Permit me to introduce you to Setanta – better known to all Irish schoolchildren as Cu Chulainn (The Hound of Culann). He is a magnificent magical character from Irish Mythology. The strange thing is that he is given prominence across the divide that is the North of Ireland and likewise in the South – The Republic. He is known in the south as the most important of all Celtic Irish heroes whilst in the north as an Ulster hero who died defending the Province from enemies in the south. In fact there is no room in the stories for politics. They merely relate the tales of ancient times with the beauty, the magic of romance, horror and in many cases, the truly unbelievable aspects of times long past.
There are many versions of the stories and I doubt if the truth will ever be agreed. Although there are ancient written versions, many of the stories (probably including my versions) were passed down the generations. There is little doubt that they gained in the telling with the deeds and adventures of Setanta being greatly exaggerated by the story tellers – including my old grandfather.
If one tried to complete a ‘photo-fit’ or profile on our hero Setanta, it would leave one more confused than when one started. In the historical documents he is variously described as ‘small, youthful and beardless’: ‘a dark, sad man, comeliest of the men of Erin’: ‘a little black-browed man’: and my favourite – ‘his hair was thick and black, and smooth as though a cow had licked it’. He was also described as ‘blonde’ but the longest goes something like this: ‘You would think he had three distinct heads of hair – brown at the base, blood-red in the middle and a crown of golden yellow. The hair was long and loose-flowing and hung down over his shoulders, deep-gold and beautiful and fine as a thread of gold’. It goes on further which sometimes makes me wonder if those describing him are in fact talking about the same person. Be that as it may, the great stories of his adventures used to amaze me as a child and hold me spellbound. Those memories still fill me with the greatest of pleasure.
One version of his birth is far too complicated, mysterious and involves far too many characters but the better known version goes something like this: Conchobar Mac Nessa, the King of Ulster and a band of his men were out hunting throughout Ireland for a flock of magical birds. They are caught in a snowstorm and obtain shelter in a large nearby house. Their host was King Lug and his wife Deichtine who was a sister of Conchobar. During the night she gave birth to a son whilst at the moment of birth, a mare gave birth to two colts. This was seen as a magical omen. The child was named Setanta.
As was common in those days, young boys when they reached the age of five or six were fostered out to a nobleman to be brought up in the traditional way. This included an appropriate education in all aspects of the arts and warfare as befitting a royal child. The noblemen present could not agree with whom Setanta would be fostered. The wise old man of Lug’s household, Morann, decided that as a compromise he should be brought up by several of them.
Conchobar would teach him judgment and eloquent speech: another, Blai Briugu would protect and provide for him: the warrior, Fergus Mac Roich would teach him to protect the weak: the poet, Amergin would educate him whilst his wife Findchoem would nurse him. He would be brought up in the house of Amergin alongside their own son Conall Cernach. He would live in the county of Louth which was then in Ulster.
As he grew Setanta became a great hurler – (the truly Irish game of hurling where a leather ball – a sliotar – is struck with a hurley stick – not quite like, but similar to a hockey stick).
One day he learned of a game some distance away at Emain Macha and got permission to attend. As he made his way there it began to rain. Now it is a fact, that Setanta was so fast with his hurley-stick that he was able to hit each drop of rain as it fell thereby keeping himself bone dry until he arrived at the game. Before going onto the field of play, he did not know that he should ask for the protection of the leader and as a result the other players thinking that he was about to attack the leader, set about him. Setanta went into a rage for which he was later in life to become famous, and took on each and every one of the others beating the lot.
Conchobar, his uncle who was present, stopped the fight and cleared up the misunderstanding. Another nobleman present at the time was Culann the Blacksmith who invited Conchobar to a feast at his home. Setanta so impressed Conchobar with his skills that he too was invited to the feast at the end of the game. Conchobar and Culann left early with Setanta to join them later.
Conchobar totally forgot to inform Culann about Setanta’s later arrival and once his guests were inside the house he let his guard-dog, a wolfhound out to run free in the grounds. The hound was one of the largest wolfhounds ever known in all of Ireland before or since……………
As Setanta arrived the hound began a ferocious attack on him so purely to protect himself, Setanta let fly of the sliotar (ball) with his hurley-stick, ramming the ball down the dog’s throat thereby killing it. On hearing the noise from the fight, Culann and his guests made their way to the grounds. On seeing his favourite hound dead, Culann was devastated. As a result, Setanta made a solemn promise that he would rear a hound to replace it and in the meantime, until it was large enough and fully grown, he himself would guard the property day and night.
The wise old Druid of the household, Cathbad, stepped forward and announced that henceforth, Setanta would be known as Cu Chulainn – ‘Culann’s Hound’.
