When readers have asked me about the gestation of what became Táin and Remscela, I usually say it was a project that took about eight years from start to finish—beginning the summer I bicycled across Ireland to the year when the second book saw print. That was indeed eight years.
The truth is, though, it all stewed for a good deal longer than that.
It really started years earlier, with music—specifically an LP that a longtime friend, Ric Johnson, gave me: a recording by the Irish band Horslips, their rendition of the Táin bo Cúailnge called, simply, The Tain. While the songs often fit the tales abstractly, the liner notes of the album told more of the story and led me, probably inevitably, to Thomas Kinsella’s definitive translation of The Cattle Raid of Cooley.
Kinsella in turn led me to the writings of Lady Gregory, something of a feedback loop because, if I remember right, Kinsella credited her version with sending him down the path to uncovering and translating the tales in the first place.
The best translation already existed, so I wasn’t about to attempt something like that. That seemed pointless. Instead, looking for a direction, I fell into research—the first time in fact that I became consumed by research for a project (it’s now happened repeatedly—for Fitcher’s Brides, for the two books of Shadowbridge, and for a historical novel, Dark House). Research is a rabbit hole into another world, and in the case of Bronze Age Celts, it proved to be just as mad as anything Alice ever encountered in Wonderland. I read accounts from Tacitus (who painted the enemy of the Romans in lurid colors to make them even scarier than they probably were) to Jean Markale’s magnificent Women of the Celts.
In 1979, I had the opportunity to bicycle the British Isles with two friends, Patrick Crowley and Tom Mackey, both of Irish descent, and before departing, I reread Kinsella’s translation and mapped the route of the epic cattle raid into Ulster. All along the route we rode, we found elements from the stories: for instance, the twin hill forts of Cruachan—so reduced that cattle were grazing upon the significantly reduced mounds, and which ill-prepared us for the massive hillfort of Armagh when we beheld it. It is still ringed at the base with humps of what had once been defensive walls and ditches. Along the way we had the magical sorts of experiences travelers talk about, meeting extraordinary people, and cycling across haunted peat bogs, and alien landscapes like the Burren of County Clare, and at one point being trapped in a tent for 3 days near Dingle during what became known as the Fastnet Gale that killed 18 yachtsmen and rescuers out at sea. Three men in a two-man tent in a force-10 gale…I don’t recommend it.
The ride gave me a perspective on the landscapes, on the people, and on the often grotesque humor that had produced Sheela-na-gigs and flaying stones. It even led me to a 19th century farm in the Lurgy-Ross area near Armagh that my own family’s ancestors had left to come to America, and which is still standing, still inhabited, still as-of-then a working farm.
After all that, the book came together slowly. Some of it was written while I lived in Florida; most of Táin was written in North Carolina and Tennessee, Remscela in Philadelphia. I wrote my way into it wrong at least three times, sometimes a hundred pages that I ultimately discarded.
Researches continued in Raleigh and Durham and Chapel Hill, where I found more books presenting the fragments of further tales of Cú Chulainn and the other heroes and heroines of the Táin, including Markale’s book, which I read from a university library and then purchased, it was so good.
For awhile these stories flowed from me like some weird electricity. I would write, or research and write, for hours on end, and then come to myself frustrated to discover I was back in modern times. That experience of immersing in a time period has become familiar now, but it was strange then.
On top of that I was developing a process of writing longhand drafts and then coming back to them with a typewriter (in those days), and watching how the whole project transformed in that process. There were stories about the Táin having been lost and recounted by the ghost of Fergus Mac Roich, and I tried that but found it to be unsatisfying. It wasn’t until Laeg, Cú Chulainn’s charioteer, replaced Fergus as my ghostly storyteller that it all began to assemble correctly.
The final books are full of anachronisms, bawdy and perhaps even obscene humor, and references to other Irish literature (like the works of Flann O’Brien—a.k.a. Brian O’Nolan—whose books I read both for research and pleasure). It became sort of the equivalent of a drunken, brawling feast-hall retelling of the story, where anybody might grab onto any element and throw it into the mix.
That is what the reader will encounter: a tale that incorporates tales inside tales, and improbabilities upon impossibilities. That is Cú Chulainn, the semi-divine and half-mad hero who faces down all the other armies of Ireland to protect his beloved Ulster. Darkness, madness, and humor of the most grotesque sort still seem to me the only ways to come anywhere near the mark.
Gregory Frost is the author most recently of “Lock Up Your Chickens and Daughters—H’ard and Andy Are Come to Town,” a collaboration with Philly author Michael Swanwick (Asimov’s). He is the Fiction Workshop Director at Swarthmore College.