Conquest, Classicism, and Characterisation: The Coming of Cuculain #1

Today, I began my reading of Standish O’Grady’s 1894 novel, The Coming of Cuculain. I’ve been slightly putting it off all week, wanting to wait until I had the brainpower to read it thoughtfully, pausing to write up my thoughts, rather than racing through the way I usually do when I read.

According to my Kindle, I’m 31% of the way through the book, although this includes the prefatory notes, so the real percentage may be slightly higher. It’s shorter than I’d realised, as a novel: by this point in the story Cú Chulainn has just reached Emain Macha and been accepted into the boy-troop. And we’ve also had our first appearance of Láeg, which is frankly, perfect and iconic in every way. But more on that to come.

I intend to focus mainly on Láeg as my reading progresses, because if I were to tackle every aspect of this book that strikes me as worthy of discussion, we would be here forever, and I’m sure I’ve got blog readers who would rather I didn’t exclusively post about Standish O’Grady for the next six months. But even before Láeg enters the scene, there is… a lot going on that seems worth talking about, so this first post is going to focus on the quarter of the book before we meet him.

Before I start, I should note that I’ll be referring to the characters by the most familiar form of their names — Fergus mac Roich, Conall Cernach etc — rather than the spellings O’Grady uses. Some of his Anglicisations are very idiosyncratic, and some are just kind of cursed; I’ll reference them if I think they’re interesting or worth discussing, but I won’t use them in the discussion. However, I’ll leave them as they are in the text in any quotes, clarifying in brackets if I think they’re sufficiently odd to be incomprehensible.


Right from the Preface, it’s clear that O’Grady has a very different perspective on the Ulster Cycle than I do, mainly that he seems convinced it represents, on some level, historical fact. “Cuculain and his friends are historical characters,” he asserts confidently. His justification for this is that “imaginary and fictitious characters, mere creatures of idle fancy, do not live and flourish so in the world’s memory”. I would… dispute that, as a reasoning, but it’s worth noting that this is where he’s coming from.

Oh, he acknowledges the fanciful elements of the stories, and doesn’t think they’re literally true on every level, but he believes, deep down, they’re a piece of history. This is not an especially wild claim for the 19th century, but it’s been extensively debunked in more recent decades; the idea that medieval Irish literature could offer us any sort of “window on the Iron Age”, as it has been put, has been widely dismissed. What’s surprising to me, as a modern reader, is how this belief in the story’s historicity doesn’t prompt O’Grady to pare back the weirder elements and present the most rational, sober version of the story that he can. For our friend Standish, history can and does co-exist with a world much stranger than our own…

Moving on, then, to the actual story. We begin with a feast at Emain Macha. Conchobar is a young king; Fergus mac Roich his champion, having abdicated his own claim to the kingship and bestowed it upon his young foster-son. While the tradition that Fergus was once king is familiar to me, I think this is the first time I’ve seen Conchobar depicted as Fergus’s fosterling. I’d be very interested to know if that shows up anywhere else, or if it’s an invention (or misinterpretation) of O’Grady’s.

Fergus stands up and gives a speech about how, “Famous deeds […] are not wrought now amongst the Red Branch. I think we are all become women.” To me, gendered implications aside, this reminds me of the beginning of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (hey look, this post is almost topical). A feast, it seems, is not a feast unless there is some new adventure to tell of, some great deed to recount. But Fergus’s call to arms runs deeper than just looking for diversions. He asserts that the Ulaid should conquer all of Ireland, and consider only the sea to be its borders.

Politically, this is… an interesting take, and it’s worth considering O’Grady’s political standpoint here. He was a Unionist, though proud of his Gaelic heritage; his under-referenced Wikipedia page claims he once advocated “a revitalised Irish people taking over the British Empire and renaming it the Anglo-Irish Empire”. So that’s a take. Perhaps it’s these viewpoints that are reflected in Fergus’s call for conquest, though how we’re supposed to interpret an Ulaid-led united Ireland, I’m not entirely sure.

