The Red Branch Tales



The Red Branch Tales is book six in Randy Lee Eickhoff’s endeavor to gather, translate, and retell the ancient Irish stories known as the Ulster Cycle. Based on manuscripts and vellums from the 12th to 15th centuries, Eickhoff overcomes difficulties of language and culture to write a thorough, scholarly, yet entertaining book.

The two dozen stories in this volume primarily concern the Ulaid people of northeastern Ireland. Conchobor is their king. He lives at Emain Macha near present-day Armagh, and the famous Cuchulain is his ‘Hound.’ His enemies are lusty Queen Maeve of Connacht and her husband, Ailill. The gory tales focus on the clash of Ulster and Connacht over borders, bulls, and insults to honor. As in most sagas of this era, the heroes have impulse control problems. Sex knows no marital strictures, and it is discussed in earthy detail. (‘Fergus was truly a noble man . . . his [bleep] drew healthy gasps of pleasure from any woman who entered his bed, for he had seven fists in it . . .’) Among the fragmented tales are instructions to princes, a snippet about werewolves, and a partial retelling of the Cattle Raid of Cooley from an often-overlooked source.

Eickhoff has given us a well-documented collection of bits and pieces, fascinating to a devotee but best read as the sixth book in line by those less familiar with the mythology. If The Ulster Tales were on DVD, this volume would be the extra footage.

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