Episode 11: Mac Da Tho's Pig
A strange tale which parodies many of the themes found in the Tain Bo Cualinge, this Irish legend is a clever satire which questions the use of some Irish customs. This week, we look at who exactly gets to 'bring home the bacon.'
The tale of Mac Da Tho's Pig comes from around 800 A.D., though the remaining manuscripts are from the later Middle Ages - around the twelfth century. This tale and its retellings are at once ancient and politically satirical. The feasting motifs included reflect the more ancient elements, but they have been twisted to reflect the more destructive forms of older Irish tradition.
The tale begins much like the Tain Bo Cualinge, the crown jewel of Irish myth. The king of Ireland, Mac Da Tho, has a prize dog, Ailbe, whom both the people of Connacht (western Ireland) and the Uliad (northern Ireland) want. The king and queen of Connacht, Ailil and Maeb, offer cows, chariots, and horses to Mac Da Tho, while Conchobar, king of the Uliad, offers jewelry, cattle, and friendship with Mac Da Tho and his people.
The king, recognizing that he cannot deny one group without inciting a war against himself and people, fasts for three days in contemplation of this problem. Whom should he choose? His wife, the queen, suggests that he choose option three: give the dog to both groups, and let them fight it out. The king, seeing an opportunity to gain the profit while avoiding war, sends messengers to both the Connachtmen and Uliad. He says that he has chosen each individually, and that they should arrive at his hostel with a full host.
When both sides arrive the next morning, Mac Da Tho feigns surprise to see both arrays of troops. How unexpected, he proclaims, and invites them in for a feast. This feast is hosted in Mac Da Tho's hostel, which has seven doorways, seven hearths, and seven magical cauldrons. When a man sticks his fork into the cauldron, he can eat only what is brought out. Whether it is a large piece or nothing at all, it is precisely what he deserves. At the feast, he proclaims that Ailbe himself will choose to whom he will go before presenting a large pig to the arrayed warriors.
Before the feast can begin, however, the hero's portion must be cut. The men decide that the best warrior among them should carve the meat. This leads to a great deal of debate as to who, precisely, among them is the greatest. Cet, son of Magu, declares a lengthy beot, and no challenger seems to be able to defeat his boasts, including the dismemberment of hands and stabbing of balls. Finally, Conall, stands before Cet and matches his boasts. Cet challenges him to single combat, ending his snide remarks with the jab, 'If only An Luann were here to see this!' Conall, unfazed, withdraws a severed head from his wallet and throws it toward Cet, declaring, 'Oh, but he is!' Conall claims his portion, leaving the Connacht men with only the feet of the pig.
The hall erupts into chaos and combat. Blood flows from the seven entries of the hall, and the combat is taken to the field outside. Ailbe chooses to side with the Ulstermen in this conflict and attacks Ailil and Maeb's chariot in an attempt to kill the rival royalty. The beast successfully brings Maeb from the chariot, but the charioteer pierces the dog through, killing Ailbe. Ever a coward, the charioteer dives off the chariot and hides in the heather as the battle rages on.
As he watches, the charioteer notices King Conchobar to one side and grabs him, holding the king at knifepoint. Immediately, (and contrary to the Tain and other legends of the king) Conchobar surrenders, offering the charioteer anything he wants. The charioteer, pleased at this, decides that he would like to live at Conchobar's palace and have young women sing to him. The Ulstermen allow this for the sake of their king. A year later, the charioteer leaves the castle with Conchobar's personal horses and golden bridles.
This wild tale seems full of arbitrary details at first, but contains themes which fit into larger Irish myth, particularly the take of the Tain Bo Cualinge, or the Cattle Raid of Cooley. The Tain tells the story of the demi-god hero Cu Culainn (the 'Hound of Culainn') who protects the Ulstermen against the raid of Connacht, including Ailil and Maeb. Ailil and Maeb began the raid in an effort to take the finest cow in all of Ireland, the Brown Bull of Ulster. Let's look at how the two tales overlap.
Unlike the Tain, this story has no prominent hero figure, causing distress among both hosts. Cu Culainn's godlike status as best warrior in all Ireland would have prevented the conflict over the hero's portion at the feast. The poet demonstrates the consequences of a tale with no central hero: the ritual of the hero's portion devolves into further bloodshed.
The poet further satirizes Cu Culainn's central role by replacing him with an actual dog. Rather than fighting over a prized bull, the Connacht and Ulstermen fight over Ailbe. Just as in the Tain, the heroic dog figure sides with the Ulstermen, only to die in battle. Instead of a heroic death, however, Ailbe is killed by a coward charioteer - not anyone of any note. To add insult to injury, the king of the Uliad, Conchobar, immediately surrenders when he is captured by the charioteer. Though he is meant to be an archetypal figure of a wise warrior, the king cowers.
Finally, when the charioteer has his way, he does not ask for wealth, glory, or even a power. Instead, he is simply happy to have young women sing to him. This display is an example of wasted victory in early medieval Ireland. The charioteer could have set himself up for life, but he chooses a transient reward.
Overall, this tale is a satirical and sobering commentary on Irish warrior-class literary tradition. When there is no central figure or hero, the tale devolves into chaos and slaughter. This tale reminds readers that not all battles have heroes, and those who do find glory may not be those who deserve it, or even know what to do with it when the receive it.
Final Rating: 6.5
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Akbari, Suzanne Conklin and Jill Ross. The Ends of the Body: Identity and Community in Medieval Culture. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2013. Link.
Breatnach, Caoimhín. 'The Early Modern Version of "Scéla Mucce Meic Da Thó: Tempus, Locus, Persona et Causa Scribendi."' Ériu, Vol. 41 (1990), pp. 37-60. Link.
Karunanithy, David. 'War Dogs Among the Early Irish.' History Ireland Vol. 17, No. 5 (September/October 2009), pp. 16-19. Link.
The Blue Fairy Book/The Brave Little Tailor. Link.
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