Tag: Táin Bó Cúailnge

Retelling The Details

I like writing retellings. I joke that it’s because the plot is already done for me: I’m very much not an outliner, because I’m unable to see my way to the end until I’ve got there, but a retelling offers me a ready-made framework and an end already in sight. That is, if I actually stick to the original plot. Some of my ‘retellings’ over the past few years have been looser, ‘inspired by’ their source material more than directly retelling it: Bard, for example, or the chaotic gay orchestra novel that I have yet to finish (or title).

That isn’t to say I only write retellings (The Butterfly Assassin isn’t one, by any stretch of the imagination), but they’ve certainly dominated my output over the past few years, with The Wolf and His King (a retelling of ‘Bisclavret’) being my main focus recently. In that one, I kept most of the original story intact, extrapolating backstory and secondary characters but leaving the plot framework in place. I can tell you something, it made writing a synopsis a lot easier.

There are many different ways of approaching retellings, and the term gets used to describe everything from a direct reworking to something that only borrows a few names or plot points or vibes. All of these are totally valid approaches (although going into a book expecting it to be one kind and getting the other can be a major disappointment), and have their own challenges. I’ve had fun with both, but recently I’ve been thinking about the challenges specific to retellings that stick close to their originals.

There’s a lot to consider. How do you find the balance between something that feels accurate and authentic, and something that works well as a modern novel? The further removed your source material is from that format, the more challenges at play — a novel’s story structure, pacing, and sensibilities can be very different from a medieval prose tale, an ancient epic poem, or a Greek tragedy. How do you write characters that reflect the values and ideals of the society who created them, while also being sympathetic and interesting to modern readers with modern expectations of what a protagonist will be like?

And the closer you stick to the original story, the more the divergences stand out. Why include X, and omit Y? Will your readers notice? Will they know the story as well as you do, and wonder why you chose to privilege one version over another? How do you decide which details matter, and which can be abandoned for the sake of making good art?

To some people, the answer to this is simple: do what you want, and anyone who doesn’t like it can deal with it, because that’s their problem, not yours. And it’s true. Your retelling is your retelling. If a detail is incompatible with the story you’re trying to tell, maybe it’s best simply to let go of it, and sometimes, changing the details is crucial to the retelling. This is a story where A chooses B, not C; this is a story where D has the power, not E; this is a story where F survives. Art over accuracy.

But there’s a flip side to that: if the details don’t fit the story, is the story right? Is this the material you should retell to weave this particularly story? Would another character, another fairytale, another text provide a better basis? Fundamental changes to the mood and vibe of the story should be done with intent and thought: details should be changed because changing them does something, makes the story what it is, not because they fell by the wayside along the way. Intent and thought over carelessness.

And figuring out which details are important to shaping the story and which are merely incidental can be harder than it sounds.

Recently, I’ve been rereading parts of To Run With The Hound. For those unfamiliar with this novel of mine, it’s a retelling of Táin Bó Cúailnge, focusing on the bond between Cú Chulainn and Fer Diad from their training together through to their encounter on the battlefield. I wrote the first draft in late 2018, and have been waiting to have the time and brainpower to edit it ever since.

There are many things I intend to change when I redraft the book; I’ve been keeping note of them for years. Some of these changes are about the writing — ways to try and fix the pacing, the prose, the characterisation. Some of them are more academic: Add more Naoise to part I, says one of my notes, and remember that the sons of Uisliu are known for their singing voices. The more I learn about the Ulster Cycle, the more attention I pay to the secondary characters, the ones who were just names to me when I wrote the first draft.

What really struck me, rereading, was that I disagree with my past self’s interpretations of the source material.

This is, perhaps, a risk you take when adapting a text you’re also working with on an academic level. My relationship to the Táin will never be a purely narrative relationship: it’s one fundamentally informed by my academic work. Everything from how I arrange the chronology of the different remscéla (fore-tales) to which recension I choose to follow when details diverge is an interpretation that relies on my academic understanding of the text. The relationships I portray between characters are coloured by the other texts they appear in, and how those stories join up.

