Irish Myths and Legends Part 2: Cúchulainn

Given the history of Scotland and Ireland - two sibling nations with fierce and loyal ties to each other but also marred (and often scarred) by bloody disagreement, rivalry and the power politics of these islands - it will be no surprise to learn that many of the stories, heroes and magical beings of one nation can often be found having adventures in the other. The adventures of great Irish hero Cúchulainn are a good example of this to and froing between Ireland and Scotland.

The story of Cúchulainn’s boyhood is well known. When young his name was known as Setanta and as a stubborn child he desperately wanted to become one of the Red Branch Knights who served his uncle mac Nessa, the king of Ulster. Coming across the apprentice knights playing a hurling match, he ran on the field and defeated them all. Not surprisingly Mac Nessa let him become an apprentice. He also invited his young nephew to join him at a feast being given in his honour by Culain.

Setanta arrived late only to be attacked by Culain’s savage guard dog. Setanta smacked his sliotar into the beast’s mouth and killed it. Culain was upset at the death of his mighty dog, so Sentanta pledged to act as Culain’s Hound until a new one was found. From then on he became known as Cú Chulainn, the Hound of Culain. But of course having acquired a new name, the young hero now had to gain the skills to match his strength and courage.

(Image: "Cuchulain Slays the Hound of Culain", illustration by Stephen Reid from Eleanor Hull's The Boys' Cuchulain, 1904.)

Eager to learn warcraft, Setanta / Cúchulainn went to study with the greatest swordfighters of all. Which of course, as we all know, are the women warriors of Scotland. The youth made his way to the Isle of Skye and found himself entangled in an adventure that would have made a great plot line for one of those soft porn movies from the 1970s. I cannot do the story justice in so short a time but in summary the woman warrior Scáthach agreed to teach the young hero in return for certain amorous favours. Her daughter Uathach got in on the act and then Scathach’s sister also demanded some attention.

Being a young gentleman Cúchulainn manfully attempted to meet all these demands in between learning how to use his sword properly. It all ended badly; with the sisters making war against each other and Ireland’s greatest hero quietly pulling up his trousers and returning to Ireland a wiser – if somewhat drained – man. (In his book ‘Celtic Myths and Legends’, Peter Berresford Ellis tells the story in more detail). All of which may explain both the lad’s problematic relationship with older women, and also Queen Medb’s foolish contempt for him. Some may regard the lesser known adventures of Cúchulainn as frivolous and lacking proper gravity, but I think they make the man more real, and his death all the more poignant.

Oliver Sheppard’s statue of ‘The Dying Cúchulainn’, with its echoes of the passion of Christ, is regarded by many as the perfect elegy in bronze to those who died for Ireland in 1916. Though Sheppard was an Irish nationalist, the statue was actually made in 1911, long before the Easter Rebellion. For me, the power of the figure derives as much the later association with the rising as it does from the skill of the artist. Without the 1916 connection the work does not strike me as particularly outstanding, being just one more over the top dying male nude figure that Europeans of a certain epoch liked to churn out.

The best that can be said for ‘The Dying Cúchulainn’ is that it is better than Sheppard’s other famous work The Pikeman, a statue in the middle of Wexford Town that commemorates the 1798 rebellion. This statue is of a giant muscle bound youth standing on a plinth staring heroically over the town. It is a work utterly divorced from the reality of the rebellion – the fear, desperation, hope and acts of incredible courage and folly carried about by men and women who were most certainly not giant muscle bound figures. To see how a commemoration to rebellion should look go to Athy and walk around and through the 1798 memorial, with its portraits of men and women’s faces carved into the solid stone. Heroism does not need or deserve images of musclebound youths. That’s all very enjoyable in a Marvel comic, but as a reflection on history it is foolish if not downright insulting.

But I see that, like Oisín of old, I’ve wandered a little of course. However, I am a storyteller – wandering is pretty much obligatory for me. What I am trying to point out is that the stories of Ireland are never quite as simple as they seem and many wind and wander their way over to Scotland. Apart from versions turning up in the two different countries, the telling of these stories change from teller to teller and from era to era. Even Cúchulainn the most iconic of Irish heroes has a life beyond the borders of Ireland, and certainly beyond the limited borders of Celtic Revival enthusiast. In fact it could be argued that the transformation of Cúchulainn and the rebels of 1789 and 1916 into icons diminish the stories, struggles and lives of the men, women and children of Ireland.

Stay tuned for the Rab’s next blog: The City Beneath the Waves

For more on Rab’s work as a writer, storyteller and tutor see:

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Tags: Celtic, Folklore, Legends, Mythology, Myths, Story-telling

Comment by Rose Maurer on April 28, 2015 at 10:11am

Thoroughly enjoyed this Rab! My husband is of second generation maternal Scottish descent, and I shall certainly make mention of women being the warriors of Scotland to him - frequently! That said, your tasteful account of Cuchulainn was very useful to me in understanding a tad more of Ireland's ancient history, myths and legends.


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