Cú Chulainn is a teenage hero of the Ulaid, sometimes referred to as “the Irish Achilles” for his choice of a short but glorious life. His mother is Deichtine, sister of Conchobar mac Nessa, king of the Ulaid. His mother’s husband Súaltaim mac Róich passes as his father, but his real father is the apparent deity Lug mac Ethlenn. He is the central character of the Táin Bó Cúailnge or “Cattle Raid of Cooley”, in which he single-handedly defends the Ulaid against an invasion launched by queen Medb of the Connachta, and various stories tell of his birth, death, and other adventures. When particularly enraged in battle he sometimes undergoes a ”ríastrad”, or “distortion”, which transforms him into an unrecognisable monster who knows neither friend nor foe. He often fights from a chariot, driven by his charioteer, Láeg mac Riangabra, and drawn by his two horses, Liath Macha and Dub Sainglend.
Two early versions of Cú Chulainn’s birth survive. The first, Compert Con Culainn (“The conception of Cú Chulainn“), derives from the lost Book of Druimm Snechta and thus dates to the early 8th century. The second, Feis Tige Becfholtaig (“The passing of the night in Becfholtach’s house”), is only slighly later, dating to the late 8th or early 9th century. In the first, Conchobar and his retinue, including his charioteer Deichtine (his sister or his daughter in different versions of the text) take to their chariots to hunt a flock of magical birds. The hunt takes them south, and snow begins to fall. They seek shelter, and find a house where they are made welcome and served food and drink. Their host’s wife goes into labour in the next room, and Deichtine helps deliver a baby boy. At the same time, outside the house, a mare gives birth to two colts. In the morning, the Ulaid find themselves at the Brug na Bóinde (the megalithic tomb now known as Newgrange). The house, the host and his wife are gone, but the baby and the two colts remain. Deichtire takes the child home and nurses him, but he soon falls ill and dies. Lug appears to her, reveals he had been their host that night, and tells her he has put his child in her womb, whom she is to name Sétanta. Her pregnancy is a scandal as she is betrothed to Súaltaim, and it is suspected that Conchobar fathered the child while drunk, so Deichtire beats her belly until she is “virgin-whole”, sleeps with Súaltaim, and has a son whom she names Sétanta.
The later version contains many of the same story-elements, but arranges them differently. Deichtire, Conchobar’s sister, and her fifty maidens, go missing for three years, and then come to Emain Macha, the Ulaid capital, in the form of a flock of a magical birds, which the Ulaid hunt as before until snow obliges them to seek shelter. Again their host is Lug, but this time his wife, who again gives birth while the Ulaid are entertained, is Deichire herself. The child is named Sétanta, and the noblemen of the Ulaid argue over which of them should foster him. Eventually it is decided that several of them will share his fosterage: Conchobar himself; the wise Sencha mac Ailella, who will teach him wisdom and eloquence; the wealthy Blaí Briugu, who will provide for him; the noble warrior Fergus mac Róich, who will teach him to protect the weak; and the poet Amergin mac Echit, who will educate him, and his wife, Conchobar’s sister Findchóem, who will nurse him. He is brought up in Amergin and Findchóem’s house on Muirthemne Plain in County Louth, alongside their own son Conall Cernach.
The Táin Bó Cúailnge contains a sequence known as Macgnímrada Con Culainn (“Cú Chulainn’s boyhood deeds”), in which Ulaid exiles in Medb’s army tell stories of Cú Chulainn’s childhood. The earlier version of this sequence is dated to the 9th century. These stories tell how Sétanta comes to Emain Macha and joins the youth-corps there, his superhuman abilities allowing him to overcome many boys at once. The story of how he gained the name Cú Chulainn is then told. Culann the smith invites Conchobar to a feast at his house. Conchobar seems Sétanta playing hurling, and is so impressed with his abilities he invites him to come to feast as his guest. Sétanta promises to follow him as soon as the game is over. But when Conchobar arrives at Culann’s house he forgets, and Culann looses his ferocious guard dog to protect the house. When Sétanta arrives the dog attacks him, but he kills it in self-defence. He then promises Culann that he will train a pup to replace it, and until it is able to do the job, he will guard Culann’s house himself. Cathbad the druid announces that his name will henceforth will be Cú Chulainn or “Culann’s Hound”.
