The mythology of pre-Christian Ireland did not entirely survive the conversion to Christianity. However, much of it was preserved in medieval Irish literature, though it was shorn of its religious meanings. This literature represents the most extensive and best preserved of all the branches of Celtic mythology. Although many of the manuscripts have not survived and much more material was probably never committed to writing, there is enough remaining to enable the identification of distinct, if overlapping, cycles: the Mythological Cycle, the Ulster Cycle, the Fenian Cycle and the Historical Cycle. There are also a number of extant mythological texts that do not fit into any of the cycles. Additionally, there are a large number of recorded folk tales that, while not strictly mythological, feature personages from one or more of these four cycles. (Wikipedia)
Four Great Cycles
The Mythological Cycle
The Mythological Cycle, comprising stories of the ancient gods and origins of the Irish. The most important sources are the Metrical Dindshenchas (Lore of Places) and the Lebor Gabála Érenn (Book of Invasions). Other manuscripts preserve such mythological tales include The Dream of Aengus, The Wooing Of Étain and Cath Maige Tuireadh (The (second) Battle of Magh Tuireadh). Two of the best known of all Irish stories, Oidheadh Chloinne Tuireann (The Fate of the Children of Tuireann) and Oidheadh Clainne Lir (The Tragedy of the Children of Lir), are also part of this cycle.
Lebor Gabála Érenn (Book of Invasions) is a pseudo-history of Ireland, tracing the ancestry of the Irish back to before Noah. It tells of a series of invasions or "takings" of Ireland by a succession of peoples, the fifth of whom was the people known as the Tuatha Dé Danann ("Peoples of the Goddess Danu"), who were believed to have inhabited the island before the arrival of the Gaels (or Milesians, the ancestors of mortal Irish people). They faced opposition from their enemies, the Fomorians, led by Balor of the Evil Eye. Balor was eventually slain by Lug Lámfada (Lug of the Long Arm) at the second battle of Magh Tuireadh. With the arrival of the Gaels, the Tuatha Dé Danann retired underground to become the fairy people of later myth and legend.
The Metrical Dindshenchas (Lore of Places) is the great onomastic work of early Ireland, giving the naming legends of significant places in a sequence of poems. It includes a lot of important information on Mythological Cycle figures and stories, including the Battle of Tailtiu, in which the Tuatha Dé Danann were defeated by the Milesians.
The late version of Oidheadh Chloinne Tuireann (The Fate of the Children of Tuireann) tells how Lugh fines the sons of Tuireann for his father Cian's murder, compelling them to collect a series of magical objects and weapons which will be useful in the second battle of Mag Tuired against the Fomorians. An earlier version of this is recorded in the Lebor Gabála Érenn (Book of Invasions) , with a somewhat different list of fines (eiric), with no indication the murder happened on the eve of the great battle.
Read "The Fate of the Sons of Tuireann" - One of The Three Sorrows of Storytelling (Tri Truaighe Scéalaigheachta).
In the Oidheadh Chloinne Lir ("The Fate of the Children of Lir"), the eponymous children are turned into swans by their jealous stepmother, and live in swan form into Christian times, when they are converted, transformed back into human form, and die of extreme old age.
Read The Children of Lêr .
Tochmarc Étaíne (The Wooing of Étaín) tells first of the conception of Aengus through the adultery of the Dagda and Boann, and how Aengus won the residence of the Brú na Bóinne from Boann's husband Elcmar. It goes on to tell of the various lives of Étaín, wife of Midir, who is turned into a fly and driven away by Midir's jealous first wife Fuamnach. She becomes the companion of Aengus in insect form before Fuamnach once again drives her away, and she is swallowed by a mortal woman and reborn as her daughter. Her beauty attracts the attention of the High King, Eochaid Airem, who marries her, but ultimately Midir wins her back by magic and trickery.
Read The Wooing of Étaín .
There is also a curious account regarding Goídel Glas, the legendary ancestor of the migratory races and eponymous creator of the Gaelic language, and how he was cured by Moses's rod from a snake bite, related to in the Lebor Gabála Érenn (Book of Invasions), although Macalister is dimissive of it as fiction invented by glossators.
It is important to note that by the Middle Ages the Tuatha Dé Danann were not viewed so much as gods as the shape-shifting magician population of an earlier Golden Age Ireland. Texts such as Lebor Gabála Érenn (Book of Invasions) and Cath Maige Tuireadh (The (second) Battle of Magh Tuireadh) present them as kings and heroes of the distant past, complete with death-tales. However there is considerable evidence, both in the texts and from the wider Celtic world, that they were once considered deities.
Read The Battle of Magh Tuireadh .
Even after they are displaced as the rulers of Ireland, characters such as Lug (Lugh), the Mórrígan, Aengus and Manannan appear in stories set centuries later, betraying their immortality. A poem in the Book of Leinster lists many of the Tuatha Dé, but ends "Although [the author] enumerates them, he does not worship them". Goibniu, Creidhne and Luchta are referred to as Trí Dé Dána ("three gods of craftsmanship"), and the Dagda's name is interpreted in medieval texts as "the good god". Nuada is cognate with the British god Nodens; Lug is a reflex of the pan-Celtic deity Lugus, the name of whom may indicate "Light"; Tuireann may be related to the Gaulish Taranis; Ogma to Ogmios; the Badb to Catubodua. (Wikipedia)
The Ulster Cycle
The Ulster Cycle (Irish: an Rúraíocht), formerly known as the Red Branch Cycle, one of the four great cycles of Irish mythology, is a body of medieval Irish heroic legends and sagas of the traditional heroes of the Ulaid in what is now eastern Ulster and northern Leinster, particularly counties Armagh, Down and Louth.
The Ulster Cycle is traditionally set around the first century CE, and most of the action takes place in the provinces of Ulster and Connacht. It consists of a group of heroic tales dealing with the lives of Conchobar mac Nessa (the king of Ulster), the great hero Cú Chulainn (the son of Lugh), and of their friends, lovers, and enemies.These are the Ulaid, or people of the North-Eastern corner of Ireland and the action of the stories centres round the royal court at Emain Macha (known in English as Navan Fort), close to the modern town of Armagh. The Ulaid had close links with the Irish colony in Scotland, and part of Cú Chulainn's training takes place in that colony.
The cycle consists of stories of the births, early lives and training, wooings, battles, feastings, and deaths of the heroes and reflects a warrior society in which warfare consists mainly of single combats and wealth is measured mainly in cattle. These stories are written mainly in prose. The centrepiece of the Ulster Cycle is the Táin Bó Cúailnge ("Cattle Raid of Cooley"). Other important Ulster Cycle tales include The Tragic Death of Aife's only Son, Bricriu's Feast, and The Destruction of Da Derga's Hostel. The Exile of the Sons of Usnach, better known as the tragedy of Deirdre and the source of plays by John Millington Synge, William Butler Yeats, and Vincent Woods, is also part of this cycle.
Deirdre is the foremost tragic heroine in "The Exile of the Sons of Usnach". She is often called "Deirdre of the Sorrows." Her story is part of the Ulster Cycle, the best-known stories of pre-Christian Ireland.
Read the details of the story: Deirdre and The Fate of the Sons of Usnech
This cycle is, in some respects, close to the mythological cycle. Some of the characters from the latter reappear, and the same sort of shape-shifting magic is much in evidence, side by side with a grim, almost callous realism. While we may suspect a few characters, such as Medb or Cú Roí, of once being deities, and Cú Chulainn in particular displays superhuman prowess, the characters are mortal and associated with a specific time and place. If the Mythological Cycle represents a Golden Age, the Ulster Cycle is Ireland's Heroic Age.(Wikipedia)
The Ulster Cycle stories are set in and around the reign of King Conchobar mac Nessa, who rules the Ulaid from Emain Macha (now Navan Fort near Armagh). The most prominent hero of the cycle is Conchobar's nephew, Cú Chulainn. The Ulaid are most often in conflict with the Connachta, led by their queen, Medb, her husband, Ailill, and their ally Fergus mac Róich, a former king of the Ulaid in exile. The longest and most important story of the cycle is the Táin Bó Cúailnge ("Cattle Raid of Cooley"), in which Medb raises an enormous army to invade the Cooley peninsula and steal the Ulaid's prize bull, Donn Cúailnge, opposed only by the seventeen-year-old Cú Chulainn. In the Mayo Táin, the Táin Bó Flidhais it is a white cow known as the 'Maol' that is the object of desire, for she can give enough milk at one milking to feed an army. Perhaps the best known story is the tragedy of Deirdre, source of plays by W. B. Yeats and J. M. Synge. Other stories tell of the births, courtships and deaths of the characters and of the conflicts between them.
The stories are written in Old and Middle Irish, mostly in prose, interspersed with occasional verse passages. They are preserved in manuscripts of the 12th to 15th centuries, but in many cases are much older: the language of the earliest stories is dateable to the 8th century, and events and characters are referred to in poems dating to the 7th. The tone is terse, violent, sometimes comic, and mostly realistic, although supernatural elements intrude from time to time. Cú Chulainn in particular has superhuman fighting skills, the result of his semi-divine ancestry, and when particularly aroused his battle frenzy or ríastrad transforms him into an unrecognisable monster who knows neither friend nor foe. Evident deities like Lugh, the Morrígan, Aengus and Midir also make occasional appearances.
Unlike the majority of early Irish historical tradition, which presents ancient Ireland as largely united under a succession of High Kings, the stories of the Ulster Cycle depict a country with no effective central authority, divided into local and provincial kingdoms often at war with each other. The civilisation depicted is a pagan, pastoral one ruled by a warrior aristocracy. Bonds between aristocratic families are cemented by fosterage of each other's children. Wealth is reckoned in cattle. Warfare mainly takes the form of cattle raids, or single combats between champions at fords. The characters' actions are sometimes restricted by religious taboos known as geasa.
The events of the cycle are traditionally supposed to take place around the time of Christ. The stories of Conchobar's birth and death are synchronised with the birth and death of Christ, and the Lebor Gabála Érenn (Book of Invasions) dates the Táin Bó Cúailnge and the birth and death of Cú Chulainn to the reign of the High King Conaire Mor, who it says was a contemporary of the Roman emperor Augustus (27 BC — AD 14). However, some stories, including the Táin Bó Cúailnge, refer to Cairbre Nia Fer as the king of Tara, implying that no High King is in place at the time.
