Wednesday, March 22, 2006


Understanding Ulster - Cuchulainn

SetantaI commented on Monday that I intended to introduce a new feature to United Irelander to highlight the contribution that the province of Ulster makes and has made towards Irishness in an effort to tackle Irish apathy towards the region. With that being said, and considering Irish mythology is a great interest of mine and something I've blogged about many times on UI, I felt Cuchulainn's story would be an appropriate first choice for United Irelander's new Understanding Ulster feature.

Therefore, outlined below, with pictures for your pleasure, I present to you all (courtesy of Arthur Cotteril's book Celtic Mythology) the story of the great Ulster and Irish champion:

The story of Cuchulainn

Cuchulainn, in Irish mythology, was the champion warrior of Ulster. His name means the "Hound of Culann", although he was usually called the Hound of Ulster. Cuchulainn was the Irish Achilles, a larger-than-life fighter whose bouts of temper often caused grief to himself and others. Cuchulainn's mother was Dechtire, the daughter of the druid Cathbad, an advisor to the King Conchobar Mac Nessa. It was Cathbad who foretold that Cuchulainn would become a great warrior but die young.

Shortly after her marriage to Sualtam Mac Roth, who was the brother of the deposed Ulster ruler Fergus Mac Roth, Dechtire along with fifty of her kinswomen flew to the otherworld in the form of a flock of birds. During the wedding feast she had swallowed a fly and dreamed as a result of the sun god Lugh, who told her to make this journey. Cathbad reassured his son-in-law by saying that Dechtire had merely gone to visit her otherworld relations, for her mother was the daughter of the god Aonghus. In fact, Lugh kept Dechtire there for his own pleasure for three years.

When Dechtire and her women returned to Emain Macha, the stronghold of the Ulster kings, in the form of brightly coloured birds, Dechtire was expecting Lugh's son, Setanta. Sualtam Mac Roth was so pleased to have his wife home again that when the boy was born he accepted him as his own child.

As a youth, Setanta quickly learned the ways of the warrior, but it was not obvious to everyone just how strong and brave he was until he killed an enormous hound with his bare hands. One day, arriving late at the gate of a house where King Conchobar Mac Nessa was being entertained by the Ulster smith Culann, the young hero was attacked by the ferocious guard dog and only saved himself by dashing out its brains on one of the gate's pillars.

Setanta killed the hound of Culann Their host had now lost a faithful guardian, so Setanta offered to take the hound's place while a replacement was found. When Culann thanked the young warrior but declined his offer, it was decided that henceforth Setanta would be known as Cuchulainn ("the hound of Culann").

Exploits in battle

Even though the druid Cathbad, Cuchulainn's grandfather, warned that anyone going to battle for the first time on a certain day was destined for a short life, Cuchulainn could not wait to deal with Ulster's enemies and he soon took up arms against three semi-divine warriors named Foill, Fannell and Tuachell, as well as their numerous followers, all of whom he killed.

In this combat Cuchulainn displayed for the first time the dreadful shape of his battle-frenzy. His body trembled violently; his heels and calves appeared in front; one eye receded into his head, the other stood out huge and red on his cheek; a man's head could fit into his jaw; his hair bristled like hawthorn, with a drop of blood at the end of each single hair; and from the top of his head arose a thick column of dark blood like the mast of a ship.

Cuchulainn in battle with his loyal charioteer LaegReturning to Emain Macha in his chariot, "graced with the bleeding heads of his enemies", and with the battle-frenzy still upon him, Cuchulainn was only stopped from circling the defences and screaming for a fight through a ploy of the Ulster queen Mughain. She led out of Emain Macha some hundred and fifty naked women carrying vats of cold water. An embarassed or amazed Cuchulainn was swiftly womanhandled into the vats. The first one burst its sides. The second boiled furiously, but the last vat became only very hot. Thus was the young hero tamed after his first taste of blood.