The next story tells how Cú Chulainn first took arms. Elements of this story are alluded to in the 7th century poem Ro-mbáe laithu rordu rind (“we had a great day of plying spear-points”), attributed to Cú Chulainn himself, making it the oldest attested part of Cú Chulainn’s story. Cúchulainn overhears Cathbad prophesying to his students that anyone who takes arms that day will have everlasting fame, and immediately goes to Conchobar and asks for arms. Only Conchobar’s own weapons withstand his strength. When Cathbad sees Cú Chulainn has been armed, he grieves, for his prophesy was not complete: anyone who took arms that day would have everlasting fame, but his life would be short. Later, Cathbad makes a similar prophesy about the future fame of anyone who first rides a chariot that day, and Cúchulainn demands a chariot from Conchobar. Again, only Conchobar’s own chariot withstands his strength. He sets off in the chariot and kills the three sons of Nechta Scéne, who have boasted they have killed more Ulaid than there are Ulaid still living, and takes their heads as trophies. On his way home, he captures a stag and a flock of swans and ties them to the chariot. He arrives back at Emain Macha in a frenzy, and the Ulaid are afraid he will slaughter them all, so Conchobar’s wife Mugain leads the women out to bare their breasts at him. When he averts his eyes, the men wrestle him into a barrel of cold water, which explodes from the heat of his body. He is put in a second barrel, which boils, and a third, which warms to a pleasant temperature.
Military training and marriage
Tochmarc Emire (“The wooing of Emer”), which deals with Cú Chulainn’s training in arms under the warrior woman Scáthach and his marriage to Emer, dates in its surviving versions to the 10th or 11th century, although the poem Verba Scáthaige fri Coin Culainn (“the words of Scáthach to Cú Chulainn”) shows that some form of it existed in the 7th or 8th century. It tells how, in his youth, Cú Chulainn was so beautiful the Ulaid worried that he would seduce all their wives and daughters unless they found him a wife of his own. The only woman Cú Chulainn wants is Emer, daughter of Forgall Manach, but Forgall opposes the match. He visits the Ulaid in disguise and suggests that Cú Chulainn train in arms under Scáthach in Alba (earlier meaning Britain, later meaning Scotland), hoping he will be killed by Scáthach’s demanding training. Cú Chulainn travels to Alba and persuades Scáthach to train him. His fellow trainees include Fer Diad, and he and Cú Chulainn become close friends.
When Scáthach faces a battle with her rival, Aífe, she gives Cú Chulainn a sleeping potion to keep him out of the fighting, but a potion that would knock out most people for a day only puts him to sleep for an hour, and he soon joins the battle. He fights Aífe in single combat. Having learned that Aífe’s most valuable possessions are her chariot and horses, he distracts her by claiming to have seen them fall over a cliff, and seizes her. He spares her life on the condition that she sleep with him, bear him a son, and never make war against Scáthach again. Scáthach completes Cú Chulainn’s training, including teaching him to use the gae bolga, a barbed spear, the use of which she teaches no-one else. He returns to Ireland, leaving Aífe pregnant, but instructing her to tell their son to come to Ireland when he is old enough, but not to identify himself to anyone.
On the way back, Cú Chulainn stops on an island where he rescues a princess, Derbforgaill, from being sacrified to the Fomorians. Forgall still refuses to allow Cú Chulainn to marry Emer, so he storms Forgall’s fortress, abducts Emer and steals all Forgall’s treasure. Forgall and many of his men are killed. Cú Chulainn and Emer are married, but Conchobar has the “right of the first night” over all his subjects. He fears what Cú Chulainn will do if he exercises it in this case, but also fears losing face if he does not. Cathbad provides a solution: Conchobar sleeps with Emer, but Cathbad and Fergus sleep between them.
