Courage, Heroism & the Hound of Culann

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Oliver Sheppard’s ‘The Death of Cú Chulainn’, in the foyer of the General Post Office on Dublin’s O’Connell Street

Just above ground level in the broad window of the General Post Office on Dublin’s O’Connell Street, stands an iconic statue familiar to both tourist and local alike, a figure that since it’s unveiling in 1935, has quietly borne witness to the endless flow of people that daily pass along that thoroughfare. The statue in question is Oliver Sheppard’s The Death Of Cú Chulainn, and the figure Sheppard’s piece portrays is one of this country’s earliest mythic champions; a heroic demigod fated to a fame and renown that would far outlast his short life, and a figure who’s valour and courage in his defence of his people, has served as an inspiration to countless generations of Irish men and women.

THE HERO SLAIN

Sheppard’s sculpture shows the slain Cú Chulainn in his death pose; his limp frame tied to a rock, his sword and shield still in hand, a large scald crow having alighted upon his shoulder. The scene portrayed reflects the final moments of the early Irish saga in which Cú Chulainn is the protagonist, namely that of Táin Bó Cuailgne (‘The Cattle Raid of Cooley’), an epic which, though coming down to us in its most complete literary version in a manuscript penned by Christian monks of the 12th century, has likely much more ancient origins, and must have had an existence in oral tradition long before being transcribed by Christian scholars.

The hero at the centre of this epic narrative however, found comparatively recent resonance as a symbol of Ireland’s nationalist struggle in the twentieth century, and it is for this reason that Sheppard’s statue stands today in the foyer of Dublin’s General Post Office, as the official memorial of the Easter Rising of 1916. A symbol, as Éamon de Valera put it, of the ‘dauntless courage and abiding constancy of our people’.

But what of this slain youth, and what likewise of his dauntless courage? Tradition tells us that Cú Chulainn was born with the name Setanta, in Dundalk, Co. Louth, and the epic narrative in which he features is generally believed to be set in Ireland around the time of Christ. A prophesy made over the infant child told that his praise would be in the mouths of all men, and that charioteers, warriors, kings and sages would all recount his deeds.

CÚ CHULAINN’S EARLIEST DAYS

Since the earliest days of his youth, Setanta was capable of incredible feats of agility, strength and sporting prowess. To amuse himself on his journeys the five year old Setanta would fare forth with his playthings; his little shield, his bronze hurley, his javelin and wooden staff. First taking his hurley, he would strike the sliotar as far as he could, before promptly throwing hurley, javelin and staff a great distance through the air after it. Not being duly entertained by the above, the boy Setanta would make a mad dash after his playthings; catching the hurley and picking up the sliotar before proceeding to snatch up his javelin and finally, catching the wooden staff which had not yet touched the ground.

While travelling to a feast that was being laid out for him one day, Conchobhar Mac Neasa, the ruling king of Ulster, was astonished to see the young Setanta’s skill and abilities, and so invited the young fellow to attend the feast that evening, with Setanta promising to come along after he had finished sporting and playing for the day.

The feast being prepared for the king and his entourage that night was held in Culann the smith’s fort. With Conchobhar having forgotten the invitation earlier extended to the young Setanta, Culann supposed all guests for the evening assembled, and duly stationed his much prized watchdog on the green outside the fort. The young Setanta however, arriving late to the feast, and having entertained himself in the usual manner, (throwing his hurley and javelin through the air before dashing after them) was now faced with the threat of Culann’s ferocious, baying watch-hound, with nothing but his sliotar to defend himself. The creature leapt to devour the boy, but with an unerring cast of the ball, Setanta hurled it down the dog’s throat before dashing it against a pillar with such force that it was killed.

Culann was greatly dismayed at the death of his beloved companion, but Setanta offered a wise compensation: to raise a whelp of the same breed until it was fit to do the business of his sire, and that until such time he himself would be the hound who would protect Culann’s flocks, cattle, land and family. As commemoration of the young lad’s first deed of valour the warriors there assembled conferred upon him the name that would be known throughout the ages, the name prophesied to be ‘praised in the mouths of all men’. That name of course, was Cú Chulainn – the Hound of Culann.

