Mythic Heroes of Celtic Ireland
Copyright © 1999 firstname.lastname@example.org
The Celtic mythology of Ireland is best summarized as
consisting of four broad cycles. This month's article deals with
mythic Celtic mortals, figures who populate the stories in the second
and third cycles below.
Four Cycles of Irish Mythology
Foundation Cycle--myths of the early founding of Ireland, its
deities, as well as the beginnings of the Irish Celts. Includes
the "Lebor Gabala" (The Book of Invasions) and other works. The time
period covered in this cycle is roughly the dawn of man to about 400
Ulster Cycle--myths of the Red Branch Champions of Ulster, including
Cuchulainn and King Conchobar. The best known work in this cycle is
the "Táin Bó Cuailnge" (The Cattle Raid of Cooley). The time
period of this cycle is roughly the first century A.D.
Fenian Cycle--myths of Finn MacCool and the Fenians, the band of
elite soldiers that protected Ireland. This cycle covers a time
period of about a century and a half beginning with Conn of the
Hundred Battles in 177 A.D.
Historic Cycle--legends associated with historical figures in
Ireland, from Naill of the Nine Hostages to St. Patrick (both 5th
century A.D.), and from St. Columba (d. 597) to Brian Boru, the Irish
high king who drove out the Vikings in 1014.
The Ulster Cycle
In the territories of Celtic northern Ireland,
the ancient provincial capital was Emain Macha. This center today
exists as an actual archeological site, though the stories
surrounding it are mythic and fantastical. For this was the home of
the mythic Conchobar mac Nessa, the mighty king of the Ulster
province, at the time when Eochaid Airem was high king of Ireland at
King Conchobar surrounded himself with a band of hearty
warriors, called the Red Branch Champions. The Red Branch itself was
the name of one of the large houses where Conchobar held court in
Emain Macha. It contained, according to the stories, "nine
compartments of red yew, partitioned by walls of bronze, all grouped
around the king's private chamber, which had a ceiling of silver, and
bronze pillars adorned with gold and carbuncles."
This was the golden age of Celtic Ulster, when no other
province was its match. And holding up the mythic pillars of Ulster
were the Red Branch Champions. Most famous was Cuchulainn, of whom
epics were written. Next in order came his two friends, Laeghaire the
Battle-winner and Conall the Victorious. Fergus was another hero,
though he sometimes fell out of favor with King Conchobar. Sencha was
a wise man among them, Fedlimid their bard, and Cathbad their
druid. Bicriu held the role of a mischievous troublemaker at Emain
Macha; for instance, when he would try to get the heroes at a feast
to argue over the "champion's portion," the best cut of the meat
being served, given to the foremost champion.
Cuchulainn, himself, was of lofty lineage. His father was
the god Lugh, and his mother was Dechtiré, a half-sister of King
Conchobar, and a descendent of the god Angus. Cuchulainn's original
given name was Sedanta, and when he was young, the druid Cathbad
warned him that if he took up arms he would become renowned down
through the ages, but that he would die young. Cuchulainn's reply
was: "Provided that my fame lives, I care not if I be on this earth
but a single day!"
After young Cuchulainn defeated a number of enemy champions,
the women of Ulster all swooned in his presence. The warriors at
Conchobar's court grew jealous, and insisted that a wife be found for
him, lest they lose their women to this young victor. But, Cuchulainn
had eyes for only one lady: Emer, the daughter of Forgall the Wily.
She had eminence throughout Ireland for the six maidenly gifts: the
gift of beauty, the gift of song, the gift of sweet speech, the gift
of needlework, the gift of wisdom, and the gift of chastity.
Forgall said that he would yield his daughter to Cuchulainn
only if he accomplished a feat: to go to the Island of Scathach the
Celtic Amazon and learn warrior-craft from her. This was a dangerous
trip, and Forgall assumed that Cuchulainn would die before
returning. But after much peril he did return, and Cuchulainn drove
his chariot to Forgall's palace, took Emer, and travelled to Emain
Macha where they were married.
