The life of Cuchulainn1 is one made entirely of legend - as any story about a half-god, half-man superhero would have to be. The story is recorded in the sagas of the ancient Celts in Scotland and Ireland, but it's doubtful that any real person similar to Cuchulainn existed. However, we have no lack of information about Cuchulainn as a literary character. The Ulster Cycle, one of the major collections of tales in the Irish mythological canon, deals largely with Cuchulainn's exploits.
Cuchulainn's Rise to Fame
Legend has it that Cuchulainn was the son of the king of Ulster's sister Dechtire and the god Lugh, one of the more important gods in the Celtic pantheon. Lugh fell in love with Dechtire and carried her off to the land of the gods, where she gave birth to her son, whom she called Setanta. Shortly afterward, Dechtire was returned to the mortal world, where her son was hailed as the son of a god and thereby someone from whom the people of Ulster could expect great things.
It was decided that Setanta would be fostered to Dechtire's sister, Finnochoem, as was the custom, and he spent a lot of time at the royal stronghold, Emain Macha, where the king Conor Mac Nessa lived. When Setanta was six, he expressed an interest in joining Conor Mac Nessa's corps of boys, who were taught about fighting and sports and would eventually join Conor's elite squadron of warriors. Setanta discovered that he had a natural aptitude for hurling, and was able to play against all the other boys and win every time. On the strength of this skill, he was allowed to stay on with the boy corps.
When Setanta was seven, a smith called Culann invited Conor and the important men of the kingdom to a feast in honour of the king. Impressed with Setanta's skill at athletics, he invited the boy to come along as well. Setanta agreed, saying that when the boys were done with their hurling game he would follow the party. Setanta came along behind, but by the time he got to Culann's lands, the smith had already set loose his guard dog. It was gigantic, and any man who heard its howl became frozen with terror. When it spotted Setanta coming over the hill, it lunged at the little boy. But Setanta was not afraid, simply ramming a ball down the dog's throat with a hurley stick. The force of the blow killed it.
When Conor heard the dying howl of the dog, he suddenly remembered that Setanta had been following them, and feared that he had been killed by the dog. But when the king and his men stormed out of Culann's house, they discovered Setanta standing over the dead dog, completely calm. When Culann discovered that his dog had been killed, he was very upset. It was a rare breed, and quite costly to obtain, and now he had no way of guarding his lands. Setanta, in order to calm Culann's anger, volunteered to raise another guard dog, and to guard Culann's lands while the new dog grew. This proposal was readily accepted by the company, and so Setanta was given a new name. He was called Cuchulainn, or 'Hound of Culann', and he had already made his mark as a future hero.
Cuchulainn Becomes More Impressive
Cuchulainn, as he was now called, stayed on at Ulster with the boys' corps until he was a teenager, and then went to study combat with Scathach, a warrior woman on the Isle of Skye, who was renowned for her skill with the javelin. She gave Cuchulainn a magic spear, which would kill anyone he threw it at. Cuchulainn took the spear gratefully, but he hoped he would never have to use it, since his skill at single combat was so great.
Eventually Cuchulainn returned to Ulster and Conor's court, and distinguished himself in battle against rival kingdoms and generally became hailed as one of the greatest warriors of Ulster. As such, he was invited to all the best parties in the kingdom, including one hosted by Bricriu, the bard, whose hobby was spreading unrest and strife. He was incredibly skilled at it, too, so when he invited Conor and the bravest warriors to a feast, Conor consented with a certain amount of wariness and reserve.
The group had not even reached Bricriu's house when he began to spread unrest. He went up to each of Conor's warriors separately and told each one that he was the best warrior and as such deserved the largest portion of the roast. Each of the men, including Cuchulainn, determined that they would demand the champion's portion.
When the party arrived at Bricriu's house, the warriors began to argue amongst themselves as to who would receive the promised champion's portion. Luckily, before anyone could get killed, Conor demanded that the warriors share the champion's portion equally. Therefore, the argument was temporarily resolved, but it continued to plague Conor's warriors. They each tried to prove they were better than the others, until the next exciting event happened...
One evening, there was a feast being held at Conor's fortress, Emain Macha. As the men were eating and drinking and carousing, they were suddenly silenced by a loud crash. A giant had appeared in the doorway of the hall. In one hand he carried a cudgel the size of a tree, and in the other a giant, incredibly sharp axe. The giant surveyed the hall of warriors, and asked if there was any man there who would be willing to cut off the giant's head that night in exchange for his own head being cut off the following night. There was silence around the room, but finally one of the warriors, Laoghaire, stepped forward and said he would volunteer. The giant bent down, and Laoghaire cut off his head with a single blow. Then, amazing the crowd, the giant simply picked up his head and walked away.
