There are a number of versions of the story of Cú Chulainn’s birth. In the earliest version of Compert C(h)on Culainn (The Conception of Cú Chulainn), his mother Deichtine is the daughter and charioteer of Conchobar mac Nessa, king of Ulster, and accompanies him as he and the nobles of Ulster hunt a flock of magical birds. Snow falls, and the Ulstermen seek shelter, finding a house where they are made welcome. Their host’s wife goes into labour, and Deichtine assists at the birth of a baby boy. A mare gives birth to two colts at the same time. The next morning, the Ulstermen find themselves at the Brug na Bóinde (the neolithic mound at Newgrange) – the house and its occupants have disappeared, but the child and the colts remain. Deichtine takes the boy home and raises him to early childhood, but he falls sick and dies. The god Lug appears to her and tells her he was their host that night, and that he has put his child in her womb, who is to be called Sétanta. Her pregnancy is a scandal as she is betrothed to Sualtam mac Róich, and the Ulstermen suspect Conchobar of being the father, so she aborts the child and goes to her husband’s bed “virgin-whole”. She then conceives a son whom she names Sétanta.
In the later, and better-known, version of Compert Con Culainn, Deichtine is Conchobar’s sister, and disappeared from Emain Macha, the Ulster capital. As in the previous version, the Ulstermen go hunting a flock of magical birds, were overtaken by a snowstorm and sought shelter in a nearby house. Their host was Lug, but this time his wife, who gave birth to a son that night, was Deichtine herself. The child was named Sétanta.
The nobles of Ulster argue over which of them is to be his foster-father, until the wise Morann decided he should be fostered by several of them: Conchobar himself; Sencha mac Ailella, who would teach him judgement and eloquent speech; the wealthy Blaí Briugu, who would protect and provide for him; the noble warrior Fergus mac Róich, who would care for him and teach him to protect the weak; the poet Amergin, who would educate him, and his wife Findchóem, who would nurse him. He is brought up in the house of Amergin and Findchóem on Muirthemne Plain in modern Co Louth (at the time part of Ulster), alongside their son Conall Cernach.
The stories of Cú Chulainn’s childhood are told in a flashback sequence in Táin Bó Cúailnge. As a small child, living in his parent’s house on Muirthemne Plain, he begged to be allowed to join the boy-troop at Emain Macha. However, he set off on his own, and when he arrived at Emain he ran onto the playing field without first asking for the boys’ protection, being unaware of the custom. The boys take this as a challenge and attacked him, but he had a ríastrad and beat them single-handed. Conchobar put a stop to the fight and cleared up the misunderstanding, but no sooner had Sétanta put himself under the boys’ protection that he chased after them, demanding they put themselves under his protection.
Culann the smith invited Conchobar to a feast at his house. Before going, Conchobar went to the playing field to watch the boys play hurling. He was so impressed by Sétanta’s performance that he asked him to join him at the feast. Sétanta had a game to finish, but promised to follow the king later. But Conchobar forgot, and Culann let loose his ferocious hound to protect his house. When Sétanta arrived, the enormous hound attacked him, but he killed it in self-defence, in one version by smashing it against a standing stone, in another by driving a sliotar (hurling ball) down its throat with his hurley. Culann was devastated by the loss of his hound, so Sétanta promised he would rear him a replacement, and until it is old enough to do the job, he himself would guard Culann’s house. The druid Cathbad announced that his name henceforth would be Cú Chulainn – “Culann’s Hound”.