Some scholars of the 19th and early 20th centuries, such as Eugene O'Curry and Kuno Meyer, believed that the stories and characters of the Ulster Cycle were essentially historical; T. F. O'Rahilly was inclined to believe the stories were entirely mythical and the characters euhemerised gods; and Ernst Windisch thought that the cycle, while largely imaginary, contains little genuine myth. Elements of the tales are reminiscent of classical descriptions of Celtic societies in Gaul, Galatia and Britain. Warriors fight with swords, spears and shields, and ride in two-horse chariots, driven by skilled charioteers drawn from the lower classes. They take and preserve the heads of slain enemies, and boast of their valour at feasts, with the bravest awarded the curadmír or "champion's portion", the choicest cut of meat. Kings are advised by druids (Old Irish druí, plural druíd), and poets have great power and privilege. These elements led scholars such as Kenneth H. Jackson to conclude that the stories of the Ulster Cycle preserved authentic Celtic traditions from the pre-Christian Iron Age. Other scholars have challenged that conclusion, stressing similarities with early medieval Irish society and the influence of classical literature, but it is likely that the stories do contain genuinely ancient material.
It is probable the oldest strata of tales are those involving the complex relationship between the Ulaid and the Érainn, represented in the Ulster Cycle by Cú Roí and the Clanna Dedad, and later by Conaire Mór. It was observed a century ago by Eoin MacNeill and other scholars that the historical Ulaid, as represented by the Dál Fiatach, were apparently related to the Clanna Dedad. T. F. O'Rahilly later concluded that the Ulaid were in fact a branch of the Érainn. Perhaps most notably a number of the Érainn appear to have been powerful Kings of Tara, with a secondary base of power at the now lost Temair Luachra "Tara of the Rushes" in West Munster, where some action in the Ulster Cycle takes place and may even have been transplanted from the midland Tara. Additionally it may be noteworthy that the several small cycles of tales involving the early dominance of the Érainn in Ireland generally predate the majority of the Ulster Cycle tales in content, if not in their final forms, and are believed to be of a substantially more pre-Christian character. Several of these do not even mention the famous characters from the Ulster Cycle, and those that do may have been slightly reworked after its later expansion with the Táin Bó Cúailnge and rise in popularity. (Wikipedia)
The Fenian Cycle
The Fenian Cycle (/ˈfiːniən/; Irish: an Fhiannaíocht), also referred to as the Ossianic Cycle /ˌɒʃiˈænɪk/ after its narrator Oisín, is a body of prose and verse centring on the exploits of the mythical hero Fionn mac Cumhaill and his warriors the Fianna. It is one of the four major cycles of Irish mythology along with the Mythological Cycle, the Ulster Cycle, and the Historical Cycle. Put in chronological order, the Fenian cycle is the third cycle, between the Ulster and Historical cycles. The cycle also contains stories about other famous Fianna members, including Diarmuid, Caílte, Oisín's son Oscar, and Fionn's enemy, Goll mac Morna.
Like the Ulster Cycle, the Fenian Cycle is concerned with the deeds of Irish heroes. The stories of the Fenian Cycle appear to be set around the 3rd century and mainly in the provinces of Leinster and Munster. They differ from the other cycles in the strength of their links with the Irish-speaking community in Scotland and there are many extant Fenian texts from that country. They also differ from the Ulster Cycle in that the stories are told mainly in verse and that in tone they are nearer to the tradition of romance than the tradition of epic. The stories concern the doings of Fionn mac Cumhaill and his band of soldiers, the Fianna.
The single most important source for the Fenian Cycle is the Acallam na Senórach (Colloquy of the Old Men), which is found in two 15th-century manuscripts, the Book of Lismore and Laud 610, as well as a 17th-century manuscript from Killiney, County Dublin. The text is dated from linguistic evidence to the 12th century. The text records conversations between Caílte mac Rónáin and Oisín, the last surviving members of the Fianna, and Saint Patrick, and consists of about 8,000 lines. The late dates of the manuscripts may reflect a longer oral tradition for the Fenian stories. (Wikipedia)
Fenian cycle, also called Fionn cycle or Ossianic cycle, in Irish literature, tales and ballads centring on the deeds of the legendary Finn MacCumhaill (MacCool) and his war band, the Fianna Éireann. An elite volunteer corps of warriors and huntsmen, skilled in poetry, the Fianna flourished under the reign of Cormac mac Airt in the 3rd century ad. The long-established Fenian lore attained greatest popularity about 1200, when the cycle’s outstanding story, The Interrogation of the Old Men, was written down. Other earlier tales were recorded in manuscripts such as The Book of the Dun Cow (c. 1100) and The Book of Leinster (c. 1160). The Fenian cycle remains a vital part of Irish folklore and contains many of the best-loved folk tales of the country.
An early tale, The Boyish Exploits of Finn (Macgnímartha Finn), tells how, after Cumhaill (Cool), chief of the Fianna, is killed, his posthumous son is reared secretly in a forest and earns the name Finn (“The Fair”) by his exploits. He grows up to triumph over his father’s slayer, Goll MacMorna, to become head of the Fianna, which later includes his son Oisín (Ossian), the poet, his grandson Oscar, the handsome Diarmaid (Dermot), and his former clan enemy Goll MacMorna. According to legend, Finn was a descendant of the Druids. He was wise and sensitive to nature and became a popular hero as a kingly figure in the 7th century. The other tales deal with the group’s rise and fall. Its disintegration begins when Diarmaid elopes with Gráinne (Grace), a king’s daughter whom Finn, as an old man, wishes to marry. Later, when Diarmaid is wounded, Finn lets him die for lack of water. The king and people finally turn against the overbearing Fianna, a conflict that culminates in the Battle of Gabhra, in which the Fianna is destroyed. Oscar is killed in battle; Oisín survives but is lured away by a fairy princess to Tír na nÓg (the “Land of Youth”). Related to the Fenian sagas is a series of tales concerning Cormac mac Airt, his grandfather Conn of the Hundred Battles, and his son Cairbré of the Liffey. (Encyclopedia Britannica)
The Historical Cycle
The Cycles of the Kings, also known as the Kings' Cycles or the Historical Cycle are a body of Old and Middle Irish literature. They contain stories of the legendary kings of Ireland, for example Cormac mac Airt, Niall of the Nine Hostages, Éogan Mór, Conall Corc, Guaire Aidne mac Colmáin, Diarmait mac Cerbaill, Lugaid mac Con, Conn of the Hundred Battles, Lóegaire mac Néill, Crimthann mac Fidaig, and Brian Bóruma.
It was part of the duty of the medieval Irish bards, or court poets, to record the history of the family and the genealogy of the king they served. This they did in poems that blended the mythological and the historical to a greater or lesser degree. The resulting stories form what has come to be known as the Historical Cycle, or more correctly Cycles, as there are a number of independent groupings.
The kings that are included range from the almost entirely mythological Labraid Loingsech, who allegedly became High King of Ireland around 431 BC, to the entirely historical Brian Boru. However, the greatest glory of the Historical Cycle is the Buile Shuibhne (The Frenzy of Sweeney), a 12th-century tale told in verse and prose.
Suibhne, king of Dál nAraidi, was cursed by St Ronan and became a kind of half-man, half bird, condemned to live out his life in the woods, fleeing from his human companions. The story has captured the imaginations of contemporary Irish poets and has been translated by Trevor Joyce and Seamus Heaney.(Wikipedia)
One of four major cycles of Old and Middle Irish literature, known to some commentators as the Historical Cycle; it is distinguished from the other three by its focus on provincial and lesser kings, both legendary and historical, from the 3rd to the 7th centuries. The cycle is concerned not only with kings but also with kingship. Critical commentators have found the cycle to be less magical than the Mythological, less heroic than the Ulster, and less romantic than the Fenian. The phrase ‘Cycle of the Kings’ was coined by Myles Dillon, The Cycles of the Kings (Oxford, 1946), who allowed that there was more than one such cycle. Alan Bruford coined the phrase Dalcassian Cycle in 1969 to refer to the stories of the 10th-century Brian Bórama (Boru) and his family, which are so extensive and particular as to be separated from the rest.
Important personages mentioned in narratives of the Cycle of the Kings are Baile and his lover Ailinn, Becfola, Cano (d. 688), Conaire Mór, Conn Cétchathach [of the Hundred Battles], Cormac mac Airt (who also figures in the Fenian Cycle), Domnall the son of Áed, Fergus mac Léti, Labraid Loingsech, Lugaid mac Con, Mongán, Muirchertach mac Erca, Niall Noígiallach [of the Nine Hostages], and Rónán (1). Important narratives in the Cycle of the Kings include: Buile Shuibhne [The Frenzy of Sweeney]; Cath Maige Mucrama [The Battle of Mag Mucrama]; Echtra Maic nEchach Muigmedóin [The Adventure of the Sons of Eochaid Mugmedón]; Echtrae Airt meic Cuinn [The Adventure of Art Son of Conn]; Echtrae Conli [The Adventure of Connla]; Esnada Tige Buchet [The Melodies of Buchet's House]; Fingal Rónáin [How Rónán Slew His Son]; Orgain Denna Ríg [The Destruction of Dind Ríg]. (Oxford Reference)
The Cycle of the Kings is the less-defined "fourth" cycle in early Irish literature. It consists of two groups: the tales surrounding King Cormac mac Airt and his ancestors; and the tales of other semi-legendary kings, including those surrounding Niall of the Nine Hostages, the first arguably historical ard righ of Ireland.
Historically, the stories cover a time period from about the year 200 AD to the time of Saint Patrick--roughly 475 AD or so. This is a time of transition in Irish history, moving away from the native Celtic religion towards the introduction of Christianity. We see this in the ways that the gods have fewer and fewer dealings with men; the king who recieves the most attention of the Tuatha de Dannan is Cormac mac Airt, the Arthur-like king who restored Temhair to glory and who was the employer of Fionn mac Cumhaill and his Fianna.
Otherwise, what we see are tales of revenge and murder, but mostly without the supernatural elements of the earlier cycles. (Jone's Celtic Encyclopedia)
Lugh or Lug (/luɣ/; modern Irish: Lú /lu:/) is an Irish deity represented in mythological texts as a hero and High King of the distant past. He is known by the epithets Lámhfhada (meaning "long arm" or "long hand"), for his skill with a spear or sling, Ildánach ("skilled in many arts"), Samhildánach ("Equally skilled in many arts"), Lonnbeimnech ("fierce striker" or perhaps "sword-shouter") and Macnia ("boy hero"), and by the matronymic mac Ethlenn or mac Ethnenn ("son of Ethliu or Ethniu"). He is a reflex of the pan-Celtic god Lugus, and his Welsh counterpart is Lleu Llaw Gyffes, "The Bright One with the Strong HMac Cecht and Mac Gréine, killed Lugh in return, drowning him in Loch Lugborta. He had ruled for forty years.
The god appearing most frequently in the Celtic tales is Lugh. He is evidently a residual of the earlier, more widespread god Lugus, whose diffusion in Celtic religion is apparent from the number of place names in which his name appears, occurring across the Celtic world. The most famous of these are the cities of Lugdunum (the modern French city of Lyon), Lugdunum Batavorum (Brittenburg, 10 kilometers west of Leiden in the Netherlands) and Lucus Augusti (Greek: Λοuκος Λuγούστον, the modern Galician city of Lugo). Lug is described in the Celtic myths as the last to be added to the list of deities. In Ireland a festival called the Lughnasadh (Irish: Lúnasa "August") was held in his honour.
