Stories About Cú Chulainn

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  • Teideal (Title): Stories About Cú Chulainn.
  • Uimhir Chatalóige Ollscoil Washington (University of Washington Catalogue Number): 840113; 840120.
  • Uimhir Chnuasach Bhéaloideas Éireann (National Folklore of Ireland Number): none.
  • Uimhir Roud (Roud Number): none.
  • Uimhir Laws (Laws Number): none.
  • Uimhir Child (Child Number): none.
  • Cnuasach (Collection): Joe Heaney Collection, University of Washington, Seattle.
  • Teanga na Croímhíre (Core-Item Language): English.
  • Catagóir (Category): story.
  • Ainm an té a thug (Name of Informant): Joe Heaney.
  • Ainm an té a thóg (Name of Collector): unavailable.
  • Dáta an taifeadta (Recording Date): 22/11/1983.
  • Suíomh an taifeadta (Recording Location): University of Washington, United States of America.
  • Ocáid an taifeadta (Recording Occasion): evening class.
  • Daoine eile a bhí i láthair (Others present): unavailable.
  • Stádas chóipcheart an taifeadta (Recording copyright status): unavailable.

Background: The Ulster Cycle

Joe told a number of stories from the Ulster Cycle, a group of stories recorded in Old Irish in manuscripts dating from the twelfth century A.D., and which are believed to reflect customs and beliefs from around the third century B.C. Most of these stories involve Cú Chulainn, the legendary hero and principal warrior serving Conchubhair, chieftain of what Joe calls the ‘Red Branch knights’, whose seat was at Emain Macha, near Armagh. His territory included the Cooley peninsula in County Louth, which was home to the Ulstermen’s prize bull, the Donn Cuailnge.

The Naming of Cú Chulainn

At the age of eleven or twelve, Cú Chulainn — whose name at that point is Sétanta — goes with his uncle, Fergus Mac Róich and the Red Branch Knights to visit Culann, armourer to the Red Branch. When the knights have arrived and are gathered around the table, Culann asks if anyone else is coming, and Fergus says not; he forgets that Sétanta has stopped on their way to play a game of hurling, and has promised to come along after them.

Culann’s guard-dog — a fearsome hound as big as a horse, high as a wall, whose baying shakes half of Ireland — is loosed into the grounds. The gathered men hear the hound baying, and rush out expecting to see Sétanta lying dead. But the boy has instead killed the hound by ramming his hurling ball down the creature’s throat.

Culann is devastated by the loss of his hound, but Sétanta promises to take its place and ensure the safety of Culann’s property. It’s for this reason that Sétanta is given the name ‘Cú Chulainn’ — the Hound of Culann.

Queen Maedhbh and the Bulls

Maedhbh, Queen of Connacht, has an argument with her husband about which of them is the wealthier. On every point they appear to be equals in riches, until her husband boasts that he has a magnificent bull that has no equal among Maedhbh’s herds. Maedhbh enquires of some advisers, who tell her that her husband is quite right about this. At the same time, they tell her about a brown bull, at Cuailnge in Ulster, that is every bit as good as the bull owned by her husband.

Maedhbh sends men to Ulster to see if Cuailnge1 will part with the bull or, failing that, if he will lend it to her for a few weeks in hopes that it will sire an equally good bull among her cows. After entertaining Maedhbh’s men lavishly, Cuailnge agrees to lend the bull to Maedhbh. But later that night, Cuailne overhears Maedhbh’s men, well lubricated with drink, boasting that if Cuailnge had not been willing to lend the bull, they would have taken it away by force. Hearing this, Cuailnge rescinds his offer, and the terms of the coming battle are set.

Queen Maedhbh declares war on the men of Ulster — a war that rages for seven years and kills thousands. Finally the battle comes down to a contest between the bulls themselves and lasts for nine months. When the brown bull emerges victorious, he is so fed up that he kills himself.

Cú Chulainn and Ferdia

Ferdia is Queen Maedhbh’s ace-in-the-hole, a young man who had received training from the same masters that had trained Cú Chulainn himself. The two are like brothers; and even though they are on opposing sides, they take the care to dress each other’s wounds in the evening, after fighting each other during the day. But in the end, after a terrific combat, Cú Chulainn kills Ferdia.

Cú Chulainn Kills His Own Son2

Cú Chulainn marries a woman from Scotland and they have a son. But when Cú Chulainn wants to leave Scotland and return to Ireland, his wife is very angry. She raises their son to hate his father, and when he is old enough she sends him to Ireland to kill Cú Chulainn. When he arrives in Ireland, he picks a fight with Cú Chulainn, who only becomes aware that the boy is his son when, as the son lies dying from his wounds, he shows his father a ring that his mother has given him, that was given to her by Cú Chulainn when they got married.


1. Cuailnge [In English, Cooley] is the name of a peninsula in County Louth, where the brown bull is said to have lived. Joe, or the tradition from which he learned the story, confuses the place-name for that of the owner of the bull.

2. Unfortunately a tape must have run out as Joe got to this part of the story, so that we do not hear how Cú Chulainn came to be married. It is unsurprising that in this, as in other parts of the story, details of the story passed down through oral tradition differ significantly from those preserved in the earliest manuscript sources. What is remarkable, however, is that so many of the details have remained the same, despite the passage of years.