Cúchulainn IPA|/kuːˈxʊlɪnʲ/ (Audio|Cuchulain-audio.ogg|pronunciation) (Irish for "Hound of Culann"; also spelled Cú Chulainn, Cú Chulaind, Cúchulain, or Cuchullain) is an Irish mythological hero who appears in the stories of the Ulster Cycle, as well as in Scottish and Manx folklore. The son of the god Lugh and Deichtine, sister of the king of Ulster, he was originally named Sétanta IPA|/'ʃeːd̪ˠɔn̪ˠd̪ˠə/ , but gained his better-known name as a child after he killed Culann's fierce guard-dog in self-defence, and offered to take its place until a replacement could be reared. At the age of seventeen he defended Ulster single-handedly against the armies of queen Medb of Connacht in the epic "Táin Bó Cúailnge" ("The Cattle Raid of Cooley"). It was prophesied that his great deeds would give him everlasting fame, but that his life would be short – one reason he is compared to the Greek hero Achilles. He is known for his terrifying battle frenzy or "ríastrad", [Literally "the act of contorting, a distortion" ("Dictionary of the Irish Language", Compact Edition, Royal Irish Academy, Dublin, 1990, p. 507)] in which he becomes an unrecognisable monster who knows neither friend nor foe. He fights from his chariot, driven by his loyal charioteer Láeg, and drawn by his horses, Liath Macha and Dub Sainglend.



There are a number of versions of the story of Cúchulainn's birth. In an early version, his mother Deichtine is the daughter and charioteer of Conchobar mac Nessa, king of Ulster, and accompanies him as he and the nobles of Ulster hunt a flock of magical birds. Snow falls, and the Ulstermen seek shelter, finding a house where they are made welcome. Their host's wife goes into labour, and Deichtine assists at the birth of a baby boy. A mare gives birth to two colts at the same time. The next morning, the Ulstermen find themselves at the "Brug na Bóinde" (the neolithic mound at Newgrange) – the house and its occupants have disappeared, but the child and the colts remain. Deichtine takes the boy home and raises him to early childhood, but he falls sick and dies. The god Lugh appears to her and tells her he was their host that night, and that he has put his child in her womb, who is to be called Sétanta. Her pregnancy is a scandal as she is betrothed to Sualtam mac Róich, and the Ulstermen suspect Conchobar of being the father, so she aborts the child and goes to her husband's bed "virgin-whole". She then conceives a son whom she names Sétanta. [A. G. Van Hamel (ed), "Compert Con Culainn and Other Stories", Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies, 1978, pp. 3-8] This has been interpreted as a triple conception, marking the child out as someone special. [Jean Markale, "The Epics of Celtic Ireland: Ancient Tales of Mystery and Magic", 2000, p. 76]

In a later, and better-known, version, Deichtine is Conchobar's sister, and disappears from Emain Macha, the Ulster capital. As in the previous version, the Ulstermen go hunting a flock of magical birds, are overtaken by a snowstorm and seek shelter in a nearby house. Their host is Lugh, but this time his wife, who gives birth to a son that night, is Deichtine herself. The child is named Sétanta. [Tom Peete Cross & Clark Harris Slover (eds), "Ancient Irish Tales", Henry Holt & Company, 1936 (reprinted by Barnes & Noble, 1996), pp. 134-136] The nobles of Ulster argue over which of them is to be his foster-father, until the wise Morann decides he should be fostered by several of them: Conchobar himself; Sencha mac Ailella, who will teach him judgement and eloquent speech; the wealthy Blaí Briugu, who will protect and provide for him; the noble warrior Fergus mac Róich, who will care for him and teach him to protect the weak; the poet Amergin, who will educate him, and his wife Findchóem, who will nurse him. He is brought up in the house of Amergin and Findchóem on Muirthemne Plain in modern County Louth, alongside their son Conall Cernach. [Thomas Kinsella, "The Táin", Oxford University Press, 1969, ISBN 0192810901, pp. 23-25]


The stories of Cúchulainn's childhood are told in a flashback sequence in "Táin Bó Cúailnge". As a small child, living in his parent's house on Muirthemne Plain, he begs to be allowed to join the boy-troop at Emain Macha, but his mother thinks he is too young and should wait for a company of warriors to take him there. However, he sets off on his own, and when he arrives at Emain he runs onto the playing field without first asking for the boys' protection, being unaware of the custom. The boys take this as a challenge and attack him, but he has a "ríastrad" and beats them single-handed. Conchobar puts a stop to the fight and clears up the misunderstanding, but no sooner has Sétanta put himself under the boys' protection than he chases after them, demanding they put themselves under his protection. [Kinsella 1969, pp. 76-78.]