Birth - Lugh's father is Cian of the Tuatha Dé Danann, and his mother is Ethniu, daughter of Balor, of the Fomorians. In Cath Maige Tuired (The (second) Battle of Magh Tuireadh). their union is a dynastic marriage following an alliance between the Tuatha Dé and the Fomorians. In the Lebor Gabála Érenn (Book of Invasions) Cian gives the boy to Tailtiu, queen of the Fir Bolg, in fosterage.
A folktale told to John O'Donovan by Shane O'Dugan of Tory Island in 1835 recounts the birth of a grandson of Balor who grows up to kill his grandfather. The grandson is unnamed, his father is called Mac Cinnfhaelaidh and the manner of his killing of Balor is different, but it has been taken as a version of the birth of Lugh, and was adapted as such by Lady Gregory. In this tale, Balor hears a druid's prophecy that he will be killed by his own grandson. To prevent this he imprisons his only daughter in the Tór Mór (great tower) of Tory Island, cared for by twelve women, who are to prevent her ever meeting or even learning of the existence of men. On the mainland, Mac Cinnfhaelaidh owns a magic cow who gives such abundant milk that everyone, including Balor, wants to possess her. While the cow is in the care of Mac Cinnfhaelaidh's brother Mac Samthainn, Balor appears in the form of a little red-haired boy and tricks him into giving him the cow. Looking for revenge, Mac Cinnfhaelaidh calls on a leanan sídhe (fairy woman) called Biróg, who transports him by magic to the top of Balor's tower, where he seduces Eithne. In time she gives birth to triplets, which Balor gathers up in a sheet and sends to be drowned in a whirlpool. The messenger drowns two of the babies, but unwittingly drops one child into the harbour, where he is rescued by Biróg. She takes him to his father, who gives him to his brother, Gavida the smith, in fosterage.
Lugh joins the Tuatha Dé Danann - As a young man Lugh travels to Tara to join the court of king Nuada of the Tuatha Dé Danann. The doorkeeper will not let him in unless he has a skill with which to serve the king. He offers his services as a wright, a smith, a champion, a swordsman, a harpist, a hero, a poet and historian, a sorcerer, and a craftsman, but each time is rejected as the Tuatha Dé Danann already have someone with that skill. But when Lugh asks if they have anyone with all those skills simultaneously, the doorkeeper has to admit defeat, and Lugh joins the court and is appointed Chief Ollam of Ireland. He wins a flagstone-throwing contest against Ogma, the champion, and entertains the court with his harp. The Tuatha Dé Danann are at that time oppressed by the Fomorians, and Lugh is amazed how meekly they accept this. Nuada wonders if this young man could lead them to freedom. Lugh is given command over the Tuatha Dé Danann, and he begins making preparations for war.
The sons of Tuireann - When the sons of Tuireann: Brian, Iuchar and Iucharba kill Lugh's father, Cian (who was in the form of a pig at the time), Lugh sets them a series of seemingly impossible quests as recompense. They achieve them all but are fatally wounded in completing the last one. Despite Tuireann's pleas, Lugh denies them the use of one of the items they have retrieved, a magic pigskin which heals all wounds. They die of their wounds and Tuireann dies of grief over their bodies.
The Battle of Magh Tuireadh - Using the magic artifacts the sons of Tuireann have gathered, Lugh leads the Tuatha Dé Danann in the Second Battle of Mag Tuireadh against the Fomorians. Nuada is killed in the battle by Balor. Lugh faces Balor, who opens his terrible, poisonous eye that kills all it looks upon, but Lugh shoots a sling-stone that drives his eye out the back of his head, wreaking havoc on the Fomorian army behind. After the victory Lugh finds Bres, the half-Fomorian former king of the Tuatha Dé Danann, alone and unprotected on the battlefield, and Bres begs for his life. If he is spared, he promises, he will ensure that the cows of Ireland always give milk. The Tuatha Dé Danann refuse the offer. He then promises four harvests a year, but the Tuatha Dé Danann say one harvest a year suits them. But Lugh spares his life on the condition that he teach the Tuatha Dé Danann how and when to plough, sow and reap.
According to a poem of the dindsenchas, Lugh was responsible for the death of Bres. He made 300 wooden cows, and filled them with a bitter, poisonous red liquid which was then "milked" into pails and offered to Bres to drink. Bres, who was under an obligation not to refuse hospitality, drank it down without flinching, and it killed him.
Later life and death - Lugh instituted an event similar to the Olympic games called the Assembly of Talti which finished on Lughnasadh (1 August) in memory of his foster-mother, Tailtiu, at the town that bears her name (now Teltown, County Meath). He likewise instituted Lughnasadh fairs in the areas of Carman and Naas in honour of Carman and Nás, the eponymous tutelary goddess of these two regions. Horse races and displays of martial arts were important activities at all three fairs. However, Lughnasadh itself is a celebration of Lugh's triumph over the spirits of the Other World who had tried to keep the harvest for themselves. It survived long into Christian times and is still celebrated under a variety of names. Lúnasa is now the Irish name for the month of August.
Lugh is said to have invented the board game fidchell. He had a dog called Failinis.
He had several wives, including Buí and Nás, daughters of Ruadri, king of Britain. Buí lived and was buried at Knowth. Nás was buried at Naas, County Kildare, which is named after her. Lugh had a son, Ibic, by Nás. His daughter or sister was Ebliu, who married Fintan. One of his wives, unnamed, had an affair with Cermait, son of the Dagda. Lugh killed him in revenge, but Cermait's sons, Mac Cuill, Mac Cecht and Mac Gréine, killed Lugh in return, drowning him in Loch Lugborta. He had ruled for forty years.
Lugh in other cycles and traditions - In the Ulster Cycle he fathered Cúchulainn with the mortal maiden Deichtine. When Cúchulainn lay wounded after a gruelling series of combats during the Táin Bó Cuailnge ("Cattle Raid of Cooley"), Lugh appeared and healed his wounds over a period of three days.
In Baile in Scáil ("The Phantom's Trance"), a story of the Historical Cycle, Lugh appeared in a vision to Conn of the Hundred Battles. Enthroned on a daïs, he directed a beautiful woman called the Sovereignty of Ireland to serve Conn a portion of meat and a cup of red ale, ritually confirming his right to rule and the dynasty that would follow him.
In the Fenian Cycle the dwarf harper Cnú Deireóil claimed to be Lugh's son.
The Luigne, a people who inhabited Counties Meath and Sligo, claimed descent from him.
The Dagda was the god of the earth. He had a cauldron called Undry in which everyone found food in proportion to his merits and from which none went away unsatisfied. He also had a living harp. As he played upon it, the three seasons came in their order: Winter to spring to summer. He is represented as a venerable aspect and of simple mind and tastes, very fond of porridge and a valiant consumer of it. In an ancient tale we have a description of his dress: He wore a brown low-necked tunic which only reached down to his hips and over this a hooded cape which barely covered his shoulders. On his feet and legs were horse-hide boots, the hairy side outwards. He carried, or rather drew after him on a wheel an eight pronged war club so huge that eight men would have been needed to carry it and the wheel, as he towed the whole weapon along made a track like a territorial boundary. (Celtic Myths and Legends, Charles Squire 1912)
Dagda is often represented as a rather comic figure whose short tunic fails to cover his buttocks, and whose huge club has to be carried on wheels. He has great magical powers, and he possesses a harp which comes to him when he calls, and a cauldron of abundance which restores dead warriors to life (but without powers of speech, perhaps in case they say too much about the afterlife). (Sources: www.livingmyths.com )
The Dagda (modern spelling: Daghdha, likely from Proto-Celtic: Dagodeiwos, "the good god") is an important god of Irish mythology. The Dagda is a father-figure and a protector of the tribe. In some texts his father is Elatha, in others his mother is Ethniu. Other texts say that his mother is Danu; while others yet place him as the father of Danu, perhaps due to her association with Brigit, daughter of the Dagda. The Dagda's siblings include the gods Ogma and Lir.
He is also known by the epithets Eochaid Ollathair ("All-father"), Ruad Rofhessa ("lord of great knowledge"), Samildanach ("many-skilled"), Cera (possibly meaning "creator"), Fer Benn ("horned man" or "man of the peak"), Easal, Eogabal, Crom-Eocha and Ebron (which seem to refer to yew).
The leader of the gods for the Irish pantheon appears to have been the Dagda. The Dagda was the figure after which male humans and other gods were based due to his embodiment of the ideal Irish traits. Celtic gods were also considered to be a clan due to their lack of specialization and unknown origins. The particular character of the Dagda describes him as a figure of burlesque lampoonery in Irish mythology, and some authors even conclude that he was trusted to be benevolent enough to tolerate jokes at his own expense.
Irish tales depict the Dagda as a figure of power, armed with a club. In Dorset there is a famous outline of an ithyphallic giant known as the Cerne Abbas Giant with a club cut into the chalky soil. While this was probably produced in relatively modern times (English Civil War era), it was long thought to be a representation of the Dagda. This has been called into question by recent studies which show that there may have been a representation of what looks like a large drapery hanging from the horizontal arm of the figure, leading to suspicion that this figure actually represents Hercules (Heracles), with the skin of the Nemean lion over his arm and carrying the club he used to kill it. In Gaul, it is speculated that the Dagda is associated with Sucellus, the striker, equipped with a hammer and cup. (Wikipedia)
The Cerne Abbas Giant is a hill figure near the village of Cerne Abbas in Dorset, England. Made by a turf-cut outline filled with chalk, it depicts a large, naked man, with a substantial erect penis, typically described as a giant wielding a club. The figure is listed as a scheduled monument in the United Kingdom and the site where he stands is owned by the National Trust.
The figure depicts a huge naked man, about 180 feet (55 m) high and 167 feet (51 m) wide. It is carved into the white chalk rock on the steep west-facing side of a hill known as Giant Hill or Trendle Hill. Atop the hill is another landmark, the Iron Age earthwork known as the "Trendle" or "Frying Pan". The carving is formed by outlines cut into the turf about 2 feet 0 inches (0.6 m) deep, and filled with crushed chalk. In his right hand the giant holds a knobbled club 120 feet (37 m) in length, and adding 35 feet (11 m) to the total height of the figure. A line across the waist is considered to be a belt. Writing in 1901 in the Proceedings of the Dorset Natural History and Archaeological Society, Henry Colley March noted that: "The Cerne Giant presents five characteristics: (1) It is petrographic ... It is, therefore, a rock carving ... (2) It is colossal ... (3) It is nude. ... (4) It is ithyphallic ... (5) The Giant is clavigerous. It bears a weapon in its right hand." (Wikipedia)
Conchobar mac Nessa (son of Ness) was the king of Ulster in the Ulster Cycle of Irish mythology. He ruled from Emain Macha (Navan Fort, near Armagh). He is said to be the son of Fachtna Fáthach, of the Ulaid, although unusually his descent references his mother, Ness, daughter of Eochaid Sálbuide, king of Ulster.