Two incidents in Tochmarc Emire have consequences that are explored in other stories. In Aided Óenfir Aífe (“The death of Aífe’s only son”), a story of the late 9th or early 10th century, Connla, Cú Chulainn’s son by Aífe, comes to Ireland seeking his father as instructed, refusing to identify himself to anyone. His martial skills terrify the Ulaid, and despite Emer’s warning, Cú Chulainn fights and kills him with the ”gae bolga” before he realises who he is.
In an early 10th century text, Aided Lugdach ocus Derbforgaille (“the death of Lugaid and Derbforgaill”), Cú Chulainn is sought by Derbforgaill, the princess he had rescued and who has fallen in love with him. She and her handmaid come to Ireland in the form of a pair of swans, but Cú Chulainn and his foster-son Lugaid Riab nDerg shoot them down with their slings. They return to human form, and Cú Chulainn saves Derbforgaill’s life by sucking the sling-stone from her side. Having tasted her blood, he cannot marry her, so he gives her to Lugaid, and they marry and have children. One winter, the women of the Ulaid build a pillar of snow and declare that the woman who can send her urine the deepest into the snow will be the most desirable. Derbforgaill wins the contest, and the jealous women mutilate her viciously. Lugaid arrives home just in time to see her die, and dies himself of grief. Cú Chulainn avenges them by demolishing the house the women are in, killing 150 of them.
From allusions in poems like Conailla Medb michuru (“Medb enjoined illegal contracts”) and Verba Scáthaige we know that some form of the Táin Bó Cúailnge (“Cattle Raid of Cooley”) was known in the 7th century, but the earliest surviving version is a 10th or 11th century compilation based on 8th and 9th century materials. Medb, queen of the Connachta, and her husband Ailill, gather a vast army from all over Ireland, including a contingent of exiled Ulaid led by Fergus mac Róich and his foster-son, Conchobar’s son Cormac Cond Longas, to steal the Ulaid’s prize bull, Donn Cúailnge.
The raid begins at Samain (the beginning of November). The men of the Ulaid are disabled by a curse of the goddess Macha, and only Cú Chulainn, for reasons that are not made clear, is fit to fight, but he allows Medb to take the Ulaid by surprise because he is with a woman when he should be watching the border. Assisted by his charioteer Láeg, he harasses the army with his sling, and then prevents them from advancing by invoking the right of single combat at river crossings. He defeats each champion that Ailill and Medb put forward, and the stand-off lasts through the winter.
Before one combat he is visited by a beautiful young woman who offers him her love, but he spurns her. She reveals herself as the Morrígan, an apparent goddess associated with war and death on the battlefield, and swears to avenge this insult. During the combat, the Morrígan attacks Cú Chulainn in the form of an eel, a wolf, and a heifer at the head of a stampede, but he is able to defeat her each time and kill his opponent. After the fight she appears as an old woman milking a cow, with injuries corresponding to those Cú Chulainn gave her in her animal forms. She gives him three drinks of milk, and with each one he blesses her, healing her wounds.
After an arduous series of combats Cú Chulainn lies wounded, and is visited by Lug, who reveals himself as his father, puts him to sleep for three days, and heals him. While he sleeps, the youth-corps of Emain Macha come to his aid, but are slaughtered by Medb’s army. When Cú Chulainn wakes and sees the results of the slaughter, he undergoes a spectacular ríastrad: his knees turn to the back and his calves to the front, his sinews bulge with knots the size of a baby’s head, one eye bulges out while the other is withdrawn inside his skull, and his gnashing teeth shower sparks. He attacks the army and builds a wall of corpses.
The combats resume, and Fergus is sent to face him. As his former foster-father, Fergus is extremely reluctant to fight Cú Chulainn, and in any case is unarmed – Ailill had earlier stolen his sword when he caught him in flagrante delicto with Medb. Cú Chulainn agrees to yield before him and allow the army to advance to the next river crossing, on condition that Fergus yield the next time they meet.