Táin Bó Cuailnge
Some say this, "The Cattle Raid of
the foremost work of ancient Irish literature. The story grows from
Queen Medb (Maeve) of Connaught's desire to own the famous Brown Bull
of Cuailnge, to match beside her husband's (King Ailill's) White-
horned Bull of Connaught. The owners of the Brown Bull of Cuailnge,
who in the story live in Ulster, refuse to give the animal up. Queen
Medb goes ballistic, and assembles an army of warriors from the rest
of Ireland to attack Ulster and capture the bull, hence the makings
of a huge cattle-raid.
Medb expects a quick victory because the Red Branch Champions
of Ulster are under a "geasa," a taboo, which in this case results in
the warriors lying in a weak state for a number of days each year.
This geasa was the product of a curse pronounced by a goddess who was
insulted by one of King Conchobar's ancestors in a previous
generation. But, Queen Medb is bothered when a prophetess she
consults forewarns her that in a vision Medb's soldiers all appear
in red and crimson, the color of blood. How can this be, when all the
warriors of Ulster are in a magical stupor?
The answer is that Cuchulainn has been freed of the geasa,
and he alone will face the brigade of Queen Medb's soldiers. At age
17, he has the battle of his life ahead of him. In good honor, single
combats are organized, and in this Cuchulainn slays a hundred of
Medb's soldiers every day. Morrigan, the great war-goddess, watches
this from afar, and love is kindled in her untamed heart. One night,
after a day of victorious battle, Cuchulainn is awakened from sleep
by a fierce shout from the north. He sees a imposing woman with red
eyebrows riding a chariot drawn by a red horse. She wears a red
dress and a red cloak, and carries a gray spear. Morrigan, it is,
and she instantly proclaims her love for him. Cuchulainn spurns her
affections, for which Morrigan then proffers her hatred and enmity.
Vengeance will come, she says, and then shape-shifts into a crow, an
image for him to beware of.
Cuchulainn continues to defeat every soldier of Queen Medb
who comes before him in single combat. But finally, he is forced to
fight and kill his old friend Ferdiad, which brings much heaviness to
Cuchulainn. He proclaims that he can no longer defend all of Ulster
by himself. Cuchulainn's foster-father Sualtam hears this and gallops
to Emain Macha on Cuchulainn's war horse, the Gray of Battle. Sualtam
shouts again and again: "Men are being killed, women carried off, and
cattle lifted in Ulster!" An accident happens while nearing King
Conchobar's palace, and Sualtam is beheaded--yet his severed head
continues to shout: "Men are being killed, women carried off, and
cattle lifted in Ulster!"
This amazing spectacle brings Conchobar and his warriors out
of their slumber, and they rise up to help Cuchulainn, thus soundly
defeating Queen Medb and her forces. However, she briefly captures
the Brown Bull of Cuailnge. The bull encounters the White-horned Bull
of Connaught, and tears it to pieces. The Brown Bull then escapes and
goes back to Ulster, and in its madness, the bull's heart bursts in a
loud bellow. And so ends in an ironic twist the Táin Bó
The Story of Deirdre
Deirdre could easily be considered as a sort
of Gaelic Helen of Troy. When she was born, Cathbad the druid
prophesied that she would become the most beautiful woman ever seen,
but that her beauty would bring death to many champions, and danger
to Ulster. King Conchobar decided that he would keep the infant in
hiding until she grew, and then take her for his own wife. So,
Deirdre for years lived in a mountain hut where her only companions
were the birds and animals. As she grew, she more and more aspired to
be loved, and by a young handsome man.
When she was of age, Deirdre chanced upon a fair-haired young
man named Naoise, the son of Usnach. She offered him her love, and
begged Naoise to take her to a far away land and from the clutches of
King Conchobar. Naoise was bewitched by her beauty, and he and
Deirdre decided to run away to the Island of Alba, to be accompanied
by his brothers Ardan and Ainle. So the three sons of Usnach,
warriors in their own right, broke ties with Ulster and took Deirdre
King Conchobar was furious. He sent his champion Fergus to
Alba to persuade the sons of Usnach to return with Deirdre. Soon they
were back at Emain Macha, and Conchobar housed them at the Red Branch
palace. But vengeance was on his mind. At nighttime, Conchobar
ordered the Red Branch to be burned and all to be killed, but for
Deirdre. Battle ensued, numerous heroes perished, and the three sons
of Usnach were beheaded. Conchobar had no solace, because Deirdre
died soon thereafter.
