The Boy-Troop at Boarding School: The Coming of Cuculain #2

Today I’m going to be continuing my discussion of Standish O’Grady’s 1894 novel, The Coming of Cuculain. If you missed my explanation of what this project is about, you may want to check out my first post, ‘Understanding Standish’; if you didn’t see my discussion of the first part of the book, you can find that over at ‘Conquest, Classicism and Characterisation’.

You don’t need to have read The Coming of Cuculain to follow along with these posts — they’re designed to be comprehensible to anyone with the vaguest idea of who Cú Chulainn is — but if you want to, you can find it for free at Project Gutenberg. Since I’m reading this on my Kindle, quotes won’t have page numbers, for which I apologise. And as before, in my discussion I’m using the form of names that’s most familiar to me, even if it differs from O’Grady’s spelling. If this seems likely to cause any confusion, I’ll try and clarify the first time the name comes up. If anything’s confusing, please do drop a question in the comments and I’ll do my best to answer!

And now onto the book…


From the first time the boy-troop of Ulster is mentioned in The Coming of Cuculain, we have clues as to how O’Grady conceptualised the warrior training undertaken by young boys in mythological Ireland.

… then there arose somewhere upon the night a clear chorus of treble voices, singing, too, the war-chant of the Ultonians, as when rising out of the clangour of brazen instruments of music there shrills forth the clear sound of fifes. For the immature scions of the Red Branch, boys and tender youths, awakened out of slumber, head them, and from remote dormitories responded to their sires …

The image of the young warriors with their “treble voices”, relegated to “remote dormitories” rather than participating in the great feast that the adults are enjoying, positions the boy-troop as a sort of proto-boarding school. This impression only intensifies the more he discusses the young warriors, and it’s this, I think, which fundamentally shapes his portrayal of youth and adolescent masculinity.

I noted in my last post that I’m more interested in exploring O’Grady’s take on medieval material than examining how his experiences and background shaped his work, which still stands, for two reasons — the first being that his political ideas were complex and that’s really not my area of expertise, and the second being that his opinions were frequently Very Bad and I’m pretty sure I couldn’t continue to offer light-hearted discussions of his work if I looked too closely at them. However, some nonpolitical aspects of O’Grady’s life are worth mentioning, because it’s clear that they shaped his interpretations (in interesting rather than Massively Racist ways). This “boy-troop as boarding school” motif is one such element. In ‘Standish O’Grady: Between Imperial Romance and Irish Revival‘, Patrick Maume notes that,

In 1856 O’Grady became a boarder at Tipperary Grammar School. He distinguished himself as both a scholar and an athlete but found separation from home traumatic. Like many other boarding-school survivors, he idealizes boyhood as a lost paradise.

The Coming of Cuculain is fundamentally about this “lost paradise” of boyhood, but it’s also about the rites of passage through which youths become warriors and boys become men, and this ‘warrior training’ is conceptualised as boarding school. We saw last week that Cú Chulainn has to leave his mother behind before he can gain access to these rites of passage and his heroic identity, although he seemed perfectly happy to do so at the time; unlike O’Grady, this separation could hardly be called ‘traumatic’, but there’s still a tension between the natural but lonely childhood described in the first part of the book, and the more formal training he undergoes, now with friends and peers.

And Dechtire’s hesitance to send her son away is positioned as problematic, because this boarding school for warriors isn’t merely a privilege, it’s an obligation:

So, impelled by the unseen, Setanta came to Emain Macha without the knowledge of his parents, but in fulfilment of the law, for at a certain age all the boys of the Ultonians should come thither to associate there with their equals and superiors, and be instructed by appointed tutors in the heroic arts of war and the beautiful arts of peace.

It’s not that Dechtire doesn’t want him to be a warrior. But “she loved him dearly, and feared for him the rude companionship and the stern discipline, the early rising and the strong labours of the great school”. Boarding school, she thinks, will be too much for her little boy. He’s too young to be sent away. She’d rather keep him at home another year. The 19th century boarding school vibes are strong.

Those of us for whom school was the local state school, a short bus ride from home, might not be able to identify with this specific kind of school, where young men from good families beat each other up as a way of instilling masculinity and identity. Yet it’s strange how natural it feels to us, as modern readers, that a school should be the way for children to undergo formal training. Within a medieval Irish context it feels faintly bizarre. Even though we do have the boy-troop, and we do have groups of students training together — such as those who train with Scáthach, Cú Chulainn and Fer Diad among them — we don’t see a centralised system in the same way. Instead the medieval texts show the youths learning through a system of fosterage. And O’Grady’s not unaware of fosterage as an institution — after all, he’s decided that Fergus is Conchobar’s foster-father, though this seems a strange choice — but he still leans towards this boarding school setup for his warriors.But in his descriptions of the school, we see dissatisfaction with his own time and the education he himself might have undergone:

In this school the boys did not injure their eyesight and impair their health by poring over books; nor were compelled to learn what they could not understand; nor were instructed by persons whom they did not wish to resemble…

The following list of skills (martial and strategic skills, mostly) aren’t too dissimilar from what we see in the medieval texts with regard to warrior training — though a couple of details stood out to me. The first was the idea that they were “to drink and be merry in hall, but always without intoxication”, since there is a text literally called The Intoxication of the Ulaid. (O’Grady later suggests that drunkenness didn’t exist in this era, which is… very funny to me.) The second is that they are taught “to reverence women, remembering always those who bore them and suckled them”.

