THE OTHER BULL is our exploration, through storytelling and dance, of an Iron Age Irish epic, the Tain Bo Cuailgne (The Cattle Raid of Cooley). It tells the story of how the tyrannical Queen Maeve draws all Ireland into a dreadful war for the sake of winning one prize bull for her province. This is perhaps a perplexing story when seen through 21st century eyes – or perhaps crushingly familiar. Its characters seem to have little choice in whether they dance along to Maeve’s tune – although some find ways to resist. In the end, we wonder, what is sustaining Maeve but their belief?
We would like to preserve our script, and a filmed fragment of our performance, in the Ship’s Archive. We hope the inhabitants of Terra Two, as their civilisation expands and becomes more complex, will remain alert to the temptations that have bedevilled humanity for millennia. We request that they meditate upon this story any time they are feeling themselves persuaded by nationalist rhetoric, or any time they meet someone’s gaze across a divide and must choose whether to look away or step across.
Cath Heinemeyer and Shrikant Subramaniam
THE BROWN BULL OF COOLEY
The peninsula of Cooley in Ireland is a place of stony beaches, few towns or people, mountains with pine forests sweeping down to the sea. And along the peninsula runs an ancient path called the Tain Way. It is guessed that this was the path taken by one of the armies in a great war that once consumed Ireland – a war over a bull – the Brown Bull of Cooley, or Donn Cuailgne.
We each own a driving force of the story, and a shadow character.
Shrikant owns Cath owns
DONN CUAILGNE (THE BROWN BULL) MAEVE (THE QUEEN)
Power, greatness, essence of the nation Arrogant, blinkered, towering, irresistible
Rather a property than an animal Turned like an arrow towards the Bull
CUCHULAINN (THE WARRIOR) FINDABAIR (THE DAUGHTER)
Heroism, endurance, service Perspicacity, dignity, gentleness, honour
All of which qualities are appropriated by the war All of which qualities are appropriated by the war
All other characters are unnamed.
Parts of the story are performed, others narrated. It is stripped back and parts are missing. To some extent they are filled in by music from frame drum (bodhran) and tin whistle, as well as Indian flute and/or other instruments.
There is a set of horns on a pedestal beyond the reach of the performers, at the edge of the audience’s vision as they look at the stage.
A cloth hung like a tent flap dividing off one end of the stage.
Fragment 1: a distillation (audio over image of Bull’s head silhouette)
C and S: There is a curse upon us – we have become weaker than other nations.
C: We believe that once we had a great Bull. It is splendid, of godly blood and it represents all that we used to be. It is rightfully ours and we must stop at nothing to get it back. When we do, we will be great again.
S: There are those that disagree – who do not believe in the Bull – who have friends across the border – who say the price is too high to pay – but our ruler has many different ways to silence them.
C: We will sacrifice our warriors, our children, our unity, our alliances and our honour to get this Bull.
C and S: And we WILL win it.
S: But when we do get it back, will it still be the same Bull?
Or might it lay down and die?
Fragment: Maeve (sitting at a window, looking out window and talking to camera. Hair combed out, green top)
C: Different times call for different rulers. There is a time for the expansive host who welcomes all comers and shares with an open hand. We have all travelled all over this land and we know that there are no lines drawn on the ground in either chalk or blood to divide this province from that. There are mountains, and rivers, but these can be crossed, with effort and help. I did not always sit on this throne. I have been one of those that helped those crossing the mountains from Ulster into this land of Connacht, and I have received help from others to do so myself. Many people from Connacht have made such journeys into Ulster, and found husbands, wives, foster parents for their children in the other provinces. And we have many of their people among us here. Our blood is mixed with theirs. There is a time for that.
But there is also a time to draw a line. There is not enough space in this land for all provinces to grow rich. The warriors of Connacht have grown complacent, they are not winning battles and bringing back the spoils. Our treasuries are emptying. Our landowners are getting fat, like cows in a rich meadow, while the peasants are becoming lazy and restless. They complain that they are hungry, and when they are full they complain that others are fuller. It is time for a different kind of ruler, who can make all the people of Connacht look in one direction. I have risen to the task and I will remind them who they once were. Or who they could be. I will remind them of the Brown Bull of Connacht, the Brown Bull that should be in Connacht.
