The Boyhood Deeds of Cú Chulainn; Setanta
Last year, we introduced The Armagh Rhymers to Liverpool who wowed with their ‘mumming’ and folkloric stories shared with families of all ages. Dara Vallely, one of The Armagh Rhymers top-bods, introduced us to Réamonn Ó Ciaráin, and together we hoped to run events this year, creating new work, sharing different stories and exchanging ideas. Instead, we bring you a newly translated exclusive from Réamonn (best suited for 12-16 year olds) telling one of the Cú Chulainn stories: The Boyhood Deeds of Setanta
Watch out for Réamonn’s Meet the Maker session (Fri 23 Oct) and his Sunday Story (Sun 25 Oct, best suited for 12-16 year olds, or older ‘children’).
The druids had prophesied that this boy’s final deed would be the same as his first.
His name was Setanta and his childhood was brightened by stories of the Red Branch Heroes and their Boy Troop of Navan Fort to the north. In his heart, he wanted nothing more than to be with them and with his uncle Conor, the king. One day he saw a sight that filled his heart with longing. It was the Red Branch Heroes marching north along the Castletown River. He wished that he could follow them, but he dared not.
The Red Branch Heroes began to appear to him in his dreams. He was sure their voices were calling him northwards. Deightine, his mother, did not want to release her son into harm’s way. He was only seven years old. She also knew that King Conor, her brother, would have to sponsor Setanta before he could enter into the company of the Boy Troop of Navan Fort. The day came, however, after which Setanta could no longer restrain himself and he set off on foot northwards to Navan Fort, leaving his home at Dundalk behind. With him, he brought only his hurling stick, a hurling ball, spears and a shield. To shorten his journey he cast his spear, struck the hurling ball and shot after them, catching both spear and ball before they hit the ground. It would be a long trek with Slieve Gullion to his left, the bright Hag’s Cairn on its summit, and the forge of the most famous smith in Ulster at its foot. He kept his spirits up by thinking of the Red Branch Heroes and his brave and wise uncle, Conor Mac Neasa, the King of Ulster.
On he went through the Gap of the North with the Clanrye Vallely on his right, all the time thinking of that fierce giant, Garv, who preyed on anyone that dared travel through this glen. As the cold dark night fell Setanta reached Slieve Fuad and he lay down to rest, heaping moss on his shield for a pillow. He thought he heard horses whinnying from the misty lake nearby and the Goddess Macha wailing from the plains of Armagh below. Lugh of the Long Arm came to Setanta in his dreams that night on Slieve Fuad and promised that he would always be by his side no matter what happened.
It was the screech of crows that woke Setanta and he noticed that one of these birds had a grey back. That one was the Morrigan, Goddess of War, from the stories he had been told. There were signs that a horse had approached Setanta while he slept, walked round and sniffed at him, before disappearing back into the lake from where it had come, judging by the hoof prints. In the distance below him, as the day brightened, he saw Navan Fort. He saw the ditch of the fort that the red-haired Macha had dug out with her giant brooch-pin more than three hundred years before. It was Macha who had laid a curse on the Men of Ulster that they would suffer a woman’s birthing pains at the time of their greatest need of strength. This she had done after the men had forced her to race against the king’s horses even though she was heavily pregnant.
Walking, running and jumping, it wasn’t long before Setanta reached Navan Fort by the Callan River. There he saw boys on the playing field, a hundred and fifty or so, engaged in a mock hurling battle. He was ignored at first and that surprised the king’s nephew. Then the ball came dangerously close to his feet. Instinctively, Setanta lunged forth after the ball like a hound after a hare. The Boy Troop was not pleased with this outsider running past them and striking the ball into the hole. It was remarkable how skilfully Setanta manoeuvred through the other players, keeping the ball at all times lower than his knee and higher than his ankle with his hurling stick. They turned on him then for he was without a sponsor and was a threat to them, young though he was. They threw their hurlies, their shields and javelins at him all at once. Setanta was unfazed and stood his ground. He dodged these missiles and launched his own counter-attack, knocking all his opponents to the ground.
