Emerald Isle

The Trials of Cuchulainn

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

Testing him to his limits, The Trials of Cuchulainn

The chariot games in Ireland of old were a great event – the mightiest of kings, warriors, princes and champions from around the world would travel from afar to watch and join the fiercely contested races. Each man and his team of horses would thunder round the track, and the cheers of the onlookers would shake the hills.

And so it was for Forgal the Wily, a cunning lord of the fens, but when he returned to his tent he was dismayed to hear his daughters speaking of the handsome young man called Cúchulainn who had won the day's races, and how he had charmed his daughter Emer. No untested warrior boy would be getting her in trouble, he swore!

He dressed himself up in fine silks and wrapped his men in the same sorts of garments, and went to the festivities at Emain Macha where he claimed to be a foreigner sent by the king of Gaul to speak with High King Conchobar. Many were the gifts he brought, delicately wrought gold and rich wines, and the people of Emain Macha made him very welcome.

He gave great praise for the charioteering of Cúchulainn and the other men of Ulster, but, he asked, why had the lad not been sent to Scathach the warrior-queen of the crown of Alba, for without her teaching he would never have perfect knowledge of the feats of a warrior?

Well after hearing this, Cúchulainn whose skill was matched only by his pride, would have nothing but the High King's permission to go to Scathach and master the warlike arts she taught. Behind his veils Forgal smiled silently as he knew the young man would never return, between the wilderness, the savages, the dangers he'd put in Cúchulainn's way, and Scathach herself!

Two of the greatest warriors of the Red Branch, Laoighre Budhach and Conall Cearnach, said that they would go with him and keep him company on his journey. Scathach lived across the sea and on the other side of Alba, far to the north, on an island that bore her own name.

The three set out on their long journey, but no sooner had their boat landed on the shores of Alba and they stopped for a while at the forge of Donall, the smith, than Forgal the Wily sent a vision of Emain Macha. Laoighre and Conall were so overcome by homesickness that they couldn’t bear to go on, and they turned back to Ireland there and then, leaving Cúchulainn alone in the wilderness, as was Forgal's plan.

Well Cúchulainn was saddened by the loss of his fellows but resolved to carry on with his journey, for he'd sworn an oath to see it through to the end, even if that end be his own. But now he had no idea of the path he must take, facing an untracked land filled with peril.

He was greatly alarmed to see a powerful beast like a giant lion coming towards him, but it didn't attack – instead it blocked his road whichever direction he took. Seeing then that it meant him no harm, he sprang onto its back and let it carry him where it wanted.

For four days they travelled until they reached the ends of the realm of men, and they saw an island with four young boys playing in the lake around it. The lads started to laugh and jeer when they saw him riding the beast, and Cúchulainn burned with shame, so he jumped off and told the beast to be on its way.

He came before too long to a narrow valley, beyond which were the plains of misfortune, and there he met a young fellow by the name of Eochu. They spoke for a while and Eochu told him of some of the dangers ahead – on the near side of the plain the feet of men would stick fast, and on the far side every blade of grass would rise and hold them fast on its points. Eochu gave him a wheel, and told him to follow its track across the first half of the plain, and an apple. This he told Cúchlainn to throw the rest of the way, and follow it as it bounced, until he got through.

Cúchulainn did as he was told and found himself in a canyon full of fierce monsters, sent by Forgal to eat him, but he stuck to a narrow path and got by them too! At last he arrived at the place where Scathach lived, and saw that people had heard of his approach, for a large crowd had gathered before the bridge to her island.

They had with them jugs of wine and fresh bread with fish sauces for dipping, pipes and drums, brightly coloured scarves, and a festival air was about – for it was great entertainment among them watching young heroes trying to get across the bridge! The bridge was enchanted you see, and could shrink itself down to the width of a sapling, or flex and buck like a wild horse, dipping into the ocean to become wet and slippery! And a great far drop to jagged rocks below it was too.

Not deterred, Cúchulainn took a run at the bridge and was thrown off when it arched its back like an angry cat. A second time he approached, more carefully now, and again was deposited on his rear end to the great amusement of the crowds.