Fragment: the two bulls (C & S facing each other as if telling each other the story)
S: Of course the Brown Bull – Donn Cuailgne – was no ordinary bull. He had been one of the two swineherds of the gods, and these swineherds, like their masters, were in perpetual rivalry. They felt they could fight better in animal form so turned themselves to ravens for a year –
C: then water monsters for a year –
S: then eels for a year….
C: Now one of these eels swam to Cooley in Ulster where it was swallowed by a cow that was grazing there…
S: The other swam to Connacht where it was swallowed by another cow.
C: Each of these cows gave birth to a bull calf, and these grew up to be
S: the Brown Bull of Cooley, or Donn Cuailgne
C: and the White-horned Bull of Connacht. The White-Horned Bull made its way to the herds of Maeve’s husband, who was also her rival, but the Brown Bull remained in the insignificant herds of an insignificant farmer. This situation was intolerable to Maeve.
Within this fragment the Bull is danced. And/or he speaks: I am….
Fragment: the comparison of wealth
S: Now Queen Maeve and her husband were equal. Their wealth was equal in all things. Almost….
Almost entirely wordless? The comparison of wealth between Maeve (Cath) and her husband (Shrikant), item by item, with symbols representing gold (purses), jewels (necklaces), warriors (swords), land (maps), information (large files/books), and finally horns representing the Bulls – the one which her husband has, and the one which she has not, which is on the pedestal.
There is drumming music which builds from steadiness to intensity.
Fragment: the tussle for the Bull
S: Well, Maeve resolved to have the Brown Bull at any cost. She sent men to the insignificant farmer in Ulster with gifts, asking for the loan of the Brown Bull for one year. The farmer was inclined to agree, and gave the men a feast. As they got drunker they started to boast: It is a good thing you are cooperative, because Maeve would have stolen the bull anyway by force if you weren’t. At this the farmer swore Maeve would never have the Bull.
Performed – the Bull (sometimes Shrikant, sometimes the horns?) is given in jest, given lightly, grabbed too confidently, tossed about like a trophy, snatched back, defended fiercely…? However, now the Bull (horns) are placed centre stage.
Fragment: going to war
C: Maeve assembled all the forces of all the rest of Ireland to fight against Ulster – for the glory of Connacht, she said, for what is rightfully ours. There was none to rival her power. And on top of this, she chose her timing carefully.
S: For many years, the warriors of Ulster had suffered under a curse that had been put upon them by a goddess they had insulted: they suffered seasons of menstruation and childbirth like women, when they felt weak and in pain, and could not fight. It was precisely this time that Maeve chose to wage her war.
S: Still she went to a prophetess to predict the outcome. And she was surprised by what she heard.
Prophetess gazes and predicts while S dances Cuchulainn.
C: I see your troops all covered in blood! For I see a young man covered in wounds, yet battling with light on his forehead. He is Cuchulainn, the hero. Only seventeen years old and rumoured to be the child of the god Lugh. He is immune to the curse on the Ulster warriors.
S: Cuchulainn, such a hero of Ulster. Ready to kill and die for glory – he was trained for this and nothing else. But his heartstrings reached as far as Connacht. There lived his foster father and brother, and there he had spent many happy days himself, training alongside them. And he knew that when he faced Maeve’s army, he would see their faces among them.
And one by one Maeve’s fighters came forward to fight Cuchulainn. And one by one they were slain.
S: Watching everything from behind the flap of Maeve’s tent, a face like Maeve’s, but so different from it too. Her daughter Findabair.
C: Impossible to count how many days I have crouched here and how many soldiers I have seen him kill. He is like a machine built for war. I don’t know when he eats or how he sleeps – or what he is thinking of. Maybe he only has thoughts for defending the Bull. He is Ulster’s fighter, but he is dancing to Maeve’s tune.
Fragment: Cuchulainn is exhausted
S: (almost as if he had heard Findabair) I get no sleep except an occasional short rest with my head on my hand and my hand on my spear and my spear on my knee. There is no time for thinking. I know my task. My body has been shaped to it since my birth.
C: (almost as if she had heard Cuchulainn) I do nothing but watch and think. I stay in the tent and watch it all unfold, until my mind goes numb from the watching and I just see shapes moving in front of my eyes.
