Emerald Isle

How Cuchulainn Was Named

It was the time of heroes in ancient Ireland, when giants walked the land, before Fionn MacCumhaill had sent the seven shadows of the Glen back to their dark and restless sleep with his flashing sword, and even before his son Oisín had slain the worm of the lakes, when Setanta was young.

He it was who became one of the mightiest heroes of all of Ireland, but by then he was not called Setanta any longer! And this is the story of how he got his name.

There was a smith by the name of Chulainn who had in mind to show off some of his wares to the king of Ireland, so he sent an invitation to Emain Macha where the king lived, asking King Conchobar to come and enjoy the hospitality of his household. But, he begged the king, do not bring many with you, for Chulainn despite all his skill was a man of humble means.

King Conchobar agreed and set off later to the hall of Chulainn, and as he was travelling with a few of his court, he happened to stop by a field where the Boys' Troop was playing. Back in those days the warriors of Ireland began their learning at a very young age, and it was tough going too I don't mind telling you!

First the young lads played the game of snatching cloaks, where each boy would try to lift the cloak off the back of the others, and him with the most cloaks was declared the champion. The youth called Setanta took the rest easily, while the other boys were unable to so much as pluck a hair from his head.

Next the king watched them playing tumble-the-wildcat, where the boys would try to knock one another off their feet – and again, it was Setanta left standing! Greatly impressed with this display of youthful vigour, King Conchobar called out to Setanta, telling him to join the king for a feast at Chulainn house. Setanta said he'd catch up with them later, as he wasn't yet done with his playing, paying no heed to the groans rising up from the ground, and although he didn't know the way the king's chariots would leave a wide and clear path for him to follow.

Knowing how important it was for the young men to take their training seriously, King Conchobar agreed and rode off to the hall of Chulainn, taking a seat before the lavish feast the smith had laid on. Just as they were about to start carving slices from the delicious glazed venison and mounded fresh bread with herbal butter drippings, Chulainn asked the king if he was expecting anyone else.

His eyes as full of food as he hoped his belly would soon be, the king replied that he wasn't expecting anyone, forgetting Setanta completely in his hunger. Himself and his small court fell silent then as Chulainn led out a giant beast of a dog to stand before the company.

The hound was as tall as a pony and twice as wide, with bearing and might fit to turn a brave man into a coward, fierce of fang and strong enough to pull a horse behind it. Chulainn explained that as he lived so far outside Emain Macha he had raised and trained the enormous dog from a puppy to protect himself and his small household, and knowing no other man but himself, it would rend to pieces anyone it caught trespassing.

Conchobar, with one eye on the food and the other on the beast bid him let it loose, so it padded outside the hall and circled around the grounds, before laying itself down to gaze with unblinking red eyes at the road.

Now Setanta, knowing nothing of this, had set out from the field where he'd been playing and brought with him only a hurling-stick and a small hard hurling ball, called a sliotar. Hurling was a very popular sport in Ireland in those days, and so it remains today, but there was never a hurler like Setanta! So swift and sure was he that he'd hit the ball as fast as he could, then race to catch up with it before it landed.

So caught up in his chase was he that he was almost upon the hound before he spotted it, and it spotted him! Giving a great bay, the dog leaped to its full height and thundered towards Setanta. Inside the hall the feasting fell silent, and the men knew someone was about to be killed. Remembering Setanta all of a sudden, Conchobar leaped to his feet and rushed outside with an oath.

He was too late – though not for Setanta! For seeing the beast tearing up great clods of earth with its claws as it came for him, he quickly took aim with his hurley and sliotar and eyed it well. With one whack he'd put the ball down the dog's throat, and when it lay upon the ground choking, he'd grabbed hold of its hind legs and dashed its brains out upon a nearby rock!

Well the king and his court were overjoyed to see Setanta alive and well, but poor Chulainn was silently weeping, and he told Setanta that he wasn't welcome in his hall. For who now would protect him from anyone who might wish to take all that he owned?

Although Conchobar took umbrage at these words, Setanta felt sorrow for his deed, and swore he'd make good his slaying of the hound. He asked Chulainn whether or not there was another such hound in all the land, and Chulainn said the dog had a pup – but it would take time to train it.

At that, Setanta promised he'd take the place of the hound and protect Chulainn's house until the pup was full grown. When the Druid Cathbad overheard this, it was as though a light shone on him, and he said from this point on, Cú Chulainn was to be Setanta's name, which means “The Hound of Chulainn”.

And so for the next year, Cúchulainn slept at the front door of Chulainn's home, and circled his house every night, and slept with one eye open to ward off any danger that might arise. Below on the map is marked near to the house of Chulainn.


Further Tales from the Ulster Cycle