Listen. I would love to rehabilitate these Irish heroes and ignore their rampant misogyny. But in most cases I would say it’s safe to say they’ve never respected a woman in their lives. The possible exception is how Cú Chulainn behaves towards Emer, and he still slips up on that front a number of times. O’Grady’s projecting a very specific idea of courtliness here, one that feels like it’s been imported from later romances, and I don’t find it entirely convincing.

But sobriety and proto-feminism aside, the boy-troop’s transformation into boarding school isn’t wholly absurd, and it certainly provides ample opportunity for Cú Chulainn to meet his peers and thrash them in a hurling match. (Knowing that O’Grady played hurling at school, and based on the descriptions here, I have an incongruous image of them all in PE kit, chasing each other around a school field…)

Nor is it unique to O’Grady, as an image. In 1900, Alfred Nutt discussed the fight of Cú Chulainn and Fer Diad: “Ferdia asks how his old fag (‘his attendant to tie up his spears and prepare his bed’) dare stand up against him”. The use of the word ‘fag’ here — in the boarding school sense, not the homophobic slur sense! — shows that Nutt, too, was conceptualising of warrior training as similar to a Victorian boarding school. In this instance, of course, both boys are far away from their homeland, having travelled to Alba in search of training; perhaps the boarding school analogy fits better in this instance, especially as Scáthach is a renowned tutor rather than a direct relative of any of the characters.

The boy-troop, on the other hand, is closer to home — but Cú Chulainn still comes to them as an outsider. And it doesn’t go entirely as planned. He joins in their hurling match and excells himself, but matters come to a head when they ask him to accept their protection, as though he were their subject. Cú Chulainn’s pride won’t let him accept the lower status implied by this, but when he asserts his identity as the king’s nephew, the “boy who was captain of the whole school, and the biggest and strongest” assumes he’s lying, and the boys proceed to beat him up.

In the Boyhood Deeds, it seems to take Cú Chulainn very little effort to fight his peers — he’s preeminent even at a very young age. Here, though, O’Grady focuses on his persistence rather than his power:

… for the slumbering war-spirit now, for the first time, had awaked in his gentle heart. Many times he was overborne and flung to the ground, but again he arose overthrowing others, never quitting hold of his hurle, and, whenever he got a free space, grasping that weapon like a war-mace in both hands, he struck down his foes. The skirts of his mantle were torn, only a rag remained round his shoulders, fastened by the brooch; he was covered with blood, his own and his enemies’, and his eyes were like burning fire.

This is not the only time O’Grady asserts that when he’s not trying to kill people, Cú Chulainn is “gentle” — and he’s not using the term to mean noble. We’ve already been told that “there were within him such fountains of affection and loving kindness”, which, honestly, doesn’t sound much like the Cú Chulainn I know. It’s clear O’Grady’s going for more… nuance and less violence. Which is fine. Cowardly (let the tiny child do murder!), but fine.

Young Cú Chulainn, gentle though he might be, persistent though he might be, is not having a great time of it in this fight. He’s not losing, per se — in fact, his “battle-fury” (a thoroughly de-weirded version of the ríastrad that does not seem to involve his body turning inside out, more’s the pity) has descended and he’s giving those other boys a thumping they won’t forget. But he’s still backed up in a corner, up against the goal. And… is telling them to fight him. Now that’s more like the Hound I know.

And this — this is the moment I’ve been waiting to talk about. Because this is where we get our first appearance of Láeg.

Then a boy stood out from the rest. He was freckled, and with red hair, and his voice was loud and fierce.

“Thou shalt have a comrade in thy battle henceforward,” he said, “O brave stranger. On the banks of the Nemnich, [Footnote: Now the Nanny-Water, a beautiful stream running from Tara to the sea.] where it springs beneath my father’s dun on the Hill of Gabra, nigh Tara, I met a prophetess; Acaill is her name, the wisest of all women; and I asked her who would be my life-friend. And she answered, ‘I see him standing against a green wall at Emain Macha, at bay, with the blood and soil of battle upon him, and alone he gives challenge to a multitude. He is thy life-friend, O Laeg,’ she said, ‘and no man ever had a friend like him or will till the end of time.’”

So saying he ran to Setanta, and kneeling down he took him by his right hand, and said, “I am thy man from this day forward.”

Iconic. Perfect. Absolutely beautiful.