It’s a funny thing. At the time that I drafted TRWTH, I knew the Táin incredibly well. Only a few months out of undergrad, I’d been working closely with the text in order to write my dissertation. I’d read it dozens of times in close succession, and knew the plot back to front.

I know it better now, and so I would write this book differently.

See, in most cases it’s not that 2018!me had a completely unrecognisable reading of the major characters. My reading of Cú Chulainn — and of Fer Diad — was informed by my dissertation, a piece of work I’ve continued to develop, turning part of it into an article. I have a deeper understanding now than I did then, but it’s built on the same foundations.

There are characters I would write very differently, with Láeg being the most prominent of those. I knew almost nothing about him when I began writing TRWTH, and it shows; he has very little in the way of a distinct personality. It was writing that book that made me realise he was interesting in the first place, and so my narrative approaches informed my academic research, and sent me down a rabbithole that led to my MA thesis focusing on Láeg.

Mostly, though, it’s the details. It’s the things I didn’t think were important. It’s the scenes I skimmed over, versus the ones I allowed the story to dwell on; it’s the little changes, where a piece of advice is spoken by one character instead of another, or somebody else takes a watchman role and describes a battle. It’s everything that the casual reader, the one who hasn’t spent the last four years immersed in the Ulster Cycle, probably won’t even notice.

Nobody reviewing a retelling of this sort would be likely to say, “Well, I liked it, except that the author made Lugaid the observer in this instance of the watchman motif, and that just doesn’t fit, because he isn’t otherwise fulfilling an interpretative or mediating function.” Nobody would say, “Yeah, the author clearly knows the text really well, but they seemed to misinterpret the significance of this character’s skill at board games.” Because nobody cares.

But I care.

With a retelling like this, one where a significant portion of the book hews very closely to its source material (Part I of the book is largely my own invention, informed by Tochmarc Emire and Oileamhain Con Culainn, but Part II and Part III follow the Táin almost beat for beat), it’s the details that matter, the details that make it my retelling and not somebody else’s. Hell, it’s the details that make it a retelling and not a translation. And currently it’s a retelling that reflects my 2018 self’s interpretation, but it doesn’t reflect my interpretations as of 2021.

Now, as well as being a better academic than I was in 2018, I’m also a better writer, and I know that there’s a point at which faithfulness becomes limiting. The story needs to breathe and change, because no matter how much I want to evoke the moods and images of the medieval text, my audience is not a medieval audience, and wants different things from a story. This inevitably means letting go of some details, diminishing some moments in order to give more weight to others, reshaping scenes to fit the greater whole. But a crucial part of doing that is deciding which details have to be kept — and my past self and I disagree on that.

Every time I work on the Táin, I learn something new about it. In writing my undergraduate dissertation, I learned how to approach the different recensions, and how each paints a slightly different image of gender and sexuality within the text; I learned how the story interacted with legal concepts of marriage and adulthood and fosterage. In writing TRWTH, I developed an understanding of the story as narrative, and the complex chronology of the remscéla that defied any attempt to put them in order; I began to notice which details the Táin never gives us, and which characters were worth examining more closely.

In the independent research I did between undergrad and my MA, I developed on all of those understandings, and over the course of my MA I’ve learned a great deal more, albeit mostly focused on Láeg: about the interactions between the Táin and other texts, particularly late (early modern) Ulster Cycle tales, and about the fact that there’s never only one explanation for anything. And the details that my past self thought didn’t matter — who wins at fidchell between Cú Chulainn and Láeg; who tells Cú Chulainn about the warriors approaching his camp — now matter to me, because many of them play a pivotal part in my academic interpretations of Láeg.

This could go on forever. Perhaps I’ll find another character to examine at length, or a new obscure late tale to fixate on that will reshape my understanding of everything that went before it, or some other angle of approach that will bring me back to the Táin with fresh eyes to seek out new readings. No doubt if this book is ever published, there’ll come a point, a few years down the line, when I cease to agree with my interpretations and wish I’d done this or that differently.