Finally, he fights a three-day duel against his foster-brother and close friend Fer Diad. The two are well-matched, and Cú Chulainn holds back out of love for his friend, until Fer Diad has him at his mercy. Finally, Cú Chulainn succumbs to his ríastrad. Láeg floats the gae bolga downstream to him, and Cú Chulainn picks it up with his toes and rams it into Fer Diad’s anus, killing him.
Cú Chulainn is once again severely wounded, but one by one the Ulaid begin to rouse from the curse and come to his aid. Eventually, Cú Chulainn’s mortal father Súaltaim reaches Emain Macha and shouts out a warning to Conchobar, but Conchobar and his druids decide to put him to death for breaching court protocol. Running away, Súaltaim falls and decapitates himself on the sharpened rim of his own shield. His severed head is brought back on his shield, still crying out his warning, and Conchobar sends word out to raise his army.
The Ulaid army takes the field and the final battle is fought at Gáirech and Ilgáirech. Cú Chulainn sits it out, recuperating from his wounds, while Láeg describes the action to him. Ailill gives Fergus his sword back, and Fergus enters the fray, almost killing Conchobar before Cormac restrains him. Seeing Fergus advance, Cú Chulainn enters the battle and confronts him, demanding that he fulfil his part of their earlier bargain and yield. Fergus agrees and pulls his followers from the field. Seeing this, Medb’s other followers panic and begin to retreat. At this inopportune moment Medb gets her period, and although her men form a guard around her, Cú Chulainn breaks through and confronts her in a very vulnerable position. However, he does not think it right to kill women, so he guards her retreat as far west as Athlone.
In Fled Bricrend (“Bricriu’s Feast”), Bricriu mac Carbada, well-known to the Ulaid as a troublemaker, holds a feast and persuades the reluctant Ulaid nobles to attend. Before the feast he promises the curadmír or “champion’s portion” (precedence at the feast and the best serving of meat, wine and cakes) to three heroes, Cú Chulainn, Conall Cernach and Láegaire Búadach, in turn, and violence nearly breaks out when all three attempt to claim it. The three compete in tests judged by Ailill and Medb in Connacht, and then by Cú Ruí mac Dáiri in Munster, and each time Cú Chulainn is clearly the winner, but Conall and Láegaire refuse to accept the result. Finally Cú Ruí settles the matter. He visits Emain Macha disguised as a hideous churl, and challenges each of the heroes in turn to behead him one night, and then allow him to behead them the following night. All three accept the challenge and behead the churl, who picks up his head and leaves, but Conall and Láegaire are nowhere to be found when he returns the following day. Only Cú Chulainn is brave and honourable enough to return and submit himself to Cú Ruí’s axe, and Cú Ruí spares him and declares him champion.
The Death of Cú Ruí
In Aided Con Roí (“The Death of Cú Ruí”) Cú Ruí, again in disguise, takes part in a raid by the Ulaid on Inis Fer Falga (probably the Isle of Man), in return for his choice of the spoils. They steal treasure and cattle, and abduct Blathnát, daughter of the island’s king. Blathnát loves Cú Chulainn, but Cú Ruí chooses her as his share. Cú Chulainn tries to stop him, but Cú Ruí cuts his hair and drives him into the ground up to his armpits before leaving with Blathnát. Cú Ruí can only be killed in certain contrive circumstances, which vary in different versions of the story. Blathnát discovers how to kill him and betrays him to Cú Chulainn, who does the deed, but Cú Ruí’s poet Ferchertne seizes Blathnát and throws himself over a cliff, killing her and himself.