The next night, the giant, his head back on his neck, returned to Emain Macha to seek out Laoghaire. Predictably, the warrior had disappeared, and so the giant issued his challenge again, and this time Conall agreed to cut off the giant's head. He did so, but when the giant returned the next night, Conall was nowhere to be found. The giant then challenged Cuchulainn to see if he, since he was famous and theoretically brave, would keep the bargain. Cuchulainn at first refused, but the threat of being called a coward was too overpowering, and so he cut off the giant's head. Just as he had done the previous nights, the giant picked up his head and walked away.
On the fourth night, every warrior in Ulster filled the hall, curious to see if Cuchulainn would keep his promise. Cuchulainn was indeed present, although shaking with fear. Terrified, he laid his head on the block and waited for death, but it did not come. Instead, the giant invited Cuchulainn to stand up, hailing him as the greatest warrior in Ireland and ordering that he alone must be accorded the champion's portion. And so the disagreement was finally brought to an end.
The Cattle Raid of Cooley
The great war between Ulster and Connacht that forms the basis of the story about the Cattle Raid began when Maeve, the queen of Connacht, developed a desire for the famous Brown Bull of Cooley. Unfortunately, though, the bull was located in Ulster, and so Maeve sent in spies to determine the best way to take the bull back to Connacht. When the spies returned to Maeve, they reported that all the men of Ulster suffered from a curse that rendered them incapable of fighting Maeve's attack. All, that is, but one: Cuchulainn, who by this time had made a name for himself doing heroic things.
Convinced that one hero, no matter how famous, would not be enough to hold back an entire army, Maeve led a gigantic force into Ulster in order to steal the Brown Bull. Before they got very far into Ulster, though, they were met by Cuchulainn. He was angry at the enemy army, which sent him into a huge battle frenzy. He killed hundreds of Maeve's soldiers, who retreated in fear. The Connacht army tried to declare a truce, but Cuchulainn refused to allow a single man to pass. Finally, due to the mediation skills of a man called Fergus2, Cuchulainn agreed not to kill any more of the Connacht army, but only if, every day, one man of Connacht met him in single combat. Maeve and her army could advance while the fighting was going on, but when it ended she had to halt. She determined that the cost in casualties would be fewer, and so agreed to the bargain.
Dozens of warriors volunteered for the single combat at first, but as Cuchulainn killed them all in turn, fewer and fewer volunteered, and Maeve had to bribe the soldiers in order to find someone to meet Cuchulainn each day. Cuchulainn killed them all with ease, and Maeve's army was not able to gain much ground, until one great champion, Natchrantal, put up enough of a fight against Cuchulainn that there was time for Maeve to launch a quick raid and secure the Brown Bull.
Theoretically, this was now the point at which Maeve and her supporters should have gone home, but she had developed a grudge against Cuchulainn and kept sending men to fight him. Cuchulainn had no problem defeating any of them, until Maeve sent against him another renowned champion, Ferdia. Ferdia had trained with Cuchulainn on Skye and so was nearly as skilled a fighter. They were great friends, and Cuchulainn was reluctant to fight with Ferdia, but he had to defend the kingdom and so the two men fought for four days, until Cuchulainn, in a battle frenzy, had no choice but to kill Ferdia with the magic spear that Scathach had given him. Cuchulainn himself had been severely wounded in the fight, though, and was unable to move. He strapped himself to a pillar in order to continue fighting, but by this time, the men of Ulster had recovered from their curse and were able to fight the men of Connacht in a pitched battle on the Plain of Garach.
It seemed that Connacht would win, due to the impressive fighting skills of Fergus - who, in his battle frenzy, killed hundreds of men and cut the tops off a few mountains that happened to be in the way. Cuchulainn, seeing the danger to his home but unable to fight back, pleaded with Fergus as a friend to leave the kingdom alone. Fergus agreed and left with his supporters, leaving behind only Maeve and a few fighters loyal to her. With this drastic reduction in the Connacht forces, the Ulster men were able to overcome them, and sent them back to Connacht. The Brown Bull, incidentally, was so overcome by the fighting (it was in the midst of the battle) that it exploded, so the entire expedition was rendered essentially pointless.
When all the Connacht men had gone, Cuchulainn died from his wounds, still strapped to the pillar. It is possible that he was around 30 years old at the time. For a long time after he stopped moving, everyone was reluctant to approach him, but then a crow landed on him and they knew that he was dead. So ended the life of one of Irish mythology's greatest heroes.
The Legend Today
The legend of Cuchulainn didn't just vanish in the mists of time and oral tradition. More recently, Cuchulainn and his defence of Ulster have become a symbol of Ulster Loyalism. A statue of him, tied to his pillar, also stands inside the Dublin post office that was the site of the 1916 Easter Rising. Some modern Irish place names even take their names from characters in the story of the Cattle Raid. Most notable is Ardee, in County Louth: the name means 'Ford of Ferdia' and is thought to refer to the location where Ferdia was killed in the legend.
- Fleming, Fergus, et al. Heroes of the Dawn. Duncan Baird Publishers, London: 1996.