Culann the smith invites Conchobar to a feast at his house. Before going, Conchobar goes to the playing field to watch the boys play hurling. He is so impressed by Sétanta's performance that he asks him to join him at the feast. Sétanta has a game to finish, but promises to follow the king later. But Conchobar forgets, and Culann lets loose his ferocious guard dog to protect his house. When Sétanta arrives, the enormous dog attacks him, but he kills it in self-defence, in one version by smashing it against a standing stone, in another by driving a sliotar (hurling ball) down its throat with his hurley. Culann is devastated by the loss of his dog, so Sétanta promises he will rear him a replacement, and until it is old enough to do the job, he himself will guard Culann's house. The druid Cathbad announces that his name henceforth will be "Cú Chulainn" – "Culann's Hound". [Kinsella 1969, pp. 82-84; Cecile O'Rahilly, "Táin Bó Cúalnge from the Book of Leinster", Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies, 1967, pp. 159-163]

One day at Emain Macha, Cúchulainn overhears Cathbad teaching his pupils. One asks him what that day is auspicious for, and Cathbad replies that any warrior who takes arms that day will have everlasting fame. Cúchulainn, though only seven years old, goes to Conchobar and asks for arms. None of the weapons given to him withstand his strength, until Conchobar gives him his own weapons. But when Cathbad sees this he grieves, because he had not finished his prophesy – the warrior who took arms that day would be famous, but his life would be short. Soon afterwards, in response to a similar prophesy by Cathbad, Cúchulainn demands a chariot from Conchobar, and only the king's own chariot withstands him. He sets off on a foray and kills the three sons of Nechtan Scéne, who had boasted they had killed more Ulstermen than there were Ulstermen still living. He returns to Emain Macha in his battle frenzy, and the Ulstermen are afraid he will slaughter them all. Conchobar's wife Mugain leads out the women of Emain, and they bare their breasts to him. He averts his eyes, and the Ulstermen wrestle him into a barrel of cold water, which explodes from the heat of his body. They put him in a second barrel, which boils, and a third, which warms to a pleasant temperature. [Kinsella 1969, pp. 84-92]

Emer and Cúchulainn's training

In Cúchulainn's youth he is so beautiful the Ulstermen worry that, without a wife of his own, he will steal their wives and ruin their daughters. They search all over Ireland for a suitable wife for him, but he will have none but Emer, daughter of Forgall Monach. However, Forgall is opposed to the match. He suggests that Cúchulainn should train in arms with the renowned warrior-woman Scáthach in the land of Alba (Scotland), hoping the ordeal will be too much for him and he will be killed. Cúchulainn takes up the challenge. In the meantime, Forgall offers Emer to Lugaid mac Nóis, a king of Munster, but when he hears that Emer loves Cúchulainn, Lugaid refuses her hand.

Scáthach teaches Cúchulainn all the arts of war, including the use of the Gáe Bulg, a terrible barbed spear, thrown with the foot, that has to be cut out of its victim. His fellow trainees include Ferdiad, who becomes Cúchulainn's best friend and foster-brother. During his time there, Scáthach faces a battle against Aífe, her rival and in some versions her twin sister. Scáthach, knowing Aífe's prowess, fears for Cúchulainn's life and gives him a powerful sleeping potion to keep him from the battle. However, because of Cúchulainn's great strength, it only puts him to sleep for an hour, and he soon joins the fray. He fights Aífe in single combat, and the two are evenly matched, but Cúchulainn distracts her by calling out that Aífe's horses and chariot, the things she values most in the world, have fallen off a cliff, and seizes her. He spares her life on the condition that she call off her enmity with Scáthach, and bear him a son.

