The legendary Celtic warrior Cuchulainn is an iconic symbol of Ireland, a symbol nearly on the scale of the Shamrock or the Harp. But who is this mysterious man who has managed to captivate us down through the pages of history? and what locations and areas helped shape his mercurial character?
Two places that are synonymous with the legend are, Cuchulainn’s Castle on the outskirts of Dundalk and Cuchulainn’s Stone only a few miles away in Knockbridge. As we will see in this blog The county Louth and South Armagh areas are integral to the Cuchulainn story itself.
There are few figures in the annals of Irish History that have had as large an impact on our consciousness as Cuchulainn. Whilst the man himself, in all probability, may have been a myth the stories and tales that revolve around this heroic character are very real and have left an indelible impact upon the Irish Psyche. The tales of Cuchulainn have passed down from generation to generation.
In the tale of the Tain bull of Cooley in spite of being hopelessly outnumbered by Queen Maeaves Army of Connaught, Ulsters Cuchulainn choose to stand and fight. He died a hero’s death strapped to a stone, daring his opponents to approach him even as he drew his last mortal breath into his lungs.
Our ancestors gathered around campfires in the dead of night and bards and druids whispered these tales of heroism to members of their clans. In bleak dark times here was a warrior, a fighter to be looked up to and revered. In the modern world, we learned these tales as schoolchildren. A huge Bronze sized statute of the man lies in the GPO in Dublin.
His iconic figure has graced stamps, flags, books, and so much more. He stands for defiance, an unquenchable warrior spirit, courage, defiance, and determination in the face of insufferable odds. The great mans fiefdom was said to have been the County Louth and South Armagh areas so what better place to get a feel for who he was then to take a tour of some of the areas that are commonly associated with the legend itself.
The first place I decided to visit was Cuchualainns stone in Knockbridge, which is only a few miles outside Dundalk. For anyone who decides to visit the location please be aware that the only thing that marks the spot is a small green sign at the edge of the field which is covered in grime. You can park across the road but take care when walking across the road as cars can suddenly be on top of you in a matter of seconds.
When you hop across the fence that leads into the field you’ll find yourself inside a large cornfield and right In the centre of that field you’ll see Cuchulainn’s stone stretching out of the ground like a giant finger. It will take a few minutes for you to make your way across the uneven and muddy ground until you reach the legendary stone. Also known as the Clochafarmore Standing Stone. Clochafarmore translates into “Stone of the big man.”
Chillingly enough the field where the stone is located is said to be called by locals as “the field of slaughter.” As you stand at the location, you are met by a peculiar silence which is then suddenly interrupted by ranks upon ranks of slowly drifting and moving corn. This all adds to the feel of a strange atmosphere, almost as if the spirits from yesteryear are watching over their former place of homage.
One of the first thing that strikes you is that the stone has no earthly business standing where it is. Normally you would find other similar stones within the general vicinity but as far as I could see there were no other boulders or rocks even remotely resembling the gigantic Clochafarmore stone. This all begs the question as to, How did it get there? If it was put there by human exertion it must have taken a momentous effort to relocate it. Standing at over 30 feet high and roughly 4 feet wide the stone is located amongst the stunning backdrop of the Cooley Mountains.
According to the legend of the story Cuchulainn was fatally wounded by a spear after a mysterious spell cast over him made him lose half his strength. The great warrior wanted to die facing his enemies standing up so he tied himself to the Clocnaformore stone. Such was the power of the man, even though he was fatally wounded his enemies wouldn’t dare approach him for three days and three nights until a raven landed upon his shoulder and then and only then had his enemies know he was dead and that it was safe to approach him.
The manner of his death has entered Irish legend but it is for the story of the Tain Bull of Cooley that Cuchulainn is best known for. In the Tain Bull of Cooley he single handily fought off Queen Maeve’s army of Connacht. The Queen of Connaught was determined to capture ulsters prize bull but the armies of Ulster had other ideas and so they decided to wage war to defend Ulsters honor but on the day of the battle, a spell was a cast over Ulsters army that made them all fall asleep, all except Ulsters greatest warrior, Cuchulainn.