The Only Jealousy of Emer
In Serglige Con Culainn ocus Óenét Emire (“The Wasting Sickness of Cú Chulainn and the Only Jealousy of Emer”), Cú Chulainn passes out from illness while hunting a flock of magical birds, and dreams he is being horsewhipped by two women in brighly-coloured cloaks. He remains in a sick-bed in Emain Macha for a year, at the end of which a stranger visits him and tells him that Fand, wife of the apparent sea-god Manannán mac Lir, needs his help. He returns to the place he had fallen ill and meets one of the women from his dream, whose name is Liban. She tells him that Manannán has left Fand, that she has set her love on him, and that it is her love that has made him ill. If he will go to the otherworld land of Mag Mell, the Plain of Delight, and defeat her enemies, she will be his. After Emer has shamed him for allowing a woman’s love to weaken him, Cú Chulainn travels with Liban, defeats Fand’s enemies, and stays with her for a month.
hen he returns to Ireland he arranges a tryst with her, but Emer finds out and sharpens a knife, intending to kill Fand, but when she sees the strength of Fand’s love she offers to give her up husband to her. Fand is so impressed by Emer’s magnanimity that she gives up her claim on Cú Chulainn and returns to her husband. The druids give Cú Chulainn and Emer a potion to wipe the whole affair from their memories, and Manannán shakes his cloak between Cú Chulainn and Fand, ensuring they will never meet again.
In the 8th century Aided Con Culainn (“the death of Cú Chulainn”) a conspiracy is formed between the sons of Calatín Dána (who was killed by Cú Chulainn in Táin Bó Cúailgne), Lugaid, son of Cú Ruí (killed by Cú Chulainn in Aided Con Roí), and Erc, son of Cairpre Nía Fer (killed by Cú Chulainn in Cath Ruis na Ríg, “The Battle of Ros na Ríg”), to draw Cú Chulainn out to his death (in later versions of the story Medb is also involved). Despite the attempts of the Ulaid to hide him in the Valley of the Deaf, within which no sound from outside can be heard, and the reluctance of Liath Macha, one of Cú Chulainn’s chariot-horses, Cú Chulainn and Láeg ride out to face them.
He encounters three one-eyed hags eating a meal of roast dog, who ask him to join them. Cú Chulainn’s gessa (taboos or injunctions, the breaking of which would lead to his inevitable downfall) include prohibitions against eating dogmeat and against refusing hospitality, and he has no choice but to break one of them. He accepts the shoulder-blade, takes a bite and puts the bone under his thigh, and both the hand he held it in and the thigh he put it under are immediately weakened.
As Cú Chulainn continues along the road, Erc sends two of his men to pretend to fight in front of him, and a satirist to shame him into breaking up the fight. He breaks up the fight by killing the two combatants. The satirist demands he give him his spear, or he will satirise him for his stinginess. Cú Chulainn defends his generosity by throwing the spear through the satirist’s head. Lugaid takes up the spear, and the sons of Calatín tell him if he throws it he will kill a king. He throws it, and kills Láeg, who, as the sons of Calatín tell him, is the “king of charioteers”. Cú Chulainn takes up the reins himself and continues.
Erc sends another two men to fight and another satirist to shame Cú Chulainn into stopping the fight as before, and to demand his spear, or he will satirise the Ulaid. Cú Chulainn defends the Ulaid’s honour by throwing the spear through the satirist’s head butt-first. Lugaid takes the spear, and again the sons of Calatín tell him he will kill a king with it. This time, his throw hits Liath Macha, the “king of horses”, who falls into Linn Liaith, Liath’s Pool.
Erc again sends two men to fight and another satirist to demand Cú Chulainn’s spear, or he will satirise his ancestry. Cú Chulainn throws the spear through his head, and Lugaid takes it up. Again, the sons of Calatín tell him he will kill a king with it, and this time he hits Cú Chulainn, spilling his entrails over the coverings of his chariot. His remaining chariot-horse, Dub Sainglend, runs away, and he is left alone on the field. He asks Lugaid to let him take a drink of water from a nearby lake, and then ties himself with his belt to a standing stone, so he can die standing up, but his enemies dare not approach while they think he is alive. Liath Macha returns and kills fifty with his teeth and thirty with each of his hooves. Eventually the Morrígan and her sisters, in the form of crows, land on his shoulder, and Lugaid, confident he is dead, approaches and cuts off his head, but Cú Chulainn’s sword falls from his hand and cuts Lugaid’s hand off.
