Cúchulainn and The Ulster Cycle
History; Posted on: 2008-11-28 11:59:41 [ Printer friendly / Instant flyer ]
Glorious will be his story;
He will be the king of grace,
He will be the hound of Ulster,
Who will take pledges of Kings:
Awful will be the disgrace
When he falls.
by Lee Hancock
The Ulster Cycle is a series of medieval Irish heroic legends and sagas which tell the story of the Ulaid, a people that lived in eastern Ulster and Northern Leinster, specifically in the areas of modern day Armagh, Down and Louth. The stories are written in Old English and Middle Irish prose and verse in manuscripts of the 12th to 15 centuries although it is thought that some of the events and characters may date back to the 7th century.
Some believe that the stories are in essence historical while others see the tales as purely mythological. Many of the stories seem reminiscent of Celtic societies such as Gaul and Ancient Britain; druids advise the kings, chariots are used in battle and the custom of preserving the head of slain enemies is in evidence. Yet other scholars dispute this appraisal and claim to note similarities with early medieval Irish society and an undercurrent of influence from classical literature.
The Ulster Cycle features many different stories and characters, perhaps the best known tale being the tragedy of Deirdre. But the most predominant character in the cycle, who also features in Scottish and Manx legends, is the hero Cúchulainn. Possessed of superhuman fighting skills, brought to the fore when his ríastrad, or “battle frenzy” is upon him, Cúchulainn mainly fights against the people of Connacht, led by their queen Medb, her husband Ailill and their ally, an exiled former king of the Ulaid, Fergus mac Róich.
Cúchulainn is of godly and noble stock. His mother is Deichtine, sister of the king of Ulster, Conchobar mac Nessa, and his father is the principal deity in Celtic mythology, Lugh. When he was born he was named Sétanta and, as was the tradition in Celtic society, was fostered out at a young age, being fostered by several of the Ulster nobles who would provide him with different skills. He was brought up in Muirthemne Plain in what is modern day County Louth.
Whilst living at his parent’s house, Sétanta wants to join the boy-troop at Ulster’s capital Emain Macha (modern day Navan Fort near Armagh) but his mother Deichtine thinks that he is too young. Sétanta decides to go to Emain anyway and when he gets there he runs onto the playing field without asking the other boys for their protection, which Sétanta doesn’t know is very much against custom.
The other boys take this as an insult and attack him but he has a battle-frenzy and beats them all easily. His uncle, the King Conchobar, arrives to clear up the misunderstanding but Sétanta is having none of it, and demands that the other boys put themselves under his protection.
A smith named Culaan invites the king to a feast at his home but before Conchobar goes he sees his nephew playing hurling in a field and so impressed is he with Sétanta’s performance that he asks him to accompany him to the feast. Sétanta wants to finish his game so he agrees to come to the feast later but when Conchobar arrives he forgets to tell Culann that Sétanta will be arriving shortly.
When Sétanta comes to the feast he is attacked by Culaan’s massive guard dog which he manages to kill, in one version of the tale driving a hurling ball down the dog’s neck with his hurley. Culaan is understandably devastated by the loss of such a impressive guard dog so Sétanta promises he will rear a replacement dog for Culaan and until it is old enough to take on the role of guard dog, Sétanta will do the job himself and guard Culaan’s home. A druid called Cathbad announces that Sétanta will now be known as Cú Chulainn (Gaelic for “Culaan’s Hound”).
When he is seven years old, Cúchulainn overhears Cathbad giving a prophesy to his pupils in which he says that any warrior who takes arms that day will have everlasting fame. Cúchulainn goes to Conchobar and asks for arms but none of the weapons can hold out against his strength until the king gives him his own weapons. Cathbad sees this spectacle but is full of grief because in his haste for fame, Cúchulainn did not wait to hear Cathbad finish the prophesy; the warrior would indeed have everlasting fame but his life would be short.
After hearing the three sons of Nechtan Scéne boast that they had killed more Ulsterman than there were Ulstermen living, Cúchulainn slays them and, still in his battle frenzy, returns to Ulster’s capital, Emain Macha. The people of Ulster were afraid that Cúchulainn would kill them all in his frenzy, as when it was upon him he recognised neither friend nor foe.
Conchobar’s wife, Mugain, gathered the women of Ulster and made them bare their breasts at Cúchulainn. While he was averting his eyes, the men of Ulster grabbed him and put him in a barrel of cold water in an attempt to cool his frenzy. The battle frenzy was obviously still strong in Cúchulainn as the barrel exploded. The Ulstermen then put him and a second barrel of water that boiled but when they put Cúchulainn in a third barrel, this warmed to a pleasant temperature.
Cúchulainn was considered an extremely handsome youth and the men folk of Ulster, fearing that the young buck will take their wives and daughters, tried to find Cúchulainn a wife but he only has eyes for Emer, the daughter of Forgall Monach. Forgall doesn’t want Cúchulainn as a son-in-law so he suggests that he should go to Alba (modern day Scotland) and train for battle with the famous warrior-woman, Scáthach. He hopes that this will be too much for Cúchulainn and he will be killed during the ordeal.
