CuChulainn and The Ulster Cycle
On this page, let Anna Snyder introduce you to CuChulainn- one of ancient Ireland's most famous heroes and the tales that evolve around him.
CuChulainn and the Ulster Cycle celebrated in a Desmond Kinney mural off Nassau Street in Dublin, Ireland. Scenes depicted from left to right: the fight of the prize bulls, our hero fighting his foster brother Ferdia, and on the far right tied to a tree to die with a raven on his shoulder.
The Ulster Cycle In Context
Ireland, a nation famed for its storytelling prowess, has produced
generations of world famous writers, poets, and playwrights.
Masterpieces from James Joyce’s Ulysses to the poetry of Seamus Heaney
have revolutionized the literary world, and Ireland’s unique way with
words draws from thousands of years of an oral tradition of folklore and
These tales still have strong influence over the culture
of modern Ireland, and none so much as the series of heroic myths, “The
Ulster Cycle” which features one of ancient Ireland's best known heroes.
The earliest written form of the Ulster stories dates back to the
12th century AD, written by medieval monks in the Book of the Dun Cow. However, the language in the manuscript dates back to the 8th century,
and the stories are thought to be much older.
They tell of a
prehistoric Celtic society of warriors, chieftains, druids, kings,
queens, and poets, very similar to the continental La Tène society of
the late Iron Age.
Táin Bó Cuailnge, a poetic retelling of the Cattle Raid of Cooley that
led to war between the provinces of Ulster and Connacht, makes up the
heart of the Ulster Cycle. But a series of remscéla, or pre-tales,
gives us a closer look at the characters and the world they live in.
The location of the mythical battle between two prize bulls described in the Tain was at Rathnadarve fort at Rathcroghan, County Roscommon, Ireland, depicted here, which is considered by archaeologists to have been the residence of a Celtic royal family.
CuChulainn- The Celtic Hero At The Heart Of The Ulster Cycle
With the god Lug mac Ethnenn as his father, CuChulainn possesses
superhuman strength and agility, and much of the Ulster Cycle is
dedicated to chronicling his conception, life, and death.
Ulster Cycle depicts a heroic era, viewed by the medieval monks who recorded it as Ireland’s golden age, in which honor, violence, and wit are of utmost
Our warror hero represents the poetic ideal of all of the
virtues of the age, being young, handsome, virile, witty, honor-driven,
and prone to the “Warp Spasm,” a berserker rage where he slaughters
anyone who gets in his way—a warrior-poet in the classic sense.
Even as a child he was ferocious. When invited to Culann's fort and attacked by his guard dog, he killed the dog by smashing a hurling ball through its teeth.
sense of honor then bound him to the service of Culann as a replacement
attack dog, earning him the name CuChulainn, or “Hound of Culann” which from then on, age seven, replaced his birth name 'Setanta'.
One of the few artifacts of ancient Celtic society in Ireland- the Castlestrange stone in County Roscommon, Ireland.
Glory, Cruelty And Poetry
many cases, the characters of the Ulster Cycle are so preoccupied with
honor and glory that they forget to bother with human compassion, a flaw
inherent in their society that ultimately leads to its downfall.
scene is set at the very beginning of the tales, when a rich landlord
forces his pregnant wife, a supernatural being named Macha, to race a
chariot just so he can make good on his boasting.
With her dying
breath, she curses all the warriors of Ulster to suffer with a woman’s
birth pangs during their time of greatest need, which comes back to
haunt them throughout the cycle of stories. In the tale of Deirdru of
the Sorrows, Conchobar orders the deaths of three of his greatest
warriors and many more besides, because he thinks that as king he has
the right to marry Deirdru, the most beautiful woman in Ireland.
Deirdru, who has other plans, runs off with Noisiu mac Uislenn and his
brothers, and when Conchobar has them betrayed and murdered, she kills
Even the women of Ulster revel in bloodlust.
is courting his future wife, Emer, she refuses to marry him until he has
proven his worth as a warrior by killing multiple hundreds of
But feats of carnage are not the only means by which
Emer sizes up her suitor; they speak to each other in flirtatious
riddles that go over the heads of her ladies in waiting, proving
CuChulainn is a poet as well as a fighter.
It is at Emer’s urging that he travels abroad to complete his training with Scáthach, a
warrior prophetess, developing his value as a warrior beyond solely
his killing abilities.
The story Bricriu’s Feast shows the
more comical side of the Ulster Cycle, in which our hero and two other
warriors travel all across Ireland, engaging in contests and trials
each to prove that he deserves the select Champion’s portion of meat—at
last our hero forfeits, understanding that the prize is not worth the
The tragic aspect of this warrior mindset is evident in the
story 'The Death of Aoife’s One Son', in which CuChulainn’s son by another
woman warrior who trained him comes to challenge the men of Ulster.
Despite his wife's pleas not to, our hero kills his own son, thus depriving Ulster
of the greatest warrior it would have ever known.
CuChulainn And Ferdia's Mortal Combat
Perhaps the most heartrending and absurd story in the
Ulster Cycle is that of our warrior hero killing his foster-brother, Ferdia,
Even while Ferdia, who studied martial arts under Scáthach
with him, is the person he loves most in the world, both warriors set
out to kill each other out of a sense of duty to their opposing
After three days of furious battle and three nights of
tending each other’s wounds, our hero finally kills Ferdia with his
signature weapon, the gae bolga, and delivers many grief-stricken
CuChulainn depicted carrying the dead Ferdia- sculpture at Ardee, County Louth, Ireland
The Death of CuChulainn
In the end however, even CuChulainn himself is doomed by his own pride and overwrought notion of honor. When Ulster’s armies are suffering from their age-old curse, a sorceress goads him into leaving the safety of the fortress at Emain Macha to fight Connacht’s forces singlehandedly.
On the road to battle, CuChulainn comes across three crones—in truth they were the Morrigan, goddess of war and death, disguise—who shame him into eating a roasted dog, a taboo being as the hound is his spirit animal.
As soon as he does this, half of his body withers away. Later, at the threat of being satirized by three druids he meets, he kills them with his three spears, which are then stolen and used to deal him his death blow.
As CuChulainn dies—famously represented in the bronze statue in the General Post Office in Dublin—he ties himself to a stone so as to remain standing.
Even then his enemies are too afraid to approach until they see a raven land on his shoulder, signifying that he’s finally dead.
The Ulster Cycle Today
While these stories are thousands of years old, they remain popular
and influential among the Irish, with every generation of children
growing up hearing them from their parents.
CuChulainn and other
prominent characters from the Ulster Cycle have inspired countless
works of art in contemporary Ireland. They were especially popular
during the Irish Literary Revival of the early 20th century, with
writers such as Lady Gregory and William Butler Yeats preserving the old
legends in poetry, plays, and collections of folklore.
Ulster stories were a common theme running through Frank McCourt’s
memoirs, Angela’s Ashes, symbolizing an innocence and simplicity he
could never return to, just as Ireland will never revert to its wild,
pagan days of warring clans isolated from the rest of the continent.
Even today, CuChulainn is a common subject in songs, stories, graphic
novels, and videogames, a testament to the endurance of a good story.
Snyder is a freelance writer who studied creative writing at NUI,
Galway. She used to work in Moscow as an English teacher. She enjoys
knitting and travelling when she has the time and she blogs.
We invest a lot of our own funds and free time into this website so that you can find out about Irish culture, heritage and history.
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Warmest regards, Colm & Susanna
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