I’m wary of digging too deep into O’Grady’s intentions, though here, as elsewhere in the book, I think his experiences and beliefs do shape the artistic choices he makes. My knowledge of his political activities (he wrote political books as well as novels) and my understanding of the nuances of 19th century national identity are too lacking to feel like I can tackle that aspect of the reading in any great depth, though I’d be fascinated to read something on the topic from somebody with that expertise.

With that in mind, and remembering that my focus is on how the medieval material is reinterpreted, let’s kill the author for a moment, and move on.

Fergus’s call for Ulaid expansion prompts calls for Cathbad, Conchobar’s druid (and in some accounts his father, though this isn’t referenced here), to prophesy the Ulaid’s future. He does so, offering two prophecies. One, that the Ulaid will be divided by fratricide and it will ultimately destroy them. The other, that “there shall come a child to Emain Macha, attended by clear portents from the gods; through him shall arise our deathless fame.”

Cú Chulainn thus appears on the scene as a prophesied saviour of the Ulaid, or at least their reputation. The Ulaid aren’t thrilled about the whole fratricide part of the prophecy, and Conchobar rejects it, but asks Cathbad for more info about this saviour they’re supposed to await. Cathbad “put on his divining apparel and took his divining instruments in his hands” (a very 19th century image of druidic prophecy, in my opinion) and relates in more detail his prophecy about Cú Chulainn.

One thing that strikes me in these early chapters is the strong emphasis that O’Grady puts on the supernatural world. Prophecies are given great weight, as we can see, but there’s a clue to what’s coming in Cathbad’s reference to “clear portents from the gods”. What this actually seems to entail is multiple on-page appearances of the Túatha De Danann, whose presence indicates that events are unfolding as planned. They seem far more involved in shaping those events than they do in any medieval texts I know of — lurking unseen to move the mortal pieces around the board and ensure that events unfold as they must. It’s a very Classical image, I think: while the TDD appear as shadowy figures in a number of texts, hiding in the background and stirring up mischief, we never really get the sense that they control mortal fates in the same way as the Greek or Roman gods might. Indeed, while they sometimes prophesy about the future, we don’t get the sense that they have the power to change it. Nor do they seem to fulfil quite the function that O’Grady gives them, of appearing briefly to signify to observers that what’s going down is what they had planned.

In typical 19th century fashion, O’Grady also attributes to each of them a domain within a pantheon: Lir as sea-god, Lug as sun-god (a popular and surprisingly enduring 19th century approach). Jeffrey Gantz once described this kind of approach as “pinning Roman tails on a Celtic donkey” — we have little evidence that the Túatha De Danann had these kinds of specific areas of influence, although certainly some of them seem to be good at specific things. But it’s completely par for the course in the period when O’Grady is writing, and so doesn’t tell us much about his personal takes.

We’re about to encounter the young Sétanta for the first time, but first, there’s an image of Conchobar and Fergus that I want to draw your attention to, because I’m pretty sure this is going to be important to how we read the friendships and relationships elsewhere in the story.

The right arm of Fergus was cast lightly over the shoulder of Concobar, and his ear was inclined to him as the young king talked, for their mutual affection was very great, and like that of a great boy and a small boy when such, as often happens, become attached to one another.

The word that comes to mind here is “homosocial”. We have this all-male warrior setting (so far, there have been no women mentioned on the page), and the friendship between men is being foregrounded. This particular friendship is one with a generational divide: by positioning Fergus as Conchobar’s foster-father, O’Grady redistributes some of the power back to Fergus, despite his abdication of kingship. Knowing as I do that Fergus will eventually oppose Conchobar and go into exile, this moment has a certain poignancy: it’s a friendship that cannot last. I assume, since Cathbad’s prophecy alludes to it, that those events will be covered within this book’s timeline, but I don’t actually know; I suppose we’ll find out exactly how emotional O’Grady manages to make it.

