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Like Achilles, to whom he is so often compared, the Irish hero Cúchulainn was known for his beauty. Especially among the female inhabitants of Ulster. Yes, he was quite the lad. But in his battle rage, he was transformed into a twisted monster:

His bones became fluid and reshaped themselves. His feet and knees turned backward, and his heels and calves protruded forward, while one eye sank deep into his head and the other was extended, large and round as a sheep’s bladder. Every hair on him stuck out like a spike of hawthorn, and the hair was tipped with drops of blood that rose from his head in a mist.

Cúchulainn was by turns a seductively handsome youth and a fearful vision of terror. This doesn’t seem to have scared off the ladies one whit. In fact, like the women of Imperial Rome who became obsessed with scarred and battle-hardened gladiators, they formed themselves into groups of admirers devoted to the most notable warriors of Ulster.

In the saga called Serglige Con Culainn ocus Óenét Emire (The Wasting Sickness of Cúchulainn and The Only Jealousy of Emer), we learn that three warriors in particular had their fan clubs. Here is my adaptation of that scene. It begins when the female satirist Leborchamm asks the hero to capture some pretty birds for the ladies to keep as pets.

Leborchamm found Cúchulainn nearby playing fidchell with Loeg. They used charming pieces of amber and ivory, which they moved about an inlaid board, each vying to seize the advantage over the other. “Your wife and the other women of Ulster would be well pleased,” she said, “if those birds were given to them by your hand.”

He frowned at the interruption of his game, and glancing over at Emer and the other women, said loudly, “Have the idle women of Ulster nothing better to do than pine after pet birds?”

“That is unfair of you, Cúchulainn,” Leborchamm rebuked him, “for it is on your account that so many of us have assumed a blemish.” Three of the men of Ulster were the most beloved in the land, men who drew sighs when they passed, and made the women glance at each other and giggle. Conall Cearnach was one, Cúscraid Mend the son of Conchobar was the second, and Cúchulainn himself was the third. Because Conall Cearnach had a slightly crooked gait, the women who loved him imitated his uneven steps. Because Cúscraid Mend stammered, the women who loved him spoke with halting voices. As for Cúchulainn, they said that in his battle madness, when he grew warped and monstrous, he thrust one bulging eye outward, and drew the other so deeply into his head that there was only a black hole left. Thus the women who loved him applied black soot to their right eyes.

In my version, I changed one significant detail. The original says that the women actually blinded one eye in order to look like Cúchulainn. So, fellow fangirls– the next time you’re tempted to have “I heart Richard Armitage” tattooed on your forehead, change your legal surname to Cumberbatch, or dye your hair the lovely carrot-like hue of Domhnall Gleeson’s locks, remember the hapless Women of Ulster! I stand before you a sadder but wiser woman, having learned my own lesson after laying out good money for a DVD of Miami Vice, just because Ciarán Hinds is in it for five minutes.


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