Part of the allure and mystery of oral stories that are passed down through the generations is that there will always be a few versions of how things came to be.
The colourful life and times of the mighty Cú Chulainn (pronounced ‘Coo Hull-in’) are relayed throughout many tales, and sites across Ireland are associated with the epic hero. Read on for an overview of this powerful warrior and his many deeds.
Cú Chulainn, sometimes written as Cuchulain, had such a significant presence in Irish mythology that his conception is outlined in its own tale – the “Conception of Cú Chulainn” (known as “Compert Con Culainn” in Irish.)
He was born to a mortal couple, Deichtine and Sualtaim, though his father is often said to be the Irish god, Lugh Lámfada. He was first given the name Sétanta and was gifted with amazing strength, speed and skill. Because of these incredible superhuman gifts, by age five he joined the Red Branch Knights – the army of his uncle, King Conor Mac Nessa.
King Conor invited young Sétanta to a feast thrown by Culann, who made spears for the king. Arriving late, Sétanta was greeted by the unchained hound of Culann and was forced to defend himself in battle.
With his trusty hurl and sliotar (equipment used for the Irish game of hurling), he fought and killed the hound. But, there were mixed reactions to this brave and vicious feat. His uncle was relieved that his nephew had survived and amazed by his strength. However, Culann was less amused, having just lost his faithful hound.
Sétanta proposed to Culann, “Let me take the place of your hound until you find another one to take its place”. And so, from that day on Setanta was called Cú Chulainn, meaning Hound of Culann.
Much like the Vikings had their bloodthirsty and infamous berserkers, Cú Chulainn was famed for the trance-like fury that would come over him before battle. In Irish, it’s known as ríastrad, meaning ‘contortion or convulsion’.
There are some very entertaining descriptions of this whole-body transformation he underwent. Here’s a little insight into this fury, found in the Táin Bó Cúailgne – you wouldn’t want to meet this guy in a bad mood:
“He shakes from head to toe and revolves within his skin that becomes red and hot to touch. His features become bestial – one eye becoming large and bloodshot while the other becomes extremely small and menacing. His mouth becomes impossibly large and emits both fire and sparks, while his hair becomes spiked and emits further flame”
The story of the Táin Bó Cúailgne is recorded in ancient Irish manuscripts as early as 620 AD. The tale of Cuchulain and the infamous cattle raid is much older though, as before it was written down in the 7th century, it was shared from storyteller to storyteller long by word of mouth.
Translated from Irish, it literally means “the driving-off of cows of Cooley”. Less literally, it’s now known as “The Cattle Raid of Cooley.” The story of the Tain features in the series known as the Ulster Cycle within Irish mythology.
In short, the Cattle Raid of Cooley details a great battle that took place between the army of Queen Maeve of Connacht in the West of Ireland and the warriors of King Conor McNessa in Ulster in the north.
In the tale, Queen Maeve has her sights set on the prized Brown Bull of Cooley in County Louth, at the time part of Ulster. When her request to acquire the bull is refused, all hell breaks loose and as a result, Connacht and Ulster go to war. Yes, that’s right. They declared war over a bull (but it wasn’t just any bull…).
The warriors of the Red Branch Knights, led by Cú Chulainn, fell foul of a curse that made them suffer the pains of childbirth for nine days. Cú Chulainn, as well as women and young boys, were immune to this magic, and so the defence of Ulster was down to him alone.
According to legend, Cú Chulainn single-handedly defended all of Ulster from Queen Maeve’s encroaching army and her magic. Just as it had come down to single combat between him and his foster brother Ferdia, the men of Ulster rose up and ultimately defeated the armies of Connacht.
Cuchulain & The Tain
At the beginning of the Táin Bó Cúailgne epic saga of Ireland, the poetess of Connacht, Feidelm, tells Maeve of the following prophecy:
“He has moved forward to the battle. Unless heed be taken, there will be destruction.
I think that it is Cú Chulainn mac Súaldaim who now comes to you.
He will lay low your entire army. He will slaughter you in dense crowds. Ye will leave with him a thousand severed heads.