Cúchulainn goes to Alba where Scáthach teach him the martial arts and it is during the training that he meets his best friend and foster-brother, a fellow trainee called Ferdiad. Whilst in Alba, Scáthach is challenged by her twin sister Aífe. Knowing that her sister is a formidable warrior, Scáthach fears for Cúchulainn’s life and gives him a sleeping potion that will keep him from the forthcoming battle.
The potion only knocks out Cúchulainn for an hour and when he awakes he joins the battle and takes on Aífe in one on one combat. Distracting her, he captures her and says that he will spare her life is she bears him a son. Aífe agrees and Cúchulainn leaves her pregnant in Scotland and returns to Ulster. He has come back to Ireland as a trained warrior but Forgall still refuses to give his daughter to him so Cúchulainn storms Forgall’s castle. He kills twenty-four of Forgall’s men, steals all his treasure and then abducts Emer.
Seven years after these events, a young boy comes to Cúchulainn’s house. The boy refuses to identify himself so, thinking he is an intruder, Cúchulainn kills him. Tragically for him, as the boy lays dying, he reveals that his name is Connla, and he is Cúchulainn’s son by Aífe. Connla’s last words to his distraught father are that the two of them would have “carried the flag of Ulster to the gates of Rome and beyond.”
When Cúchulainn is seventeen, Queen Medb of Connaught launches an invasion of Ulster to steal the stud bull Donn Cúailnge. Ulster is taken by surprise as Cúchulainn is canoodling with a lady when he should have been watching the border. The men of Ulster have been disabled by a curse so to halt the Connaught Queen’s army advancing any further, Cúchulainn invokes the right to single combat at the fords.
So begins a mammoth round of duels for Cúchulainn where he defeats champion after champion over several months. Before one combat, a beautiful woman approaches Cúchulainn and offers her love to him, claiming to be the daughter of a king. He refuses and the girl then reveals herself to be the Morrigan, one of the Celtic goddesses. In revenge for his refusal of her, she attacks him in various animal forms while he is engaged in combat against Lóch mac Mofemis.
Each time, Cúchulainn manages to fend off her various animal incarnations, severely injuring the Morrigan three times. After he defeats Lóch, she appears to him in the guise of an old woman milking a cow, with all the same injuries Cúchulainn has given to her. The Morrigan gives him three drinks of milk and each time he drinks, he blesses her, which causes her wounds to heal.
After one particularly gruelling combat, Cúchulainn lies severely wounded. He is visited by the God Lugh, who tells him that he is his father. When he awakes, he sees that the boy-troop of Ulster’s capital, Emain Macha, have been slaughtered by the Connaught army. This enrages Cúchulainn and he has his most severe battle frenzy yet and he goes on to kill hundreds of the enemy soldiers and builds walls with their dead bodies.
Finally the Ulstermen arouse from the cursed sleep and the final battle against the army of Connaught begins. Cúchulainn manages to capture Queen Medb but spares her life as he does not think it is right to kill a woman and he escorts the queen back to Connaught.
Medb decides to try and kill Cúchulainn so she conspires with various sons of people who have been killed by Cúchulainn. One of these sons is called Lugaid, son of Cú Roí. In Ireland at the time, there were taboos, or geasa, against certain actions and one of Cúchulainn’s taboos was the eating of dog meat. An old crone offers him a meal of dog meat and, because there was also a strong taboo against refusing hospitality, Cúchulainn accepts the meal. By breaking his taboo he is left spiritually weakened for the coming drama.
Lugaid has three magical spears made, and it is prophesied that a king will die at the hands of each of them. With the first spear, he kills Láeg, Cúchulainn’s charioteer and thus king of charioteers. With the second he kills Cúchulainn’s own horse, Liath Macha, king of horses. And with the third, he thrusts it into Cúchulainn himself, mortally wounding him.
Fighting to stay alive, Cúchulainn ties himself to a standing stone so that he can remain upright. It is only when a raven lands on his shoulder that his enemies know that he is truly dead and Lugaid proceeds to cut off Cúchulainn’s head. But as he is doing this, Cúchulainn’s sword falls from his hand and severs Lugaid’s hand.
The stone that Cúchulainn ties himself to shortly before his death is usually identified as a stone that is still standing at Knockbridge in County Louth. The setting for one of his mammoth combats during the invasion by Connaught, the Cattle Raid of Cooley as it is known, is said to be in Ardee in County Louth. Here there is a statue of Cúchulainn carrying the body of his supposed opponent, Fer Diad.
Cúchulainn remains an iconic figure to both sides of the political divide in Ireland. To republicans, he is an archetypal Irish hero and a bronze statue of him stands in Dublin General Post Office. To unionists he is symbolic of defending Ulster from enemies in the south and Cúchulainn features in several loyalist murals.
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