But let’s break it down a little more. It’s clear at a glance that this is very different from the version of Láeg we encountered in The History of Ireland, discussed in my first post. There, he’s the son of a hostage, “given” to Cú Chulainn. One again we have Gabra interpreted as a place, although here we’re given more details: Gabra, near Tara. I know of no such place, although I did manage to find the River Nanny on a map, but that doesn’t mean it never existed (I’m not a placename expert). I still think the bridle-of-a-horse etymology is more likely for “Riangabra”, but by telling us that Láeg’s father has a dun near Tara, we’re being implicitly told that he’s of fairly high status — a fitting companion for Cú Chulainn, even if O’Grady holds back from saying outright that he’s the son of a king, on this occasion.

In the History of Ireland, Láeg has little autonomy. Here, he has a lot more. He sees a small boy, bloodied and injured, squaring up to a crowd of other kids and saying, “Fight me, then!” and he goes, ah yes, I want this one. And decides to stand beside him.

But not just because he loves an underdog. No, in keeping with the generally supernatural vibes of the book — Cú Chulainn is “impelled by the unseen”, gods lining his path — Láeg has been given a prophecy. He has been told that he will meet this boy who will be his life-friend, and no man ever had a friend like him or will till the end of time”.

Sorry, I need to take a moment. This is… a lot. This is a lot.

In this introduction, O’Grady presents Láeg as an equal — a comrade, a friend. Not a hostage, given away without being consulted, nor a servant, plucked from obscurity. He’s a boy of the Ulaid, enough of an insider to belong to Conchobar’s “school”, and he’s the one to initiate their relationship.

I have… a lot of feelings about this. I think I mentioned before that the question of how Láeg came to be Cú Chulainn’s charioteer is rarely addressed in the medieval texts — there is one passage that offers a version where they grew up together from infancy, but other than that, his background is never really remarked upon. He’s simply there. O’Grady, however, seems to have seen this as a failing, and he’s incorporated Láeg into Cú Chulainn’s childhood in order to provide this explanation.

It means that before we ever see Láeg as a charioteer, subservient and of lower status, we see him as Cú Chulainn’s prophesied “life-friend”, setting him up as a crucial character in the story to come, and signalling his importance in Cú Chulainn’s life from this point forwards.

Láeg then calls on his own friends to support Cú Chulainn in this fight, recalling times when he was “a shield to thee against thy mockers” to one of them. This Láeg, it seems, has a history of standing up against bullies and befriending the picked-upon. Ah, my bold, bright Láeg. I love this image, this tiny hint of a personality trait that comes from O’Grady, not from the stories. He has a good heart, this tells us, in the space of a few words; he’s brave, not led by the spirit of the crowd, with no tolerance for mockery. (Also vaguely hilarious since Láeg’s main job seems to be insulting Cú Chulainn, but I suppose he only tolerates consensual insults.)

The passage proceeds apace, and is relatively familiar to those who’ve read the Boyhood Deeds — Conchobar demands to know who Cú Chulainn is and why he’s attacking the other boys, and after stating his name, he’s recognised for who he is and brought into the fold:

… the reward of this his first battle was that the boys at his uncle’s school elected him to be for their captain, and one and all they put themselves under his protection. And a gentle captain made he when the war-spirit went out of him, and a good play-fellow and comrade was Setanta among his new friends.

The lonely boy growing up in Dun Dealgan has got what he wanted: companionship, recognition, the opportunity to prove himself a warrior. So far, so good: it’s what we would have expected.

But what O’Grady gives us that the Boyhood Deeds doesn’t is this:

That night Setanta and Laeg slept in the same bed of healing after the physicians had dressed their wounds; and they related many things to each other, and oft times they kissed one another with great affection, till sweet sleep made heavy their eyelids.

*screams softly*

O’Grady’s signalling to us, from this first meeting between the two, that this friendship is going to be pivotal. This is the first character who has been presented as Cú Chulainn’s equal; their first meeting, and already we see “great affection”. It is the most meaningful and long-lasting of all of Cú Chulainn’s friendships — even in the original texts, where Láeg’s loyalty and omnipresence is frequently overlooked by commentators — and we’re given no room to mistake Láeg declaration of loyalty for a fleeting schoolboy alliance on the sports field.

This is why I wanted to read this book and discuss it here. There are a dozen choices O’Grady makes that are worth talking about, but considering how little attention has been paid to Láeg in scholarship, his decision to give the charioteer such a central role from an early stage is what caught my eye. Especially since he’s changed his story since the first time he wrote about Cú Chulainn and Láeg, and now seems determined to bring him more centrally into the story.

Maybe it’s because Láeg symbolises the boarding school camaraderie: the character who takes the “new boy” under his wing. (It’s worth noting that this chapter is in fact titled The New Boy.) Maybe it’s because giving Cú Chulainn a close friend enables O’Grady to emphasise Cú Chulainn’s “fountains of affection” and present a more nuanced picture than the usual tiny violent child with murder in his heart. Or maybe, just maybe, O’Grady — like me — simply looked at Láeg and thought, I want to know more about this guy.

“I am thy man from this day forth.”

And he was.

And we’ll see what that looks like to O’Grady next time.


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