What I have to decide — what anyone writing a retelling like this has to decide — is which of those details are important not to the source material, but to the story I’m telling. I need to acknowledge that by omitting something on which I hung an academic argument, I’m not deciding that that detail or that argument isn’t important, only that it doesn’t contribute to the book I’m trying to write at this time. And this book can’t be every story at once, can’t be every interpretation at once, can’t be every reading at once. I have to choose.

I can write a Cú Chulainn who was nursed by Láeg’s mother and raised alongside his charioteer, or I can write a Cú Chulainn who was raised by his parents until he went to Emain Macha when he was five, or I can write a Cú Chulainn whose closest bond of fosterage is to Conall because his mother was Cú Chulainn’s nurse, but I can’t write all of them. I can have a Láeg with Connacht connections, a Láeg with Otherworld connections, or a Láeg who is both human and Ulaid, but I can’t have all of those Láegs at once. I can give Fer Diad’s charioteer a name of my own invention to compensate for his namelessness in the early manuscripts, or I can make him Idh mac Riangabra, Láeg’s brother, as he is in the fifteenth-century Stowe manuscript, but I can’t do both.

(It’s a shame, almost, that there’s little room in ‘original’ fiction to write four different, unrelated books about the same character, which contradict and conflict with each other. Fanfic writers have the right of it, where the same writer may offer multiple readings of a character, and nobody expects them to bring the same version to the table every time. I could write a retelling of Oidheadh Con Culainn and focus on entirely different character details than the ones that are important in Táin Bó Cúailnge, but I would struggle to sell both without the world assuming one was a sequel to the other and being perplexed by the perceived inconsistency.)

Academia is about possibilities, readings, offering interpretations. Retellings are about making choices: which interpretation will we go for? Which possibility will we draw to the front? In a good retelling, there are still multiple readings open to the audience, but they may be completely different readings from those the audience would take from the source material, because the characterisation that’s been offered has already been shaped and interpreted. And that, inevitably, means letting go of some of the possibilities that the source material left open.

When I go back to TRWTH, the changes I make will be informed by my greater academic understanding of the medieval texts. Láeg might actually have a personality, for a start, and this time I’ll remember that the sons of Uisliu are singers, able to charm with their voices. And the details I include might shift in response to those changes, placing the focus on different scenes and different moments.

But ultimately, what I have to decide is not which interpretation I think has the strongest manuscript support, but which interpretation makes the best story. Which reading will pave the way to telling the story I want to tell; which possibility I should lean into, to get the strongest emotional response from my readers. It’ll be a novel shaped and directed by my academic research, but it won’t — can’t — shouldn’t be my academic research in novel form.

In a retelling, an author makes choices. We untangle contradictions, close off alternative readings, privilege one interpretation over another, sideline one character for another’s sake, and in doing so, we let go of details. Even the ones we care about.

Accuracy matters, in a retelling like this. But art, it turns out, matters more.


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Brothers, Breasts, and Big Murder: The Coming of Cuculain #4

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:

  1. Understanding Standish (an introduction to the project and an examination of Standish O’Grady’s earlier work on the same subject)
  2. Conquest, Classicism and Characterisation (a discussion of the first part of The Coming of Cuculain, up to Cú Chulainn’s arrival at Emain Macha)
  3. 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)
  4. 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.

A messy stick-figure drawing in pencil on a square of yellow notepaper. On the left is a figure labelled Erc mac Cairbri, who is smiling. In the middle is a shorter figure with spiky hair, labelled Cú Chulainn, holding a sword and with a sad face. On the right is a curly-haired figure labelled Láeg, also with a sad face. He is holding some poorly-drawn reins; a label reads "horses here" with an arrow to the right. Cú Chulainn and Láeg are standing in what looks more like a bucket with wheels but is intended to be a chariot. A long spear "held" by Erc mac Cairbri goes through Cú Chulainn and Láeg. The title of the image reads "KEBAB". The whole thing is very badly drawn.
For those struggling to imagine the scene, a highly sophisticated drawing…

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.