Fragment: Maeve is desperate
She is playing with chess figures – all the blacks, just one white knight – and the white is knocking them over one at a time, leaving only the black King, Knight and Bishop clustered round it, and the Queen.
C: None left of these poor fighters around my Bull. We are coming down to brass tacks now, things are getting to the point. We need to bring the leaders into play, my commanders, his foster family. And they do not want to play against this particular knight….
She lifts up the Queen.
But they may play for the Queen. For my daughter.
S: Whoever shall defeat Cuchulainn and wins the Bull shall win Findabair for his wife, shall have titles and wealth, shall have anything he asks for!!
A dance in which Findabair is made to emerge from her tent (by the Bull?) and appear before the crowd. The Bull is in charge of this dance perhaps – almost like a puppeteer?
Fragment: Findabair goes away
C: Findabair stood in front of all that remained of the army and stared out at them. Soldiers were talking and speculating about her, sizing her up, wondering if the prize was worth the risk. But the longer she remained there, the stiller her thoughts became, until a numbness crept over her.
The sounds of the camp died away and all she could hear was the rushing of the river in the woods far behind. Over the heads of the Connacht troop she saw Cuchulainn, resting between duels, with his head on his hand and his hand on his spear and his spear on his knee.
S: Cuchulainn had no inch on his body that was not wounded. He had stuffed soft moss under his clothes to stop them rubbing against the cuts and bruises. But his father, the god, had sent him a blessed rest. Wherever he was, he was able to fall into a deep trance in which he felt no pain and could hear nothing but the birdsong. When he awoke he felt refreshed and ready to face the next challenger.
He looked up to the Connacht camp and Findabair standing in the midst of it on a raised platform. He watched her turn around and walk off, as if she were just going to fetch something from her tent. But instead she walked into the woods behind the camp.
C: Findabair must have followed the river a long way, because she never came back to the camp. Maeve sent soldiers to look for her, but they found no footprints on the other side of the river.
Fragment: Cuchulainn’s foster brother and foster father
S: So there was no prize for Cuchulainn’s foster father and foster brother, the commanders of the Connacht army, when they came forward finally to fight Cuchulainn.
We stand now as the foster father and foster brother – on either side of the Bull horns? But showing at the same time our disregard for the Bull.
C: Things had gone so far now, what was to be gained by refusing to fight him? Everything but the Bull had crumbled away. So we’d fight for the Bull.
S: We talked of tricks we could play on him for his own good.
C: Ways to reach a quick outcome without shame on either side.
S: To pretend we had reached stalemate.
C: To fight without weapons.
S: But Maeve was not going to give in, and nor could Ulster. So in the end we had to give in to the inevitable. (striding over to become Cuchulainn)
C: It was me who fought him, just like when we were children and trained together, but this time the cuts were deeper. We struggled from morning til night for three days.
Music – dance (Shrikant).
S: Each evening we would embrace each other, and collapse into our tents.
C: I would send my brother healing ointments for his wounds, and he would send me food and drink to restore me.
This is shown.
S: And the next day we would fight again. It was what we were raised for, you see. And then, on the third day…my brother fell. I carried him in my arms into the forest, to the river, and washed his body. The thing was over. The Bull was won for Ulster.
A dance (Shrikant).
Fragment: Maeve steals the Bull
C: Maeve stood on the battlefield and reflected that the war had been a great thing. The Bull, after all, was not a thing to be won – it was a thing to become.
And anyway, not even Cuchulainn could be in two places at once. While he was burying his foster brother in the forest, Maeve sent thieves into the Ulster camp to steal the Brown Bull of Cooley.
S presents the horns to C as she speaks.
The Brown Bull fought and killed her husband’s bull.
Was Maeve satisfied? The pride of Connacht was reclaimed. The roar of blood in her ears, her daughter’s empty bed, the weeping of the families of her kingdom, were nothing to that.
Cath Heinemeyer is a storyteller, researcher and university lecturer who is interested in the potential of storytelling to facilitate dialogue across social and ecological divides.
Shrikant Subramaniam is a choreographer, spoken word performer and Bharatanatyam (Indian Dance) practitioner who aims to stretch the boundaries of Indian Dance to tell stories of vital importance to our times.