Conall Cernach and Cú Chulainn had each sworn to avenge the other, and Liath Macha leads Conall to Cú Chulainn’s body. Conall pursues Lugaid on horseback as far as the river Liffey. They fight in single combat, which Conall agrees to make fair by tying up one hand. They fight all afternoon, with neither getting the better of the other, until Conall’s horse takes a bite out of Lugaid’s side. Conall takes Lugaid’s head and returns to Emain Macha.
The Ulster Cycle, it appears, was not a popular folk-tradition, but like most epic traditions a learned literary one best known among the aristocracy and the clergy. It holds pride of place in the earliest manuscripts, but probably never approached the popularity among the wider public of the tales of [[Fionn mac Cumhaill]] and the ”fianna”. From the Middle Irish period the Ulster tradition began to take second place to the Fenian in literary as well as popular terms, and by the end of the Middle Ages it was in third place, behind tales of overseas adventure. The character of Cú Chulainn undergoes a similar degradation. The only early modern composition to feature Cú Chulainn as its hero is the 17th century Tóruigheacht Gruaidhe Griansholus (“The Pursuit of Sun-Bright Cheeks”), where he boasts and blusters like an Irish Don Quixote. Where he appears in folktales collected in 19th century Ireland and Scotland he is often a pompous figure of fun or a stereotypical stupid giant, although the tale of his naming remains popular.
He enjoyed a resurgence, again learned and literary in character, during the Gaelic Revival in the 19th and early 20th centuries. A number of popular retellings of his legend, including Lady Augusta Gregory’s Cuchulain of Muirthemne (1902) and Eleanor Hull’s The Boys’ Cuchulain, were published, and William Butler Yeats wrote a series of plays, On Baile’s Strand (1904), The Green Helmet (1910), At the Hawk’s Well (1917), The Only Jealousy of Emer (1919) and The Death of Cuchulain (1939), featuring the hero.
In the process he became a symbol of Irish Republicanism: a bronze sculpture of the dying Cú Chulainn by Oliver Sheppard stands in the Dublin GPO, commemorating the Easter Rising of 1916. After partition Unionists in Northern Ireland have also adopted him as a symbol of Ulster separatism.
- Alan Bruford, “Cú Chulainn – an ill-made hero?”, in Hildegard L. C. Tristram (ed.), Text und Zeittiefe, Tübingen: Gunther Narr Verlag, 1994, pp. 185-215
- George Henderson, Fled Bricrend, Irish Texts Society Vol. II, Dublin, 1899
- Kicki Ingridsdotter, Aided Derbforgaill: The Violent Death of Derbforgaill, Uppsala University, 2009
- A. H. Leahy, Heroic Romances of Ireland Vol I, London: David Nutt, 1905, pp. 57-85
- Kuno Meyer, “”Feis Tige Becfholtaig””, Zeitschrift für Celtische Philologie 5, 1905, pp. 500-504
- Dáibhí Ó Cróinín, “Prosopographical Analysis of ”Táin Bó Cuailnge” in a Historical Setting”, in Hildegard L. C. Tristram (ed.), New Methods in the Research of Epic, Tübingen: Gunther Narr Verlag, 1998, pp. 153-159
- Cecile O’Rahilly, Táin Bó Cualnge from the Book of Leinster, Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies, 1970
- Cecile O’Rahilly, Táin Bó Cúailnge Recension I, Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies, 1976
- John Strachan, Stories from the Táin, Royal Irish Academy, 1944
- Maria Tymoczko, Two Death Tales from the Ulster Cycle, Dublin, 1981
- A. G. Van Hamel, Compert Con Culainn and Other Stories, Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies, 1978