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Cúchulainn, Irish Warrior

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Cúchulainn"I swear by the oath of my people", said Cúchulainn, "I will make my doings be spoken of among the great doings of heroes in their strength" - Cúchulainn of Muirthemne by Lady Gregory

A long time ago, in ancient Ireland...it was prophesied that a great warrior would be born and that his great deeds would give him everlasting fame, but that his life would be a short one. This warrior was known for his terrifying battle frenzy in which he becomes an unrecognisable monster who knows neither friend nor foe, and fights with amazing strength. 

The story of a boy called Setanta.

A king called Conor MacNessa ruled in ancient Ireland. His warriors called the Red Branch Knights, defended this land, known then as Ulster.  The king trained them to be strong and brave men.  They had to be, as this was a time of war, magic and the supernatural.  In Dundalk (known then as the Plains of Muirthemne), there was a boy called Setanta, he had magic strength and loved the game of hurling and always wanted to be a Red Branch Knight. From a very early age he showed superhuman qualities of wisdom, warfare, magic and poetry.  And, he was to become a legend.

Setanta was a happy child who loved to play the game of hurling with his friends. His team always won. When Setanta was only ten he asked his parents to let him join the Red Branch Knights. But, they told him, he was too young.   But, Setanta knew that it was his destiny to become a mighty warrior, so one night, while everyone was asleep, he got his hurling stick and ball and left for King Conor MacNessa’s castle at Emain Macha. Before becoming a Red Branch Knight, he had to get into the boys army called the Macra first.

It was a long trip but when he got there, a hurling match was on.  Setanta joined in and the other boys did not like it because he was such a good hurler, and was so strong.  But the King said he could stay.  He liked this special boy.  One day, the king invited Setanta to a feast at the fort of Culann the blacksmith.  “I am going to a party at Culann’s, do you want to come?” Setanta replied, “I will come later as I am playing a hurling match.”

Cúchulainn's Frst Battle

Later that night he set off. It was a long trip. He gets to the fort and finds that not only has the feast already started, but that the gates are locked and an enormous wolfhound is guarding the fort.  The hound attacks him. He hits the sliotar (hurling ball) down the throat of this huge animal and kills Culann’s hound.  Culann cannot believe that his hound has been defeated.  Setanta promises to guard the fort “I’ll be your guard dog until you can replace the one I killed.  I’ll be the “Hound of Culann” ["CúChulainn"],” said Setanta.

So that’s how Cúchulainn got his name. Soon he became the best guard of all and joined the knights. He was the best Red Branch Knight ever, and in his most famous battle he defends the lands of Ulster by himself, because all the other Red Branch Knights and warriors are under a magic curse.  Read about “The Cattle Raid of Cooley” to learn more about Cúchulainn, the greatest of all Irish Warriors.

 Cúchulainn's Battles - The Brown Bull of Cooley - Táin Bó Cuailnge 

Cúchulainn is most celebrated in his pivotal role in the epic Táin Bó Cuailnge, the cattle raid of Cooley.  This tale is ranked amongst the oldest legends in the canon of European folktales and highlights the importance of cattle in Iron Age Ireland.  The story recounts the theft of the Brown Bull of Cooley by Queen Medb of Connacht and Cúchulainn’s efforts to ward off this army.  The story ends with his death in a field tied to a stone most vividly captured in the sculpture by Oliver Sheppard which was crafted as a memorial symbolising those who fought for Irish independence and was inspired by the Easter Rising of 1916.  Perhaps the most poignant aspect to the Tain is the battle between Cúchulainn and Ferdia, Cúchulainn’s foster-brother and best-friend.

Cúchulainn's Battle Frenzy

Cúchulainn is renowned for one thing above all else: his berserker battle-rage.  When Cúchulainn really became mad, all hell would break loose. First he quivered all over, and then his body began to twist backwards. His knees and shins shifted themselves to the back, as did the frontal sinews of his neck, where they protruded out like lumps. One eye receded back into his head, and the other bulged out upon his cheek. His mouth widened until it met his ears, and sparks flew out of it.  His heart pounded as loud as a great metal drum, and his locks stood up on end, with a spark of flame at the end of every hair.  A great horn jutted out of his forehead, and a vast spurt of black blood jetted up from his skull, where it spread out like a cloud of dark gloom over the battlefield, not a pretty sight.

 

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