Instead of fleeing in the face of such impossible odds Cuchulainn decided to invoke the ancient right of single combat, which meant that he would fight the best warriors from an opposing army one on one. For weeks Ulsters most fearsome soldier defeated opponent after opponent until eventually the rest of Ulsters army woke up from the spell that was cast over them which ultimately allowed them to finally defeat Queen Maeve’s army.
With such epic stories at play, it is not surprising that the Celts choose the jaw-droppingly beautiful Cooley Peninsular as the setting for the Tain Bull of Cooley. In the distance, the Cooley Mountains and the Mourne Mountains stand watch over this ancient terrrain as the sea waves laps to the shore. Maybe the Celts picked this location because the stone was in alignment with the passage tombs that they built at top of the Cooley mountains?
It is clear from the locations of stones and monuments like these that our ancestors worshipped nature, the moon, the stars, the sun, the trees, the rivers, the birds. They were in tune with the rhythms and beats of nature and the world. As one stands at these majestic locations sometimes you can’t but help think of so-called modern world and wonder as to how progressive we really are? In the modern world, we worship digital devices, TV.s, Laptops, and iPhones, and most of all money. The man with the big bank account thinks he’s free except he’s imprisoned, unknown to himself, imprisoned by the thoughts of the next dollar bill.
He can’t hear natures orchestra of birds or he’ll never see a dieing blood red sun setting on the Cooley Mountains as a dark blue star-speckled sky begins to tentatively twinkle its way to life. All the modern human hears is the ring of the cash register. But it doesn’t matter how much money he gets, he’ll never be happy, because all the money in the world cant fill the void inside his soul. He uses drugs and alcohol to fill that void which is akin to using a band-aid to stem the flow of blood from a decapitated leg. He doesn’t know it yet, but he’s worshipping a fools gold. Who knows, maybe those primitive nature sun-loving Celts were more modern and progressive than we might like to give them credit for? Are we the modern world, the real primitives? Primitive in spirit and soul?
After visiting the place where the great warrior met his heroic end I decided that my next port of call was going to be Cuchualainns Castle located on Mount Avenue, only 2km away from Dundalk Town. The Castle is also known as Castletown motte. This site is important in Irish mythology as it is said to be the birthplace and burial place of Cúchulainn. As you walk up the steep hill to the site you begin to get a feel for its historical significance. Halfway up the hill and in a field to the right-hand side of the large mound of earth there is a stumpy stone about 60cm long which sticks out of the ground. This small little stone, legend has it, is the burial place of Cuchulainn himself. I find it remarkable that in many of these places in Ireland that have such historical significance that there is essentially nothing to acknowledge the sacred and special nature of the locations.
You can see that the current castle tower that stands on the site is a relatively recent erection. The modern building is a place known as ‘Byrnes Folly.” It was erected by an infamous local pirate called Patrick Byrne. Whilst the word “pirate” might evoke images of a marauding one-legged pirate with a black eye patch hitting the high seas, the reality, was much different. In that era smugglers of alcohol and all sorts of other goods would have been referred to as Pirates. These men sought to avoid paying taxes to the authorities so they were labelled as Pirates in an attempt to blacken their names.
On the way up to the Castle itself there is a motte, which basically means a huge mound of earth. It is thought that this motte originally was a pre- Christian fort which was named Dun Dealgan. For anyone familiar with the Gaelic language they would be able to tell you that Dun Dealgan is the Irish version of the word Dundalk.
In spite of the story being thousands of years old the tale of Cuchulainn still resonates to this day. He faced death and his enemies head-on. Refusing to bow down even as the lifeblood slowly dripped away from him. Cuchuliann choose to die standing up. What isn’t heroic about such a story, such a saga? To face our fears but not only face them but defy them even in the most difficult of circumstances. To unsheath your sword and ride straight towards your darkest hell.
In the bleak dark days of the winter the Celts needed heros, they needed stories that could be told around campfires that might warm those winter nights of the soul. The Greeks have Hercules, we have Cuchulainn. He may, as the story goes, have died at the Clochnafarmore stone but the legend and story of Cuchulainn will live on and on, for he, Cuchulainn, is one of the immortals.