Cu Chulainn: 8 Mighty Myths And Legends I Loved As A Kid

cu chulainn
Illustrations by Stephen Reid (1904)

As a child growing up in Ireland, tales of Cu Chulainn were a common feature in my bedtime stories.

In fact, the vast majority of tales and legends that I was told as a kid stem from the rich world of Irish mythology.

I always loved Cu Chulainn, though! The idea that a little kid from Ireland could battle against vast armies of men (and a Pirate Queen!) always got my mind racing.

In the guide below, you’ll discover who Cú Chulainn was and you’ll also hear a number of my favourite stories about the mighty warrior.

Who was Cu Chulainn?

Cú Chulainn is one of the best-known characters from the Ulster Cycle of Irish mythology and it’s believed that he was born in County Louth.

In fact, there’s an Irish castle (aptly referred to as ‘Cu Chullain’s Castle’) that’s often cited as his place of birth.

As a child, Cu Chulainn was more powerful than any grown man in Ireland and it was his bravery and competency in battle that solidified him as a legend in Irish folklore.

Cú Chulainn was born to Sualdam and Deichtine, however, it’s also said that his real father is the sun god Lugh, who came to Deichtine in a dream.

Stories About Cú Chulainn

Now, a quick disclaimer before we dive into some stories about Cú Chulainn – I’m going to tell you 8 stories about the great warrior that I was told as a child.

As is the case with many stories and legends from Irish folklore, there are often several (and some times more) versions of a story that have been passed down through generations.

Below, I’m going to tell you the versions of legends about Cú Chulainn that I was told as a kid. So, grab a cup of tea, sit back, and have a read.

1. Setanta and the Hound of Culann

When Setanta (Cú Chulainn) was a young boy (5), he heard whispers from local kids about the existence of a school in County Armagh called the ‘Macra’.

The school was run by a King named Conchobhar and it’s said that he used the school to train boys that showed promise how to be warriors for famous order of fighters known as the Red Branch Knights.

The journey to see the King of Ulster

Setanta told his parents about what he had heard and he begged them to go. Alas, they said no. Setanta decided that he couldn’t wait and that nothing his mother said would stop him from visiting the school.

He left home that very day with a shield made from branches, a hurl (a stick) and a sliotar (a hard ball). It was a long walk to Armagh, but Setanta eventually arrived and noticed a group of boys playing hurling near King Conchobhar’s castle.

Setanta was a talented hurler and, without waiting for an invite, he joined the game and scored a goal. The other boys were enraged at this unannounced intruder.

The first battle

The group of boys turned on Setanta and attacked him with their hurls. Setanta was confused, but he quickly gained composure and dodged each of the blows and punches.

The King heard the commotion and walked to the pitch to see what was happening. When he arrived, he saw that a small boy had knocked out over 30 others.

The King realised immediately that Setanta was no ordinary child and he accepted him into the school. He told Setanta that he would be his guest of honour at a feast that was being held at the castle that night.

The Hound of Culann

That night, the King arrived at the feast without a care in the world, forgetting that he told Setanta to meet him outside. Believing that no others were to join them, a man named Culann released his savage hound into the castle’s grounds to ensure that no intruder attempted to enter.

Setanta walked through the grounds towards the castle, playing with his hurley and sliotar on the way. It was as he made his final ascent to the castle that he saw the hound running at him.

The King heard the growls and realised what was happening. The boy was about to be killed, surely! However, when the hound approached, Setanta used his hurl to hit the sliotar right at the hounds head, killing it immediately.

Enter Cú Chulainn

Culann and the King were both relieved when they saw that Setanta had escaped unharmed. Culann was relieved that Setanta had survived the encounter, but sad to have lost such a great guard dog.

To make up for killing him, young Setanta promised to guard Culann’s land until a new puppy had been reared. Impressed with such a noble promise, those at the feast agreed that Setanta should be given a name worthy of his bravery.

From that day on, Setanta was known as ‘Cú Chulainn’, which translates to ‘the Hound of Culann’.

2. Táin Bó Cúailnge / the Cattle Raid of Cooley

The story of the Táin begins with the legendary (and slightly terrifying!) Queen Maeve of Connacht. Queen Maeve had married a chap named, Ailill, making him her king.

