The Greeks had Achilles, the Romans had Horatius, the Saxons had Beowulf and the Irish Celts had Cú Chulainn. The Legend of Cú Chulainn was probably the greatest one of Irish mythology. Over time, different versions of Cú Chulainn's birth, exploits and death have emerged, but here we pick up the most widespread version of the myth that appears in the Cycle of Ulster (Rúraíocht).
From Setanta to 'Hound of Ulster’
Before becoming a legend, Cú Chulainn was known as Setanta, a name given to him by his mother Dechtire at birth. She was the sister of Conchobar, king of Ulster, she gave birth during a hunt when a snowstorm forced them to take refuge in a stranger's house. That man was Lugh, one of the main gods in Celtic mythology, who made Setanta grow up in Dechtire's womb before he disappeared. It was decided that, as he had no father, this child would be raised among several noble and famous men from all over Ireland so that he could learn from them both the mastery of the sword and spear and the science and arts.
Setanta grew up and from a very early age proved to possess superhuman strength, as well as great courage and skill with weapons. When he was still a child he left for Conchobar's court, where his education was to begin, but when he arrived he found some young men playing hurling and defeating them by himself. This impressed his stepfather Conchobar and he was invited to a dinner with the best warriors of the place in Culann the blacksmith's house. As fate would have it, Conchobar forgets to announce the arrival of Setanta and releases his guardian animal, a huge dog that Setanta kills in self-defence. To compensate for this, he promises to replace the animal as protector of his home until he has trained a new dog capable of doing so. From that moment he becomes known as Cú Chulainn ("the Culann's hound" in ancient Irish).
Thus Cú Chulainn grew up and became, thanks to the training of the druid Cathbad, one of the most outstanding warriors in all of Ulster. On the day he was to take up the weapons that would prove his coming of age, the druid prophesied that whoever got his spear, sword and shield that day would become the greatest hero of all time but would also die a premature death. Cú Chulainn, thinking only of the immortality that grants eternal fame, tried one weapon after the other all the weapons that were there but they all ended up broken since they did not resist their strength. Finally, the king himself gave him his weapons to be wielded by the greatest of warriors the Ulster would ever know.
Thus, the youth of Cú Chulainn was that of a quarrelsome and fearsome warrior similar to that usually associated with other mythological characters such as Hercules. During these years he trained with the legendary warrior Scatthach in Alba (Scotland), learned to handle the legendary Gae Bolg spear, married Princess Emer and had a son whom he met as an adult and killed by accident when he did not recognize him. But of all his exploits, there is one that stands out above the rest.
The theft of Cuailnge's ox
This story, originally called Táin Bó Cúailnge, begins with an argument between Queen Maeve and her husband to see who was richer. Both possessed exactly the same amount of jewels, possessions and land except for an excellent white ox that tipped the scales in her husband's favour. A very jealous Maeve then decided to search all over Ireland for an even more beautiful and stronger animal and discovered that there was one in Ulster, which she tried to buy. When her owner refused, Maeve made alliances with other kingdoms and decided to invade Ulster to get the bull. To ensure his victory, he casts a spell on his enemies so that all Ulster men of fighting age feel the pain of a constant part.
Confident that she will win, Maeve advances with the armies of the Kingdom of Connacht and enters Ulster using fire and bloodshed without much resistance. But everything will change when she meets 17-year-old Cú Chulainn who was caught outside of Ulster by the spell and is therefore unaffected by it. With gallant bravery, the last defender of the realm faced each of the champions Maeve sent in single combat and defeated them one by one until his army was decimated and his powers reduced. At one point in the battle Cú Chullain meets Lugh, who heals his wounds and confesses to him that he is his father and later suffers a riastad, a kind of rage that transforms him into a monstrous creature of horrible appearance and fearsome strength.
In the end, the men of Ulster join the battle and Cú Chulainn himself defeats Maeve, who is spared and escorted out of the kingdom. Cuailnge's ox is captured by Connacht's forces but escapes and confronts the white ox until both die of wounds and exhaustion.
Death and conversion into a national symbol
Cú Chulainn's death is uncertain in many details but all versions agree on some points. The Hound of Ulster was 27 years old when he was challenged by Maeve and other kings seeking revenge for a new fight. After a long confrontation in which Cú Chulainn again demonstrated his strength, he was mortally wounded during an unfair fight. Cú Chulainn, knowing his time had come, tied his body to a rock to keep it standing and holding his sword. Legend has it that the fear his enemies felt for him was such that only when a raven landed on the lifeless body of the hero did they dare approach. His death was avenged by Conall Cernach, another hero of the Cycle of Ulster with whom Cú Chulainn had promised that whoever survived the other should kill those responsible that very day.
And so concluded the legend of Cú Chulainn, considered by many to be an example of sacrifice and honour. The story was preserved over the centuries with different translations and adaptations but would regain its original strength in the 19th century, becoming a symbol of Irish nationalism, and especially from 1916 onwards. That year took place in Dublin an armed insurrection against the British government known as the Easter Uprising that, although it did not lead to the independence of Ireland immediately, it laid the foundations that would in 1921.
In 1935 Éamon de Valera, one of the leaders of the 1916 uprising, commissioned the sculptor Oliver Shepard to make a statue representing the death of Cú Chulainn, tied to the rock with his sword still in his hand and a raven perched on his shoulder. The politician revived the legend of Cú Chulainn and turned it into an icon of the struggle for Irish independence, popularizing his figure even more and bringing it closer to the new generations of Irish people. The statue can still be found in the General Post Office (GPO) building in Dublin, which was the site of the Easter Uprising.