Then he became filled with rage, and the hero-light shone about him, and he was gripped by a warp spasm. With his famous salmon leap he jumped to the middle of the bridge when it was bent to a great height, and before it could recover from its surprise, he had leaped to the other side!

Well the crowd fell silent at that I can tell you, and none were more surprised than Scathach herself. As he had proved himself, he was taken into her home where he learned and mastered the warrior-arts she could teach him, and after a year and a day none could best him in their practice.

At that time a warrior-queen called Aoife had started a feud with Scathach, and both of these fearsome women had raised an army to go out and fight. Scathach didn't mention this to Cúchulainn, for the handsome youth had become dear to her, so she gave him a sleeping draught to make him slumber through the battle, as she believed Aoife too much for any man to defeat.

Although the potion would have conquered the senses of anyone else, Cúchulainn lay asleep for but an hour before stirring. Looking about himself in wonder he found the place deserted, and going forth he found the war about to begin! The two sons of Scathach had gone up the path of feats to fight the three champions of Aoife, the sons of Ess Enchenn, and great was the fear of Scathach for her children.

Seeing this, Cúchulainn leapt over their heads and duelled with the three champions by himself, defeating them all until a pile of heads lay at his feet. With a cry of fury Aoife challenged Scathach to a fight, with herself as champion, but Cúchulainn went out in place of Scathach. Before he picked up his sword, he asked Scathach what did Aoife prize most in the world, and was told she loved nothing better than her horses and chariot.

And battle was again joined! Truth be told Cúchulainn was getting the worst of it, for Aoife wasn't just wise in the ways of war but also of magic and enchantment, and his spear was shattered, his sword broken off at the hilt. The he cried out “Is that your chariot and horses going off the cliff?” and when Aoife turned to look, he grabbed her and held her over his shoulders!

Well he carried her like a sack of potatoes down to the camp of Scathach below, and laid her on the ground, and held a sword to her breast, and she begged for her life, and he gave it to her. And after that she made peace with Scathach, and bound herself by oaths not to go against her again, giving her love to Cúchulainn although great sadness was to come of that union in the future.

From Aoife he received the Gae Bolg, that terrible spear, made by Bolg son of Buan from the iron-hard bones of the Coinchenn, a sea monster that had been slain on the strand by another beast, the Curruid. The many-thorned weapon had to be cast from the fork of the toes, but when it entered the body of a foe it would split into thirty barbs, coursing through the highways and byways of his body so that every single joint filled with sharpened spikes, and his body had to be cut open to dig it out.

Before he left to return to Ulster, Aoife told him she was with child, a little boy, to the great joy of Cúchulainn. He said to call the lad Connla and bring him up to be as great a warrior as his father, giving her a red-gold ring for his thumb. When his son was able to wear it without it slipping off, he was to travel to Ireland to find his father.

Scathach called him then to her speckled house and spoke to him through the imbas forasnaí, the Light of Foresight. As the wickersmoke curled and danced about them, forming strange uncanny shapes, she spoke to him of the bloody events to come on the Plain of Muirtheimne, of plucking ravens and weeping women, but through his sorrow Cúchulainn felt joy, for his name would never die so long as the world turned.

As Cúchulainn was going home by the narrow path, he met an old hag, blind in one eye. She asked him to make room for her to pass, but he said there was no room, unless he would throw himself down the yawning ocean cliff that was on the one side of it. But she asked him again to make way for her, and he would not refuse, so he dropped over the edge with only his one hand keeping a hold of the path.

As she walked past him, she suddenly stamped her foot on his hand! But at that, he swung up again on the path and struck off the hag's head. For she was Ess Enchenn, the mother of Aoife's champions slain by him, and it was to destroy him she had come out to meet him. And so Cúchulainn returned to Ireland, a finer warrior than he had ever been, and despite Forgal the Wily’s tricks, the very first thing he did was to go and find Emer, and make her his wife.

Emain Macha is marked on the map below, should you fancy a visit!

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Further Tales from the Ulster Cycle

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