All right, here it is — the last post in my Standish O’Grady series. I’ve learned a lot from writing these posts, and having a theme to follow has been great in terms of encouraging me to blog more consistently than I have done in years, but I think next time I do a blog series, I’ll pick something that can be wrapped up in 2-3 posts. I didn’t really anticipate that it would take me a full month to get through this, and I have to admit, my attention span isn’t great and I struggle to keep focused for that long. Hence this final post has taken me a while longer to write than I intended it to. (It’s also longer than I’d planned, because I really didn’t want to split it into two, but there was a lot to say.)
In any case, we’re nearly done, and I’m excited to wrap up our discussion of The Coming of Cuculain. For those who somehow missed the earlier posts in the series, they’re all designed to be read without having encountered Standish O’Grady’s work yourself, but a passing familiarity with Cú Chulainn and the Ulster Cycle in general will probably make things easier to follow.
Previous posts in this series:
- Understanding Standish (an introduction to the project and an examination of Standish O’Grady’s earlier work on the same subject)
- Conquest, Classicism and Characterisation (a discussion of the first part of The Coming of Cuculain, up to Cú Chulainn’s arrival at Emain Macha)
- The Boy-Troop at Boarding School (a discussion of the second part of The Coming of Cuculain, the portrayal of the boy-troop, and Láeg’s first appearance in the book)
- Sacred Steeds and Tangled Timings (a discussion of the third part of The Coming of Cuculain, looking at how Cú Chulainn acquired his supernatural horses, and Láeg threatened to beat him up for not listening to him because that’s friendship, baby)
You can find The Coming of Cuculain at Project Gutenberg.
We left off just before Cú Chulainn’s “knighting”, an event shrouded in ominous prophecies of future sadness and a short life. The word “knighting” has always struck me as a peculiar one to use in this context, as has the description of the Ulaid as the “Red Branch Knights” — a phrase you see often in Victorian translations and retellings. It’s a very… Continental word, and not one you find in a medieval Irish context, although it starts creeping into the language from about the seventeenth century onwards.
But this led me on an interesting etymological rabbithole. Knight when we see it in, say, Arthurian contexts is often a translation of chevalier. The crucial element there being cheval: horse. Owning and riding a horse is an essential element of chivalry, and it’s one of the reasons the word has never struck me as particularly appropriate for Irish characters, who are notably disinclined to ride horses.
In fact, riding horses rather than travelling in chariots is so unusual for upper-class warrior figures in medieval Irish texts that the early modern Oidheadh Con Culainn makes a point of emphasising its rarity:
the three men who first rode a horse of a single rein in Ireland: Lug at the battle of Mag Tuired, Súaltaim on the Líath Macha at the hosting of the Táin, and Conall on the Dergruathar [in this text, riding to find Cú Chulainn].
This passage is a little puzzling as we do have other riders (including one in this very text, approximately five pages earlier). Also, no surviving version of Cath Maige Tuired depicts Lug riding a horse in this way, so either the author of this triad had access to a version we don’t have, or he’s making it up because of Lug’s connection to Cú Chulainn, who is the focus here. However, the fact of the matter is that a character (Conall) turning up on horseback instead of in a chariot is considered a sign that Something Is Unusual And Probably Bad about the situation — notably, the other occurrences are in times of crisis.
So, medieval Irish warriors are definitely not chevaliers. But when I went looking into the English word, ‘knight’ (from Old English cniht), Wiktionary gave me the meaning, “A young servant or follower; a trained military attendant in service of a lord.” What’s more, this was the first in the list, with the meaning “armed and mounted warrior” coming in at third. In other words, ‘knight’ has got more linguistic flexibility than I realised, and the French chevalier meaning isn’t the only one at work.
“A trained military attendant in service of a lord” certainly seems to describe the situation that Cú Chulainn seems to be entering here, becoming one of Conchobar’s fully-fledged fighters (and therefore graduating from boarding school/the boy-troop). I still think that O’Grady is substantially projecting upon his image of ancient Ireland a world that belongs far more to Continental romance than it does to any Old Irish tale, but I’m prepared to grant that my objection to specific words is not as justified as I thought.
