The Tain bo Flidais, the Driving of the Cows of Flidais, does not, like the other three Preludes to the Tain bo Cualnge, occur in the Yellow Book of Lecan; but its manuscript age is far the oldest of the four, as it occurs in both the two oldest collections of Old Irish romance, the Leabbar na h-Uidhri (abbreviated to L.U.), and the Book of Leinster (abbreviated to L.L.), besides the fifteenth century Egerton MS., that contains the other three preludes. The text of all three, together with a translation of the L.U. text, is given by Windisch in Irische Texte, II. pp. 206-223; the first part of the story is missing in L.U. and is supplied from the Book of Leinster (L.L.) version. The prose translation given here follows Windisch's translation pretty closely, with insertions occasionally from L.L. The Egerton version agrees closely with L.L., and adds little to it beyond variations in spelling, which have occasionally been taken in the case of proper names. The Leabhar na h-Uidhri version is not only the oldest, but has the most details of the three; a few passages have, however, been supplied from the other manuscripts which agree with L.U. in the main.
The whole tale is much more like an old Border riding ballad than are the other three Preludes; it resembles the tone of Regamon, but differs from it in having a good deal of slaughter to relate, though it can hardly be called tragic, like Deirdre and Ferb, the killing being taken as a matter of course. There is nothing at all supernatural about the story as contained in the old manuscripts, but a quite different' version of the story given in the Glenn Masain Manuscript, a fifteenth century manuscript now in the Advocates' Library, Edinburgh, gives another complexion to the tale.
The translation of this manuscript is at present being made in the Celtic Review by Professor Mackinnon; the version it gives of the story is much longer and fuller than that in the Leabhar na h-Uidhri, and its accompanying manuscripts. The translation as printed in the Celtic Review is not as yet (July 1905) completed, but, through Professor Mackinnon's kindness, an abstract of the general features of the end of the story may be given here.
The Glenn Masain version makes Bricriu, who is a subordinate character in the older version, one of the principal actors, and explains many of the allusions which are difficult to understand in the shorter version; but it is not possible to regard the older version as an abridgment of that preserved in the Glenn Masain MS., for the end of the story in this manuscript is absolutely different from that in the older ones, and the romance appears to be unique in Irish in that it has versions which give two quite different endings, like the two versions of Kipling's The Light that Failed.
The Glenn Masain version commences with a feast held at Cruachan, when Fergus and his exiles had joined their forces with Connaught as a result of the murder of the Sons of Usnach, as told in the earlier part of the manuscript. At this feast Bricriu. engages in conversation with Fergus, reproaching him for his broken promises to the Ulstermen who had joined him, and for his dalliance with Queen Maev. Bricriu, who in other romances is a mere buffoon, here appears as a distinguished poet, and a chief ollave; his satire remains bitter, but by no means scurrilous, and the verses put into his mouth, although far beneath the standard of the verses given to Deirdre in the earlier part of the manuscript, show a certain amount of dignity and poetic power. As an example, the following satire on Fergus's inability to keep his promises may be cited:--
Fergus, hear thy friend lamenting!
Blunted is thy lofty mind;
Thou, for hire, to Maev consenting, Hast thy valour's pride resigned.
Ere another year's arriving,
Should thy comrades, thou didst vow, Three-score chariots fair be driving, Shields and weapons have enow!
When thy ladies, bent on pleasure,
Crowd towards the banquet-hall,
Thou of gold a goodly measure
Promised hast to grant to all!
Ill to-night thy friends are faring,
Naught hath Fergus to bestow;
He a poor man's look is wearing,
Never yet was greater woe!
After the dialogue with Fergus, Bricriu, with the poets that attend him, undertakes a journey to Ailill the Fair, to obtain from him the bounty that Fergus had promised but was unable to grant. He makes a fairly heavy demand upon Ailill's bounty, but is received hospitably, and gets all he had asked for, as well as honour for his poetic talents. He then asks about Ailill's wife Flidais, and is told about her marvellous cow, which was able to supply milk to more than three hundred men at one night's milking. Flidais returns from a journey, is welcomed by Bricriu, who produces a poem in honour of her and her cow, and is suitably recompensed.
A long conversation is then recorded between Flidais and Bricriu in which Bricriu extols the great deeds of Fergus, supplying thereby a commentary on the short statement at the beginning of the older version, that Flidais' love to Fergus was on account of the great deeds which had been told her that he had done. Flidais declares to Bricriu her love for Fergus, and Bricriu, after a vain attempt to dissuade the queen from her purpose, consents to bring a message to Fergus that Flidais and her cow will come to him if he comes to her husband's castle to seek her. He then returns to Connaught laden with gifts.