There are several versions of how Conchobar was conceived. In the earliest, Ness, daughter of Eochaid Sálbuide, the then king of Ulster, asks the druid Cathbad what it is an auspicious time for. Cathbad replies, "for begetting a king on a queen". There are no other men around, so Ness takes Cathbad to bed and conceives a son. In a later version, Ness is brought up by twelve foster-fathers, and while all twelve are at a feast, Cathbad, leading a fian or landless war-band, attacks the house and kills them all. Eochaid is unable to avenge them as the culprit cannot be identified, so Ness forms her own fian to hunt Cathbad down. But while she is bathing alone in a pool, Cathbad appears, stands between her and her weapons, and bares his sword. He spares her life on the condition that she becomes his wife. They settle near a river called Conchobar, and Ness soon conceives a son, but in this version the father is the High King Fachtna Fáthach, who is Ness's lover. As she and Cathbad set out to visit Fachtna, Ness goes into labour. Cathbad tells her if she can manage not to give birth until the following day, her son will be a great king and have everlasting fame, for he will be born on the same day as Jesus Christ. Ness sits on a flagstone by the river Conchobar, and the following morning gives birth. The baby falls into the river, but Cathbad lifts him out, names him Conchobar after the river, and brings him up as his own son.
Conchobar becomes king
By the time Conchobar is seven, Fergus mac Róich is king of Ulster, and falls in love with Ness. She agrees to become his wife, on one condition: that Fergus allows Conchobar to be king for a year, so his children will be called the sons of a king (under Medieval Irish law inheritance passed through the male line, and only those who had a king as a male-line ancestor were eligible for kingship). The nobles of Ulster advise Fergus that this will not affect his standing with them, as the boy will be king in name only, so he agrees. But Conchobar, advised by his mother, rules so well that by the end of the year it's decided he should be king permanently. Fergus makes an alliance with the new High King, Eochu Feidlech, and they make war on Ulster. After a series of bloody battles, Conchobar makes overtures for peace. Fergus is offered land, the Champion's Portion at Emain Macha, and the position of Conchobar's heir. Conchobar demands compensation from Eochu for the killing of his father, Fachtna Fáthach, and is granted land, status and the High King's daughter in marriage.
Marriages and family
Conchobar marries several of Eochu's daughters. Medb, later queen of Connacht, is the first. She bears him a son called Amalgad, but soon leaves him. Her sister Eithne conceives a son by him, but Medb murders her by drowning her in a stream. Her son Furbaide is delivered by posthumously. Mugain bears him a son called Glaisne and remains his chief wife. The mother of Conchobar's eldest son, Cormac Cond Longas, is either Eochu's daughter Clothru or Conchobar's own mother Ness. Cormac is given to Fergus mac Róich to foster. His other sons include Cúscraid Mend Macha and Folloman. His daughter Fedelm Noíchrothach marries Cairbre Nia Fer, King of Tara, and they have a son, Erc, and a daughter, Achall. Conchobar has two sisters, Findchóem and Deichtine. Findchóem marries the poet Amergin, and they have a son, Conall Cernach. Deichtine is the mother of Cú Chulainn, by either her mortal husband Sualtam or the god Lugh.
Conchobar and Deirdre
When Conchobar is visiting the house of his storyteller Fedlimid mac Daill, Fedlimid's wife gives birth to a daughter. Cathbad, now Conchobar's chief druid, prophesies that she will be so beautiful that kings will go to war over her, and she will bring nothing but sorrow. The child is named Deirdre, and Conchobar decides to have her brought up in seclusion from men, intending to marry her when she comes of age. However, she elopes with a young warrior called Naoise. Along with Naoise's two brothers, the couple go into hiding, and are eventually forced to flee to Scotland. Wherever they settle, the local king tries to have the brothers killed so he can have Deirdre for himself, and they have to move on. Eventually Conchobar tracks them down to a remote island, and sends Fergus to them with his guarantee of safe passage home. On the way home he arranges for Fergus to be separated from his charges by having him invited to a feast, so they are escorted back to Emain Macha by Fergus's son Fiachu. When they arrive, Fiachu, Naoise and his brothers are murdered on Conchobar's orders by Éogan mac Durthacht, and Deirdre is forced to marry Conchobar.
Fergus, outraged by the death of his son and the betrayal of his honour, makes war against Conchobar, alongside Cormac Cond Longas, who sides with his foster-father against his father, and Dubthach Dóeltenga. They burn Emain and slaughter the maidens of Ulster, before going into exile with Medb and her husband Ailill in Connacht.
Deirdre lives with Conchobar for a year, but during that time she never smiles, rarely eats or sleeps, and refuses to be comforted. Conchobar asks her what it is she hates, and she replies, "you, and Éogan mac Durthacht." Conchobar gives her to Éogan. The next day, riding in Éogan's chariot, she commits suicide by dashing her head against a stone.
The Cattle Raid of Cooley
When Medb raises an army from four of the five provinces of Ireland and launches an invasion of Ulster to steal the bull Donn Cúailnge in the Táin Bó Cúailnge, Conchobar, like all the Ulstermen but Cú Chulainn, is unable to fight, disabled by the curse of Macha. Cú Chulainn fights a series of single combats against Connacht champions, hoping to give the Ulstermen time to recover and take the field.
Eventually Cú Chulainn's father, Sualtam, comes to Conchobar at Emain Macha to warn him of the devastation the Connacht army is creating and demand he raise his army before it's too late. Conchobar and his druids agree that Sualtam should be put to death for breaking the protocol of the court - no-one is permitted to speak before Conchobar but the druids - and Sualtam runs out, but falls and decapitates himself on the sharpened edge of his shield. His severed head is brought back in on his shield, still crying out his warning. Conchobar raises his army and leads them into battle. During the fighting, Fergus has him at his mercy, but Cormac Cond Longas prevents his foster-father from killing his biological father, and Fergus strikes off the top of three hills instead. Medb is eventually forced to retreat by Cú Chulainn, but manages to bring the bull back to Connacht, where it fights her husband Ailill's bull Finnbhennach, kills it, and dies of exhaustion.
The Battle of Ros na Ríg
After the Táin, Conchobar falls ill, and doesn't eat or sleep. The Ulaid ask Cathbad to find out what's wrong with their king. Conchobar tells Cathbad that he is ill because the other four provinces of Ireland have made war against him with impunity. Although he was victorious against Ailill and Medb, neither of them was killed in the battle, and he still lost his bull. He wants to make war against Connacht, but it is now winter, so Cathbad advises him to wait until summer when his men and horses will be fresh and energetic, and in the meantime, call on all his foreign allies to bring reinforcements. He sends word to Conall Cernach, who is raising tribute in the Scottish islands, and he raises a great fleet of the Ulaid's allies in Scandinavia and the Faroe Islands and brings them home to Ulster.
In response to this build-up, the other provinces mobilise. Eochu mac Luchta, king of Munster, convinces Ailill and Medb, very much against Medb's better judgement, to offer reparations to Conchobar. Ailill sends a man the Ulaid have reason to mistrust as their envoy to make the offer. Conchobar rejects the offer, and says he will not be satisfied until he is able to pitch his tent anywhere in Ireland. When asked where he wants to pitch his tent that night, he selects Ros na Ríg (Rosnaree) on the River Boyne. A battle ensues at Ros na Ríg between the Ulaid on one side, and on the other side the kingdom of Meath, led by Conchobar's son-in-law Cairpre Nia Fer, king of Tara, and the Gailióin of Leinster, led by their king Find mac Rossa. The battle goes badly for the Ulaid until Conall Cernach joins the fray, because the wavering Ulstermen are too scared of him to retreat. Conall kills a thousand men in the battle. Cairpre Nia Fer kills 800 before Cú Chulainn kills him with a spear thrown from a distance, and then beheads him before his body hits the ground. The Gailióin retreat and the Ulaid take Tara. Erc, Cairpre's son and Conchobar's grandson, is installed as the new king of Tara. He swears allegiance to Conchobar and is given Cú Chulainn's daughter Fínscoth in marriage.
Conchobar is eventually killed as a result of a wound inflicted by the Connacht warrior Cet mac Mágach. Cet had stolen one of Ulster's trophies of battle, the petrified brain of Mesgegra, king of Leinster, and shoots it from his sling so it embeds itself in Conchobar's head; this is supposed to have taken place at Baile Ath in Urchair, (Ardnurcher). Conchobor's physicians are unable to remove it, but sew up the wound and tell the king he will survive so long as he doesn't get excited or over-exert himself. Seven reasonably peaceful years later, Conchobar is told of the death of Christ, and becomes so angry that the brain bursts from his head, and he dies. The blood from the wound baptises him as a Christian, and his soul goes to heaven. While this account of his death has been superficially Christianised, it also bears strong resemblances to the Scandinavian myth of Thor's fight against Hrungnir, suggesting either a common origin of the two episodes or a later borrowing during the era of Viking influence in Ireland.
The Ulstermen invite his son Cormac Cond Longas, still in exile in Connacht, to succeed him as king, but on his way to Emain Macha Cormac is forced to break his geasa or taboos, and is killed in battle at Da Choca's Hostel. On Conall Cernach's recommendation the kingship is then given to Conchobar's other son, Cúscraid Mend Macha.
Medb, sometimes Anglicised Maev, is queen of Connacht in the Ulster Cycle of Irish mythology. Her husband in the core stories of the cycle is Ailill mac Máta, although she had several husbands before him who were also kings of Connacht. She rules from Cruachan (now Rathcroghan, County Roscommon). She is the enemy (and former wife) of Conchobar mac Nessa, king of Ulster, and is best known for starting the Táin Bó Cúailnge ("The Cattle Raid of Cooley") to steal Ulster's prize stud bull.
Marriages and rise to power
How Medb came to power in Connacht and married Ailill is told in the tale Cath Bóinde ("The Battle of the Boyne"), also known as Ferchuitred Medba ("Medb's man-share"). Her father, Eochaid Feidlech, the High King of Ireland, married her to Conchobar mac Nessa, king of Ulster, because he had killed Conchobar's purported father, the former High King Fachtna Fáthach, in battle. She bore him a son, Glaisne, but the marriage was a bad one and she left him. Eochaid gave Conchobar another of his daughters, Eithne, but Medb murdered her while she was pregnant; her son Furbaide was born posthumously.