Many in Ulster were disgusted with how Conchobar had handled
the affair. Fergus left to join forces with Queen Medb in Connaught,
and Cathbad the druid placed a curse that none of Conchobar's
descendants would ever again reign in Emain Macha. Ulster was now in
peril. Would Cuchulainn be ready to defend it if threats arose?
Queen Medb had never forgiven Cuchulainn for her defeat ten
years earlier. She began conferring with the relatives of all those
whom Cuchulainn had slain, and soon she had an army raised to march
on Ulster again. Cuchulainn stood ready for battle. But prophecies
had warned him that his hero's light might be fading, and that death
may soon be near. His battle-fury ire was raised, but a spear
mortally wounded Cuchulainn. Struggling to stand, Cuchulainn tied
himself to a pillar stone, so that he would not die lying down. Thus
at the age of 27 years Cuchulainn died, leaving his face as pale
as "a one-night's snow." A crow came and perched on his shoulder, a
reminder of the vengeance of Morrigan.
It was said that the prosperity of Ulster soon faded after
the loss of the greatest mythic warrior of the Gaels. But there were
still stories to tell, and bards to bring entertainments to Erin.
The Fenian Cycle
The Irish annalists record a succession of four
part-mythic, part-historic high kings of Ireland whose story begins
in 177 A.D. These are 1) Conn of the Hundred Battles, and his
descendants: 2) Art the Lonely, 3) Cormac the Magnificent, and 4)
Cairbré. It is during King Cormac's time that the bulk of the
cycle occurs. Finn MacCool, the leader of the Fenians, was said in
the myths to have died around 283 A.D.
The Fenians, themselves, were the common name for
the "Fianna Eirinn," or the Soldiers of Ireland. They were an elite
fighting force that travelled throughout Ireland defending its
coastline against outside invaders. The Fenians consisted of three
regiments of 3,000 men each, modelled in some ways like a Roman
legion. To become a Fenian, an aspirant needed to pass a series of
stringent tests of physical strength and agility.
Finn, son of Cumhal, became the Fenian leader by virtue of
his wisdom, gained in his youth by eating the salmon of knowledge,
from which he acquired the gifts of foreknowledge and magic counsel.
Finn's son was Ossian, whose bardic tradition is famous in Gaelic
lands, and his grandson was Oscar, perhaps the mightiest of the
Fenians. Other Fenians were Caoilte the Thin Man (known for his
swift-footedness), Goll mac Morna, Finn's nephew Diarmaid, and a
comic character named Conan.
The Story of Diarmaid and Grainne
Diarmaid was incredibly
handsome, and no woman could see him without falling instantly in
love. A problem arose when the Lady Grainne saw him, and of course
became enamored. She was the daughter of King Cormac, and the
betrothed wife of Finn himself. Thus were the makings of an intrigue.
She offered her love to Diarmaid, but he refused it in honor
of Finn. But Grainne placed a "geasa" taboo on Diarmaid, requiring
him to return her love. He became perplexed, and asked other Fenians
what he should do. They told him that a hero should never break a
geasa placed on him by a woman. The same advice was given him by
Finn, when Diarmaid asked without divulging the actual name of the
So Diarmaid and Grainne took flight from Tara and travelled
deep into the woods. Finn found out, became furious, and led a armed
band of soldiers out to capture the lovers. They found Diarmaid and
his mate, but could not capture them for the couple had the help of
the gods. The god Angus gave Grainne a mantle of invisibility, a
cloak that enabled her to escape unseen. The god Manannán gave
Diarmaid two of his magic spears and two of his magic swords, and
with enchanted speed, Diarmaid was able to escape.
The lovers settled again further in a woods beneath a magic
rowan tree. Finn and his troupe again came near, but with the help of
the invisible cloak and speed, Diarmaid and Grainne were again able
to escape. Finally the god Angus came out as an ambassador to Finn,
and settled that the lovers would no longer be harassed.
The Fenians did not last long after the death of Finn
MacCool. It is said in myth, that King Cormac's son Cairbré
disbanded the Fenians in 284 A.D. But stories of the Fenian members Ossian and
Caoilte appear even later, as we shall see in the coming months.
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