Provided I Be Famous, I Am Content to Be Only One Day on Earth

Reconstructed Roundhouse at Navan Fort/Emain Macha, County Armagh, Northern Ireland.

‘He did still another exploit,’ said Fiachu mac Fir Fhebe. ‘Cathbad the druid was with his son Conchobar mac Nessa. There were with him a hundred active men learning the druid’s art — that was the number that Cathbad used to instruct. One of his pupils asked him for what that day would be of good omen. Cathbad said that if a warrior took up arms on that day, his name for deeds of valour would be known throughout Ireland and his fame would last for ever. Cú Chulainn heard this. He went to Conchobar to ask for arms. Conchobar asked: ‘Who prophesied good fortune for you?’ ‘Master Cathbad,’ said Cú Chulainn. ‘We know him indeed,’ said Conchobar. He gave him a spear and a shield. Cú Chulainn brandished them in the middle of the hall so that not one was left unbroken of the fifteen spare sets of weapons which were kept in Conchobar’s household to replace broken weapons or to provide for the taking up of arms by someone. Finally Conchobar’s own arms were given to him. They withstood him, and he brandished them and blessed the king whose arms they were, saying: ‘Happy the people and race over whom reigns the owner of these arms.’

‘Then Cathbad came to them and asked: ‘Is the boy taking up arms?’ ‘Yes,’ said Conchobar.

‘That is not lucky for the son of his mother,’ said he. ‘Why, was it not you who instructed him?’ ‘It was not I indeed,’ said Cathbad. ‘What use is it for you to deceive me so, you sprite?’ said Conchobar to Cú Chulainn. ‘O king of the Fían, it is no deceit,’ said Cú Chulainn. ‘He prophesied good fortune for his pupils this morning and I heard him from where I was on the south side of Emain, and then I came to you.’ ‘It is indeed a day of good omen,’ said Cathbad. ‘It is certain that he who takes up arms today will be famous and renowned, but he will, however, be short-lived.’ ‘A mighty thing!’ said Cú Chulainn. ‘Provided I be famous, I am content to be only one day on earth.’

– Táin Bó Cúalnge.

I Myself Shall Be a Hound

“Cuchulain Slays the Hound of Culain”; illustration by Stephen Reid from Eleanor Hull’s, The Boys’ Cuchulain, 1904.

‘Indeed we know that boy’, said Conall Cernach, ‘and we know him all the better in that he is a fosterling of ours. Not long after the deed which Fergus has just related, he performed another exploit.’

‘When Culann the smith prepared a feast for Conchobar, he asked Conchobar not to bring a great crowd with him for the feast he had made was not provided by his possession of land or estate but was gained by the work of his hands and his tongs. Then Conchobar set off together with fifty chariot-warriors, the noblest and most illustrious of the heroes.’

‘Conchobar visited the playing-field then. It was always his custom to pay the boys a fleeting visit to ask a greeting of them. There he saw Cú Chulainn playing ball against thrice fifty boys, and defeating them. When they were engaged in driving the ball into the hole, he would fill the hole with his balls and the boys would not be able to ward him off. When it was they who were throwing at the hole, he by himself would ward them off so that not even a single ball would go into it. When they were wrestling, he alone would throw the thrice fifty boys, yet not all of them together could surround him to throw him. When they were engaged in the game of stripping one another, he would strip them all stark-naked but they could not even take his brooch from his mantle. Conchobor marvelled at this. He asked if the boy’s deeds would correspond (to his present ones) when he attained the age of manhood. They all said that they would. Conchobor said to Cú Chulainn ‘Come with me to the feast to which we are going since you are a guest.’ ‘I have not yet had my fill of play, master Conchobor,’ said the boy. ‘I shall follow you.’ When they had all come to the feast, Culann asked Conchobar: ‘Do you expect anyone to follow you?’ ‘No,’ said Conchobor. He did not remember the arrangement with his fosterling to come after him. ‘I have a blood hound,’ [i.e. a hound brought from overseas, i.e. the whelp of a mastiff.] said Culann. ‘There are three chains on him and three men holding each chain. He was brought from Spain. Let him be loosed to guard our cattle and our stock and let the fort be shut.’ At that point the boy arrived. The dog made for him. He still kept on with the play; he would throw his ball and then throw his hurley after it so that it struck the ball, neither stroke being greater than the other. And he threw his toy spear after them and caught it before it fell. And though the dog was approaching him, it interfered not with his play. Conchobor and his household were so dismayed by this that they could not move. They thought they would not reach him alive though the fort was open. Now when the hound came towards the boy, he cast aside his ball and his hurley, and he tackled the dog with both hands, that is, he put one hand on the apple of the hound’s throat and the other at the back of his head, and dashed him against the pillar-stone that was beside him so that all the hound’s limbs sprang apart. According to another version, however, he threw his ball into the hound’s mouth and it drove his entrails out through him.’