Eochaid deposed the then-king of Connacht, Tinni mac Conri, and installed Medb in his place. However, Tinni regained a share of the throne when he and Medb later became lovers. Conchobar raped Medb after an assembly at Tara, and war ensued between the High King and Ulster. Tinni challenged Conchobar to single combat, and lost. Eochaid Dála of the Fir Domnann, who had been Tinni's rival for the kingship, protected the Connacht army as it retreated, and became Medb's next husband and king of Connacht. Medb demanded her husband satisfy her three criteria—that he be without fear, meanness, or jealousy. The last was particularly important, as she had many lovers. While married to Eochaid Dála, she took Ailill mac Máta, chief of her bodyguard, as her lover. Eochaid discovered the affair, challenged Ailill to single combat, and lost. Ailill then married Medb and became king of Connacht.Maine.
Medb and Ailill had seven sons, all called Maine. They originally all had other names, but when Medb asked a druid which of her sons would kill Conchobar, he replied, "Maine". She did not have a son called Maine, so she renamed all her sons as Maine. The prophecy was fulfilled when one of the sons, Maine Andoe, went on to kill Conchobar, son of Arthur, son of Bruide — not Conchobar, son of Fachtna Fathach, as Medb had assumed the druid meant. Medb and Ailill also had a daughter, Findabair.
The Cattle Raid of Cooley
Main article: Táin Bó Cúailnge ("The Cattle Raid of Cooley")
Medb insisted that she be equal in wealth with her husband, and started the Cattle Raid of Cooley when she discovered that Ailill was one powerful stud bull richer than her. She discovered that the only rival to Ailill's bull, Finnbennach, was Donn Cúailnge, owned by Dáire mac Fiachna, a vassal of Conchobar's. She sent messengers to Dáire, offering wealth, land and sexual favours in return for the loan of the bull, and Dáire initially agreed. But when a drunken messenger declared that, if he had not agreed, the bull would have been taken by force, Dáire withdrew his consent, and Medb prepared for war.
An army was raised including contingents from all over Ireland. One was a group of Ulster exiles led by Conchobar's estranged son Cormac Cond Longas and his foster-father Fergus mac Róich, former king of Ulster and one of Medb's lovers. It is reported that it took seven men to satisfy her, or Fergus once. Medb's relationship with Fergus is alluded to in the early poem Conailla Medb míchuru ("Medb has entered evil contracts") by Luccreth moccu Chiara (c. 600); it asserts that Medb wrongly seduced Fergus into turning against Ulster "because he preferred the buttocks of a woman to his own people".
Because of a divine curse on the Ulstermen, the invasion was opposed only by the teenage Ulster hero Cúchulainn, who held up the army's advance by demanding single combat at fords. Medb and Ailill offered their daughter Findabair in marriage to a series of heroes as payment for fighting Cúchulainn, but all were defeated. Nevertheless, Medb secured the bull. However, after a final battle against Conchobar's assembled army, she was forced to retreat. Donn Cúailnge was brought back to Cruachan, where it fought Ailill's bull, Finnbennach, killing him, but dying of his wounds.
Also, throughout the Táin Bó Cúailnge Medb has several encounters with Cúchulainn in which he kills either her pets or handmaidens and the place in which they were killed is then named after them, which illustrates the importance of landscape throughout the text of the Táin Bó Cúailnge. Examples of this occur when Cúchulainn "slung a stone and killed a pet stoat as it sat on Medb's shoulder by her neck, south of the ford. Hence the name Meithe Togmaill, Stoat Neck" and when he kills Medb’s handmaid: “He slung a stone at her from the heights of Cuincu and killed her on the flat place that bears her name, Reid Locha, Locha’s Level, in Cualinge” Medb’s behaviour further illustrates the importance of the landscape when she goes to great lengths to permanently alter it to show her contempt for Ulster. “”She preferred to cross the mountain by leaving a track that would show forever her contempt for Ulster… to make the Pass of the Cualinge Cattle.”
Out of jealousy for his affair with Medb, Ailill had Fergus killed. In his old age, after Conchobar's death, the Ulster hero Conall Cernach came to stay with Ailill and Medb, as they were the only household capable of supporting him. Medb tasked him to keep an eye on Ailill, who was seeing other women. Finding Ailill in flagrante, she ordered Conall to kill him, which he was happy to do in revenge for Fergus. However, the dying Ailill sent his men after him, and he was killed while trying to escape.
In her later years she often went to bathe in a pool on Inchcleraun (Inis Cloithreann), an island on Lough Ree, near Knockcroghery. Furbaide sought revenge for the death of his mother. He took a rope and measured the distance between the pool and the shore, and practised with his sling until he could hit an apple on top of a stake Medb's height from that distance. The next time he saw Medb bathing he put his practice to good use and killed her with a piece of cheese. She was succeeded to the throne of Connacht by her son Maine Athramail.
According to legend, Medb is buried in a 40-foot (12 m) high stone cairn on the summit of Knocknarea (Cnoc na Ré in Irish) in County Sligo. Supposedly, she is buried upright facing her enemies in Ulster. Her home in Rathcroghan, County Roscommon is also a potential burial site, with a long low slab named 'Misgaun Medb' being given as the most likely location.
Some historians suggest that she was probably originally a "sovereignty goddess", whom a king would ritually marry as part of his inauguration. Medb Lethderg, who performs a similar function in Tara is probably identical with or the inspiration for this Medb. Her name is said to mean 'she who intoxicates', and is cognate with the English word 'mead'; it is likely that the sacred marriage ceremony between the king and the goddess would involve a shared drink. Medb's "pillow talk" argument with her consort contains suggestions of matrilineality, as does Ailill's taking his name from his mother Máta Muirisc. Recently, Irish and Irish-American poets have explored Medb as an image of woman's power, including sexuality, as in "Labhrann Medb" ("Medb Speaks") by Irish-language poet Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill and "Intoxication" by Irish-American poet Patricia Monaghan.
Súaltam mac Róich is the mortal father of the hero Cúchulainn in the Ulster Cycle of Irish mythology. His wife is Deichtine, sister of Conchobar mac Nessa, king of Ulster. His brother is Fergus mac Róich.
The nature of Cúchulainn's parentage is unclear and inconsistent. In one version, Deichtine fosters the baby son of Lugh, but he becomes sick and dies. Then she is made pregnant by Lugh, who tells her to name the child Sétanta, but as she is betrothed to Súaltam, she aborts the pregnancy, marries Súaltam and has his child, whom she names Sétanta. The child is later renamed Cúchulainn. In another version, Deichtine disappears from Emain Macha, until the nobles of Ulster are led by a flock of magical birds to a house, where they are welcomed by Lugh. He tells them his wife is due to give birth soon, and when she does the Ulstermen discover she is Deichtine. The child is named Sétanta. He is brought up by Súaltam and Deichtine in their house on Muithemne Plain in County Louth.
Seventeen years later, when queen Medb of Connacht launches the Táin Bó Cúailnge ("Cattle Raid of Cooley") against Ulster, Cúchulainn and Súaltam are watching the border at Iraird Cuilenn (Crossakiel, County Meath). While Cúchulainn tries to hold up the army's advance, Súaltam goes to warn the Conchobar. For unexplained reasons, he does not arrive at Emain Macha for several months. He burst in and cries out that men are being killed, women abducted, and cattle plundered, and that Ailill mac Máta, king of Connacht, is responsible. However, he is ignored, for he has failed to follow precedence - no man could speak before the king, and the king could not speak before his three druids - and Conchobar and his druids agree he should be executed. As Súaltam runs out, he falls against the sharpened rim of his shield and decapitates himself. His severed head is brought back on his shield still crying out that men are being murdered, women abducted and cattle plundered. Finally Conchobar is roused to action and gathers his army for battle.
Cú Chulainn, also spelt Cú Chulaind or Cúchulainn (Irish for "Culann's Hound") and sometimes known in English as Cuhullin /kəˈhʊlɨn/, 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 Conchobar mac Nessa), his childhood name was Sétanta. He was the greatest of the Knights of the Red Branch—i.e., the warriors loyal to Conor (Conchobar mac Nessa),
He gained his better-known name as a child, after killing Culann's fierce guard-dog in self-defence and offered to take its place until a replacement could be reared. Cú Chulainn is therefore often referred to as the "Hound of Ulster".
It was prophesied that he would have an everlasting fame, but his life would be a short one.
He is known for his terrifying battle frenzy, or ríastrad (translated by Thomas Kinsella as "warp spasm" and by Ciaran Carson as "torque"), in which he becomes an unrecognisable monster who knows neither friend nor foe. (Wikipedia)
The Cattle Raid of Cooley, Irish Táin bó Cuailnge, Old Irish epiclike tale that is the longest of the Ulster cycle of hero tales and deals with the conflict between Ulster and Connaught over possession of the brown bull of Cooley. The tale was composed in prose with verse passages in the 7th and 8th centuries. It is partially preserved in The Book of the Dun Cow (c. 1100) and is also found in The Book of Leinster (c. 1160) and The Yellow Book of Lecan (late 14th century). Although it contains passages of lively narrative and witty dialogue, it is not a coherent work of art, and its text has been marred by revisions and interpolations. It has particular value for the literary historian in that the reworkings provide a record of the degeneration of Irish style; for example, the bare prose of the earlier passages is later replaced by bombast and alliteration, and ruthless humour becomes sentimentality.
The tale’s plot is as follows. Medb (Maeve), the warrior queen of Connaught, disputes with her husband, Ailill, over their respective wealth. Because possession of the white-horned bull guarantees Ailill’s superiority, Medb resolves to secure the even-more-famous brown bull of Cooley from the Ulstermen. Although Medb is warned of impending doom by a prophetess, the Connaught army proceeds to Ulster. The Ulster warriors are temporarily disabled by a curse, but Cú Chulainn, the youthful Ulster champion, is exempt from the curse and single-handedly holds off the Connaughtmen. The climax of the fighting is a three-day combat between Cú Chulainn and Fer Díad, his friend and foster brother, who is in exile and fighting with the Connaught forces. Cú Chulainn is victorious, and, nearly dead from wounds and exhaustion, he is joined by the Ulster army, which routs the enemy. The brown bull, however, has been captured by Connaught and defeats Ailill’s white-horned bull, after which peace is made.
The tale’s loose construction has preserved intact a few outstanding dramatic episodes, such as Medb’s dialogue with the soothsayer and Cú Chulainn’s dealings with the Connaught scouts. Undoubtedly the finest section is that in which Fergus, an exile from Ulster at the Connaught court, recalls for Medb and Ailill the heroic deeds of Cú Chulainn’s youth. (Encyclopædia Britannica The Cattle Raid of Cooley)
The County Louth town of Dundalk has the motto Mé do rug Cú Chulainn cróga (Irish) "I gave birth to brave Cú Chulainn".