The prophetess Feidelm does not conceal your fate”.
Believe it or not, the traditional Irish sport of hurling is older than Ireland’s recorded history.
One of Ireland’s national sports, the game of hurling is actually thousands of years old. It’s no surprise then that hurling is mentioned alongside the many heroes and heroines of the mythology cycles.
In the Boyhood Deeds of Cú Chulainn, there’s mention of him bringing his sliotar and hurl to play a game of hurling. He also uses these items to defeat the hound, and picked up a new name as a result.
Today, there are countless hurling clubs named after Cú Chulainn or Sétanta throughout the country. There is even a Dublin-based TV channel that takes the name Sétanta Sports.
Of course, an epic warrior such as Cú Chulainn wouldn’t go down without a fight. His end came when the sons and daughters of a man named Catalan came to avenge the death of their slain father.
“The three sons and three daughters of Calatan came to Emain Macha, and using their magic, they brewed up the sounds of war”.
After meeting on a road, Cú Chulainn was mortally wounded by three of his own spears. Refusing to die lying down, he crawled to a nearby stone and bound himself to it. In this way, he died standing up with his sword in hand like the warrior he was.
Such was the fear of him, it took three days before anyone would approach his body. After these days, the Morrigan, Goddess of birth and death, took the form of a raven and perched on his shoulder. This act signalled the end of Cú Chulainn’s life.
Just outside Dundalk in County Louth is a 3m high standing stone. Found in a field known as the Field of Slaughter, Clochafarmore translates to “Stone of the Big Man.” Local lore says this is the standing stone Cú Chulainn tied himself to before perishing.
The Clochafarmore stone is located midway between Dublin and the Mourne Mountains, and just a stone’s throw from the Cooley Peninsula. It’s worth a stop if you’re in the area, such as those on our Northern Ireland self drive trip, which offers you expert suggestions and guidance but allows you the flexibility to choose the activities, stops and detours that best suit your interests.
Located in Co Kerry, the sandy shores of the Dingle Peninsula have become a refuge of writers and artists. Long before the creative crowd moved in, the narrow peninsula was a wild and remote place, home to ancient stories and even older heroes.
Nestled amongst pristine beaches, glittering lakes and cheery villages, the Annascaul region of Dingle is steeped in legend. Here, follow in the footsteps of Cú Chulainn, the Hound of Ulster, as he defeated the indomitable warrior (and his own foster-brother) Ferdia in single combat in these isolated and under-appreciated hills. (Read our guide on the Dingle Peninsula to discover more about the region.)
Starting in Carlingford, this 40km trail imagines the footsteps of the Táin Bó Cúailgne’s characters. On the Tain Way, enjoy amazing views of Carlingford fjord and lough and the Mourne and Cooley mountains.
As well as its local folklore connections, there’s a wealth of pre-historic sites including mountaintop cairns and early Christian monastic ruins, as well as the well-preserved medieval walled town of Carlingford.
There’s a ferry across Carlingford Lough, connecting visitors to the Mourne Mountains and beyond, or travel one hour south to Dublin. (Read our Guide to the Mourne Mountains to learn more about visiting this area).
Once called Emain Macha after the goddess Macha, the site of the Navan Fort formed the stronghold of King Conor McNessa. It is here that Cú Chulainn spent much of his youth, eventually joining his uncle’s warrior class, the Red Branch Knights.
As the ancient capital of Ulster, Navan Fort holds a very important place in both history and mythology. Only about an hour’s drive from Belfast and the Mourne Mountains, Navan Fort makes for an easy day trip to see this incredible place and tour its visitor centre.
Interested in hiking the area? Visit the Mourne Mountains on our Coasts and Glens private departure hiking trip.
From children cursed to live as swans to selkies swimming Irish shores and the giant credited with forming the Giant’s Causeway, not to mention the infamous and devious fairies who roam the Emerald Isle, Ireland has a plethora of myths and legends.
Read more about tales from Ireland big and small in our series on Ireland folklore.