How Seadanda Became Cuchulainn
Hugh A Murphy describes the coming of age of one of Ireland's greatest folk heroes
The two greatest folk heroes running from pagan mysticism in Ireland are Cuchulainn and Finn MacCool.
They form the subject matter of two of the country’s four Cycles of Literature, the Rúraíocht and the Fiannaíocht. It is not surprising that both of them are closely linked to this landscape of the Ring of Gullion.
Cuchulainn in particular dominates the early literature and folklore of this area and is the genesis of much of its later folk consciousness, perhaps even to modern times.
Through various stages of its history, this part of South-East Ulster has been known under different distinguishing titles, especially during the great age of its 18th century poets, but more than anything else it was, and still remains, Cuchulainn Country. In him is enshrined the timeless symbolism inherent in this landscape.
What more fitting setting could there be for Ulster’s greatest hero, for his transformation from human to superhuman, than Slieve Gullion, the highest prominence in this whole area of South-East Ulster? This mountain was imbued with the same grandeur of stature, and indomitable spirit that the hero himself would later assume.
The setting for Cuchulainn’s birth was just south of the Ring of Gullion in the plain of Muirtheimhne, at Dealga Fort, after which the present town of Dún Dealgan, Dundalk, is named. The story of his life and exploits links North Louth and South-East Ulster, as they were historically linked in early times, this part of Louth still being part of the Province of Ulster.
The Ring of Gullion acts as a passageway, through which this story moves to and fro between Dealga Fort and the ancient city of Eamhain Macha, present day Navan Fort, which was the royal seat of the then High King of Ireland, Conor MacNeasa.
Cuchulainn’s childhood name was Séadanda, better known in English as Setanta. He was born of illustrious parentage. His father, Sualdamh according to the more traditional version of his origin, was a Taoiseach, or Chieftain, in North-Louth, a position of power and high social ranking.
He quite clearly lived in a style that matched his status, judging from the distinctive nature of his fortress home, the site of which still stands a short distance from Dún Lughaidh castle, the present day St. Louis’ Secondary School just off the Castletown road in Dundalk. His mother, Deichtíre, was the sister of the High King himself, Conor Mac Neasa.
According to a custom which was very prevalent in early Ireland, as is indicated by the numerous references to it in legends, known as Altram (Fosterage), it was only a matter of time before the young Séadanda would be setting out to his uncle’s castle in Eamhain Macha. This was a tradition whereby children who had illustrious relatives were sent at a fairly early age to the homes of those relatives to be raised, and tutored in the social graces and military arts, as would befit their Clan status.
When still no more than a child, we see the young hero setting out alone, despite his mother’s protestations, down through the Ring of Gullion on his long journey to his uncle’s castle.
Shortly after his arrival a party was being given for Conor MacNeasa and members of his court by Cuileann (later Culann), the chief blacksmith attached to his castle. It was at this party that the young lad was to undergo his metamorphosis from human to superhuman, when he killed the fierce hound of Culann.
This was reputedly the largest and fiercest wolfhound in Ireland, which no warrior had ever been able to pass. He was the only protection that Culann had ever needed for his castle, even on such an important occasion as this when the High-King himself was present.
When Séadanda arrived late at the party and the hound, who was loose in the yard, came to devour him, as he had done with others, he struck his hurley ball with his camán, both of which he always carried with him, down his throat and 'out his body'. He then took him by the back legs, swung him around his head and dashed his skull against the wall, a feat which for a lad of his age was a presage of the superhuman prowess he would later display.
In an attempt to appease Culann, who was very distressed at the loss of the hound, Séadanda told him that he would scour Ireland to find a pup of the same breed and that he would raise and train him until he would be fit to replace the hound he had killed. In the meantime he said that he would take the place of the hound and guard his castle.
The pagan soothsayer, Cathbad, who was present spoke up and said, 'Tis well you have spoken. From this day forth you will be known as Cú Chulainn, The Hound Of Culann, a name which will soon be known throughout the length and breadth of Ireland.'
This event, which marks Séadanda’s first step across the threshold from his human to his later mythical form, occurred on the top of Sliabh gCuilinn, Slieve Gullion, which derives its name from the blacksmith.