Proud-whirling man in arms,
Your house shall rear no son.
Never will you grow old,
Hero, but die on your feet.*
Cúchulainn is perhaps the most beloved of Irish heroes. Like Achilles, he is the greatest of warriors, and like Achilles, he is fated to die young. At the last, he ties himself to a standing stone and thus fulfills the prophecy of Scáthach.
I did not begin to study the Irish sagas until later in life, but when I did, I fell in love with these miniature epics, full of humor, pathos, druids and warrior women. The characters express themselves with a direct simplicity that takes the reader by surprise. The sagas were recorded by monks, but they preserve much that is distinctively pre-Christian. I found them so moving that I wrote my own story about Cúchulainn.
Near the end of his life, my Cúchulainn tells his wife Emer, “All men must die.” This pronouncement was not invented by George R. R. Martin. It is a central dilemma for every great hero from Gilgamesh to Achilles to Cúchulainn. But these heroes (and the men who were their real-life models) achieved a different kind of immortality through what Homer calls kleos aphthiton, the imperishable glory of song.
Why do you fix me with those eyes of a hawk? Bird… Woman… Witch!
Do what you will, I shall not leave this place until I have grown immortal like yourself.
Run where you will, grey bird, you shall be perched upon my wrist.
Some were called queens, and yet have been perched there.
-Cúchulainn in At The Hawk’s Well, by W. B. Yeats (1916)
In 1966, Ireland issued a 10-shilling coin commemorating the 50th anniversary of the 1916 Easter Rising, an event that led directly to the Irish War of Independence and the Irish Free State. The obverse of the coin shows the famous bronze statue of Cúchulainn that stands today in the General Post Office in Dublin, the center of the Uprising. The statue was created as a memorial of 1916, alluding to Cúchulainn’s role as a symbol of Celtic Irish culture and Irish independence.
The obverse of the coin has a portrait of Padraig Pearse, a teacher, lawyer, writer and political activist who was executed by the British (with fifteen others) for his role in the Easter Rising. The coin embodies the idea that ancient myths never lose their power to inspire us.
In 1964 a young Ciarán Hinds played the Hound of the blacksmith Culann in an Irish ballet staged by his dance teacher, Patricia Mulholland. According to the legend, this hound attacked the infant Sétanta, who demonstrated his strength by strangling it. But because he had deprived the smith of his guard dog, Sétanta himself guarded Culann’s house until a new pup was reared. Thus Sétanta received his name: Culann’s Hound, or Cúchulainn.
Hinds twice portrayed Cúchulainn himself (1982, 1989), as realized in the cycle of experimental plays by W. B. Yeats. In 1989, Yeats scholar James Flannery directed a historic revival of the Cúchulainn cycle at the Abbey Theatre in Dublin, to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Yeats’ death. The music was composed by Bill Whelan, who would go on to fame and fortune with Riverdance.
At the time, Fintan O’Toole said in the Irish Times:
Flannery gives us Cuchulain as an Irish Peer Gynt, moving from ignorant, anarchic but energetic youth through a series of diverse adventures towards isolated death. Ciarán Hinds’ Cuchulain realises this superbly. He has a kind of languid roughness, a feckless grace, leaving open so many opposites within the one portrayal, that the idea of growth and change is always present.
This little pendant on its string of green gems is my personal talisman. It’s part of my fandom, of course, but there is more to it than that. It symbolizes a constellation of ideas and people that have meaning for me: my lifelong study of mythology; the indomitable spirit of the Irish people; the genius of William Butler Yeats who has been a favorite poet since my college days; my own creative life; and the singular hero Cúchulainn, whose glory remains ever-green.
*My adaptation from one of the oldest Cúchulainn sagas, “The Words of Scáthach.”