In the end, only Setanta remained standing with his hurling stick in the air above his head. He had been seized by an anger-frenzy, which meant that everyone was his enemy. One other boy, however, sided with Setanta in this, his first battle, and that was Liag Mac Raingawra who would become an anam-chara, his soul-friend.
Revived and making their escape, a few boys darted past King Conor who was playing chess at the time with the great warrior Fergas Mac Roy. Setanta followed them in relentless pursuit. Fergas stretched out his arm and grabbed this new boy by his shirt as he sped by. Setanta immediately revealed who he was, and when Conor heard it was his nephew he declared his protection and that of the Boy Troop for Setanta. Setanta was quick to reciprocate by offering his own protection to the Boy Troop, who were still stunned and lay scattered on the grass. Young though he was, compared to the other members of the Boy Troop, they were relieved to have his favour for now.
Although Setanta was only a boy at this time he had already singled himself out from the others as a leader. Could this be the special one who had been prophesied by Cafa, Setanta’s own grandfather?
Fergas Mac Roy it was who sponsored Setanta at Navan Fort and taught him how to get the most from his strength. From then on Setanta was often to be found sitting beside Conor. He was a favourite of the king for sure.
Réamonn Ó Ciaráin has spent over 25 years working with Gael Linn in the promotion of the Irish language. He has authored three books on Cúchulainn; Laoch na Laochra: Scéal Chúchulainn (2015), Cúchulainn, Ulster’s Greatest Hero (2017) and Cú Uladh, Scéal Chúchulainn (2018). He is co-founder of Flash Fiction Armagh and co-editor of The Bramley, an anthology of flash-fiction.
Born in Crossmaglen, living now in Milford (near Navan Fort, Co.Armagh) -the centre of power for the Red Branch Heroes of whom Cú Chulainn was foremost champion- Réamonn studied Celtic studies at St Mary’s University College, Belfast, before completing an Irish Studies Masters (Queen’s University Belfast) and Cultural Management Masters at the University of Ulster.
Réamonn is centrally involved in the production of An tUltach, Ireland’s oldest literary magazine. He sits on the GAA’s national committee for the Irish language. Réamonn is chairperson of Aonach Mhacha, the Irish language social enterprise, responsible for the building of a £2.3m Irish language Cultural Centre in Armagh City (opened March 2020) after a ten year Odyssey. In August last year he toured the American Midwest speaking about Cú Chulainn. Translations by Réamonn have been performed at Imram, International Irish language Literature Festival in Dublin (2018 and 2019).
About Gael Linn www.gael-linn.ie
Gael Linn was founded in 1953 and has been known since then as an entrepreneurial organisation. Its main aim is to foster and promote the Irish language and its heritage throughout Ireland as a living language and as an expression of identity. Its entrepreneurial philosophy is implemented through a broad range of activities and projects, delivered year-on-year, which can be divided into three broad categories; education, language promotional schemes and business. Designated by Foras na Gaeilge as one of six lead organisations in the voluntary sector Gael Linn’s chief areas of responsibility are the teaching of Irish as a school subject and in adult education and the creation of opportunities for school pupils to use Irish.
In this presentation Réamonn Ó Ciaráin discusses how the mythological figure of Cú Chulainn is a potent symbol of bravery, loyalty, martial prowess, beauty and wisdom. The spirit of Cú Chulainn has inspired revolutionaries, artists, sports men and women and Irish leaders for at least a millennium. Réamonn will demonstrate how Cú Chulainn still holds significance for many in the 21st Century. Cú Chulainn has been adopted by the Republican tradition of Ireland as a symbol of heroic self-sacrifice for his people and to the Loyalist people of the North, he is the heroic defender of Ulster. This presentation will be delivered in a narrative style combining a retelling of lesser known Cú Chulainn stories with learned and fresh insights. Réamonn will also discuss how he combines painter Dara Vallely’s bold, vibrant and even tribal paintings with his text to instil a new vitality and depth to these ancient stories, in both the English and Irish languages. Réamonn has published three books on the mythological tales of Ulster, produced in conjunction with Armagh artist Dara Vallely.