Leaving Aífe pregnant, Cúchulainn returns from Scotland fully trained, but Forgall still refuses to let him marry Emer. Cúchulainn storms Forgall's fortress, killing twenty-four of Forgall's men, abducts Emer and steals Forgall's treasure. Forgall himself falls from the ramparts to his death. Conchobar has the "right of the first night" over all marriages of his subjects. He is afraid of Cúchulainn's reaction if he exercises it in this case, but is equally afraid of losing his authority if he does not. Cathbad suggests a solution: Conchobar sleeps with Emer on the night of the wedding, but Cathbad sleeps between them. [Kinsella 1969, pp. 25-39]

Cúchulainn kills his son

Seven years later, Connla, Cúchulainn's son by Aífe, comes to Ireland in search of his father, but Cúchulainn takes him as an intruder and kills him when he refuses to identify himself. [Kinsella 1969, pp. 39-45] The story of Cúchulainn and Connla shows a striking similarity to the legend of Persian hero Rostam who also kills his son Sohrab. Rostam and Cúchulainn share several other characteristics, including killing a ferocious beast at a very young age, their near invincibility in battle, and the manner of their deaths.

Lugaid and Derbforgaill

During his time abroad, Cúchulainn had rescued Derbforgaill, a Scandinavian princess, from being sacrificed to the Fomorians. She falls in love with him, and she and her handmaid come to Ireland in search of him in the form of a pair of swans. Cúchulainn, not realising who she is, shoots her down with his sling, and then saves her life by sucking the stone from her side. Having tasted her blood, he cannot marry her, and gives her to his foster-son Lugaid Riab nDerg. Lugaid goes on to become High King of Ireland, but the "Lia Fáil" (stone of destiny), fails to cry out when he stands on it, so Cúchulainn splits it in two with his sword. ["Lebor Gabála Érenn" [http://www.maryjones.us/ctexts/lebor4.html#55 §57] ] When Derbforgaill is mutilated by the women of Ulster out of jealousy for her sexual desirability and dies of her wounds, Lugaid dies of grief, and Cúchulainn avenges them by demolishing the house the women are inside, killing 150 of them. [Carl Marstrander (ed. & trans.), "The Deaths of Lugaid and Derbforgaill", "Ériu" 5, 1911, pp. 201-218]

The Cattle Raid of Cooley

At the age of seventeen, Cúchulainn single-handedly defends Ulster from the army of Connacht in the "Táin Bó Cúailnge". Medb, queen of Connacht, has mounted the invasion to steal the stud bull Donn Cúailnge, and Cúchulainn allows her to take Ulster by surprise because he is with a woman when he should be watching the border. The men of Ulster are disabled by a curse, so Cúchulainn prevents Medb's army from advancing further by invoking the right of single combat at fords. He defeats champion after champion in a stand-off lasting months.

Before one combat a beautiful young woman comes to him, claiming to be the daughter of a king, and offers him her love, but he refuses her. The woman reveals herself as the Morrígan, and in revenge for this slight she attacks him in various animal forms while he is engaged in combat against Lóch mac Mofemis. As an eel, she trips him in the ford, but he breaks her ribs. As a wolf, she stampedes cattle across the ford, but he puts out her eye with a sling-stone. Finally she appears as a heifer at the head of the stampede, but he breaks her leg with another slingstone. After Cúchulainn finally defeats Lóch, the Morrígan appears to him as an old woman milking a cow, with the same injuries he had given her in her animal forms. She gives him three drinks of milk, and with each drink he blesses her, healing her wounds.

After one particularly arduous combat Cúchulainn lies severely wounded, but is visited by Lugh, who tells him he is his father and heals his wounds. When Cúchulainn wakes up and sees that the boy-troop of Emain Macha have attacked the Connacht army and been slaughtered, he has his most spectacular "ríastrad" yet:

He attacks the army and kills hundreds, building walls of corpses.

When his foster-father Fergus mac Róich, now in exile in Medb's court, is sent to face him Cúchulainn agrees to yield, so long as Fergus agrees to return the favour the next time they meet. Finally, he fights a gruelling three-day duel with his best friend and foster-brother, Ferdiad, at a ford that was named "Áth Fhir Diadh" (Ardee, County Louth) after him.