There are a number of versions of the story of Cú Chulainn's birth. In the earliest version of Compert C(h)on Culainn ("The Conception of Cú Chulainn"), 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. As snow begins to fall, Ulstermen seek shelter in a nearby house. As the host's wife goes into labour, Deichtine assists in the birth of a baby boy. While a mare gives birth to twin colts. 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 begins raising him as her own, but the boy falls ill and dies. The god Lug 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 turns into 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.
In the later and better-known version of Compert Con Culainn, 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 Lug, but this time his wife, who gives birth to a son that night, is Deichtine herself. The child is named Sétanta.
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 (at the time part of Ulster), alongside their son Conall Cernach.
ChildhoodThe stories of Cú Chulainn's childhood are told in a flashback sequence in Táin Bó Cúailnge ("Cattle Raid of Cooley"). As a small child, living in his parents' house on Muirthemne Plain, he begs to be allowed to join the boy-troop at Emain Macha. 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.
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 hound to protect his house. When Sétanta arrives, the enormous hound attacks him, but he kills it in self-defence, in one version by smashing it against a standing stone, and in another by driving a sliotar (hurling ball) down its throat with his hurley. Culann is devastated by the loss of his hound, 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".
One day at Emain Macha, Cú Chulainn 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. Cú Chulainn, 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 prophecy—the warrior who took arms that day would be famous, but his life would be short. Soon afterwards, in response to a similar prophecy by Cathbad, Cú Chulainn 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.
Cú Chulainn and Emer
In Cú Chulainn'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 Cú Chulainn 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. Cú Chulainn takes up the challenge, travelling to her residence Dún Scáith (Fortress of Shadows) on the Isle of Skye. In the meantime, Forgall offers Emer to Lugaid mac Nóis, a king of Munster, but when he hears that Emer loves Cú Chulainn, Lugaid refuses her hand.
A few years later, Cú Chulainn returns from Scotland fully trained, but Forgall still refuses to let him marry Emer. Cú Chulainn 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 Cú Chulainn'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.
Emer's only jealousyr
Cú Chulainn 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. Cú Chulainn 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 Cú Chulainn is mortal and Fand is a fairy; Cú Chulainn's presence would destroy the fairies. Emer, meanwhile, tries to kill her rival, but when she sees the strength of Fand's love for Cú Chulainn she decides to give him up to her. Fand, touched by Emer's magnanimity, decides to return to her own husband. Manannán shakes his cloak between Cú Chulainn and Fand, ensuring the two will never meet again, and Cú Chulainn and Emer drink a potion to wipe the whole affair from their memories.
Cú Chulainn's training
In order to marry Emer, Cú Chulainn agrees to train in arms with the renowned warrior-woman Scáthach in the land of Alba (Scotland). Scáthach teaches Cú Chulainn 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 Cú Chulainn'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 Cú Chulainn's life and gives him a powerful sleeping potion to keep him from the battle. However, because of Cú Chulainn'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 Cú Chulainn 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, Cú Chulainn returns from Scotland fully trained.
Cú Chulainn kills his son
Eight years later, Connla, Cú Chulainn's son by Aífe, comes to Ireland in search of his father, but Cú Chulainn takes him as an intruder and kills him when he refuses to identify himself. Connla's last words to his father as he dies are that they would have "carried the flag of Ulster to the gates of Rome and beyond", leaving Cú Chulainn grief-stricken. The story of Cú Chulainn and Connla shows a striking similarity to the legend of Persian hero Rostam who also kills his son Sohrab. Rostam and Cú Chulainn 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. Another similar myth is found in the Hildebrandslied, in which Hildebrand kills his son, Hadubrand.
Cú Chulainn and Derbforgaill/Lugaid
During his time abroad, Cú Chulainn 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. Cú Chulainn, 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 Cú Chulainn splits it in two with his sword. 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 Cú Chulainn avenges them by demolishing the house the women are inside, killing 150 of them.
At the age of seventeen, Cú Chulainn 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 Cú Chulainn 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 Cú Chulainn 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 Cú Chulainn 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 Cú Chulainn lies severely wounded, but is visited by Lug, who tells him he is his father and heals his wounds. When Cú Chulainn 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:
“The first warp-spasm seized Cúchulainn, and made him into a monstrous thing, hideous and shapeless, unheard of. His shanks and his joints, every knuckle and angle and organ from head to foot, shook like a tree in the flood or a reed in the stream. His body made a furious twist inside his skin, so that his feet and shins switched to the rear and his heels and calves switched to the front... On his head the temple-sinews stretched to the nape of his neck, each mighty, immense, measureless knob as big as the head of a month-old child... he sucked one eye so deep into his head that a wild crane couldn't probe it onto his cheek out of the depths of his skull; the other eye fell out along his cheek. His mouth weirdly distorted: his cheek peeled back from his jaws until the gullet appeared, his lungs and his liver flapped in his mouth and throat, his lower jaw struck the upper a lion-killing blow, and fiery flakes large as a ram's fleece reached his mouth from his throat... The hair of his head twisted like the tangle of a red thornbush stuck in a gap; if a royal apple tree with all its kingly fruit were shaken above him, scarce an apple would reach the ground but each would be spiked on a bristle of his hair as it stood up on his scalp with rage.”
—Thomas Kinsella (translator), The Táin, Oxford University Press, 1969, pp. 150–153
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 Cú Chulainn 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. Cú Chulainn 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, Cú Chulainn 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.
Bricriu's FeastThe troublemaker Bricriu once incites three heroes, Cú Chulainn, Conall Cernach and Lóegaire Búadach, to compete for the champion's portion at his feast. In every test that is set Cú Chulainn 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 Cú Chulainn is brave and honourable enough to submit himself to Cú Roí's axe; Cú Roí spares him and he is declared champion. 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 Sir Gawain and the Carle of Carlisle.
The Death of Cú RoíCú 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 Cú Chulainn. But when Cú Roí is asked to choose his share, he chooses Blathnát. Cú Chulainn 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 betrays him to Cú Chulainn, 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.
Cú Chulainn's death (Irish: Aided con Culainn)
Medb conspires with Lugaid, son of Cú Roí, Erc, son of Cairbre Nia Fer, and the sons of others Cú Chulainn had killed, to draw him out to his death. His fate is sealed by his breaking of the geasa (taboos) upon him. Cú Chulainn'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 Cú Chulainn's charioteer Láeg, king of chariot drivers. With the second he kills Cú Chulainn's horse, Liath Macha, king of horses. With the third he hits Cú Chulainn, mortally wounding him. Cú Chulainn ties himself to a standing stone to die on his feet, facing his enemies. This stone is traditionally identified as one still standing at Knockbridge, Dundalk, County Louth.
Due to his ferocity even when so near death, it is only when a raven lands on his shoulder that his enemies believe he is dead. Lugaid approaches and cuts off his head, but as he does so the "hero-light" burns around Cú Chulainn and his sword falls from his hand and cuts Lugaid's hand off. The light disappears only after his right hand, his sword arm, is cut from his body.
Conall Cernach had sworn that if Cú Chulainn died before him he would avenge him before sunset, and when he hears Cú Chulainn 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 Erc's sister Achall dies of grief for her brother.
Later storiesThe story is told that when Saint Patrick was trying to convert king Lóegaire to Christianity, the ghost of Cú Chulainn appeared in his chariot, warning him of the torments of hell.
In Irish folklore, Cú Chulainn was later reimagined as an evil giant at odds with Fionn mac Cumhaill (or Finn McCool). According to the most famous folk tale, Cú Chullain's power was contained in his middle finger. Wishing to defeat Finn, he came to Finn's house, but Finn disguised himself as a baby while his wife Oona baked cakes, some with griddle irons inside, some without. When Cú Chulainn could not bite through his cake (which had an iron in it) but the baby could (Finn's cake had no iron), in amazement Cú Chulainn felt to see how sharp the baby's teeth were, allowing Finn to bite his middle finger off and deprive Cú Chulainn of both his strength and size.
AppearanceCú Chulainn'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", in The Intoxication of the Ulstermen he is a "little, black-browed man", 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"; yet the prophetess Fedelm in the Táin Bó Cúailnge describes him as blond. The most elaborate description of his appearance comes later in the Táin:
“And certainly the youth Cúchulainn mac Sualdaim was handsome as he came to show his form to the armies. You would think he had three distinct heads of hair—brown at the base, blood-red in the middle, and a crown of golden yellow. This hair was settled strikingly into three coils on the cleft at the back of his head. Each long loose-flowing strand hung down in shining splendour over his shoulders, deep-gold and beautiful and fine as a thread of gold. A hundred neat red-gold curls shone darkly on his neck, and his head was covered with a hundred crimson threads matted with gems. He had four dimples in each cheek—yellow, green, crimson and blue—and seven bright pupils, eye-jewels, in each kingly eye. Each foot had seven toes and each hand seven fingers, the nails with the grip of a hawk's claw or a gryphon's clench.”
—Thomas Kinsella (translator), The Táin, Oxford University Press, 1969, pp. 156–158
The image of Cú ChulainnThe image of Cú Chulainn 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 dead Cú Chulainn by Oliver Sheppard stands in the Dublin General Post Office (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. He is also depicted in murals in nationalist parts of the city and many nationalist areas of Northern Ireland. The statue's image was also used on the ten shilling coin produced for 1966. The 1916 Medal the 1916-1966 Survivors Medal and the Military Star for the Irish Defence Forces all have the image of Cú Chulainn on their Obverse.
A statue of Cú Chulainn carrying the body of Fer Diad stands in Ardee, County Louth, traditionally the site of their combat in the Táin Bó Cúailnge. A sculpture by Martin Heron, entitled "For the Love of Emer", depicting Cú Chulainn balancing on a tilting 20-foot pole, representing the feat of balancing on the butt of a spear he learned from Scáthach, was installed in Armagh in 2010. (Wikipedia)
Fionn mac Cumhaill (sometimes transcribed in English as Finn MacCool or Finn MacCoul, was a mythical hunter-warrior of Irish mythology, occurring also in the mythologies of Scotland and the Isle of Man. The stories of Fionn and his followers the Fianna, form the Fenian Cycle (an Fhiannaíocht), much of it narrated in the voice of Fionn's son, the poet Oisín.
"Fionn" means "blond", "fair", "white", or "bright". The hero's childhood name was Deimne (/ˈdeɪni/), literally "sureness" or "certainty", also a name that means a young male deer; several legends tell how he gained the name Fionn when his hair turned prematurely white. The name Fionn is related to the Welsh name Gwyn, as in the mythological figure Gwyn ap Nudd, and to the continental Celtic Vindos, a form of the god Belenus.
The 19th-century Irish revolutionary organisation known as the Fenian Brotherhood took its name from these legends. The Scottish form of his name, Fingal /ˈfɪŋɡəl/, comes from a retelling of the legends in epic form by the 18th-century poet James Macpherson.