Where O’Grady’s image feels un-Irish to me is the level of ritual and formality involved in this knighthood process. Not that the medieval Irish world didn’t contain rituals or formality, some of them incomprehensible to us when we read, but he gives us a process that seems more… Classical than anything else:
When the other rites had been performed and the due sacrifices and libations made, and after Cuculain had put his right hand into the right hand of the King and become his man…
I mentioned last week that Cú Chulainn’s actual taking of arms in the Boyhood Deeds is somewhat shrouded in subterfuge, so there’s definitely no big ritual happening in front of everybody, but I don’t think we ever really get rites being performed and sacrifices and libations being made in Irish texts like this. Of course, they’re all written by monks, who would probably have hesitated to include anything so obviously pagan, but since we know virtually nothing about pre-Christian Irish religion, we really can’t assume it bore any resemblance to, say, Classical practices.
I do enjoy, however, the use of the phrase “become his man”, because where have we seen that before? Láeg, the first time he met Cú Chulainn. These layers of hierarchy are very medieval, each bound to the next one up in the chain, and there’s a scene in Táin Bó Cúailnge that really evokes this. A messenger is sent to Cú Chulainn to try and negotiate. He encounters Láeg first, and asks him whom he serves. Láeg points to Cú Chulainn, sitting a little way off, and says, “That man.” The messenger goes to Cú Chulainn and asks him who he serves. Cú Chulainn says, “Conchobar.”
He’s doing it to rile the messenger up by refusing to confirm his name, and he continues the mischief throughout the conversation, but it also gives us the sense that Láeg’s obligation to Cú Chulainn isn’t dissimilar to Cú Chulainn’s obligation to Conchobar, and O’Grady’s use of a similar phrase to describe both relationships seems particularly apt.
It’s also interesting because Láeg essentially made a formal declaration long before he actually became Cú Chulainn’s charioteer — which hasn’t happened yet. After Cú Chulainn has been given weapons (and declared them inadequate, and been given Conchobar’s own, as in the Boyhood Deeds) the time comes for him to choose his charioteer, and it’s treated as though this weren’t a foregone conclusion. Conchobar “caused to pass before Cuculain all the boys who in many and severe tests had proved their proficiency in charioteering” (followed by a quick description of what that entails), so that he might choose.
Amongst them was Laeg, with a pale face and dejected, his eyes red and his cheeks stained from much weeping. Cuculain laughed when he saw him, and called him forth from the rest, naming him by his name with a loud, clear voice, heard to the utmost limit of the great host.
“There was fear upon thee,” said Cuculain.
“There is fear upon thyself,” answered Laeg. “It was in thy mind that I would refuse.”
“Nay, there is no such fear upon me,” said Cuculain.
I love this scene. I love it because we rarely get a glimpse of how or why Láeg became Cú Chulainn’s charioteer, although the version of Compert Con Culainn in RIA MS D.iv.2 tells us it was because of a “special love of fighting”. I also love it because of Láeg’s moment of insecurity here. We’ve seen in the last two posts how clear Cú Chulainn’s affection is for him, and how close the pair of them are, yet still, in this moment, he thinks perhaps Cú Chulainn might choose somebody else.
And for Cú Chulainn, the idea that he might ever have picked anybody other than Láeg is so absurd that he can only laugh at Láeg’s anxiety, because of course he wouldn’t! Why would he ever choose anybody else? Nor does it seem to cross his mind for a moment that Láeg might refuse — after all, he’s already promised himself to Cú Chulainn. Láeg’s self-effacing fear that perhaps he might be overlooked is completely unfounded, but that doesn’t make it less poignant. Perhaps it’s the very fact of his closeness with Cú Chulainn that makes him afraid — if he does lose his ‘life-friend’, what then?
But Cú Chulainn declares his choice in front of the entire host, with no room for misinterpretation, and he also makes a prophecy:
“Verily, dear comrade and bed-fellow,” answered Cuculain, “it is through me that thou shalt get thy death-wound, and I say not this as a vaunt, but as a prophecy.”
And that prophecy was fulfilled, for the spear that slew Laeg went through his master.
Leaving aside the fact that I’ll cry about “dear comrade and bed-fellow” forever, this is an interesting merging of the medieval and early modern versions of the Death of Cú Chulainn, something we saw in our first post too. In the medieval story, Láeg dies; in the early modern one, he survives, but is injured by a spear that goes first through Cú Chulainn, into Láeg, in a kebab-style double impalement (Cúbab…). By taking the latter injury and making it Láeg’s death-blow, O’Grady merges the two versions of the story neatly, and also confirms that he doesn’t envisage Láeg surviving the story. He’s gone the medieval route in that regard.
Prophecy made and choice declared, Láeg becomes Cú Chulainn’s charioteer officially: “After that Laeg stood by Cuculain’s side and held his peace, but his face shone with excess of joy and pride.” Delightful.