‘The Ulstermen rose up to fetch the boy, some leaping over the wall of the court, others going out by the gate. They placed him in Conchobar’s arms. A great alarm was raised by them at the thought that the son of the king’s sister had almost been killed. At that point Culann entered the house.’

‘‘Welcome, little lad, for your mother’s sake. But as for myself, would that I had not prepared a feast! My livelihood is now a livelihood wasted, my husbandry a husbandry lost without my hound. That hound was not one of the three hounds that were in the brain of Conganchness, as some hold, for it was to take vengeance for Cú Roí’s death on the men of Ulster that Conganchness had gone and that happened long after the Cattle-Raid, but Cú Chulainn was only seven years old when he killed the smith’s hound. Thus the theory held by those people is false; the smith’s hound had been brought from Spain, as is asserted in the text of the tale. The servant who has been taken from me, that is, my hound, maintained life and honour for me. He was defence and protection for my goods and my cattle. He guarded all my beasts for me in field and in house.’’

‘‘That is no great matter,’ said the boy. ‘A whelp of the same litter will be reared by me for you, and until such time as that hound grows and is fit for action, I myself shall be a hound to protect your cattle and to protect yourself. And I shall protect all Mag Murthemne; neither flock nor herd shall be taken thence from me without my knowing it.’ ‘Your name shall be Cú Chulainn (the Hound of Culann) then,’ said Cathbad. ‘I am glad that it should be my name,’ said Cú Chulainn. It were no cause of wonder that one who had done this when he was seven, should have performed a valiant deed now that he is seventeen years old,’ said Conall Cernach.

— Táin Bó Cúalnge.

The Death of the Boys

Navan Fort/Emain Macha, Co. Armagh, Ireland.

‘Another time he was playing ball in the playing-field east of Emain, he alone on one side against the thrice fifty boys. He kept defeating them in every game in that way all the time. Eventually the boy began to belabour them with his fists and fifty of them died. Whereupon he fled and hid under the pillow of Conchobar’s couch. The Ulstermen rose up around him but I and Conchobar stood up to defend him. The boy rose to his feet under the couch and on to the floor of the house he threw from him the couch together with the thirty warriors who were in it.’

‘Then the Ulstermen sat around him in the house and we arranged matters and made peace between the boys and him,’ said Fergus.

The Boyhood Deeds of Cú Chulainn

Navan Fort/Emain Macha, Co. Armagh, Ireland.

‘He was reared,’ said Fergus, ‘by his father and mother at the Airgthech in Mag Muirthemne. He was told the famous tales of the youths in Emain. For,’ said Fergus, ‘thrice fifty youths are usually there engaged in play. This is how Conchobor spends his time of sovereignty: one third of the day spent watching the youths, another third playing fidchell, another third drinking ale till he falls asleep therefrom. Though we have been exiled by him, (I still maintain that) there is not in Ireland a warrior more wonderful,’ said Fergus.

‘Cú Chulainn asked his mother to let him go to join the boys. ‘You shall not go,’ said his mother, ‘till you be escorted by some of the Ulster warriors.’ ‘I think it too long to wait for that,’ said Cú Chulainn. ‘Point out to me in what direction is Emain.’ ‘To the north there,’ said his mother, ‘and the journey is hard. Slíab Fúait lies between you and Emain.’ ‘I shall make an attempt at it at all events,’ said Cú Chulainn. He went off then with his wooden shield and his toy javelin, his hurley and his ball. He kept throwing the javelin in front of him and catching it by the point before its end touched the ground.’

‘Then he went to the boys without binding them over to protect him. For no one used to come to them in their playing-field till his protection was guaranteed, but Cú Chulainn was not aware of the fact that this was tabu for them. ‘The boy insults us,’ said Follomon mac Conchobair. ‘Yet we know he is of the Ulstermen. Attack him.’ They threw their thrice fifty javelins at him, and they all stuck in his toy shield. Then they threw all their balls at him and he caught them, every single ball, against his breast. Then they threw their thrice fifty hurling-clubs at him. He warded them off so that they did not touch him, and he took a load of them on his back.’

‘Thereupon he became distorted. His hair stood on end so that it seemed as if each separate hair on his head had been hammered into it. You would have thought that there was a spark of fire on each single hair. He closed one eye so that it was no wider than the eye of a needle; he opened the other until it was as large as the mouth of a mead-goblet. He laid bare from his jaw to his ear and opened his mouth rib-wide(?) so that his internal organs were visible. The champion’s light rose above his head.’

