ex-military officers conducting anti-IRA operations. Clonfin Ambush memorial The Column exploded a mine in front of the convoy and the 21 IRA men opened fire. Four auxiliaries were killed, and many wounded. The survivors surrendered. Given the fierceness of the conflict at the time, it’s notable how humane was the prisoners’ treatment by IRA column leader, Seán Mac Eoin. He prevented any prisoners being assaulted and had water brought to them from nearby houses. In fact being landed with prisoners almost lead the column to be caught by 14 lorries of British reinforcements who were belatedly approaching. The event became known as the Clonfin Ambush. 8 Camping by lough Derravaragh Evening brought me to a campsite by Lough Derravaragh. Ireland is so populated by old stories, one even stumbles upon myths one isn’t looking for. I’d ended up by the very lake where the Children of Lir spent 300 years as swans, part of their 900-year exile from their own people, the Tuatha de Danaan. As an astonishing sunset played itself out upon the lake water, two swans obligingly swam across the pink and gold reflections. The Marie Celeste campsite was already closed for the season, though luckily they’d left the water taps turned on… 9 Camping by Derravaragh ______________________________________________________________

Watch the trailer for The Hero Light here: https://youtu.be/27qIzp5zc20

The show is currently booking for Spring and Autumn 2016. Email dominicjskelly@gmail.com

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About dominickelly

I'm a performance storyteller, touring to theatres, festivals and schools. I create contemporary performance pieces based on traditional stories.
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