The Ulstermen eventually rouse, one by one at first, and finally "en masse". The final battle begins. Cúchulainn stays on the sidelines, recuperating from his wounds, until he sees Fergus advancing. He enters the fray and confronts Fergus, who keeps his side of the bargain and yields to him, pulling his forces off the field. Connacht's other allies panic and Medb is forced to retreat. At this inopportune moment she gets her period, and although Fergus forms a guard around her, Cúchulainn breaks through as she is dealing with it and has her at his mercy. However he spares her because he does not think it right to kill women, and guards her retreat back to Connacht as far as Athlone. [Kinsella 1969, pp. 52-253]

Bricriu's Feast

The troublemaker Bricriu once incites three heroes, Cúchulainn, Conall Cernach and Lóegaire Búadach, to compete for the champion's portion at his feast. In every test that is set Cúchulainn comes out top, but neither Conall nor Lóegaire will accept the result. Cú Roí mac Dáire of Munster settles it by visiting each in the guise of a hideous churl and challenging them to behead him, then allow him to return and behead them in return. Conall and Lóegaire both behead Cú Roí, who picks up his head and leaves, but when the time comes for him to return they flee. Only Cúchulainn is brave and honourable enough to submit himself to Cú Roí's axe; Cú Roí spares him and he is declared champion. [Cross & Slover 1936, pp. 254-280] This beheading challenge appears in later literature, most notably in the Middle English poem "Sir Gawain and the Green Knight". Other examples include the 13th century French "Life of Caradoc" and the English romances "The Turke and Gowin", and "The Carle off Carlile".

The Death of Cú Roí

Cú Roí, again in disguise, joins the Ulstermen on a raid on Inis Fer Falga (probably the Isle of Man), in return for his choice of the spoils. They steal treasure, and abduct Blathnát, daughter of the island's king, who loves Cúchulainn. But when Cú Roí is asked to choose his share, he chooses Blathnát. Cúchulainn tries to stop him taking her, but Cú Roí cuts his hair and drives him into the ground up to his armpits before escaping, taking Blathnát with him. Like other heroes such as the Biblical Samson, Duryodhana in the Mahabharata and the Welsh Llew Llaw Gyffes, Cú Roí can only be killed in certain contrived circumstances, which vary in different versions of the story. Blathnat discovers how to kill him and betrayes him to Cúchulainn, who does the deed. However Ferchertne, Cú Roí's poet, enraged at the betrayal of his lord, grabs Blathnát and leaps off a cliff, killing her and himself. [Cross & Slover 1936, pp. 328-332]

Emer's only jealousy

Cúchulainn has many lovers, but Emer's only jealousy comes when he falls in love with Fand, wife of Manannán mac Lir. Manannán has left her and she has been attacked by three Fomorians who want to control the Irish Sea. Cúchulainn agrees to help defend her as long as she marries him. She agrees reluctantly, but they fall in love when they meet. Manannán knows their relationship is doomed because Cúchulainn is mortal and Fand is a fairy; Cúchulainn's presence would destroy the fairies. Emer, meanwhile, tries to kill her rival, but when she sees the strength of Fand's love for Cúchulainn she decides to give him up to her. Fand, touched by Emer's magnanimity, decides to return to her own husband. Manannan shakes his cloak between Cúchulainn and Fand, ensuring the two will never meet again, and Cúchulainn and Emer drink a potion to wipe the whole affair from their memories. [Cross & Slover 1936, pp. 176-198]

Cúchulainn's death

Medb conspires with Lugaid, son of Cú Roí, Erc, son of Cairbre Nia Fer, and the sons of others Cúchulainn had killed, to draw him out to his death. His fate is sealed by his breaking of the "geasa" (taboos) upon him. Cúchulainn's "geasa" included a ban against eating dog meat, but in early Ireland there was a powerful general taboo against refusing hospitality, so when an old crone offers him a meal of dog meat, he has no choice to break his "geis". In this way he is spiritually weakened for the fight ahead of him.