One day at Emain Macha, Cú Chulainn overheard Cathbad teaching his pupils. One asked him what that day is auspicious for, and Cathbad replied that any warrior who took up arms that day would have everlasting fame. Cú Chulainn, though only seven years old, went to Conchobar and asked for arms. None of the weapons given to him withstood his strength, until Conchobar gave him his own weapons. But when Cathbad saw this he grieved, because he had not finished his prophecy – the warrior who took arms that day would be famous, but his life would be short. Soon afterwards, in response to a similar prophecy by Cathbad, Cú Chulainn demanded a chariot from Conchobar, and only the king’s own chariot withstood him. He set off on a foray and killed the three sons of Nechtan Scéne, who had boasted they had killed more Ulstermen than there were Ulstermen still living. He returned to Emain Macha in his battle frenzy, and the Ulstermen are afraid he would slaughter them all. Conchobar’s wife Mugain led out the women of Emain, and they bared their breasts to him. He averted his eyes, and the Ulstermen wrestled him into a barrel of cold water, which exploded from the heat of his body. They put him in a second barrel, which boiled, and a third, which warmed to a pleasant temperature.
In Cú Chulainn’s youth he was so beautiful the Ulstermen worried that, without a wife of his own, he would steal their wives and ruin their daughters. They searched all over Ireland for a suitable wife for him, but he would have none but Emer, daughter of Forgall Monach. However, Forgall was opposed to the match. He suggested that Cú Chulainn should train in arms with the renowned warrior-woman Scáthach in the land of Alba (Scotland), hoping the ordeal would be too much for him and he would be killed. Cú Chulainn took up the challenge. In the meantime, Forgall offered Emer to Lugaid mac Nóis, a king of Munster, but when he heard that Emer loved Cú Chulainn, Lugaid refused her hand.
Scáthach taught Cú Chulainn all the arts of war, including the use of the Gáe Bulg, a terrible barbed spear, thrown with the foot, that had to be cut out of its victim. His fellow trainees included Ferdiad, who became Cú Chulainn’s best friend and foster-brother. During his time there, Scáthach faced a battle against Aífe, her rival and in some versions her twin sister. Scáthach, knowing Aífe’s prowess, feared for Cú Chulainn’s life and gave him a powerful sleeping potion to keep him from the battle. However, because of Cú Chulainn’s great strength, it only put him to sleep for an hour, and he soon joined the fray. He fought Aífe in single combat, and the two were evenly matched, but Cú Chulainn distracted her by calling out that Aífe’s horses and chariot, the things she valued most in the world, had fallen off a cliff, and seized her. He spared her life on the condition that she call off her enmity with Scáthach, and bear him a son.
Leaving Aífe pregnant, Cú Chulainn returned from Scotland fully trained, but Forgall still refused to let him marry Emer. Cú Chulainn stormed Forgall’s fortress, killing twenty-four of Forgall’s men, abducted Emer and stole Forgall’s treasure. Forgall himself fell from the ramparts to his death. Conchobar had the “right of the first night” over all marriages of his subjects. He was afraid of Cú Chulainn’s reaction if he exercised it in this case, but was equally afraid of losing his authority if he did not. Cathbad suggested a solution: Conchobar should sleep with Emer on the night of the wedding, but Cathbad would sleep between them.
Eight years later, Connla, Cú Chulainn’s son by Aífe, came to Ireland in search of his father, but Cú Chulainn took him as an intruder and killed him when he refused to identify himself. Connla’s last words to his father as he died were that they would have “carried the flag of Ulster to the gates of Rome and beyond”, leaving Cú Chulainn grief-stricken. The story of Cú Chulainn and Connla shows a striking similarity to the legend of Persian hero Rostam who also killed his son Sohrab. Rostam and Cú Chulainn share several other characteristics, including killing a ferocious beast at a very young age, their near invincibility in battle, and the manner of their deaths.
During his time abroad, Cú Chulainn had rescued Derbforgaill, a Scandinavian princess, from being sacrificed to the Fomorians. She fell in love with him, and she and her handmaid came to Ireland in search of him in the form of a pair of swans. Cú Chulainn, not realising who she was, shot her down with his sling, and then saved her life by sucking the stone from her side. Having tasted her blood, he could not marry her, and gave her to his foster-son Lugaid Riab nDerg. Lugaid went on to become High King of Ireland, but the Lia Fáil (stone of destiny), failed to cry out when he stood on it, so Cú Chulainn split it in two with his sword. When Derbforgaill was mutilated by the women of Ulster out of jealousy for her sexual desirability and died of her wounds, Lugaid died of grief, and Cú Chulainn avenged them by demolishing the house the women were inside, killing 150 of them.