THE NOBLE YOUTH

Having grown into a noble youth, and being in need of martial training, Cú Chulainn travelled to the Isle of Skye off the coast of Scotland, and it was here that he learnt wonderful feats and arts of combat from the warrior woman Scáthach. At the end of his apprenticeship with her, she gifted unto him the dreadful spear known as the Gae Bolga, an awful weapon which was thrown with the foot, and that filled the enemy’s body with barbs on piercing them. Cú Chulainn is further described as having had a multitude of elaborate spears, a straight sword, darts, a walrus tooth ornamented javelin, a razor sharp dark-red shield, and a crested battle helmet which was surrounded by the demons and spirits of the air and of the glens, who screamed before, above and around him as he went forth into battle in his chariot (itself bristling with lancelets and spears, and manned by his faithful charioteer, Láeg).

HIS BATTLE FRENZY

Cú Chulainn in The Táin is famed for having single handedly defended Ulster from the advancing armies of Connacht (a raiding party led by queen Meadhbh and her husband Aillil, who set forth in order to steal from Ulster the famed Brown Bull of Cooley), and it is there upon the battlefield that the hero had his Riastradh, or ‘twisting-fit’; a spasmodic frenzy that came upon him and which caused him to make a ‘terrible, many-shaped, wonderful, unheard of thing of himself’. His flesh, we are told, ‘trembled about him like a pole against the torrent or like a bulrush against the stream… The muscles of his calves moved so that they came to the front of his shins, so that each knot was the size of a soldier’s balled fist’. His face became terrifying and awful to behold; gulping one eye down into his head while the other sprang out upon his cheek, his lungs fluttered in his mouth and gullet, and the loud clap of his beating heart was heard as thunder on the battlefield. His hair bristled and stood on end, and the heroic ‘Champion’s Light’ shone around him, while a thick spout of blood arose from the crown of his head, ‘so that a black fog of witchery was made thereof’.

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Cú Chulainn in batte; an illustration by J. C. Leyendecker from T. W. Rolleston’s ‘Myths & Legends of the Celtic Race’, 1911

WITCHERY & HEROIC DEATH

‘Witchery’ and the supernatural abounds in The Táin, and it is by such powers that Cú Chulainn is eventually undone, when magic and trickery is used by his enemies to bring a horror upon the royal hero’s mind. Duly afflicted, he begins to see phantasms of armed battalions marching against him out of the undergrowth and leaves of the forest, and is tormented by the smoke of burning dwellings which he imagines as going up from every side around him. Coming to a stream, he sees a woman washing bloodied military costume and armour in the waters. As weeping, she raises a vest from the water, Cú Chulainn recognises it as his own, whereupon she vanishes from sight.

Cú Chulainn is eventually killed with a spear thrown by a satirist which strikes him in his chariot and disembowels him. Never one to do things the easy way, he gathers up his innards and goes to a lake side nearby to bathe himself and drink of its waters, before returning to a tall, westward facing pillar stone. It is over this pillar stone that Cú Chulainn slings his girdle in order that he might die standing to face his enemies, who, despite vanquishing their foe, are fearful of approaching him until a crow alights upon his shoulder – a sign that the life force has ebbed from him entirely. According to local lore, the stone to which Cú Chulainn tied himself in his last moments stands to this day, being located in a field in Knockbridge, Co. Louth. At over three metres in height, this standing stone is aptly named ‘Clochafamore’ (Cloch an Fear Mór­, or, ‘The Stone of the Big Man’).

It is this final scene then; that of the slain champion who stands against his enemies even in defeat, that we see reflected in the bronze statue that rests quietly in the foyer of Dublin’s General Post Office to this day. This scene, along with others from The Táin are further portrayed in our capital city, and the wayfaring pedestrian will find, tucked away off of Nassau Street on Dublin’s College Green, the late Desmond Kinney’s ‘Táin Wall’; a striking and evocative piece from 1974 that visualises the furious combat and vitality of the Táin. The energies of the past reverberate in the present, if one knows where , and how, to look and see.

A noble figure embodying the values of honour, courage, and duty, Cú Chulainn is one who paid the ultimate price in his defence of his people. It is precisely this heroic sacrifice, this undaunting valour that, true to prophesy, causes his deeds to be recounted to this very day, deeds of which we would do well to know and learn, that we might instil some aspect of them in our own lives.

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Clochafarmore standing stone, Knockbridge, Co. Louth; the stone to which Cú Chulainn is reputed to have tied himself in his dying moments.