Lugaid has three magical spears made, and it is prophesied that a king will fall by each of them. With the first he kills Cúchulainn's charioteer Láeg, king of chariot drivers. With the second he kills Cúchulainn's horse, Liath Macha, king of horses. With the third he hits Cúchulainn, mortally wounding him. Cúchulainn ties himself to a standing stone in order to remain standing. This stone is traditionally identified as one still standing at Knockbridge, County Louth.James MacKillop, "Dictionary of Celtic Mythology", Oxford University Press, 1998, p. 104] Only when a raven lands on his shoulder do his enemies believe he is dead. Lugaid cuts off his head, but as he does so Cúchulainn's sword falls from his hand and cuts Lugaid's hand off.

Conall Cernach had sworn that if Cúchulainn died before him he would avenge him before sunset, and when he hears Cúchulainn is dead he pursues Lugaid. As Lugaid has lost a hand, Conall fights him with one hand tucked into his belt, but he only beats him after his horse takes a bite out of Lugaid's side. He also kills Erc, and takes his head back to Tara, where his sister Achall dies of grief for her brother. [Cross & Slover 1936, pp. 333-340]

Later stories

The story is told that when Saint Patrick was trying to convert king Lóegaire to Christianity, the ghost of Cúchulainn appeared in his chariot, warning him of the torments of hell. [Cross & Slover 1936, pp. 347-354]


Cúchulainn's appearance is occasionally remarked on in the texts. He is usually described as small, youthful and beardless. He is often described as dark: in "The Wooing of Emer" and "Bricriu's Feast" he is "a dark, sad man, comeliest of the men of Erin", [Cross & Slover 1936, p. 156, 265] in "The Intoxication of the Ulstermen" he is a "little, black-browed man", [Cross & Slover 1936, p. 227] and in "The Phantom Chariot of Cú Chulainn" " [h] is hair was thick and black, and smooth as though a cow had licked it... in his head his eyes gleamed swift and grey"; [Cross & Slover 1936, p. 348] yet the prophetess Fedelm in the "Táin Bó Cúailnge" describes him as blond. [Kinsella 1969, p. 61] The most elaborate description of his appearance comes later in the "Táin":

Cultural depictions of Cúchulainn


The image of Cúchulainn is invoked by both Irish nationalists and Ulster unionists. Irish nationalists see him as the most important Celtic Irish hero, and thus he is important to their whole culture. A bronze sculpture of the dying Cúchulainn by Oliver Sheppard stands in the Dublin GPO in commemoration of the Easter Rising of 1916. By contrast, unionists see him as an Ulsterman defending the province from enemies to the south: in Belfast, for example, he is depicted in a mural on Highfield Drive, and was formerly depicted in a mural on the Newtownards Road, as a "defender of Ulster from Irish attacks", both murals ironically based on the Sheppard sculpture. [Photographs of the [http://www.irlandaonline.com/idn/murals/lealisti/blfico42g.jpgNewtownards Road mural] and the [http://cain.ulst.ac.uk/mccormick/photos/no667.htm#photo Highfield Drive mural] ] He is also depicted in murals in nationalist parts of the city and many nationalist areas of Northern Ireland. [Photos of murals on [http://cain.ulst.ac.uk/mccormick/photos/no205.htm#photo Ardoyne Avenue] and [http://cain.ulst.ac.uk/mccormick/photos/no361.htm#photo Falcarragh Road] ]

Samuel Beckett once asked a friend to go to the GPO and "measure the height of the ground to Cúchulainn’s arse", as Neary in his novel "Murphy" wished to "engage with the arse of the statue of Cúchulainn, the ancient Irish hero, patron saint of pure ignorance and crass violence, by banging his head against it." [ [http://www.lrb.co.uk/v29/n07/toib01_.html "Colm Tóibín on Beckett’s Irish Actors"] , "London Review of Books" Vol 29 No 7, 5 April 2007] The statue's image was also used on the ten shilling coin produced for 1966.