One night, the pair got into an argument over who was the wealthiest. They had their many servants collect all of their possessions, from land deeds to great barrels of gold, and place them in piles next to each other.

When the dust settled, it was clear that the king had one valuable possession more than his wife – a stud bull with a pedigree so rich that people travelled from across the globe to avail of its power.

The Cursed men of Ulster and the war

Maeve knew of just one bull in Ireland that, once in her possession, would make her the wealthiest of the two. She sent a messenger to the owner and promised him great wealth in exchange for a loan of the bull for one year.

He was about to agree when word got back to him that Queen Maeve’s messengers were drunk in the local pub. One of the pair was overheard saying that they’d steal the bull if the man refused their offer.

He was so full of rage that he refused to lend Queen Maeve the bull. In response, Maeve brought together an army of men to forcefully take the bull. Now, the owner of the bull had very little option army wise, as a curse had been placed on the men of Ulster.

Maeve’s army would go up against just one boy. And that boy killed hundreds of them. Read the entire story in our guide to the Tain Bo Cuailnge.

3. Tochmarc Emire

Tochmarc Emire is another fantastic story from Irish mythology. When Cú Chulainn was a young man, he was said to be so handsome that he frightened the other men of Ulster.

According to legend, the men believed that, as he wasn’t married, he would steal their wives. They came together one night and hatched a cunning plan.

They would set off across Ireland and find Cú Chulainn a wife. The men of Ulster spent many long months searching for a woman that Cú Chulainn would fall in love with, but they failed over and over again.

There was only one woman that had a place in his heart and that was Emer – the daughter of Forgall Monach from the gardens of Lugh. Now, Monach wanted nothing to do with Cú Chulainn.

Learning the ‘Art of War’ in Scotland

But Cú Chulainn persisted. Forgall suggested that the Irish hero must travel to Scotland and train with the warrior Scáthach before he would consider him a worthy suitor for his daughter.

Now, Monach wasn’t softening. In fact, he hoped that Scáthach would kill Cu Chulainn during training. However, Cu Chulainn accepted and travelled to Scotland.

It was while he was here that Forgall offered Emer’s hand in marriage to a king from Munster. However, when the King heard that Emer loved Cu Chulainn and that he loved her back, he refused.

Over in Scotland, the Irish hero was being put through his paces by Scáthach, who was teaching him advanced fighting techniques. She also showed him how to use a barbed spear known as the Gáe Bulg.

When he returned to Ireland unscathed, Forgall was filled with rage and refused point-blank to let Cu Chulainn marry his daughter. Cu Chulainn was furious and he stormed Forgall’s castle, killing many of his men.

A weird ending

So, Cu Chulainn takes Emer from the castle and marries her, but here’s when things get weird. Well, weird in my opinion! Conchobar mac Nessa (the king of Ulster) had what was called ‘the right of the first night’.

It’s said that in some places in Europe during medieval time, feudal lords had the right to sleep with women who were their subordinates on their wedding nights.

How messed up is that?! Conchobar was afraid of Cu Chulainn but felt that if he backed down he would look weak amongst his subjects.

A druid named Cathbad came up with a solution – Conchobar would sleep in the same bed as Emer, but Cathbad would sleep between them.

4. The killing of his son

Now, although we didn’t mention it above, when the Irish hero was over in Scotland training with Scáthach, he fathered a son, called Connla.

Eight years after his birth, Connla travelled to Irish soil to surprise Cu Chulainn. However, things didn’t go quite to plan. Connla arrived into Cu Chulainn’s home after dark.

A startled Cú Chulainn asked the boy who he was, but Connla refused to say, as his mother told him not to identify himself in an attempt to seek revenge upon Cu Chulainn.

The two began to fight. It was a close match and Connla nearly beat his father. However, Cú Chulainn finally caught Connla with the Gae Bulg (the spear).

It was only as Connla was taking his final breath that Cu Chulainn realised that the boy was his son.

5. The Feast of Bricriu

There once was a man named Bricriu. A poet and a known troublemaker, Briciu lived in a house in Dundrum in County Down and it was here that this story begins.

Bricriu managed to coax three Irish heroes (Cu Chulainn, Conall Cernach and Lóegaire Búadach) into a competition for what was known as ‘the champion’s portion’ of his feast.

