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Legacies - Cuchulain

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Myths and Legends
The Hound of Ulster

Of all the early literatures of Europe, two from opposite corners of the continent, have obvious comparisons, the Greek hero Achilles and the Irish champion Cuchulain. Both display similar characteristics: mortal and immortal parentage, reckless courage, an ability to inspire fear in their enemies, a sense of personal worth and frankness of speech.

In Irish legend, Cuchulain is the central figure of the Ulster Cycle, a series of tales revolving around the heroes of the kingdom of Ulster in the early 1st Century. The tales are so old that they were almost forgotten before they were revived by a 7th Century bard, Sechan Torpeist.

prize bull of Ulster
© BBC
One of these sagas, Tain Bo Cuailnge (Cattle Raid of Cooley) is the oldest vernacular tale in western Europe. It tells the tale of our hero, Cuchulain, fighting off the armies of Queen Maeve of Connacht, over a prize brown bull.

Cuchulain was an old, Irish version of the Incredible Hulk, terrifying, with superhuman rage; yet who returns, when the need for anger has passed, to a gentle and sensitive mortal. His name at birth was Setanta, possibly a connection with the north-western English tribe, the Setantii. They were included in Ptolemy's (an Egyptian mathematician and geographer) text, The Geography. This was written around 140 AD and listed many of the place Ptolemy felt it was important for people to visit, it included details of the major coastal sites in Britain.

Setanta was the nephew of King Conor of Ulster, son of his sister Dechtire, and it is said that his father was the sky god Lugh. The hero-to-be was brought up by King Conor himself, at Emain Macha, (Armagh) and while he was still a child his fame spread all over Ireland, thanks to his prowess as a boy warrior.

The name change

King Conor was invited to a banquet at the house of Culain, a blacksmith and he asked Setanta to accompany him. Setanta was playing a game of hurling at the time and said he would follow his uncle shortly. When the guests were seated at the feast, Culain asked the King if all the expected guests had arrived and King Conor replied that they had, forgetting about Setanta. Culain unchained his huge hound to guard the house.

Unaware of the danger ahead the young boy arrived at Culain`s house .The vicious dog leapt at Setanta, who had only his hurling stick and ball with him. Undaunted by the ferocious beast the boy flung the ball down the animal’s throat. The hound was forced back by the blow and Setanta was able to grab the hound by its legs and smash its head on the stone courtyard.

When Conor heard the hound howling he remembered Setanta and ran outside expecting to find him torn to pieces. He was amazed to see him unharmed, standing above the dead hound. The blacksmith, Culain was distraught on the sight of his fallen dog. Setanta, although without blame in the duel, vowed to take the place of the dog, protecting the pass into Ulster, and became the hound of Culain – CuCuhulain, pronounced ‘Koo hoo lin’.


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