O’Grady also gives us here a glimpse of the rest of Láeg’s family:
Laeg was one of three brothers, all famous charioteers. Id and Sheeling were the others. They were all three sons of the King of Gabra, whose bright dun arose upon a green and sloping hill over against Tara towards the rising of the sun. Thence sprang the beautiful stream of the Nemnich, rich in lilies and reeds and bulrushes, which to-day men call the Nanny Water.
These brothers show in a couple of places, including in Fled Bricrenn, as well as another text entitled Fled Bricrenn ocus Loinges mac nDuíl Dermait which is nothing to do with the more famous Fled Bricrenn despite sharing part of its title with it. In that text, there are actually 9 Riangabra siblings, six boys and three girls, although the three “canonical” brothers are listed separately, suggesting the author hasn’t been entirely successful at integrating his OCs.
This text also provides some solid support for Famously Bisexual Cú Chulainn, but that’s slightly beside the point.
Anyway, Idh mac Riangabra is Conall Cernach’s charioteer in Fled Bricrenn and Fer Diad’s charioteer in the Stowe version of the Táin, and Sedlang, or Sheeling as O’Grady’s calling him, is Loegaire’s Buadach’s charioteer in Fled Bricrenn; I’m not sure if he shows up anywhere else.
I mentioned in my Motherfoclóir episode that “Riangabra” probably means “bridle-of-a-horse”, or maybe (less likely) “path-of-a-horse” — essentially, the name means “charioteer”. With this in mind, it’s plausible it was originally just an epithet given to charioteers that was later interpreted as a patronymic. Hence originally, Láeg, Idh and Sedlang may not have been understood as brothers, just men with the same profession, but later, they get given parents and a couple of possible backstories and are explicitly referred to as brothers.
O’Grady definitely leans heavily into the “sibling” reading, and I suspect he might be using the Stowe version of the Táin, or something that draws on it, because that text shows Idh and Láeg forced into fighting each other to protect their masters and there’s considerable animosity between the pair of them. O’Grady frames this as a kind of brotherly rivalry or animosity between the pair — more on that in a second.
In the Boyhood Deeds, Cú Chulainn goes haring off in Conchobar’s chariot, driven by Conchobar’s own charioteer, Ibar. After they’ve tricked Conall Cernach into turning back so that he can’t stop them, Ibar fulfils the typical charioteer function of interpreting the landscape they’re passing for Cú Chulainn’s benefit, explaining where they are, who lives there, what the significance of certain animals is, etc. In the process, Cú Chulainn displays his prowess at hunting and fighting, before returning to Emain Macha laden with animals he’s caught and other spoils.
O’Grady follows this more or less beat-for-beat, with one major difference: Láeg is the charioteer in question, and the chariot is not Conchobar’s, but the “sacred chariot of Macha” that we discussed last week — as far as I can tell, O’Grady’s own invention. Obviously, it would have to be Láeg after all this build-up, and the chariot is also already firmly established. Láeg’s usual absence from the Boyhood Deeds contributes to one of the small mysteries about him (when, exactly, did he and Cú Chulainn meet?), but O’Grady has firmly answered that question, so he’s present.
While Cú Chulainn commands Ibar to do as he wishes, in O’Grady’s narrative, both Láeg and Cú Chulainn seem to be game for adventure, although Láeg is periodically portrayed as timid to big up Cú Chulainn’s own heroic fervour. We have to remember that these are two teenage boys out for a drive with no adult supervision for the first time in their lives. Plus, they’ve essentially been at boarding school for years. Of course they’re excited.
It’s when they encounter Conall that we get a glimpse of Idh mac Riangabra. A watchman describes the chariot, identifying Láeg by “his manner of driving”, and that’s when Idh speaks up:
“If it be my brother that charioteers sure am I that it is Cuculain who is in the fighter’s seat, for many a time have I heard Laeg utter foul scorn of the Red Branch, none excepted, when compared with Sualtam’s son. For no other than him would he deign to charioteer. Truly though he is my own brother there is not such a boaster in the North.”
This is striking, because we honestly haven’t seen Láeg expressing this kind of scorn. He has friends among the boy-troop before Cú Chulainn himself arrives, and seems to have appointed himself the rescuer of some of them. I wonder if O’Grady is here drawing on a line in Oidheadh Con Culainn, where after Cú Chulainn’s death, Láeg states that he will never be the charioteer of any other man. Perhaps, rather than grief, O’Grady reads this as distaste for the rest of the Ulaid.
