The Irish Legend of Cuchulainn
One of the most famous Irish Legends, in honor of St. Patrick's Day
We Americans love Saint Patrick's day, and all things Irish, all things green. The Irish won a home here early in the great waves of immigration that populated this land with Europeans; the Irish won a home in our hearts with their spirit, and their lovely stories.
One of the most celebrated heroes of Irish myth and legend is the story of Cuchulainn. I'm just going to give you the brief version here; there are literally thousands of Celtic myths surrounding this famous hero.
Are any of them true? Who knows? The myths and legends go so far back in time, and were handed down from generation to generation by word of mouth, and so grew in the process.
First, let's go across the sea (the herring pond!) to Ireland, and back in time to pre-Christian days, when the tall, fair-haired Celts ruled Ireland, which was a loose conglomeration of small, tribal kingdoms. Each kingdom had it's own king, and Conor, King of Ulster, was one of the most prominent.
Conor, King of Ulster, recruited young men, which he trained into an elite fighting force. Cuchulainn joined this force at a very early age (he was only 5 or 6 years of age, according to legend, and could defeat grown men in battle); Cuchulainn was already a legend in Ulster before he was even a teenager.
Stories abound of Cuchulainn's strength, wisdom, prowess in battle, and prowess with women. To win the hand of the beautiful Emer, Cuchulainn went on a terrific quest, where he accomplished many impossible things and also learned many secrets, both dark and light. One of his tutors was Scathach, the Shadowy One, and it was prophesied that Cuchulainn would never be defeated in battle, being armed with knowledge of the arcane dark arts.
Now, there was some jealousy amongst the various tribal kings of Ireland, and much competition. Queen Meadh was the daughter of the High King of Ireland, the Ard Ri, and married to King Ailil. Queen Meadh had much land and many cattle in her own right; however, King Ailil had one more bull than Queen Meadh had.
Queen Meadh, who was fiercely jealous of her possessions and her supremacy, chose to try to remedy this situation by impounding one of the King of Ulster's bulls. She sweetly requested to borrow it: the King of Ulster (no dummy, he) just as sweetly refused the request, knowing full well that Queen Meadh had absolutely no intention of ever returning the animal to its proper owner.
Queen Meadh was majestic in her wrath. She assembled an army of 3,000 troops and made off to go to war with Ulster.
All the men of Ulster were put under the spell of a sorceress. They were frozen in time; they could not move or speak. The only person in the entire Ulster army who was immune to the enchantment was Cuchulainn; it was up to him to fend off Queen Meadh's entire army of 3,000 troops.
At first, Cuchulainn tossed obstacles in front of the advancing army, warning them not to encroach any further on Ulster territory. As Queen Meadh's army came on, making sorties past the obstacles, Cuchulainn killed the soldiers, five and six at a time, in hand-to-hand combat.
Queen Meadh's army camped at Druim Fene in Conaille, and Cuchulainn, a terrific man with the sling, killed 300 men each night they were bivouacked there.
By the time the sorceress's spell had worn off and the rest of the Ulster soldiers were battle-ready, Cuchulainn was very tired and wounded in dozens of places on his body. Cuchulainn's father said that his poor son had no area on his body larger than the point of a reed that was not pierced by a spear of arrow.
As the Ulster army charged full-tilt into pitched battle with the few remaining Queen Meadh troops, Cuchulainn tied himself standing upright to a rock, with a spear in his hand, so that the enemies would believe him still able to fight. The ruse worked; his enemies didn't close in on him until they saw a raven pecking at Cuchulainn's eyes; then the Queen Meadh soldiers knew---the great Cuchulainn was dead.
He died a hero, fighting to the end and even past it. Cuchulainn is a part of Irish history now, symbolizing defiance, bravery and iron determination and strength of purpose.