Cormac mac Art, the High King of Ireland formed the Fianna, a coalition of clans, for the protection of the kingdom. The Fianna was dominated by Clan Bascna, led by Fionn mac Cumhal, and Clan Morna, led by Goll mac Morna. The conflict between these rival clans is the basis for much legend in the Fenion Cycle. Goll killed Fionn's father, Cumhal, in battle and the boy Fionn was brought up in secrecy. As a youth, while being trained in the art of poetry, he accidentally burned his thumb while cooking the Salmon of Knowledge, which allowed him to suck or bite his thumb to receive bursts of stupendous wisdom. He took his place as the leader of his band and numerous tales are told of their adventures. Two of the greatest of the Irish tales, Tóraigheacht Dhiarmada agus Ghráinne (The Pursuit of Diarmuid and Gráinne) and Oisín in Tír na nÓg form part of the cycle. The Diarmuid and Grainne story, which is one of the few Fenian prose tales, is a probable source of Tristan and Iseult.
The world of the Fenian Cycle is one in which professional warriors spend their time hunting, fighting, and engaging in adventures in the spirit world. New entrants into the band are expected to be knowledgeable in poetry as well as undergo a number of physical tests or ordeals. There is not any religious element in these tales unless it is one of hero-worship. (Wikipedia)
Most of Fionn's early adventures are recounted in the narrative The Boyhood Deeds of Fionn. He was the son of Cumhall and Muirne, daughter of the druid Tadg mac Nuadat who lived on the hill of Almu in County Kildare. Cumhall abducted Muirne, a member of rival Clan Morna, after her father refused him her hand, so Tadg appealed to the High King, Conn of the Hundred Battles, who outlawed Cumhall. The Battle of Cnucha (The Battle of Knock,) was fought between Conn and Cumhall, and Cumhall was killed by Goll mac Morna and Clan Bascna's treasure bag is stolen by Liath Luachra, the treasurer. Goll mac Morna took over leadership of the Fianna.
Muirne was already pregnant; her father rejected her and ordered his people to burn her, but Conn would not allow it and put her under the protection of Fiacal mac Conchinn, whose wife, Bodhmall the druid, was Cumhall's sister. In Fiacal's house Muirne gave birth to a son, whom she called Deimne.
BoyhoodDeimne was under the care of the druid Bodhmall, and a warrior woman, Liath Luachra (a different character than the treasurer), and they brought him up in secret in the forest of Sliabh Bladma, teaching him the arts of war and hunting. (Wikipedia)
One day, while still a boy, he was roaming through the woods when he came to the mansion of a great lord, where many boys, sons of the chief men of Ireland, were being trained in manly arts and exercises. He found them playing at hurling, and they invited him to join them. He did so, but the side he was on won too easily, so they divided again, and yet again, giving fewer and fewer to Demna's side, till at last he alone drove the ball to the goal through them all, flashing among them as a salmon among a shoal of minnows. And then their anger and jealousy rose and grew bitter against the stranger, and instead of honouring him as gallant lads of gentle blood should have done they fell upon him with their hurling clubs and sought to kill him. But Demna felled seven of them to the ground and put the rest to flight, and then went his way home. When the boys told what had happened the chief asked them who it was that had defeated and routed them single-handed. They said, "It was a tall shapely lad, and very fair (_finn_)." So the name of Finn, the Fair One, clung to him thenceforth, and by that name he is known to this day.
By and by Finn gathered round him a band of youths who loved him for his strength and valour and for his generous heart, and with them he went hunting in the forests. And Goll, and the sons of Morna, who were now captains of the Fianna under the High King, began to hear tales of him and his exploits, and they sent trackers to inquire about him, for they had an inkling of who this wonderful fair-haired youth might be. Finn's foster mothers heard of this. "You must leave this place," they said to him, "and see our faces no more, for if Goll's men find you here they will slay you. We have cherished the blood of Cumhal," they said, "and now our work is done. Go, and may blessing and victory go with you." So Finn departed with naught but his weapons and his hunting gear.
[But he soon gathered a number of youths and became their leader. He also found his uncle, Crimmal, and surviving members of Clan Bascna. He told Crimmal that he had recovered Clan Bascna's treasure bag stolen by Liath Luachra, the treasurer.]
"But yesterday morning," he said, "we met on our way a woman of noble aspect, and she knelt over the body of a slain youth. When she lifted her head as we drew near, tears of blood ran down her cheeks, and she cried to me, 'Whoever thou art, I bind thee by the bonds of the sacred ordinances of the Gael that thou avenge my wrong. This was my son Glonda,' she said, 'my only son, and he was slain to-day wantonly by the Lord of Luachar and his men.' So we went, my company and I, to the Dún of the Lord of Luachar, and found an earthen rampart with a fosse before it, and on the top of the rampart was a fence of oaken posts interlaced with wattles, and over this we saw the many-coloured thatch of a great dwelling-house, and its white walls painted with bright colours under the broad eaves. So I stood forth and called to the Lord of Luachar and bade him make ready to pay an eric to the mother of Glonda, whatsoever she should demand. But he laughed at us and cursed us and bade us begone. Then we withdrew into the forest, but returned with a great pile of dry brushwood, and while some of us shot stones and arrows at whoever should appear above the palisade, others rushed up with bundles of brushwood and laid it against the palisade and set it on fire, and the Immortal Ones sent a blast of wind that set the brushwood and palisade quickly in a blaze, and through that fiery gap we charged in shouting. And half of the men of Luachar we killed and the rest fled, and the Lord of Luachar I slew in the doorway of his palace. We took a great spoil then, O Crimmal—these vessels of bronze and silver, and spears and bows, smoked bacon and skins of Greek wine; and in a great chest of yewwood we found this bag. All these things shall now remain with you, and my company shall also remain to hunt for you and protect you, for ye shall know want and fear no longer while ye live."
Finn and Finegas - The salmon of knowledge
Now it is to be told what happened to Finn at the house of Finegas the Bard. Finn did not deem that the time had come for him to seize the captaincy of the Fianna until he had perfected himself in wisdom and learning. So on leaving the shelter of the old men in the wood he went to learn wisdom and the art of poetry from Finegas, who dwelt by the River Boyne, near to where is now the village of Slane. It was a belief among the poets of Ireland that the place of the revealing of poetry is always by the margin of water. But Finegas had another reason for the place where he made his dwelling, for there was an old prophecy that whoever should first eat of the Salmon of Knowledge that lived in the River Boyne, should become the wisest of men. Now this salmon was called Finntan in ancient times and was one of the Immortals, and he might be eaten and yet live. But in the time of Finegas he was called the Salmon of the Pool of Fec, which is the place where the fair river broadens out into a great still pool, with green banks softly sloping upward from the clear brown water. Seven years was Finegas watching the pool, but not until after Finn had come to be his disciple was the salmon caught. Then Finegas gave it to Finn to cook, and bade him eat none of it. But when Finegas saw him coming with the fish, he knew that something had chanced to the lad, for he had been used to have the eye of a young man but now he had the eye of a sage. Finegas said, "Hast thou eaten of the salmon?"
"Nay," said Finn, "but it burnt me as I turned it upon the spit and I put my thumb in my mouth" And Finegas smote his hands together and was silent for a while. Then he said to the lad who stood by obediently, "Take the salmon and eat it, Finn, son of Cumhal, for to thee the prophecy is come. And now go hence, for I can teach thee no more, and blessing and victory be thine."
(The Project Gutenberg: The High Deeds of Finn and other Bardic Romances of Ancient Ireland.)
AdulthoodFinn then ventured out to avenge his father's murder. He served under several kings who immediately sent him away, when he was found to be Cumhal's son, in fear of a retaliation from Goll mac Morna.
Eventually, Finn attended the yearly Assembly was admitted to the court of the High King at Tara, after passing three strenuous tests.
Fionn and Aillén - Every year for 23 years at Samhain, a fire-breathing man of the Sidhe, Aillén mac Midgna, or Aillén the Burner, would play music on his harp and lull the men of Tara to sleep before burning the palace to the ground, and the Fianna, led by Goll mac Morna, were powerless to prevent it. Fionn, armed with his father's crane-skin bag of magical weapons. He kept himself awake by touching the point of his magically red-hot spear to his forehead. The pain kept Fionn awake, allowing him to pursue and kill Aillen with the same spear. After that his heritage was recognised and he was given command of the Fianna: Goll willingly stepped aside, and became a loyal follower of Fionn, although in some stories their alliance is uneasy. Fionn demanded compensation for his father's death from Tadg, threatening war or single combat against him if he refused. Tadg offered him his home, the hill of Allen, as compensation, which Fionn accepted.
Love lifeFionn and Sadbh - Fionn met his most famous wife, Sadhbh, when he was out hunting. She had been turned into a deer by a druid, Fear Doirich, whom she had refused to marry. Fionn's hounds, Bran and Sceólang, born of a human enchanted into the form of a hound, recognised her as human, and Fionn brought her home. She transformed back into a woman the moment she set foot on Fionn's land, as this was the one place she could regain her true form. She and Fionn married and she was soon pregnant. When Fionn was away defending his country, Fear Doirich (literally meaning Dark Man) returned and turned her back into a deer, whereupon she vanished. Fionn spent years searching for her, but to no avail. Bran and Sceólang, again hunting, found her son in the form of a fawn; he transformed into a child, Fionn named him Oisín who went on to be one of the greatest of the Fianna and a bard.
Fionn and Diarmuid - In One of the most famous stories of the cycle, The Pursuit of Diarmuid and Gráinne, the High King Cormac mac Airt promises the now ageing Fionn his daughter Gráinne, but at the wedding feast Gráinne falls for a young hero of the Fianna, Diarmuid Ua Duibhne, noted for his beauty. She forces him to run away with her and Fionn pursues them. The lovers are helped by the Fianna, and by Diarmuid's foster-father, the god Aengus. Eventually Fionn makes his peace with the couple. Years later, however, Fionn invites Diarmuid on a boar hunt, and Diarmuid is badly gored by their quarry. Water drunk from Fionn's hands has the power of healing, but each time Fionn gathers water he lets it run through his fingers before he gets back to Diarmuid. His grandson Oscar shames Fionn, but when he finally returns with water it is too late; Diarmuid has died.
DeathThe Battle of Gabhra (Main article: Cath Gabhra) - Between the birth of Oisin and the Battle of Gabhra is the rest of the cycle, which is very long and becomes too complicated for a short summary. Eventually the High King Cormac, dies and his son Cairbre Lifechair wants to destroy the Fianna, because he does not like paying the taxes for protection that the Fianna demanded, so he raises an army with other dissatisfied chiefs and provokes the war by killing Fionn's servant. Goll sides with the king against Clan Bascna at the battle. Some stories say five warriors murdered Fionn at the battle, while others say he died in the battle of the Ford of Brea, killed by Aichlech Mac Dubdrenn. In any case, only twenty warriors survive the battle, including Oisín and Caílte.