The story now proceeds somewhat upon the lines of the older version. Bricriu approaches Fergus on his return, and induces him to go in the guise of an ambassador to Ailill the Fair, with the secret intention of carrying off Flidais. Fergus receives the sanction of Maev and her husband for his errand, and departs, but not as in the older version with a few followers; all the Ulster exiles are with him. Dubhtach, by killing a servant of Maev, embroils Fergus with the queen of Connaught; and the expedition reaches Ailill the Fair's castle. Fergus sends Bricriu, who has most unwillingly accompanied him, to ask for hospitality; he is hospitably received by Ailill, and when under the influence of wine reveals to Ailill the plot. Ailill does not, as in the older version, refuse to receive Fergus, but seats him beside himself at a feast, and after reproaching him with his purpose challenges him to a duel in the morning. The result of the duel, and of the subsequent attack on the castle by Fergus' friends, is much as stated in the older version, but the two stories end quite differently. The L.U. version makes Flidais assist in the War of Cualgne by feeding the army of Ailill each seventh day with the produce of her cows; she dies after the war as wife of Fergus; the Glenn Masain version, in the "Pursuit of the Cattle of Flidais," makes the Gamanrad clan, the hero-clan of the West of Ireland, pursue Maev and Fergus, and rescue Flidais and her cow; Flidais then returns to the west with Muiretach Menn, the son of her murdered husband, Ailill the Fair.
The comparison of these two versions, from the literary point of view, is most interesting. The stress laid on the supernatural cow is peculiar to the version in the later manuscript, the only analogy in the eleventh century version is the semi-supernatural feeding of the army of Ireland, but in this it is a herd (buar), not a single animal, that is credited with the feat, and there is really nothing supernatural about the matter; it is only the other version that enables us to see the true bearing of the incident. The version in the Glenn Masain Manuscript looks much more ancient in idea than that in the older texts, and is plainly capable of a mythic interpretation. It is not of course suggested that the Glenn Masain version is ancient as it stands: there are indeed enough obvious allusions in the text to comparatively late works to negative such a supposition, independently of linguistic evidence, but it does look as if the author of the eleventh century text had a super natural tale to work upon, some of whose incidents are preserved in the Glenn Masain version, and that he succeeded in making out of the traditional account a story that practically contains no supernatural element at all, so that it requires a knowledge of the other version to discover the slight trace of the supernatural that he did keep, viz. the feeding of the army of Ireland by the herd (not the cow) of Flidais.
It is possible that the common origin of the two versions is preserved for us in another place, the Coir Annam, which, though it as it stands is a Middle Irish work, probably keeps ancient tradition better than the more finished romances. In this we find, following Stokes' translation, given in Irische Texte, III. P. 295, the following entries:--
"Adammair Flidaise Foltchain, that is Flidais the Queen, one of the tribe of the god-folk (the Tuatha de Danaan), she was wife of Adammair, the son of Fer Cuirp, and from her cometh the name Buar Flidaise, the Cattle of Flidais.
"Nia Segamain, that is seg (deer) are a main (his treasure), for in his time cows and does were milked in the same way every day, so that he had great wealth in these things beyond that of all other kings. The Flidais spoken of above was the mother of Nia Segamain, Adammair's son, for two kinds of cattle, cows and does, were milked in the days of Nia Segamain, and by his mother was that fairy power given to him."
It seems, then, not impossible that the original legend was much as stated in the Coir Annam, viz. that Flidais was a supernatural being, milking wild deer like cows, and that she was taken into the Ulster Cycle and made part of the tale of Fergus.
This adoption was done by an author who made a text which may be regarded as the common original of the two versions; in his tale the supernatural character of Flidais was retained. The author of the L.U. version cut out the supernatural part, and perhaps the original embassy of Bricriu; it may, however, be noted that the opening of the older version comes from the L.L. text, which is throughout shorter than that in L.U., and the lost opening of L.U. may have been fuller. The author of the Glenn Masain version kept nearer to the old story, adding, however, more modern touches. Where the new character of Bricriu comes from is a moot point; I incline to the belief that the idea of Bricriu as a mere buffoon is a later development. But in neither version is the story, as we have it, a pre-Christian one. The original pre-Christian idea of Flidais was, as in the Coir Annam, that of a being outside the Ulster Cycle altogether.