Authors: Robert E. Connolly
Cúchulainn was dead. Cúchulainn, the greatest champion of Ireland’s Heroic Age, the most famous of the legendary Red Branch knights was dead, poisoned by the black magic of a scorned and defeated enemy.
“A mere scratch,” the great champion thought as the lance creased his side, but soon the poison, which tipped the spear made its way toward his heart. Shortly after, Cúchulainn felt a weakness he never before experienced and he knew that the end was near. With the last ounces of his once magnificent strength he dragged himself toward a small lake where he bent down and took a sip of the clear cold water. As the water cooled his fevered head, he saw a pillar on the edge of the lake marking the grave of some long fallen hero. The grave marker, chiseled from grey granite, was about five feet in height well worn by the wind and the rain. Cúchulainn dragged himself to the stone pillar and pulled his dying body erect for the last time. He then passed the leather strap from the empty quiver across his back around the pillar where it caught in a crack near the top.
As his body slumped, the leather caught and he defied death one last time. Cúchulainn raised his sword to the heavens. With his last ounce of energy he lifted his head and loudly proclaimed to the cowards that lurked nearby, “You may claim my body but never my spirit. I am Cúchulainn and I will live forever.”
And then, Cúchulainn was dead. His lifeless body stood tied to the pillar while his precious lifeblood flowed into the shallows of the lake. Even his golden red hair hung limp and lifeless while a crow perched on his shoulder waited to pluck his eyes. A safe distance away his murderers stood watch, still fearful that the famous hero might somehow be rescued by his mythical ancestors and wrack terrible vengeance for their cowardly act in poisoning a man they could not defeat. Fortunately for them, vengeance would wait.
Cúchulainn’s last conscious act was to tie himself to that gravestone so that he would die as he had lived, with courage and honor, sword in hand, facing his enemy. Even in death he had one last surprise for the cowardly villains who gloated over their dastardly deed. When Lugaid, one of the murderers, finally moved forward to take the great hero’s head, Cúchulainn’s sword dropped from his hand and cut off Lugaid’s sword welding hand.
Apart from Lugaid’s screams, an unnatural quiet fell over the countryside. The breeze stopped singing through the trees, the birds fell silent and even the insects made no sound. It was as if all of nature was shocked into silence by what had just occurred, a silence, which would only be broken by a country’s mourning the loss of its greatest hero.
In truth, while the word of his death spread quickly, few could actually believe that Cúchulainn’s spirit departed from the world. Cúchulainn was, after all, born to greatness and although his deeds were legendary, he was still a young man. Surely the bards and poets had only just begun to record his noble exploits.
There were even those who said that Cúchulainn was not completely human. The records might show that the mighty hero, who was originally called Setanta, was the son of Sualtim and his wife Dechtire, but those who spoke with whispers and nods told a different story. It seemed that on her wedding night, Dechtire was spirited away by the god Lugh Lámhfáda—Lugh of the Long Hand—to his fairy fortress near the River Boyne. When Dechtire was returned to her husband, she was already with child, and no mere mortal child was he.
While half of his lineage might have been supernatural, the other half was unquestionably regal. The boy’s mother, Dechtire, was the sister of Conchubar, the King of Ulster and daughter of Cathbad, the greatest druid of the times. Through Dechtire's veins also flowed the blood of the legendary Tuatha De Danann, a noble race who had in a previous century departed the land and created a powerful kingdom under the ground where they became immortal. Despite their departure, the Tuatha De Danann occasionally intervened in human matters so that all connections with those in the mortal world were not lost and also to ensure the survival of the human race. And so it was that another god, Dagda, was Dechtire’s great grandfather, and as a result deified blood flowed through Cúchulainn’s veins from both of his parents.
From his early days, Sualtim and Dechtire reared Setanta but the custom among the Celts was that children were fostered to other families. As a result a child would not only have his own family but also foster parents, brothers and sisters creating a strong bond between families. As was customary, Morann, the chief judge and poet of Ulster decreed that when Setanta reached a sensible age, King Conchubar himself would foster the boy because, after all, royal blood flowed through Setanta’s veins. From his earliest days, Setanta had been regaled with tales of the heroism of the king’s champions, the Red Branch Knights. Setanta knew that all of these great heroes began their training in the court of the king and because of this no greater honor could be bestowed on a young boy. And so, Setanta dreamed of the day when he too would commence his training and, perhaps one day, join the noble band of champions, the Knights of the Red Branch.
Setanta was only seven when he decided he was old enough to get on with his training and, taking his bronze hurley and silver ball with him, he set off for his uncle’s court at Emain Macha near the present day city of Armagh. To pass the time, young Setanta flipped the ball in the air and drove it as far as he could and then he raced under it to intercept the ball before it dropped. During the entire journey the ball never once touched the ground.
When Setanta arrived at King Conchubar’s hill fort at Emain Macha, he stopped when he saw a large group of older boys in the midst of a hurling match on a field below the fort. He watched for a moment until he could judge the skill demonstrated by the participants. A short time later, Setanta walked among them and when the ball fell to his feet, he expertly flipped it onto the end of his hurley and balancing the ball on the end of his club, he began a long solo run. Despite the slashes and tackles of both teams, he weaved his way down the field until he smashed the ball into the back of the net. The older boys were not amused and began to attack the little fellow with their hurleys, but Setanta fended them off with his own hurley, Eventually Fergus, one of the king’s champions and a famous Red Branch Knight, rescued the boy and brought him before Conchubar. Setanta was properly introduced to his uncle the king and when Fergus told the story of the solo run and the boy’s courage against the older boys, Conchubar agreed that the time was right for Setanta’s training to begin.
Only a short time later King Conchubar was invited to a feast at Slieve Gallion, the home of Culann, a famous blacksmith well known for making the finest weapons in all of Ulster. As a nephew of the king, Setanta was also invited but he was in the middle of a hurling match and received permission to arrive after the match finished. Conchubar arrived at Culann’s house and when the host asked whether the entire party had arrived, Conchubar forgot all about Setanta, and told Culann that they had. Culann closed the gates and set his great hound loose to protect his guests from anyone who might attack while the party was going strong.
Now the hound of Culann, the fiercest beast in Ireland, was known to have the strength of one hundred men and no one was likely to challenge his fierce jaws. With such protection, Culann’s guests could freely drink the mead he offered, knowing that they would not be called on to defend themselves while they were impaired by alcohol.
Eventually, Setanta arrived at Culann’s house, armed only with his hurley and ball. Just after he passed through the gate, and turned to make sure it was secure, Setanta heard a low growl. Slowly turning around, the young boy was confronted with the most fearsome set of teeth he ever saw.
Thinking quickly, Setanta spoke quietly to the animal, “There’s a fine dog, taking such good care of the house aren’t you…. good doggie, there’s a good doggie.”
The beast was momentarily confused at the boy’s apparent lack of fear and for a time the teeth were no longer visible and the growling stopped. The great hound tilted his head to the right and left, inspecting the small intruder who seemed to have no fear. Hoping for the best, Setanta began to slowly make his way around the hound, but the movement snapped the dog out of his confusion and reminded him of his duty. Soon the growls turned into frenzied barking. The guests heard the hound’s barking and assuming an attack ran out to discover what was happening.