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Cuchulainn Becomes a Warrior

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Irish and Celtic myths and legends, Irish folklore and Irish fairy tales from the Ulster Cycle

Cuchulainn Becomes a Warrior of renown

Cathbad the Druid was well known throughout the lands of Ireland for his subtle skill and cunning ways, he could make birds speak the language of men and the very stones themselves sing, it was said! But like all Druids, he could also tell the portents of the day, as the ripples may be seen from a rock cast into a still pool in the deepest forest.

He travelled about with his eight students, teaching them his arts and masteries, and he happened to stop to visit his son Conchubar, King of the North, at his home in Emain Macha one fine warm spring morning.

Now Cúchulainn, who was yet only a young lad, was very curious about this eldritch wanderer, and he always stayed close by trying to overhear what was being said. When one of Cathbad's students asked what the signs of the day were, the druid cast sticks and read the clouds above, before saying

“The young man who takes arms today will be known throughout the world, and his fame will be spoken of until the end of time. But his life will be short and his end will be hard.”

When Cúchulainn heard this he ran as quickly as he could to the throne of King Conchobar, and told him he'd like to take up arms on the spot.

“But you are too young,” said the King, “come back in a few years when you've more than thistledown on your chin and we'll see.”

“It was Cathbad himself who said it must be so,” piped up Cúchulainn, and the King, although doubtful, agreed to make the child a warrior. He gave to Cúchulainn two spears, a sword and a shield, but Cúchulainn hit the one off the other and they shattered into pieces. Conchobar sent for more and stronger weapons, but again they were destroyed in the hands of his newest warrior.

Finally, having all the weapons in Emain Macha in pieces at his feet, Conchobar gave Cúchulainn his own weapons, and these at last stood the test, being the best quality in all the Kingdom. Cúchulainn raised them in salute to the King, and took his oaths.

Cathbad wandered into the hall at that moment and asked the King why this child was equipped as a warrior and swearing his fealty to the King as a man. Conchobar replied that it was by Cathbad's own words that Cúchulainn had become, and the pair rounded angrily on the boy.

“Did you trick your way into my favour?” asked the King in a dangerous tone.

“I did not,” said Cúchulainn, “Cathbad said that he who took up arms this day would know eternal fame, and so I decided the words were meant for me!”

Cathbad groaned sadly, “It is true, you young fool, but your life will be short however brightly it burns.”

“Even if I were to die today,” said Cúchulainn, “I would deem the price fair and agreeable!”

And so it was done. Conchobar gave Cúchulainn the lend of his fine chariot and horses, driven by Ibar his charioteer, and they set out for a circuit of Emain Macha, thinking the thrill of the ride would be enough to settle down this impetuous youth. After they were done, Ibar said that was enough for one day, and they should go back, but Cúchulainn wouldn't hear of it, and they went to visit his friends in the boys troop of the Red Hand.

The young lads in the playing fields cheered when they saw him, and nothing would do but that they go further afield, despite Ibar's protests. They came to the borders of Emain Macha and there men Connall Cernach, whose job it was to challenge any approaching warrior to single combat and to escort any wandering poet to Emain Macha.

Cúchulainn wanted to stand watch for the day, but Connall, seeing his youth, said he couldn't allow it. Ibar again said it was time to turn back, but Cúchulainn wanted to prove himself by blood on his first day as a warrior, so to the south they rode. Connall knew he'd get in trouble if any harm came to the lad, so he leaped onto his own chariot to escort them along the way.

Well, Cúchulainn knew that Connall would only hog his glory so he let fly with a stone from his sling, breaking the yoke of Connall's chariot and sending him spilling to the rocks with a broken arm!

“Why did you unseat me!” shouted Connall at the departing pair. “It was only testing my aim I was,” cried back Cúchulainn merrily.

And onwards they pressed to the south, Cúchulainn asking Ibar the names of every mountain, glen, hollow, fort, hall and forest they passed, until at last they spied before them a dark and glowering stack by a turbulent river with smoke rising from its roof.

“And who lives there?” asked Cúchulainn, but Ibar was loath to answer, for that was the home of Nechta Scéne and her three sons, whose father Fer Ulli had been killed by Ulstermen. Because of this they hated all men of the north and boasted they had killed more northmen than were now alive.

Still, Cúchulainn persisted and eventually Ibar told him whose house it was, so he took the wreath of challenge which lay over a standing stone and cast in into the river, letting it float down to the fortress below. With that, he lay on the grass and fell asleep, telling Ibar not to wake him if only one or two of the sons of Nechta arrived – no less than three would do!

Ibar was near gibbering with terror at this stage so he started yoking the chariot horses again, but he was too late, for the three sons of Nechta came thundering into the field!

Foill there was, the fastest man in Ireland, and Fanall, so light of foot that he could walk on deep waters without leaving a ripple, and most fearsome of them all, Tuachell, who could be harmed by neither sword nor spear.

Ibar was making excuses and getting ready to leave when Cúchulainn awoke and, quick as a flash, flung King Conchobar's spear through Foill before he'd gotten down off his horse. In one side of him and out the other it went, and Fanall sprang raging through the river to get Cúchulainn.

Not waiting for him, Cúchulainn jumped in to meet him and found that although Fanall might be able to walk on water, he wasn't able to breathe it. Lastly the terrible Tuachell approached, warlike and steely of eye, but knowing his geas Cúchulainn filled his sling with a hard pebble from the river bed and fired it straight into his eye, and took the heads of all three.

The hero-light shining around him and still filled with battle rage, he bounded up into the chariot and left poor Ibar cowering behind a bush, thundering back to Emain Macha, which even through his red fury he knew must be his destination.

Along the way he roped a herd of deer and pulled them behind him, and cast his spear sideways at a flock of swans flying overhead, tying them to the chariot as well. Seeing him coming, the men at Emain Macha were greatly troubled, for they knew he would have to be fought and the cost would be steep, but King Conchobar had an idea!

For it was not warriors he sent out but women, and them with their skirts over their heads! When Cúchulainn saw this he closed his eyes tight, for he was yet only a boy and not wise in the ways of men. He was quickly seized and ducked in a barrel of ice water, which flashed into steam in a moment.

They took him again and dunked him in another barrel, and it merely boiled. Finally to cool him off they filled a third barrel with icy mountain water and at last he cooled enough to come to his senses. Near to where the brothers met their fate is marked on the map below if you'd care to visit!


Further Tales from the Ulster Cycle

Irish fairy tales, Irish folklore