But maybe the two brothers just don’t know each other that well. Láeg identifies Idh from a distance: “My haughty brother Ide, who hath ever borne himself to me as though I were a wayward child”. Idh’s probably the elder, in that case, and can’t reconcile himself with the idea that his little brother has grown up.
Anyway, they damage Conall’s chariot sufficiently that he has to turn back, which he’s furious about, threatening Cú Chulainn “that if a step would save thy head from the hands of the men of Meath, I would not take it”. Yeah, yeah, Conall. We know full well you’re going to end up being the one he choose to avenge his death, nobody believes you. Ah, cousins.
The close of this chapter’s interesting, though, because it gives us a glimpse of Conall backstory that, as far as I can tell, O’Grady has made up out of nowhere. When Fingin sees Conall returning to the Ulaid, he says:
His father Amargin was well known to me. He was a warrior grim and dour exceedingly, and he ever said concerning the boy, ‘This hound’s whelp that I have gotten is too fine and sleek to hold bloody gaps or hunt down a noble prey. He will be a women’s playmate and not a peer amongst Heroes.’ And that fear was ever upon him till the day when Conall came red out of the Valley of the Thrush, and his track thence to Rath-Amargin was one straight path of blood, and he with his shield-arm hacked to the bone, his sword-arm swollen and bursting, and the flame of his valour burning bright in his splendid eyes. Then, for the first time, the old man smiled upon him, and he said, ‘That arm, my son, has done a man’s work to-day.’”
I’m pretty sure we call that toxic masculinity…
The idea that Conall was ever considered less-than-manly is not a tradition I’m familiar with in the slightest; this is, after all, the guy who rides a horse known as “Dripping Red” which in some stories has a dog’s head and is 100% down to eat people. (Link there to more info about Conall’s monster horse, courtesy of my friend Emmet, the Conall expert.) Nor am I particularly aware that there’s notable tension between him and his dad. So, odd detail. Maybe just O’Grady’s attempt to ensure we know exactly what it is he considers manly: Doing Big Murder.
Well, the guy thought imperialism was a neat idea that Ireland should join in with, so I guess that shouldn’t really come as a surprise.
In any case, Láeg and Cú Chulainn continue their journey — they are “at large in Erin” — with Láeg interpreting the landscape for Cú Chulainn and explaining to him how things work. This made more sense when it was Ibar, a grown man who’d been driving Conchobar around for any number of years; Láeg has been in the same place as Cú Chulainn this whole time, and it’s hard to say how he would have obtained this information.
Cú Chulainn decides that he needs to fight somebody to prove himself, though Láeg is very much not thrilled about the idea of fighting the Sons of Nechtan, who are by all accounts very good fighters. Cú Chulainn won’t be dissuaded, but he does insist on taking a nap beforehand.
“Witless and devoid of sense art thou,” answered Láeg, “for who but an idiot would think of sweet sleep and agreeable repose in a hostile territory, much more in full view of those who look out from a foeman’s dun, and that dun, Dun-Mic-Nectan?”
“Do as I bid thee,” said Cuculain. “For one day, if for no other, thou shalt obey my commands.”
I enjoy this glimpse of Insulting Láeg, who comes up so frequently in medieval texts, as well as the idea that this is probably not going to be a simple hierarchical relationship in which Láeg unquestioningly does as he’s told. The “sleeping on the way to a fight” is something I associate more with Fer Diad than with Cú Chulainn, though; in Comrac Fir Diad, he does something very similar, and his charioteer berates him for it.
Láeg keeps watch while Cú Chulainn sleeps, and when their enemies come, he draws Cú Chulainn’s sword, though it’s almost too heavy for him. “His aspect, too, was high and warlike, and his eyes shone menacingly the while his heart trembled, for he knew too well that he was no match for the man.”
There are a few early modern texts where we get this kind of motif — Láeg fighting while Cú Chulainn sleeps. One of them is Toruigheacht Gruaidhe Griansholus, where I think he defeats about 100 warriors by himself, and is very much portrayed as a champion in his own right. O’Grady seems to split the difference between medieval Láeg (not a warrior himself though occasionally does a murder) and early modern Láeg (will readily do murders while Cú Chulainn naps). Like, he’ll try, but he’s “no match”, unlike early modern Láeg, who is more than once described as “a match for a hundred”.
Fortunately for Láeg, Cú Chulainn eventually wakes up and takes over the fight, defeats them all roundly, and they return home — but all is not well.