‘Then he attacked the boys. He knocked down fifty of them before they reached the gate of Emain. Nine of them came past me and Conchobar where we were playing chess. Cú Chulainn leapt over the chess-board in pursuit of the nine. Conchobar seized him by the forearm. ‘The boys are not well treated.’ said Conchobar. ‘It was right for me (to treat them so), master Conchobar,’ said he. ‘I came to play with them from my home, from my father and mother, and they were not kind to me.’ ‘What is your name?’ said Conchobar. ‘I am Sétanta the son of Súaltaim and of Deichtire, your sister. It was not to be expected that I should be tormented there.’ ‘Why were the boys not bound over to protect you?’ asked Conchobar. ‘I did not know of (the need of) that,’ said Cú Chulainn. ‘Undertake to protect me against them.’ ‘I agree,’ said Conchobar. But then he turned again and attacked the boys throughout the house. ‘What have you got against them now?’ asked Conchobar. ‘Let me be bound over to protect them,’ said Cú Chulainn. ‘Undertake it then,’ said Conchobar. ‘I agree,’ said Cú Chulainn. So they all went into the playing field. And those boys who had been knocked down there rose to their feet, helped by their fostermothers and their foster-fathers.’

‘At one time,’ said Fergus, ‘when Cú Chulainn was a boy, he never slept in Emain. ‘Tell me,’ said Conchobar to him, ‘Why do you not sleep?’ ‘I do not sleep unless my head and my feet are equally high.’ So a pillar-stone was placed by Conchobar at his head and another at his feet, and a special couch was made for him between them. On another occasion a certain man went to wake him and with his fist Cú Chulainn struck him on the forehead, driving the front of his forehead on to his brain, while with his arm he knocked down the pillar-stone. ‘Surely,’ said Ailill, ‘that was the fist of a warrior and the arm of a strong man!’’ ‘From that time on,’ said Fergus, ‘they never dared to wake him (but left him) till he woke of his own accord.’

The Eulogy of Cú Chulainn

Cú Chulainn & the Bull by Karl Beutel 2003; oil on canvas (20 x 30 inches); Armagh County Museum Collection; purchased through the Art Fund 2006.

‘What manner of man,’ asked Ailill, ‘is this Hound whom we have heard of among the Ulstermen? What age is that famous youth?’ ‘I can tell you that,’ said Fergus. ‘In his fifth year he went to the boys in Emain Macha to play. In his sixth year he went to learn feats of arms to Scáthach and went to woo Emer. In his seventh year he took up arms. At the present time he is seventeen years old.’

‘Is he the most formidable among the Ulstermen?’ asked Medb. ‘More so than any one of them,’ answered Fergus. ‘You will not encounter a warrior harder to deal with, nor a spear-point sharper or keener or quicker, nor a hero fiercer, nor a raven more voracious, nor one of his age to equal a third of his valour, nor a lion more savage, nor a shelter in battle nor a sledge-hammer for smiting, nor a protector in fighting, nor doom of hosts, nor one better able to check a great army. You will not find there any man his equal in age like unto Cú Chulainn in growth, in dress, in fearsomeness, in speech, in splendour, in voice and appearance, in power and harshness, in feats, in valour, in striking power, in rage and in anger, in victory and in doom-dealing and in violence, in stalking, in sureness of aim and in game-killing, in swiftness and boldness and rage, with the feat of nine men on every spear- point.’

‘I reek little of that,’ said Medb. ‘He has but one body; he suffers wounding; he is not beyond capture. Moreover he is only the age of a grown girl and as yet his manly deeds have not developed.’ ‘Nay,’ said Fergus. ‘It were no wonder that he should perform a goodly exploit today, for even when he was younger, his deeds were those of a man.’

— Táin Bó Cúalnge.

The Death of Cú Chulainn in the Chronicon Scotorum

Kal. vi. A.D.432

From the death of the hero, Cucullainn, to this year, there are 431 years; from the death of Conchobhar Mac Nessa, 412 years.

Patrick, i.e. the Archbishop, comes to Hibernia, and begins to baptize the Scoti, in the ninth year of Theodosius the younger, the first year of the episcopate of Sixtus, 45th Bishop of the Roman Church, and the fourth year of the reign of Laeghaire, son of Niall.

— Chronicon Scotorum, Annal CS432.

* * *

Again, I find it interesting that the Christian scribes of the various Irish and Scottish annals date the close of the legendary era of great heroes such as Cú Chulainn and the knights of the Red Branch with the birth of Our Lord and His age.

Chronicon Scotorum, Annal CS432

Kal. vi. A.D. 432

From the death of the hero, Cucullainn, to this year, there are 431 years; from the death of Conchobhar Mac Nessa, 412 years.

Patrick, i.e. the Archbishop, comes to Hibernia, and begins to baptize the Scoti, in the ninth year of Theodosius the younger, the first year of the episcopate of Sixtus, 45th Bishop of the Roman Church, and the fourth year of the reign of Laeghaire, son of Niall.

— Chronicon Scotorum, Annal CS432.

* * *

It is interesting to note when the Irish/Scottish annals date the stories and personages of the Ulster Cycle.  It is as if the glorious mythological era in pagan Ireland came to an harmonious end with the Incarnation of Our Lord, His Lifetime, and the dawning of the New Religion.