Now, if you’re not familiar with it, the champion’s portion was where the bravest warrior present at a meal was given the best cut of meat.

Cu Chulainn won each of the challenges and was the clear winner. However, the other two were bad losers and wouldn’t accept that they were beaten.

Beheading a hero

Cú Roí mac Dáire, a king of Ulster, stepped in with a suggestion – he would visit each of the three heroes at their homes and they would behead him (yes, behead).

He would then return to their homes and behead them… an interesting challenge, I know! Each hero agreed to the challenge and, when the Ulster king visited their homes, each beheaded him.

However, when he returned to behead them, Conall Cernach and Lóegaire Búadach both ran. It was only Cu Chulainn that remained and allowed his beheading to take place. A very extreme way to get the best slice of chicken.

6. The Death of Cú Roí

One day, Cú Roí mac Dáire, the king of Ulster mentioned above, joined an army of men on a raid of an Irish island. During the raid, the men stole mountains of treasure.

However, they also abducted a woman by the name of Blathnát. Now, Blathnát was the daughter of the island’s King. She was also madly in love with Cu Chulainn.

When it came time to divide the spoils of the raid between the thieves, Cú Roí Mac Dáire claimed that he wanted Blathnát as part of his takings.

When Cu Chulainn heard of what was happening, he tried to intervene. Cú Roí Mac Dáire proved to be a tricky opponent and he managed to overcome Cu Chulainn and get away with Blathnát.

Blathnát was wise and strong, however, and she managed to kill Cú Roí Mac Dáire. It was as she was making her escape that one of the king’s loyal subjects caught Blathnát and jumped off a cliff with her.

7. The Jealously of Emer

Cu Chulainn had many lovers. I’ve only told you a handful of stories about him above and there has already been several. Regardless of this, his wife, Emer, only became jealous when he fell in love.

The ‘other woman’ was Fand, the wife of Manannán mac Lir – the king of the Otherworld. Mac Lir had left his wife and she was attacked by several members of a supernatural race who wanted to take control of the Irish Sea.

When Cu Chulainn heard of this he agreed to help her, once she agreed to marry him… Fand wasn’t gone on the idea of the marriage but she had no choice.

When Emer heard of this, she was filled with rage and she tried to kill Fand. Rather than being upset by the attempt on her life, Fand is impressed with how much Emer loves her husband, despite his shortfallings.

She decides that she must return to her own husband, Manannán. When Manannán welcomed her back he swiped his ancient cloak between her and  Cu Chulainn to ensure that the two never met again.

Cu Chulainn and Emer downed a potion and it erased the whole, mental, situation from both of their memories. Good God that was a bit of a mad aul tale.

8. The story of who killed Cu Chulainn

Cu Chulainn’s death came when the sons of many of the men that he had killed over the years came together to avenge the death of their fathers.

His fate was sealed when he was tricked into breaking a number of taboos. In ancient Ireland, the refusal of hospitality was a massive taboo. As was the eating of dog meat.

One day, a wicked woman offered Cú Chulainn a meal containing the meat of a dog. Now, Cú Chulainn couldn’t refuse her hospitality, as that was taboo.

However, he couldn’t eat the meat of a dog, either. He refused the hospitality and his fate was sealed. Now, remember Cú Roí Mac Dáire from one of the stories above?

The Final Act of Revenge

His son, Lugaid, was the one that fired the spear that delivered the final blow to Cú Chulainn. Refusing to die lying on the ground, Cú Chulainn tied himself to a stone, so that he could face his enemies.

It was only when a crow (potentially the Morrigan), landed on his shoulder that his enemies realised that the hero was finally dead. A delighted Lugaid approached the body of Cú Chulainn.

However, as he got close Cú Chulainn’s sword fell from his hand and cut off one of Lugaid’s hands. Now, Conall Cernach, a warrior from Ulster, swore that he would avenge Cú Chulainn if he happened to die before him.

When Conall heard what happened, he immediately set off to find Lugaid. When he did, the two began to fight. Noticing that Lugaid only had one hand, Conall tucked one of his own into his belt to make the fight even. It isn’t until Conall’s horse bites Lugraid that he is able to kill him.

Fancy discovering more about Ireland’s past? Dive into our guide to Irish culture or hop into our guides to Irish mythology and Irish folklore.

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