The chapter closes with a peculiar image of a young boy, watching the boy-troop play hurling, weeping. This, we are told, “was the child who had been promised to the Ultonians”. As an introduction to Cú Chulainn, it’s a striking one: a wordless observer, crying, is not a mental image I’d ever particularly associate with him. Normally he explodes onto the scene in a burst of violence, and instead, he’s a weepy outsider with no voice of his own, shrouded in prophecy.

My phrasing there sounds judgmental, as though I object to this characterisation. I don’t, insofar as I’m reading this as O’Grady’s work rather than as an interpretation of the medieval material; I think it would fail as the latter. But it’s certainly a mistier, less blood-soaked image than one would expect. And yet O’Grady’s Ulaid are far from battle-shy. In the opening description of their hall, we’re told:

Aloft, suspended from the dim rafters, hung the naked forms of great men clear against the dark dome, having the cords of their slaughter around their necks and their white limbs splashed with blood. Kings were they who had murmured against the sovereignty of the Red Branch.

This chilling image of the Ulaid feasting below the rotting corpses of their enemies suggests that O’Grady’s account isn’t going to be lacking in teeth… but he seems not to have given them to Cú Chulainn, on this occasion. Is it because of his hero’s young age (seven, we’re told later)? How weepy is his Cú Chulainn going to be as he ages?

The next chapter is where we really start to get the meat of O’Grady’s characterisation of Cú Chulainn. We’ve left Emain Macha for the moment, and we’re in Dun Dealgan (Dundalk), where Cú Chulainn is being raised by his parents and his nurse. There are some intensely sentimental descriptions of his early years, and of how his nurse “washed his garments and bathed his tiny limbs”. These glimpses of Cú Chulainn in the cradle certainly seem to be trying to emphasise his childishness and innocence.

And yet — on the very next page, Cú Chulainn chases a fierce otter (a water-dog), casts a stone at it, and kills it. A prophet sees this and foretells that he’ll do many great deeds, of which “the last will resemble the first”. This is a reference to Oidheadh Con Culainn, the early modern Death of Cú Chulainn, in which Cú Chulainn’s final deed before his death is to kill an otter. He says there that a prophecy was made that his last deed would be to kill a hound, as was his first (a water-dog being classified as a dog for prophetic purposes), but I’ve always assumed that the ‘first’ he’s referring to is the Hound of Culann, whose death gave Cú Chulainn his name. O’Grady seems to have taken it rather more literally, and presented us with an image of tiny Sétanta, enemy of otters.

There are other hints that some of these descriptions of Cú Chulainn’s childhood are extrapolated from later stories. We’re told that he “sailed his boats in the stream and taught it here to be silent, and there to hum in rapids, or to apparel itself in silver and sing liquid notes, or to blow its little trumpet from small cataracts.” This is attributing to a small child a surprising amount of power over the elements which isn’t explained in the least (is it normal to be able to control water, or are we supposed to read this as a sign of Cú Chulainn’s Otherworldliness?). So where does it come from?

I suspect it’s from the first recension of the Táin, where Cú Chulainn calls on a river for aid and it answers. Again, his elemental power is never explained or even presented as particularly remarkable, but it’s certainly there. I can’t be sure, of course, that O’Grady is drawing on this scene when he shows young Sétanta controlling the stream, but it seems likely enough. After all, when I drafted To Run With The Hound, I drew on that exact moment as a reason to show my young Sétanta experimenting with control over nature; perhaps it’s not a stretch to think that O’Grady might have thought alike.

In the Boyhood Deeds episode of the Táin, Sétanta asks his mother leave to go to Emain Macha, and she responds that he should wait until somebody can take him. He refuses, insisting on leaving as soon as he’s been given directions, and turns up announced before the boy-troop. O’Grady takes this brief moment of dialogue and elaborates it into something lasting several pages: the boy’s mother trying to keep from him the knowledge of Emain Macha and far-off places, and his attempts to trick the information out of her.