On another occasion when Cu Chulainn was seven years old he was listening to Cathbad teach his pupils at Emain Macha. As a result of what he heard, he asked Cathbad why that day in particular was so auspicious. He was told that ‘any warrior who takes arms that day will have everlasting fame’. Without hesitation and without listening any more to Cathbad, Cu Chulainn made his way to his uncle and pleaded to be provided with arms. Conchobar was very proud and indeed Cu Chulainn was so young, he provided him with weapons.
As soon as the young boy began to try out the weapons he went into his war-rage and broke any weapon given to him. Conchobar did nothing more but to give his nephew his own.
On seeing this, the Druid Cathbad began to wail for he had not finished his prophecy – that the one taking up arms that day would indeed become famous but his life would thereby be short. On hearing this, Cu Chulainn demanded his uncle’s chariot. He set off in search of the three sons of Nechtan Scene who had boasted that they had killed more Ulstermen than there were Ulstermen still living. On sighting them once again he flew into his battle rage and upon killing all three of them returned to Emain Macha where he totally frightened all those present into thinking that he would kill them also as his rage was still at a high point.
Old Cathbad had an idea and got Conchobar’s wife to bring out all the women of Emain to face Cu Chulainn and bear their breasts. When he saw what they were doing he averted his gaze and whilst so distracted he was grabbed and wrestled into a barrel of cold water. The first barrel exploded from the heat of his body, the second barrel they put him into boiled away but the third was successful.
When Cu Chulainn reached his teens he was beginning to grow into a handsome man with all the young ladies of Ulster (and elsewhere) chasing after him. The other young nobles began to worry that as he had no wife of his own he would steal theirs whilst the elders feared that he would ‘ruin their daughters’.
A search of all Ireland began to find him a wife. Cu Chulainn himself had set his eyes on Emer, the daughter of Forgall Monach, a local chieftain. Forgall was against the match and suggested that Cu Chulainn should train in arms with a famous warrior-woman named Scathach who held a camp in Alba (now Scotland). Forgall believed that the severe training would be far too much for the youth and hoped that he would in fact be killed during his stay there.
Cu Chulainn was never one to shy away from a challenge accepted and left Ireland for Scotland to begin his training. In the meantime, whilst Cu Chulainn was away Forgall offered the hand of Emir to Lugain Mac Nois, the King of Munster. Lugaid knew of Cu Chulainn’s battle rage and when he heard that Emir loved the other, he used that as an excuse and refused her hand in marriage.
Cu Chulainn proved to be a total success in learning the art of war and learned the use of some of the most vicious weapons available during those times. One in particular, the Gae Bulg, was a terrifying triple barbed spear which had to be cut out of any victim who was hit with it.
Towards the end of his training, Cu Chulainn learned that another female warrior, Aife, Scathach’s rival in Scotland, intended to declare war on his teacher. He swore vengeance to protect her.
On hearing this, Scathach, fearing for Cu Chulainn’s life, gave him a powerful sleeping drug to keep him out of the battle. However, because of his strength it only kept him asleep for about one hour. He challenged Aife to single combat……
They were evenly matched with neither gaining ground on the other. At one point, Cu Chulainn falsely called to Aife that her chariot and horse – the things that she cherished most in life – had fallen over a cliff. Whilst distracted he seized her but spared her life on two conditions. They were that she calls off her challenge to Scathach and that she bear him a son. Once his training was complete and confident that Aife was in fact pregnant, he returned to Ireland intent on marrying Emer.
When he returned to Ulster, Cu Chulainn learned of Emer’s father’s decision not to allow the marriage. He flew into his battle rage and attacked Forgall’s fortress single-handed. He killed twenty-four of his men, abducted Emir and stole Rorgall’s treasure. During the attack Forgall in fact fell to his death from the walls of the fort.
On learning of the forthcoming marriage of Cu Chulainn and Emer, Conchobar, his uncle and King demanded, as was his right, that he was claiming ‘the right of the first night’ with Emer. This was a right he held over all his subjects.
Nonetheless, he feared what Cu Chulainn would do on hearing such news even though he was also afraid of losing his authority if his demand was not met. A solution was called for and once again the wise old Druid, Cathbad came to the rescue with an acceptable solution. It was agreed all round that the custom would take place and that Conchobar would sleep with Emer. However, the clever Cathbad would sleep between them.
Several years later, Cu Chulainn’s son by Aife in Scotland arrived in Ireland in search of his father. When brought before Cu Chulainn as ‘an intruder’ he refused to identify himself. Cu Chulainn himself killed the youth. With his dying breath he identified himself as his son stating that they would have ‘carried the flag of Ulster to the gates of Rome and beyond’………..(I suppose that is why Cu Chulainn is such a hero to the Ulster Loyalists/Protestants who take it as a reference to the Pope and Catholicism).
