Cú Chulainn is considered by many to be Ireland’s greatest legendary hero. He had the looks, the strength, the bravery and there’s always the time he single-handedly defended his country against an entire invading army.
The legend goes back to the early parts of the young hero’s life, where he was national champion of Hurling – a fierce and hardy sport where towering men launch iron spheres around a torn up field. Cú Chulainn wanted more than sport in his life, and turned to war, where he joined the Red Branch Knights, an elite team of warriors who swore to protect the king and Ulster from all that was thrown at it.
Perhaps the greatest tale of Cú Chulainn’s bravery is the story of the battle of the Ford of River Dee, where the hero challenged an entire army to a Rite of Combat - Cú Chulainn would battle one of the Queen’s strongest warriors every day for two weeks, long enough for the rest of the Ulster army to rally and eventually win the war.
Our hero has also been known as the Irish Achilles, even at exact opposite corners of continent, these are two which share striking similarities. Where the boldness, honour, power to inspire dread and honesty of Cú Chulainn puts him on the same plain as the great Greek champion, the Irish oral tradition and its injection of humour, wit and an all Irish dryness means the Irish folk tale gives us a humourous edge that the Greek counterpart does not. One of the most telling differences in Greek and Celtic mythology is the fact that our Irish Gods could be wounded and harmed in battle. Even if Celtic myth was inspired by the Greek tales of war, gods and revenge, the mortality of the Celtic gods is a reflection of the Irish psyche. The gods were essentially men, these weren’t beings that lived in the clouds, they were flesh and blood and bone who could love, or hate, or fail. In this way, the relationship between the Celt and his gods was one of admiration rather than worship, they were great men, but they had their failings.
The tragic-comedy in the death Cú Chulainn is the stuff of Irish pub tales. The most beautiful goddess of Irish folklore, Morrigan came to Cú Chulainn’s door to woo the great warrior, offering him immortality, but refusing to fall for her advances, and insisting immortality was not a gift to give, he instead won her wrath. This was the demise of Cú Chulainn – fighting off giant beasts, entire armies and mighty warriors, but falling foul of a woman scourned.