At the age of seventeen, Cú Chulainn single-handedly defended Ulster from the army of Connacht in the Táin Bó Cúailnge. Medb, queen of Connacht, had mounted the invasion to steal the stud bull Donn Cúailnge, and Cú Chulainn allowed her to take Ulster by surprise because he was with a woman when he should have been watching the border. The men of Ulster were disabled by a curse, so Cú Chulainn prevented Medb’s army from advancing further by invoking the right of single combat at fords. He defeated champion after champion in a stand-off lasting months.
Before one combat a beautiful young woman comes to him, claiming to be the daughter of a king, and offers him her love, but he refuses her. The woman reveals herself as the Morrígan, and in revenge for this slight she attacks him in various animal forms while he is engaged in combat against Lóch mac Mofemis. As an eel, she trips him in the ford, but he breaks her ribs. As a wolf, she stampedes cattle across the ford, but he puts out her eye with a sling-stone. Finally she appears as a heifer at the head of the stampede, but he breaks her leg with another slingstone. After Cú Chulainn finally defeats Lóch, the Morrígan appears to him as an old woman milking a cow, with the same injuries he had given her in her animal forms. She gives him three drinks of milk, and with each drink he blesses her, healing her wounds.
After one particularly arduous combat Cú Chulainn was severely wounded, but was visited by Lugh, who told him he was his father and healed his wounds. When Cú Chulainn woke up and saw that the boy-troop of Emain Macha had attacked the Connacht army and been slaughtered, he had his most spectacular ríastrad yet:
“The first warp-spasm seized Cúchulainn, and made him into a monstrous thing, hideous and shapeless, unheard of. His shanks and his joints, every knuckle and angle and organ from head to foot, shook like a tree in the flood or a reed in the stream. His body made a furious twist inside his skin, so that his feet and shins switched to the rear and his heels and calves switched to the front… On his head the temple-sinews stretched to the nape of his neck, each mighty, immense, measureless knob as big as the head of a month-old child… he sucked one eye so deep into his head that a wild crane couldn’t probe it onto his cheek out of the depths of his skull; the other eye fell out along his cheek. His mouth weirdly distorted: his cheek peeled back from his jaws until the gullet appeared, his lungs and his liver flapped in his mouth and throat, his lower jaw struck the upper a lion-killing blow, and fiery flakes large as a ram’s fleece reached his mouth from his throat… The hair of his head twisted like the tange of a red thornbush stuck in a gap; if a royal apple tree with all its kingly fruit were shaken above him, scarce an apple would reach the ground but each would be spiked on a bristle of his hair as it stood up on his scalp with rage.”—Thomas Kinsella (translator), The Táin, Oxford University Press, 1969, pp. 150-153. He attacks the army and kills hundreds, building walls of corpses.
When his foster-father Fergus mac Róich, now in exile in Medb’s court, is sent to face him Cú Chulainn agrees to yield, so long as Fergus agrees to return the favour the next time they meet. Finally, he fights a gruelling three-day duel with his best friend and foster-brother, Ferdiad, at a ford that was named Áth Fhir Diadh (Ardee, Co Louth) after him. The Ulstermen eventually rouse, one by one at first, and finally en masse. The final battle begins. Cú Chulainn stays on the sidelines, recuperating from his wounds, until he sees Fergus advancing. He enters the fray and confronts Fergus, who keeps his side of the bargain and yields to him, pulling his forces off the field. Connacht’s other allies panic and Medb is forced to retreat. At this inopportune moment she gets her period, and although Fergus forms a guard around her, Cú Chulainn breaks through as she is dealing with it and has her at his mercy. However he spares her because he does not think it right to kill women, and guards her retreat back to Connacht as far as Athlone.