Cu Chulainn became grief-stricken by the death and at what he had done. As a result, any battle that he could engage himself in was an excuse to vent his anger on all and sundry.
It just so happened that at about this time, and when he was no more than seventeen, a war was raging between the King of Ulster and the Queen of Connaught about who had the finest breeding bull. Medb, the Connaught Queen, attacked Ulster in an attempt to steal the Ulster king’s bull. Cu Chulainn decided to guard the border and prevent the Queen’s men from entering Ulster and thereby prevent the theft.
However, as Medb and her army arrived, Cu Chulainn was in fact in bed with a local woman whilst the men of Ulster were disabled by a curse. Ulster was taken by surprise. Once he realised what had happened, Cu Chulainn made his way by chariot and faced the army of Medb alone. He made a challenge which in honour had to be accepted by Medb of ‘single combat’ at each river ford they reached.
Cu Chulainn defeated each champion one after the other causing the delay of Medb’s army for many months.
After one particularly vicious challenge, Cu Chulainn was seriously wounded. As he lay by the riverside he was visited by Lug who admitted to being his father. He healed the wounds and Cu Chulainn recovered. It was then that he learned that a troop of his friends from Emain Macha, having attacked the army of Medb slaughtered most of them. Those who had fled were followed by Cu Chulainn who was once again in his battle rage – the fiercest of his entire life. He attacked the remnants and killed hundreds. He built walls with the corpses.
Soon the men of Ulster recovered from their curse and made a determined effort to capture Medb and her guard. This he did and had her at his mercy. However, his earlier teachings of chivalry and that there was no right to kill women, he guarded her retreat back to Connaught.
This honorable deed was in the near future to cost Cu Chulainn his life……..
During the following months, Medb and her allies made plans to destroy Cu Chulainn and have revenge. Firstly a total taboo (geasa) was put on him. It included a ban against eating dog meat. However, there was also a more general powerful taboo in Ireland at that time against refusing hospitality. When on his travels to meet up with his enemies, and with conspiracy afoot, Cu Chulainn was offered a meal by an old woman. Unknown to Cu Chulainn the meal contained dog meat. This left him very ill and weak. He feared for his chances in the battle ahead.
One of Medb’s allies was another enemy of Cu Chulainn. His name was Lugaid. In preparation for the battle Lugaid had fashioned three magical spears upon which a spell had been cast. It was prophesied that a king would be killed by each of them.
With the first he killed Cu Chulainn’s lifelong charioteer, Laeg – King of all chariot drivers. With the second he killed his favourite horse Liat Macha, King of all horses. With the third, he struck Cu Chulainn, mortally wounding him. He managed to tie himself to an upright stone pillar in order to die on his feet. Lugaid and his army stood back as they still feared for their lives knowing what Cu Chulainn was capable of doing even when injured. It was not until a crow landed on his should that Lugaid made his way to check if he were dead.
With one swing of his sword, he cut off Cu Chulainn’s head and as this happened there was a colossal flash of light, known as ‘hero-light’ which surrounded the dead body. At the same time, Cu Chulainn’s up stretched arm released his sword which fell. As it did so it cut off Lugaid’s hand. The ‘hero’s light’ remained until one of the opposing army cut off Cu Chulainn’s sword arm.
One of Cu Chulainn’s best friends, Conall Cernach had sworn that if Cu Chulainn died before him he would avenge his death before sunset of the same day. He pursued and cornered Lugaid but when he discovered that he had lost his hand he agreed to fight him with one hand tucked into his belt.
The fight continued for some time and was equally balanced until Lugaid’s horse bit a large portion out of his owner’s side causing his instant death. Lugaid’s head was taken back to Tara with the body of Cu Chulainn.
So there you have it – Cu Chulainn – my childhood hero. The immense pleasure these stories used to give me as a child on cold winter nights in front of the fire is immeasurable. Even typing them today rekindled that enjoyment.
Finally, there is little doubt that there are similarities between this myth and other such stories from all over the world. I like to think that the others were copied from the Irish as many of the stories I told are recorded in old Irish illuminated manuscripts hundreds of years old.
One such surviving manuscript, The Book of Leinster, written by monks in the 11th or 12th century, ends with a colophon in Latin which says:
‘But I, who have written this story, or rather this fable, give no credence to the
various incidents related in it. Some things in it are the deceptions of demons,
other poetic figments; some are probable, others improbable; whilst
still others are intended for the delectation of foolish men….’
There is a statue depicting the death of Cu Chulainn situated in the General Post Office in O’Connell Street, Dublin……the scene of the Easter Uprising in 1916.