Irish Eclectic

Cúchulainn, Irish Superhero, Claimed By Two Camps

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Irish EclecticBy Brian McGowan

By any measure the greatest Irish hero is Cúchulainn (pronounced koo-HULL-en).  He is the mighty hero of the Irish epic, “Táin Bó Cúailnge,” translated into English as “The Cattle Raid of Cooley.”

Son of the great Celtic god, Lugh, Cúchulainn has a high pedigree to live up to.  Like the Greek Achilles, he is content with a short life so long as his fame and daring live on long afterward. A battler from youth, he earns his name while still a boy when he kills a fierce hound guarding the household of Culann, a blacksmith and close friend of the King of Ulster, Connor mac Nessa. From that point he is known by the name Cúchulainn, which means “The Hound of Culann.”

Grown to manhood, Cúchulainn sires a son, Connla, in Scotland, but soon returns to Ireland without ever seeing the boy. When Connla is grown, he travels to Ireland, and encounters his father, but their identities are not known to each other.  Cúchulainn thinks Connla is a threat, and slays him in battle.

When the truth is revealed, Cúchulainn is filled with grief, and lives the rest of his days with one mission. He will defend the borders of Ulster against all, particularly the warriors of the neighboring Kingdom of Connacht. Connacht launches an attack on Ulster, at a time when Ulster’s entire army has been stricken by a spell and are unable to fight.

The only warrior who can stand in Ulster’s defense is Cúchulainn. He battles the Connachtmen everywhere he can. He wins every combat, though many of the Connacht champions he slays are his friends. When the Ulstermen at last recover from their spell, the final battle is fought, and the day is saved for Ulster.

But not so for Cúchulainn. Set upon by numerous enemies, including the sons of those he has killed, he is surrounded one day and attacked. Severely wounded, he ties himself to an upright stone so that he will die standing. His foes close upon him. He is slain, but not before his falling sword cuts off the hand of an attacker.

Cúchulainn’s life may have been short, but his wish to be remembered eternally has certainly been achieved. He resonates today in an interesting dichotomy between Nationalists (largely Catholic), who seek a united, 32-county Ireland, and Unionists (largely Protestant), who wish six of those counties to remain forever part of the United Kingdom.

While the Good Friday Accord of 1998 brought what many hope will be a lasting peace to Northern Ireland, the situation is still tenuous, and undercurrents of discord linger. One example is how both camps, Nationalist and Unionist, lay claim to Cúchulainn. Nationalists revere him as the embodiment of an Irish freedom fighter. His statue adorns a special place in Dublin’s General Post Office.  There the Irish Republic was first proclaimed in 1916, sparking a violent struggle the remnants of which endure in the Irish psyche to this day.

Unionists take a different view, lauding Cúchulainn as the defender of Ulster against all comers, especially those seeking to break the connection with Great Britain.

An excellent documentary recently aired on PBS, “Once Upon a Time in Northern Ireland.” It combines interviews of people directly involved in the Troubles (1968- 1998), along with stunning graphical footage of riots, retaliation and revenge.  Expertly balancing different points of view, it gives equal voice to Nationalists, Unionists and the British military, initially brought into the fray as peacekeepers, but who get quickly caught between the two camps in a rapidly escalating whirlwind of violence.

It is one of the best treatments of the topic I have seen.  If you haven’t seen it, pull it up on one of the Internet search sites and have a watch.

Longtime Pleasantville resident Brian McGowan was born and raised in the Bronx and is a second-, third- and fifth-generation Irish-American/Canadian, as his immigrant ancestors followed several paths to the New World. Reach him at He is the author of two books, “Thunder at Noon,” about the Battle of Waterloo, and “Love, Son John,” about World War II.  Both are available at His third book, “Island Prize,” about the Battle of Brooklyn, is due to be published soon.


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