The troublemaker Bricriu once incites three heroes, Cú Chulainn, Conall Cernach and Lóegaire Búadach, to compete for the champion’s portion at his feast. In every test that is set Cú Chulainn comes out top, but neither Conall nor Lóegaire will accept the result. Cú Roí mac Dáire of Munster settles it by visiting each in the guise of a hideous churl and challenging them to behead him, then allow him to return and behead them in return. Conall and Lóegaire both behead Cú Roí, who picks up his head and leaves, but when the time comes for him to return they flee. Only Cú Chulainn is brave and honourable enough to submit himself to Cú Roí’s axe; Cú Roí spares him and he is declared champion. This beheading challenge appears in later literature, most notably in the Middle English poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Other examples include the 13th century French Life of Caradoc and the English romances The Turke and Gowin, and The Carle off Carlile.
Cú Roí, again in disguise, joins the Ulstermen on a raid on Inis Fer Falga (probably the Isle of Man), in return for his choice of the spoils. They steal treasure, and abduct Blathnát, daughter of the island’s king, who loves Cú Chulainn. But when Cú Roí is asked to choose his share, he chooses Blathnát. Cú Chulainn tries to stop him taking her, but Cú Roí cuts his hair and drives him into the ground up to his armpits before escaping, taking Blathnát with him. Like other heroes such as the Biblical Samson, Duryodhana in the Mahabharata and the Welsh Llew Llaw Gyffes, Cú Roí can only be killed in certain contrived circumstances, which vary in different versions of the story. Blathnat discovers how to kill him and betrays him to Cú Chulainn, who does the deed. However Ferchertne, Cú Roí’s poet, enraged at the betrayal of his lord, grabs Blathnát and leaps off a cliff, killing her and himself.
Cú Chulainn had many lovers, but Emer’s only jealousy came when he fell in love with Fand, wife of Manannán mac Lir. Manannán had left her and she had been attacked by three Fomorians who wanted to control the Irish Sea. Cú Chulainn agreed to help defend her as long as she married him. She agreed reluctantly, but they fell in love when they met. Manannán knew their relationship was doomed because Cú Chulainn was mortal and Fand was a fairy; Cú Chulainn’s presence would destroy the fairies. Emer, meanwhile, tried to kill her rival, but when she saw the strength of Fand’s love for Cú Chulainn she decided to give him up to her. Fand, touched by Emer’s magnanimity, decided to return to her own husband. Manannan shook his cloak between Cú Chulainn and Fand, ensuring the two would never meet again, and Cú Chulainn and Emer drank a potion to wipe the whole affair from their memories.
Medb conspired with Lugaid, son of Cú Roí, Erc, son of Cairbre Nia Fer, and the sons of others Cú Chulainn had killed, to draw him out to his death. His fate was sealed by his breaking of the geasa (taboos) upon him. Cú Chulainn’s geasa included a ban against eating dog meat, but in early Ireland there was a powerful general taboo against refusing hospitality, so when an old crone offered him a meal of dog meat, he had no choice to break his geis. In this way he was spiritually weakened for the fight ahead of him.
Lugaid had three magical spears made, and it was prophesied that a king would fall by each of them. With the first he killed Cú Chulainn’s charioteer Láeg, king of chariot drivers. With the second he killed Cú Chulainn’s horse, Liath Macha, king of horses. With the third he hit Cú Chulainn, mortally wounding him. Cú Chulainn tied himself to a standing stone in order to die on his feet. This stone is traditionally identified as one still standing at Knockbridge, Co Louth. Due to his ferocity even when so near death, it is only when a raven landed on his shoulder that his enemies believed he was dead. Lugaid approached and cut off his head, but as he did so the “hero-light” burned around Cú Chulainn and his sword fell from his hand and cut Lugaid’s hand off. The light disappeared only after his right hand, his sword arm, was cut from his body.
Conall Cernach had sworn that if Cú Chulainn died before him he would avenge him before sunset, and when he heard Cú Chulainn was dead he pursued Lugaid. As Lugaid has lost a hand, Conall fought him with one hand tucked into his belt, but he only beat him after his horse took a bite out of Lugaid’s side. He also killed Erc, and took his head back to Tara, where Erc’s sister Achall died of grief for her brother.
