This one is a fairly new one, as it was just written in 2010. As with our other March stories we thought we’d share it once again! – BS  2013 UPDATE: Video corrected

Irish history is more than just words on paper. Like so many civilizations past we tend to put our stories, our mythos in to song.

Many have heard the songs of Ireland and found them any array of reactions from distinctive, to beautiful, to addictive. Music is not merely a form of expression for the Irish. It’s a way of reliving our past, and it is probably one of the few mediums in which blood has not been shade amongst ourselves.

The son of the god Lugh and Deichtine, Cú Chulainn was originally named Sétanta . He gained his better-known name, Cú Chulainn, as a child after he killed Culann’s fierce guard-dog in self-defense, and offered to take its place until a replacement could be reared.

This is a story oft told me as a young lad

More on Cú Chulainn after the jump

At the age of seventeen he defended Ulster single-handedly against the armies of queen Medb of Connacht in the epic Táin Bó Cúailnge (“Cattle Raid of Cooley”).

Statue of Cúchulainn  by Oliver Sheppard, in the window of the GPO, Dublin - commemorating the 1916 rising.

Statue of Cúchulainn by Oliver Sheppard, in the proper of the GPO, Dublin – commemorating the 1916 rising.

It was prophesied that his great deeds would give him everlasting fame, but that his life would be short–one reason he is compared to the Greek hero Achilles.

He is known for his terrifying battle frenzy or ríastrad, in which he becomes an unrecognisable monster who knows neither friend nor foe. He fights from his chariot, driven by his loyal charioteer Láeg, and drawn by his horses, Liath Macha and Dub Sainglend. In more modern times, Cú Chulainn is often referred to as the “Hound of Ulster”.

Perhaps it is this mythos that encourages the song to be used in modern day movies such as “Boondock Saints”

Either way the song is his tribute.

In typical irish fashion Cú Chulainn in youth is so beautiful that the Ulstermen worry that without a wife of his own, he will steal their wives and ruin their daughters. Might have been some English wag who came up with that part I’ll wager.

To make a long story short, Cú Chulainn goes to Scotland to perfect his methods of war, shortly after marrying. He returns even more dangerous than before but not before Cú Chulainn’s son by his wife, Aífe, comes to Ireland in search of his father, but Cú Chulainn takes him as an intruder and kills him when he refuses to identify himself. Connla’s last words to his father as he dies are that they would have “carried the flag of Ulster to the gates of Rome and beyond”, leaving Cú Chulainn grief stricken

At Táin Bó Cúailnge, Cú Chulainn defends Ulster and literally slaughters hundreds of soldiers. But he takes time in the middle of this to protect a Queen Medb of Connachts’ escape (his enemy), because he does not feel it right to war, or kill women.

Medb conspires with Lugaid, son of Cú Roí, Erc, son of Cairbre Nia Fer, and the sons of others Cú Chulainn had killed, to draw him out to his death. His fate is sealed by his breaking of the geasa (Irish version of taboos) upon him. Cú Chulainn’s geasa included a ban against eating dog meat, but in early Ireland there was a powerful general taboo against refusing hospitality, so when an old crone offers him a meal of dog meat, he has no choice to break his geis. In this way he is spiritually weakened for the fight ahead of him.

Lugaid has three magical spears made, and it is prophesied that a king will fall by each of them. With the first he kills Cú Chulainn’s charioteer Láeg, king of chariot drivers. With the second he kills Cú Chulainn’s horse, Liath Macha, king of horses. With the third he hits Cú Chulainn, mortally wounding him. Cú Chulainn ties himself to a standing stone in order to die on his feet. This stone is traditionally identified as one still standing at Knockbridge, County Louth. Due to his ferocity even when so near death, it is only when a raven lands on his shoulder that his enemies believe he is dead. Lugaid approaches and cuts off his head, but as he does so the “hero-light” burns around Cú Chulainn and his sword falls from his hand and cuts Lugaid’s hand off. The light disappears only after his right hand, his sword arm, is cut from his body.

Conall Cernach had sworn that if Cú Chulainn died before him he would avenge him before sunset, and when he hears Cú Chulainn is dead he pursues Lugaid. As Lugaid has lost a hand, Conall fights him with one hand tucked into his belt, but he only beats him.

It is said that the Irish are born with a guilty conscience. It is said that as Irish we contemplate death more than any other. Perhaps it is because of our history, our wars, or our legends. Cú Chulainn is no different. The story is told that when Saint Patrick was trying to convert king Lóegaire to Christianity, the ghost of Cú Chulainn appeared in his chariot, warning him of the torments of hell.

For future reference:

Kinsella, Thomas (1969)The Táin, Oxford University Press

Hull, E. (1913) Cuchulain the Hound of Ulster, London, Harrap

Gantz, Jeffery (1981) Early Irish Myths & Sagas, Penguin

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  1. County Armagh: A look at Bandit Country    Mar 16 2011 / 8am:

    [...] whom have been reading us this month recall it being mentioned in our story of the great warrior, Cú Chulainn. In any event the location is easily one of the oldest structures on the Island, dating back to 95 [...]