Cú Chulainn: Irish Warrior

The mythic Irish figure who lived fast, died young, and could warp into a Hulk-like warrior monster.

Cú Chulainn is a legendary figure in Irish mythology. While there are numerous variations of his name (Cuchulain, Cuchullin, Cuchulinn, etc.) there are even more variations of his life story. Cú Chulainn (‘Koo KUL-in’) was said to have lived somewhere between the 1st century BCE to 1st century CE in the kingdom of Ulster in the north of Ireland. His tale was a part of the oral storytelling tradition, changing and growing over the years, so by the 7th century when it was recorded by Sechan Torpeist, there were numerous versions.

Differences in his story aside, the basics are that Cú Chulainn was born to a mortal woman, Deichtine, sister to Conchobar mac Nessa the king of Ulster, while his father was the god Lugh (whom the County of Louth is named after). This makes Cú Chulainn a demigod and like other demigods in folklore he had superhuman abilities & looks. He was said to have hair that was three different colors, he had four colored dimples in each cheek, as well as seven pupils per eye, seven fingers per hand, seven toes per foot. In spite of these unusual features (or perhaps because of them) he was considered exceptionally handsome.

As a child, in an early display of his warrior abilities, a wolfhound ran to attack Cú Chulainn but in self-defense he used his hurley to hit a ball down the dog’s throat, eventually killing the dog with his hands. Feeling bad for killing Culann the metalsmith’s dog he offered to take the dog’s place in guarding Culann’s property. This is how Sédana (to add yet another name to his story) became Cú Chulainn. “Cú” means hound and “Chulainn” was the name of the metalsmith – so “Culann’s hound”. In a way Cú Chulainn was named after the dog, like Indiana Jones.

At the age of seven Cú Chulainn heard the druid Cathbad discussing a prophecy that any warrior who took up arms that day would have everlasting fame. Desiring fame & glory Cú Chulainn went to his uncle the King to request a weapon. Unfortunately Cú Chulainn failed to hear the second part of the prophecy which stated that this famous warrior would also have a very short life.

The short, but action-packed, life of Cú Chulainn took him on numerous adventures.

Unleash the beast

Like other demigod warriors, Cú Chulainn had an unmatched prowess in battle. Part of his secret to success was his ability to go into a ríastrad or “battle frenzy/spasm” where he would physically transform like Dr. Jekyll into Mr. Hyde or Bruce Banner into the Hulk, but with more of an H.P. Lovecraft feeling.

Driven by rage his body would contort so his feet and shins turned backwards, his one eye would recede into his head while the other would dangle out, his hair became like spikes, his lungs and liver were somehow visible in his mouth, all while his forehead leaked blood. He became a monstrous killing machine, indiscriminately slaughtering anyone (including allies) who crossed his path. Once the fighting was over he would return to his beautiful, beardless, youthful human form.

Warrior Legend

Cú Chulainn’s superhuman speed, agility, his monstrous ríastrad form, and his good looks led him to many adventures. He trained with Scáthach on the Isle of Skye in Scotland, he got recruited into fighting demons in Tír nAill (the magical “Otherworld”), he accidentally killed his own son, many women (human and magical) fell in love with him, he defended Ulster by single-handedly holding back the army of queen Medb in the Cattle Raid of Cooley, won contests, bested his foes, etc.

Despite his extraordinary abilities Cú Chulainn couldn’t escape that he was cursed to die young. Having slain so many men he understandably made a lot of enemies including the shape-shifting goddess The Morrígan (the magical “phantom queen” who may be three sisters or just one woman in multiple forms). Eventually he was brought down by his various enemies conspiring against him. Towards the end of his final battle Cú Chulainn tied himself to a standing stone (with rope or with his entrails) so he could die on his feet. After the final blow was dealt the surrounding army was afraid to approach him, unsure if he was really dead. A raven (The Morrigan in Badb bird form) landed on his shoulder proving that Cú Chulainn the legendary warrior had died – at 27 years old.

Symbol of Nationalism

The story of Cú Chulainn, the heroic Irish warrior, has served as inspiration over the centuries. In the early 20th century there was renewed interest in Cú Chulainn as part of the Celtic Revival where he became a part of the Irish nationalism movement. That he would tie himself to stay upright and continue the fight against a seemingly intractable enemy became symbolic of the republican movement for national independence and the fight against England. In 1935 Éamon de Valera chose the Oliver Sheppard statue The Death of Cuchulainn for the national memorial to the 1916 Rising. Today the statue can be seen inside the General Post Office, O’Connell Street, in Dublin.

Beyond the Pale

The expression about unacceptable behavior that’s based in Irish history.