Cuchulainn and Emer

In his calm, everyday state of mind Cuchulainn was a favourite of womenfolk. But he fell in love with Emer, the daughter of Fogall, a wily chieftain whose castle was close to Dublin. Cuchulainn asked for Emer's hand but Fogall, who was against the match, pointed out that Cuchulainn had yet to establish his reputation as a warrior and suggested that he should go and learn from the Scottish champion Domhnall. Domhnall told Cuchulainn that his best trainer in arms would be Scathach, a warrior-princess in the Land of Shadows. So he travelled to this mysterious land and served Scathach. She taught the hero his famous battle leap.

For a year and a day Cuchulainn was taught by Scathach, and became the lover of her daughter Uathach. Scathach seems to have feared for the safety of Cuchulainn, and she warned him without success not to challenge her sister Aoifa. But Cuchulainn beat Aoifa by cunning, and afterwards she became his mistress, conceiving the unfortunate Conlai.

Aoife, Cuchulainn's lover and mother of his son, ConlaiCuchulainn finally returned to Fogall's stronghold and claimed Emer, but only after a heated battle with Fogall and his warriors, during which Fogall leapt to his death escaping the hero.

Cuchulainn and Ferdia

Acclaimed as the champion of Ireland in a beheading contest, Cuchulainn was soon unbeatable in combat, a skill he was to need dearly in his last campaign, which was a single handed defence of Ulster against the invading army of Queen Medb of Connacht. The main reason for this raid was a famous brown bull which was kept in Cuailgne. But the tyrannical king of Ulster, King Conchobar Mac Nessa, also played a big part in gathering rebellious Ulstermen and others from many parts of Ireland to Queen Medb's side.

One man who fought on Queen Medb's side was Ferdia. Ferdia was son of Daman the Firbolg, and was a lifelong friend and comrade of Cuchulainn. As young men, they were both taught to fight by Scathach. During the war of the brown bull of Cuailgne, Ferdia did his best to avoid coming up against his friend, but eventually Medb taunted him into fighting the great hero in single combat and the two fought grimly to the death with Ferdia being killed by Cuchulainn.

At Ferdia's death, Cuchulainn fell exhausted, lamenting, "Why should I rise again now he that lies here has fallen by my hand?"

Cuchulainn with his fallen friend

Death of a champion

One prophecy told Queen Medb that there would be "crimson and red" upon her forces because of Cuchulainn's prowess, but she was determined to invade and also she had three advantages. First, the great hero had made bitter enemies of the Calatin family, whose daughters were witches. Just prior to his last stand along with his faithful charioteer Laeg, they cast a spell on Cuchulainn which withered a shoulder and a hand. Second, Medb attacked when Ulster's heroes were laid low by Macha's curse, and were unable to fight for five days and five nights. Finally, Cuchulainn had lost the support of the goddess Morrigan, because he had rejected her passionate advances.

Yet he still managed to conduct a successful single-handed defence and was able to slow the advance of Queen Medb's forces by the use of clever tactics and lightning attacks, until the effects of Macha's curse had almost worn off, and the dazed warriors were able to respond to Sualtam Mac Roth's call to arms. But their help came too late for Cuchulainn. Pressed on all sides by his enemies, the Ulster champion was overcome in spite of aid from his divine father, the sun god Lugh. His only companion, Laeg, was laid low with a spear, then Cuchulainn himself suffered a terrible stomach wound that even Lugh could not heal. Finally, Cuchulainn tied himself to an upright stone in order to fight till his last breath. As soon as he died Morrigan, in the form of a crow, settled on his shoulder and his enemies cut off his head and right hand, leaving his body for the carrion birds. Conall, his foster-brother, managed to recover the missing parts, but Ulster wept for the loss of their champion. Indeed, so widespread was Cuchulainn's fame that his exploits influenced the development of the Arthurian myths in Britain and France.

The statue of the fallen Cuchulainn at the GPO in Dublin

The stories of Cuchulainn captivated me as a youngster and I know the same is true for Irish youngsters today who learn about the exploits of the Ulster and Irish champion. He is an inspiring Irish character and a small but significant example of the contribution Ulster has made towards Irishness.

Hold your Irishness close to your heart and know that Ulster lies within your soul.


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