According to the most popular account of Fionn's death, he is not dead at all, rather, he sleeps in a cave, surrounded by the Fianna. One day they will awake and defend Ireland in the hour of her greatest need. In one account, it is said they will arise when the Dord Fiann, the hunting horn of the Fianna, is sounded three times, and they will be as strong and as well as they ever were. Another tradition states that he is buried in the crypt of Lund Cathedral in Sweden.
Fionn as a giantMany geographical features in Ireland are attributed to Fionn. Legend has it he built the Giant's Causeway as stepping-stones to Scotland, so as not to get his feet wet; he also once scooped up part of Ireland to fling it at a rival, but it missed and landed in the Irish Sea — the clump became the Isle of Man and the pebble became Rockall, the void became Lough Neagh. Fingal's Cave in Scotland is also named after him, and shares the feature of hexagonal basalt columns with the nearby Giant's Causeway in Northern Ireland.
In both Irish and Manx popular folklore, Fionn mac Cumhail (known as "Finn McCool" or "Finn MacCooill" respectively) is portrayed as a magical, benevolent giant. The most famous story attached to this version of Fionn tells of how one day, while making a pathway in the sea towards Scotland – The Giant's Causeway – Fionn is told that the giant Benandonner (or, in the Manx version, a buggane) is coming to fight him. Knowing he cannot withstand Benandonner due to his size, Fionn asks his wife Oona to help him. She dresses her husband as a baby, and he hides in a cradle; then she makes a batch of griddle-cakes, hiding griddle-irons in some. When Benandonner arrives, Oona tells him Fionn is out but will be back shortly. As Benandonner waits, he tries to intimidate Oona with his immense power, breaking rocks with his little finger. Oona then offers Benandonner a griddle-cake, but when he bites into the iron he chips his teeth. Oona scolds him for being weak (saying her husband eats such cakes easily), and feeds one without an iron to the 'baby', who eats it without trouble.
In the Irish version, Benandonner is so awed by the power of the baby's teeth and the size of the baby that, at Oona's prompting, he puts his fingers in Fionn's mouth to feel how sharp his teeth are. Fionn bites Benandonner's little finger, and scared of the prospect of meeting his father considering the baby's size, Benandonner runs back towards Scotland across the Causeway smashing the causeway so Fionn couldn't follow him.
The Manx Gaelic version contains a further tale of how Fionn and the buggane battle at Kirk Christ Rushen. Fionn's feet carve out the channels between the Calf of Man and Kitterland and between Kitterland and the Isle of Man, while the buggane's feet make an opening for the port at Port Erin. The buggane injures Fionn, who flees over the sea (where the buggane cannot follow), but the buggane tears out one of his own teeth and strikes Fionn as he runs away. The tooth falls into the sea, becoming the Chicken Rock, and Fionn curses the tooth, explaining why it is a hazard to sailors.
In Newfoundland, and some parts of Nova Scotia, "Fingal's Rising" is spoken of in a distinct nationalistic sense. Made popular in songs and bars alike, to speak of "Fingle," as his name is pronounced in English versus "Fion MaCool" in Newfoundland Irish, is sometimes used as a stand-in for Newfoundland or its culture.
The Morrígan ("phantom queen") or Mórrígan ("great queen") is a figure from Irish mythology. The primary themes associated with the Morrígan are battle, strife, and sovereignty. She sometimes appears in the form of a crow, flying above the warriors, and in the Ulster Cycle she also takes the forms of an eel, a wolf and a cow. She is generally considered a war deity, although her association with a cow may also suggest a role connected with wealth and the land.
The Morrígan is a tripartite battle goddess of the Celts of Ancient Ireland and referred to as Nemain, Macha, and Badb (among other, less common names), with each representing different aspects of combat. But this triple nature is ambiguous and inconsistent. Sometimes she appears as one of three sisters, the daughters of Ernmas: Morrígan, Badb and Macha. Sometimes the trinity consists of Badb, Macha and Anand, collectively known as the Morrígna. Occasionally Nemain or Fea appear in the various combinations. However, the Morrígan can also appear alone, and her name is sometimes used interchangeably with Badb.
The Morrígan is usually interpreted as a "war goddess": W. M. Hennessy's "The Ancient Irish Goddess of War", written in 1870, was influential in establishing this interpretation. Her role often involves premonitions of a particular warrior's violent death, suggesting a link with the Banshee of later folklore. This connection is further noted by Patricia Lysaght: "In certain areas of Ireland this supernatural being is, in addition to the name banshee, also called the badhb". Her role was to not only be a symbol of imminent death, but to also influence the outcome of war. Most often she did this by appearing as a crow flying overhead and would either inspire fear or courage in the hearts of the warriors. There are also a few rare accounts where she would join in the battle itself as a warrior and show her favouritism in a more direct manner.
Mythological CycleThe Morrígan appears in texts of the Mythological Cycle. In Lebor Gabála Érenn she is listed among the Tuatha Dé Danann as one of the daughters of Ernmas, granddaughter of Nuada. The first three daughters of Ernmas are given as Ériu, Banba, and Fódla. Their names are synonyms for Ireland, and they were married to Mac Cuill, Mac Cécht, and Mac Gréine, the last three Tuatha Dé Danann kings of Ireland. Associated with the land and kingship, they probably represent a triple goddess of sovereignty. Next come Ernmas's other three daughters: Badb, Macha, and the Morrígan. A quatrain describes the three as wealthy, "springs of craftiness" and "sources of bitter fighting".
The Morrígan also appears in Cath Maige Tuireadh (The Battle of Mag Tuired). On Samhain she has a tryst with the Dagda before the battle against the Fomorians. When he meets her she is washing herself, standing with one foot on either side of the river Unius. In some sources she is believed to have created the river. After they have sex, the Morrígan promises to summon the magicians of Ireland to cast spells on behalf of the Tuatha Dé, and to destroy Indech, the Fomorian king, taking from him "the blood of his heart and the kidneys of his valour". Later, we are told, she would bring two handfuls of his blood and deposit them in the same river (however, we are also told later in the text that Indech was killed by Ogma).
As battle is about to be joined, the Tuatha Dé leader, Lug, asks each what power they bring to the battle. The Morrígan's reply is difficult to interpret, but involves pursuing, destroying and subduing. When she comes to the battlefield she chants a poem, and immediately the battle breaks and the Fomorians are driven into the sea. After the battle she chants another poem celebrating the victory and prophesying the end of the world.
In another story she lures away the bull of a woman named Odras. Odras then follows the Morrígan to the Otherworld, via the cave of Cruachan. When Odras falls asleep, the Morrígan turns her into a pool of water.
Ulster CycleThe Morrígan also appears in texts of the Ulster Cycle and has an ambiguous relationship with the hero Cú Chulainn. In Táin Bó Regamna (The Cattle Raid of Regamain), Cúchulainn encounters the Morrígan, but does not recognise her, as she drives a heifer from his territory. In response to this perceived challenge, and his ignorance of her role as a sovereignty figure, he insults her. But before he can attack her she becomes a black bird on a nearby branch. Cúchulainn now knows who she is, and tells her that had he known before, they would not have parted in enmity. She notes that whatever he had done would have brought him ill luck. To his response that she cannot harm him, she delivers a series of warnings, foretelling a coming battle in which he will be killed. She tells him, "it is at the guarding of thy death that I am; and I shall be."
In the Táin Bó Cuailnge (The Cattle Raid of Cooley), queen Medb of Connacht launches an invasion of Ulster to steal the bull Donn Cuailnge; the Morrígan, like Alecto of the Greek Furies, appears to the bull in the form of a crow and warns him to flee. Cúchulainn defends Ulster by fighting a series of single combats at fords against Medb's champions. In between combats the Morrígan appears to him as a young woman and offers him her love, and her aid in the battle, but he rejects her offer. In response she intervenes in his next combat, first in the form of an eel who trips him, then as a wolf who stampedes cattle across the ford, and finally as a white, red-eared heifer leading the stampede, just as she had warned in their previous encounter. However Cúchulainn wounds her in each form and defeats his opponent despite her interference. Later she appears to him as an old woman bearing the same three wounds that her animal forms sustained, milking a cow. She gives Cúchulainn three drinks of milk. He blesses her with each drink, and her wounds are healed. Cúchulainn now knows who she is and regrets blessing her for the three drinks of milk. In the exchange between the Morrígan and Cúchulainn, 'You told me once,' she said,'that you would never heal me.' 'Had I known it was you,' said Cúchulainn, 'I never would have.'" As the armies gather for the final battle, she prophesies the bloodshed to come.
In one version of Cúchulainn's death-tale, as Cúchulainn rides to meet his enemies, he encounters the Morrígan as a hag washing his bloody armour in a ford, an omen of his death. Later in the story, mortally wounded, Cúchulainn ties himself to a standing stone with his own entrails so he can die upright, and it is only when a crow lands on his shoulder that his enemies believe he is dead.
The banshee (/ˈbænʃiː/ BAN-shee), from Irish: bean sí ("woman of the barrows") is a female spirit in Irish mythology, usually seen as an omen of death and a messenger from the underworld.
In legend, a banshee is a fairy woman who begins to wail if someone is about to die. In Scottish mythology, she is known as the bean sìth or bean nighe and is seen washing the bloodstained clothes or armour of those who are about to die. Alleged sightings of banshees have been reported as recently as 1948. Similar beings are also found in Welsh, Norse, and folklore of the United States.
Banshees are frequently described as dressed in white or grey, often having long, pale hair which they brush with a silver comb, a detail scholar Patricia Lysaght attributes to confusion with local mermaid myths. This comb detail is also related to the centuries-old traditional romantic Irish story that, if you ever see a comb lying on the ground in Ireland, you must never pick it up, or the banshees (or mermaids – stories vary), having placed it there to lure unsuspecting humans, will spirit such gullible humans away. Other stories portray banshees as dressed in green, red, or black with a grey cloak.
The banshee can appear in a variety of guises. Most often she appears as an ugly, frightening hag, but she can also appear as a stunningly beautiful woman of any age that suits her. In some tales, the figure who first appears to be a banshee or other cailleach is later revealed to be the Irish battle goddess, the Morrígan.
The banshee may also appear in a variety of other forms, such as that of a hooded crow, stoat, hare and weasel – animals associated in Ireland with witchcraft.
In some parts of Leinster, she is referred to as the bean chaointe (keening woman) whose wail can be so piercing that it shatters glass. In Kerry in the southwest of Ireland, her keen is experienced as a "low, pleasant singing"; in Tyrone in the north, as "the sound of two boards being struck together"; and, on Rathlin Island, as "a thin, screeching sound somewhere between the wail of a woman and the moan of an owl".