Around 16,000 BCE the melting ice from the Ice Age raised sea levels and separated Ireland from Britain. Then around 6,000 BCE Britain became separated from mainland Europe. Since around 8,000 BCE the island of Ireland has been steadily inhabited but whether these early settlers arrived on a disappearing land bridge or by boats is unknown. The Celts came much later (exactly when is debated) but somewhere starting around 500 BCE.

The long conflict between the Irish and English stems from the 1169 CE Norman invasion of Ireland. An 1155 papal decree by Pope Adrian IV (who, what a coincidence, was English himself) granted King Henry II of England the right to invade & govern Ireland. This was the start of the next several hundred years of brutal English colonization of Ireland.

Us From Them

The Lordship of Ireland began in 1177 but, in the beginning, England really only ruled over parts of Ireland. Some of the Lords who had been given land assimilated to the local Irish culture, the crown gained land and lost land, and gradually the area under English control shrank. By the 14th century only a region around Dublin was still under English control. To clearly mark the King’s territory, to separate “us from them”, a wooden fence was constructed along portions of the border. This border was the pale, from the Latin “palus” for a stake or fence. So, the native Irish living free outside of the control of the English crown were “beyond the pale.”

To try and control their subjects the English put in place various laws to prevent Irish influence. Marriage between English settlers and the Irish was forbidden, as was speaking Irish Gaelic, dressing like the Irish, or even cutting your hair like an Irish person. These activities were deemed unacceptable behavior and were “beyond the pale.”

Today the idiom “beyond the pale” continues to mean things that are offensive or unacceptable, just like what the English thought centuries ago.

Added info: the oldest structures in Ireland, sometimes thought of as Celtic, existed long before the Celts arrived in Ireland. Newgrange, the 5,200 year old passage tomb just North of Dublin, was created 2,500 years before the Celts arrival (it was also created before the pyramids of Giza).

the Shamrock Shake & Uncle O’Grimacey

The McDonalds Shamrock Shake helped pay for the first Ronald McDonald house.

In 1970 McDonalds introduced their lemon/lime flavored green Saint Patrick’s Day Shake. It eventually changed flavors and names to become the mint flavored, and alliteratively titled, Shamrock Shake. Like the autumnal artificial scarcity of pumpkin spice, the Shamrock Shake is only available around Saint Patrick’s Day in the February through March timeframe (except in Philadelphia where it has two seasons).

McDonald’s founder Ray Kroc, Mayor Frank Rizzo, members of the Eagles organization, Fred Hill & his daughter all attended the opening of the first Ronald McDonald House, October 15, 1974.

Philadelphia’s two seasons of Shamrock Shakes goes back to the role it played in creating the first ever Ronald McDonald House. In 1969 Kim Hill, daughter of Philadelphia Eagle Fred Hill, was diagnosed with leukemia. By 1973 the Hills and members of the Eagles organization started the Eagles Fly for Leukemia charity which helped pay for the new oncology wing at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP).

After seeing parents camped out in the hallways and waiting rooms while their children received treatments, the charity went a step further in 1974 and purchased an old seven-bedroom house at 4032 Spruce Street not far from the hospital. The house would be a place for visiting families to stay free of charge while their children received treatment – a “home away from home”. To help pay for this the Eagles partnered with the local McDonalds restaurants asking them to donate money from their next promotional food item, which just happened to be the Shamrock Shake. The Eagles asked them to donate 25 cents per shake but McDonalds executives asked if they could have the naming rights to the house if they donated all of the proceeds. Eagles general manager Jimmy Murray said “… for that money, they could name it the Hamburglar House.” From this, the first ever Ronald McDonald House was established in Philadelphia in 1974. Today there are more than 375 Ronald McDonald House programs around the world which, at what would have been more than 2.5 million overnight stays in hotels, save families around $930 million each year.

Uncle O’Grimacey

As positive as the Shamrock Shake’s impact has been, there have been some missteps. To help promote the Shamrock Shake, McDonalds introduced the new mascot character Uncle O’Grimacey in 1975. The Irish uncle of the purple mascot Grimace, Uncle O’Grimacey (complete in his kelly green hat, shamrock-patterned vest, and shillelagh) would travel from Ireland each year bringing Shamrock Shakes to McDonaldland. Uncle O’Grimacey was quietly phased out of McDonalds marketing after a few years due in part to an alleged incident in Philadelphia in 1978 where the person portraying him made statements in support of the IRA and that British soldiers were better dead than alive.

Casual racism isn’t just relegated to the semi-distant past however. In 2017 McDonalds ran an ad promoting the Shamrock Shake. Unfortunately they had a man wearing a tartan Tam o’ shanter playing the shake like a set of bagpipes (which would be Scottish) while standing in-front of Stonehenge (which is in England). McDonalds stopped the ad and apologized saying they are “… strongly supportive of Ireland and respectful of its culture”. Begosh and Begorrah.

Uncle O’Grimacey bringing Shamrock Shakes to McDonaldland.