Cuculain was a pale red all over, for ere the last combat was at an end that pool of the Boyne was like one bath of blood. His eyes blazed terribly in his head, and his face was fearful to look upon. Like a reed in a river so he quaked and trembled, and there went out from him a moaning like the moaning of winds through deep woods or desolate glens, or over the waste places of the earth when darkness is abroad. For the war-fury which the Northmen named after the Barserkers enwrapped and inflamed him, body and spirit, owing to those strenuous combats, and owing to the venom and the poison which exhaled from those children of sorcery, that spawn of Death and Hell, so that his gentle mind became as it were the meeting-place of storms and the confluence of shouting seas.
It’s the ríastrad again — here explicitly compared to going beserk — although O’Grady also throws in a bunch of Otherworldly beings around them making everything even stranger, and their attempts to go hunting deer become shrouded in danger: “Alive or dead thou shalt come with me on this adventure, though it lead us into the mighty realms of the dead.” There’s less emphasis on the obscene body horror of the transformation in the medieval texts, because O’Grady, like other Victorian writers, is a coward, but Cú Chulainn’s “gentle mind” (lol) has been lost to it.
Those waiting for them at Emain Macha are afraid that he’s going to kill everyone, unable to recognise friend from foe, and they send the women of the Ulaid to bare their breasts to him and shame him into chilling tf out. This, again, comes straight from the Boyhood Deeds, and a few interpretations have been offered for it. Is Cú Chulainn just really freaked out by boobs? Is this a sexual thing — he’s too young to handle adult sexuality? Or is it that they’re reminding him that these are the women who nursed and raised him, and he’s about to kill his own kin?
O’Grady evidently goes for the second explanation… sort of. His weird focus on the sexual purity of the great Ulaid warriors shows itself again, and he’s convinced Cú Chulainn drinks his Respect Women juice every morning:
“His virginity is with him, and his beautiful shamefastness, and his humility and reverence for women, whether they be old or young, and whether they be comely or not comely. And this was his way always, and now more than formerly since young love hath descended upon him in the form of Emer, daughter of Fargal Manach, King of Lusk in the south.”
This is, for the record, the first time that Emer has been mentioned in this text, and will also be the last. Maybe it’s just because I know how wildly misogynistic a lot of the medieval texts are, but I find this characterisation patently unconvincing. When it comes to interpreting the medieval scene, I’m honestly inclined to lean towards Doris Edel’s explanation for why Cú Chulainn’s affected by the Ulaid Boob Party (she’s the one who proposes it’s the “don’t kill the people who suckled you” explanation), although a transmasc reading might suggest there’s a kind of dysphoric shame involved, so that’s another possibility.
In any case, this calms Cú Chulainn down, and he’s able to go and have a bath (much more civilised than the medieval tradition where they dunk him repeatedly in vats of cold water to calm his fury), and “Laeg ministered to him […] Laeg put upon him his beautiful banqueting attire, and he came into the great hall lowly and blushing.”
I do think this is a very cute image, of Láeg dressing him and him being hugely embarrassed by the whole situation and by everybody praising the great deeds he achieved. Plus, you know, it once again emphasises the intimacy of the charioteer/warrior pairing — Láeg isn’t a taxi driver, he’s the best friend Cú Chulainn is ever going to have.
Which is what I was looking for out of The Coming of Cuculain, and O’Grady more than delivered. Cute Láeg/Cú Chulainn content? Absolutely. In bucketloads. We have been spoiled.
O’Grady closes with Cú Chulainn once again falling into a deep sleep to recover from his deeds, with many thinking that he’s never going to wake up. Finally, he tells us: “Cuculain was seventeen years of age when he did these feats.” And that’s the end of it.
In the Boyhood Deeds, he’s not seventeen, he’s about six; Fergus remarks, “If he could do so much then, imagine what he’s capable of now that he’s seventeen.” O’Grady’s decision to extend the whole training montage over the course of a decade does a lot for the realism of it, although it means we never see Cú Chulainn training with Scáthach — one wonders then how he might bring Fer Diad into the story. For that, we’d need a sequel… but as far as I’m aware, there isn’t one.
And even if there was, over the past month I’ve written practically a whole thesis’ worth of blog posts about Standish O’Grady (around 17k in total, I think; my thesis is supposed to be 20k), so I think — and perhaps you agree — that it’s very much time to move on. Also, frankly, I’m struggling to come up with new alliterative titles.
So, next week I’ll be back with something completely different, which I’m very excited to share with you. In the meantime, I hope you’ve enjoyed this deep dive into obscure 19th century retellings. If you have, you can show your appreciation by leaving a comment, buying me a coffee, and telling your friends.