The story is told that when St Patrick was trying to convert king Lóegaire to Christianity, the ghost of Cú Chulainn appeared in his chariot, warning him of the torments of hell.
Cú Chulainn’s appearance was occasionally remarked on in the texts. He is usually described as small, youthful and beardless. He was often described as dark: in The Wooing of Emer and Bricriu’s Feast he is “a dark, sad man, comeliest of the men of Erin”, in The Intoxication of the Ulstermen he is a “little, black-browed man”, and in The Phantom Chariot of Cú Chulainn “his hair was thick and black, and smooth as though a cow had licked it… in his head his eyes gleamed swift and grey”; yet the prophetess Fedelm in the Táin Bó Cúailnge describes him as blond. The most elaborate description of his appearance comes later in the Táin:
And certainly the youth Cúchulainn mac Sualdaim was handsome as he came to show his form to the armies. You would think he had three distinct heads of hair – brown at the base, blood-red in the middle, and a crown of golden-yellow. This hair was settled strikingly into three coils on the cleft at the back of his head. Each long loose-flowing strand hung down in shining splendour over his shoulders, deep-gold and beautiful and fine as a thread of gold. A hundred neat red-gold curls shone darkly on his neck, and his head was covered with a hundred crimson threads matted with gems. He had four dimples in each cheek – yellow, green, crimson and blue – and seven bright pupils, eye-jewels, in each kingly eye. Each foot had seven toes and each hand seven fingers, the nails with the grip of a hawk’s claw or a gryphon’s clench.” —Thomas Kinsella (translator), The Táin, Oxford University Press, 1969, pp. 156-158.
The image of Cú Chulainn is invoked by both Irish nationalists and Ulster unionists. Irish nationalists see him as the most important Celtic Irish hero, and thus he is important to their whole culture. A bronze sculpture of the dying Cú Chulainn by Oliver Sheppard stands in the Dublin General Post Office (GPO) in commemoration of the Easter Rising of 1916. By contrast, unionists see him as an Ulsterman defending the province from enemies to the south: in Belfast, for example, he is depicted in a mural on Highfield Drive, and was formerly depicted in a mural on the Newtownards Road, as a “defender of Ulster from Irish attacks”, both murals ironically based on the Sheppard sculpture. He is also depicted in murals in nationalist parts of the city and many nationalist areas of Northern Ireland.
Samuel Beckett once asked a friend to go to the GPO and “measure the height of the ground to Cúchulainn’s arse”, as Neary in his novel Murphy wished to “engage with the arse of the statue of Cúchulainn, the ancient Irish hero, patron saint of pure ignorance and crass violence, by banging his head against it.” The statue’s image was also used on the ten shilling coin produced for 1966.
The statue of Cú Chulainn carrying the body of Fer Diad stands in Ardee, Co Louth, traditionally the site of their combat in the Táin Bó Cúailnge.
Augusta, Lady Gregory retold many of the legends of Cú Chulainn in her 1902 book Cuchulain of Muirthemne, which closely paraphrased the originals but glossed over some of the more sexual extreme content, given the conventional prudery of her day. Where he is surrounded by 150 naked ladies, Lady Gregory described them as only having bared breasts. This first translation was a great success, supported by the Celtic Revival movement. It featured an introduction by her friend William Butler Yeats, who wrote several pieces based on the legend, including the 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), and a poem, Cuchulain’s Fight with the Sea (1892). Modern novels which retell Cú Chulainn’s story include Morgan Llywelyn’s 1989 historical novel Red Branch, Randy Lee Eickhoff’s series of adaptations, Manfred Böckl’s German language novel Der Hund des Culann, and Holly Bennett’s The Warrior’s Daughter, which tells the story from the point of view of his daughter, Luaine.
Image: Statue of Cú Chulainn by Oliver Sheppard in the window of the GPO, Dublin – commemorating the 1916 rising.