Friday 29 July 2011

22 - 'Cuchulain, the 'Hound of Ulster''

Emain Magha Celtic fort, near Armagh City
August 02, 2010

Well, ye're always very patient with me bletherin' on about life in Norn Iron.  Actually, I'm just back from a great week at the John Hewitt International Summer School, in the city of Armagh.  John Hewitt was another writer and poet from Northern Ireland, along with others - like Louis MacNiece, Sam Hanna Bell and W.R. Rodgers; Brian Moore, who moved to Toronto, Canada; and Seamus Heaney, of course.  There's been a wealth of writing and poetic talent from this wee province of Ulster.

Anyway, durin' the week we had various readings and discussions with poets, such as the well-known, Michael Longley; from writers and journalists.  We also had music, from people such as well-known author - and also mandolin player - Louis De Berniernes, accompanied by Ilone Antonius-Jones on flute & keyboards.  Also, we had the Heartstring Sessions with guitarist, Arti McGlyn; fiddler, Nollaig Casey; her sister, Maire Ni Chathasaigh on harp & whistle; and flat-pickin' guitarist, Chris Newman.

County Armagh, by the way, is a small county, just to the west of County Down, south of Lough Neagh, with Tyrone and Fermanagh to the west and the border and Monaghan to the south.  Armagh is famous for its apples - and ye'll see apple orchards all around Armagh City.  The city is also the ecclesiastical capital of Ireland, where both the Anglican and Roman Catholic Archbishops sit.  Remember the old Spinners song, 'If ye want a cathedral, we've got one to spare, in me Liverpool 'ome.'    Well, like Liverpool, Armagh can boast not one, but two, cathedrals!

And just outside the city is the Navan Fort, the site of Emain Magha, the ancient capital of the province of Ulster and the centre around which were focussed the Red Branch cycle of epic stories/legends.  Stories of Conhobor, king of Ulster and, of course, Cuchullain, the famous hero of Ulster, although he actually came from County Louth, to the south.  Now from Cuchullain you get the name, McCullough - meaning, son of Cuchullain.  So, I suppose it's appropriate that we're listening to one of my own tunes at the moment?  I only play one now and then!  This is called, 'Ar tir seo aguinne (Our Land)'.

Well, back to Cuchullain, the hero.  He was originally named, Setanta, and he was sent to Emain Magha to train as a warrior for Ulster.  This trainin' included a whole lot a' games a' hurlin'.  If yez've ever watched a hurley match, ye'll know that it can be quite similar to a war!  Anyway, Setanta had been invited to the house of Cullen, the smith, for a feast, with the rest of the Ulster court.  But he wanted to finish the hurlin' match, so he arrived late at Cullen's house.  The gate of thorn bushes was already pulled across the entrance and Cullen's fierce hound had been let loose to guard the place.

Setanta had to fight with the hound and eventually killed it - which didn' go down too well with Cullen, its owner.  But Setanta, bein' an honourable sorta fella, offered to take the hound's place, until it's pups would be old enough to take over the guard duties.  As a result, he began to be called, 'CuCullen' - the hound of Cullen.  Later, this got changed slightly to 'CuChullainn', meaning the hound of Ulster, when he guarded the approaches to Ulster against the combined armies of Connaught and the other three provinces of Ireland.

Ye see, a whole big row got started between Ulster and Connaught, in the west of Ireland.  It started innocently enough with some men from Queen Mebh, of Connaught, coming up to Ulster for the loan of their champion bull, the Dunn.  But the drink did its work and a bit of drunken rivalry and boasting started up a war before long - does this mebbe sound familiar?  

Anyway, the men of Ulster came under a curse and were unable to defend the province.  CuChullainn was the only warrior of Ulster who was not affected by the curse so, as the armies of Ireland approached Ulster, each mornin' he would stand on the northern bank of every river ford on the way and issue a challenge to single combat to the armies.  They would send out a champion to fight him and the progress would be halted for the day.  Needless to say, Cuchullain won each of these combats, although he had to take on a couple of warriors who were personal friends and ended up killing them.

He managed to hold off the advance long enough so that the men of Ulster were recovered and able to take part in the main battle.  He was eventually killed himself in the battle, but I think he earned the name 'The Hound of Ulster', don't you?  The whole epic story is known as the Tain, or 'Tain bo Cooley', after the Cooley Peninsula, in Co. Louth, just south of the present day Ulster border.

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