A statue of Cúchulainn carrying the body of Fer Diad stands in Ardee, County Louth, traditionally the site of their combat in the "Táin Bó Cúailnge". [ [http://www.lookaroundireland.com/louth/ardee.htm Statue of Cuchulainn & Ferdia in Ardee] ]


Augusta, Lady Gregory retold many of the legends of Cúchulainn in her 1902 book "Cuchulain of Muirthemne", which closely paraphrased the originals but glossed over some of the more extreme content. "Cuchulain of Muirthemne" featured an introduction by William Butler Yeats, who wrote several pieces based on the legend, including the plays "On Baile's Strand" (1904), "The Green Helmet" (1910), "At the Hawk's Well" (1917), "The Only Jealousy of Emer" (1919) and "The Death of Cuchulain" (1939), and a poem, "Cuchulain's Fight with the Sea" (1892). Modern novels which retell Cúchulainn's story include Morgan Llywelyn's 1989 historical novel "Red Branch", Randy Lee Eickhoff's series of adaptations, and Manfred Böckl's German language novel, "Der Hund des Culann".

In comics, Cuchulain, the Irish Wolfhound, has appeared in Marvel Comics' "Guardians of the Galaxy", [ [http://www.marvunapp.com/Appendix/cuchulai.htm Cuchulain] at The Appendix to the Handbook of the Marvel Universe] and "2000 AD"'s Celtic barbarian hero "Sláine" is partly based on Cúchulainn. His body-distorting battle-frenzy is called the "warp spasm", the term Thomas Kinsella used to translate Cúchulainn's "ríastrad".


Cú Chulainn's name is popular in Gaelic games. A number of G.A.A. clubs are named after him, including Dunloy Cúchullains in County Antrim, [ [http://ulster.gaa.ie/antrim%20clubs/dunloy.html Dunloy Cuchullains page at Ulster GAA Council website] ] Cúchulainn G.A.A Hurling club [ [http://www.cuchulainns-armagh.com/ Cúchulainn G.A.A Hurling club County Armagh official website] ] and Mullaghbawn Cúchulainn G.A.A club in County Armagh, [ [http://mullaghbawn.armagh.gaa.ie/ Mullaghbawn Cúchulainn G.A.A club County Armagh official website] ] and Cúchulainn Gaels in Omeath, County Louth. [ [http://www.omeath.ie/cuchulainn_gaels_gac.htm Cúchulainn Gaels of Omeath,Co.Louths official website] ] Cuchulainn is also the name of a brand of Gaelic sportswear. [ [http://www.inspiresportireland.ie/Cuchulainn.html Cúchulainn G.A.A branded sportswear website] ] Setanta Sports is the name an Irish broadcasting company specialising in sport, broadcasting in Ireland, U.K, U.S.A and Australia.

Other cultural references

In Scouting Ireland, the highest adult award is the Order of CúChulainn. It consists of an award ribbon and a hound pendant.


External links

Texts in translation

* [http://www.maryjones.us/ctexts/cuchulain1.html The Birth of Cú Chulainn]
* [http://www.maryjones.us/ctexts/conchobar2.html Tidings of Conchobar son of Ness]
* [http://www.maryjones.us/ctexts/cuchulain2.html The Boyhood Deeds of Cú Chulainn]
* [http://www.ucc.ie/celt/published/T301021/ The Wooing of Emer]
* [http://www.maryjones.us/ctexts/aoife.html The Death of Aífe's Only Son]
* [http://www.maryjones.us/ctexts/regamna.html The Cattle Raid of Regamna]
* [http://www.ncf.carleton.ca/~dc920/bricriu.html Bricriu's Feast]
*The Cattle Raid of Cooley: [http://www.ucc.ie/celt/published/T301012/index.html Recension 1] , [http://www.ucc.ie/celt/published/T301035/index.html Recension 2]
* [http://www.maryjones.us/ctexts/curoi.html The Death of Cú Roí]
* [http://www.luminarium.org/mythology/ireland/cuchulainnsick.htm The Sick-Bed of Cuchulain]
* [http://www.maryjones.us/ctexts/gruaidh.html The Pursuit of Gruaidh Ghriansholus]
* [http://www.maryjones.us/ctexts/cuchulain3.html The Death of Cú Chulainn]
* [http://www.maryjones.us/ctexts/cuchulain4.html The Phantom Chariot of Cú Chulainn]

Modern retellings

* [http://www.celtic-twilight.com/ireland/gregory/cuchulain/index.htm Cuchulain of Muirthemne] , by Lady Gregory
* [http://www.mainlesson.com/display.php?author=hull&book=cuchulain&story=_contents The Boys' Cúchullain] by Eleanor Hull (1904) at The Baldwin Project

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