But we’re also given a glimpse into how Cú Chulainn is viewed by others, and this is something that particularly caught my interest:

The next night too he dreamed of Emain Macha, and heard voices which were unintelligible, and again the third night he heard the voices and one voice said, “This our labour is in vain, let him alone. He is some changeling and not of the blood of Rury. He will be a grazier, I think, and buy cattle and sell them for a profit.” And the other said, “Nay, let us not leave him yet. Remember how valiantly he faced the fierce water-dog and slew him at one cast.”

Who are these voices? Are they the voices of the Túatha De Danann? This seems surprising, if they’re accusing Cú Chulainn of being a ‘changeling’ (surely, they of all people would know). But it’s a fascinating image because of the way it presents him as an outsider, seemingly unfit to become a warrior (though the association with cattle is interesting in light of his pivotal role in the Táin), except for this early ‘heroic’ deed that suggests there’s more to him than meets the eye.

Cú Chulainn-the-outsider is one of my key interests, and here, we’ve got hints of it even before he leaves his home and comes to Emain Macha. The idea that Cú Chulainn seems, at this age, an unlikely hero and warrior is also of interest to me – what changed, to make this delicate boy who plays in the stream and occasionally murders animals into the terrifying fighter we know and love?

Part of it seems to be that he gets out from his mother’s apron strings. Because O’Grady appears to be laying the blame on her for not being willing to let go of him: Sétanta demonstrates to her his feats with a ball and hurley, and she still can’t see that he’s ready to leave and go to Emain Macha and spend time with other children. He’s isolated from his peers in Dun Dealgan because she’s concerned not to let him associate “with children of that rude realm whose conversation and behaviour she misliked for her child”. Súaltaim, his father, is here presented as a king, and Cú Chulainn a young noble who is clearly far too good to be the companion of simple peasants — but he’s lonely, and this loneliness drives his desperation to go to Emain Macha and encounter the boy-troop there.

Eventually, his desperation to leave gets the better of him, and he confronts his mother about it.

“These feats,” he replied, “are nothing to what I shall yet do in needlework, O mother, when I am of age to be trusted with my first needle, and knighted by thy hands, and enrolled amongst the valiant company of thy sewing women.”

“What meaneth the boy?” said his mother, for she perceived that he spoke awry.

“That his childhood is over, O Dectera,” answered one of her women, “and that thou art living in the past and in dreams.”

I could probably write a whole blog post about this quote, and the fascinating gendered readings we can make of the way Cú Chulainn equates growing up and attaining weapons with needlework and becoming one of his mother’s sewing women. No doubt O’Grady meant this sarcastic response in a rather misogynistic way, highlighting the absurdity of a hero doing needlework when he should be doing something more fitting, but its implications for a transmasculine reading are immense — especially as Cú Chulainn follows up on this by running away to Emain Macha before his mother realises what’s happening.

(I am barely resisting the temptation to spend 20 minutes reading way much into this one line…)

So, Sétanta flees his needlework, or at least the mother who would rather have him safe at home then out fighting other boys, and sets off for his future alone. There are more supernatural encounters here: he’s met on the road by Lugh, who tells him, “I am thy friend; fear nothing, for I shall be with thee always.” No sign here that Lugh is Cú Chulainn’s father — O’Grady evidently decided against trying to untangle the knot of paternity that we’re offered by Compert Con Culainn. A little further along the way, he meets Manannan mac Lir, who flings a mantle over him — probably the cloak that’s mentioned in the Táin as originating from Tír Tairngire.

And then finally, finally, he comes to Emain Macha, and encounters the boy-troop, and Láeg, and everything I set out to find in this book.

But that, dear friends, is a story for next time.


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You can read The Coming of Cuculain for free via Project Gutenberg.

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