Sacred Steeds and Tangled Timings: The Coming of Cú Chulainn #3

Before I resume my reading of The Coming of Cuculain, I have a brief bit of news to share, which is that I was a guest on the Motherfoclóir podcast this week, talking about Táin Bó Cúailnge. We discussed why it’s weird that Cú Chulainn is so often portrayed as super-muscular, considered whether Fer Diad’s death is really a good starting point for queer readings, and pondered the etymology of Láeg’s name. It’s a pretty good intro to my research interests! You can listen to the episode here.

All right, so, back to Standish O’Grady. For those unfamiliar with this series of posts, I’m currently reading through Standish O’Grady’s 1894 novel, The Coming of Cuculain, and discussing his takes on medieval Irish literature — particularly when they’re weird. You don’t need to have read O’Grady’s work to follow along, although a basic knowledge of who Cú Chulainn is will help and I’d recommend reading the posts in order. (But, hey, you do you, I’m not going to make you.)

Previous posts in this series:

  1. Understanding Standish (an introduction to the project and an examination of Standish O’Grady’s earlier work on the same subject)
  2. Conquest, Classicism and Characterisation (a discussion of the first part of The Coming of Cuculain, up to Cú Chulainn’s arrival at Emain Macha)
  3. 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)

You can find The Coming of Cuculain at Project Gutenberg.

I’d planned for this to be my final post in this series, but, well, it hit 3k and I figured that was long enough, so we’re going to finish it off next time. My apologies to anyone who is waiting for me to blog about literally anything else. I promise those days are coming.


I said all along that I wasn’t going to discuss every aspect of The Coming of Cuculain that I found interesting, because this series would last until Christmas if I did. That means I’m going to skim fairly rapidly over O’Grady’s account of the Deirdre story (Longes mac nUislenn) which has been slightly clumsily inserted into the middle of this book. O’Grady himself seems perplexed by the story, and by Cú Chulainn’s absence from it, which is understandable; it’s hard to make its timeline match up with the Táin. He might have been better served by omitting it entirely, being as how it isn’t part of Cú Chulainn’s story, but he’s obviously trying to build up towards the Táin and felt the need to explain Fergus’s exile somehow.

His take on Deirdre is wild on several levels. In the medieval account, a prophecy is made shortly before Deirdre’s birth that she’s going to bring doom to the Ulaid, and it’s counselled that she should be killed. Conchobar, however, stopped listening after the part of the prophecy that said she was also going to be super hot, and decides to have her reared to be his wife. O’Grady absolves Conchobar of all responsibility by having Deirdre be born during his father’s reign, and generally ommitting the whole sketchy child bride situation that we’ve got going there. He also has Conchobar lecture Fergus at length about how sexually pure the Ulaid are and how this is a source of their strength, which would be great comedy if O’Grady didn’t seem to actually mean it.

There’s a great deal more that could be said about how that whole story is handled, but I said all along that my main interest was how O’Grady portrays Láeg, so I’m going to move fairly rapidly on from that.

Last week, we saw that O’Grady’s Láeg swears his loyalty to Cú Chulainn approximately five minutes after meeting him, and that the two immediately become intimate friends, sharing a bed and generally expressing their deep affection. But Láeg isn’t yet a charioteer, so how does that come about?

Well, before we can look at Cú Chulainn’s “knighting” — sidenote, it’s weird how retellings keep referring to the Ulaid as “knights”; it’s such an incongruous term for the setting — and therefore his acquisition of arms, a chariot, and a charioteer to drive it, we need to take a look at what’s going on with the horses.

O’Grady has a fondness for the supernatural, as we’ve already seen, but he really takes it to new heights when it comes to Cú Chulainn’s horses, the Líath Macha and the Dub Sainglend. He introduces us to the idea of the “sacred chariot” of Macha — an ancient, prophecy-laden chariot that the Ulaid keep and venerate as a sacred relic, which can only be drawn by two equally prophecy-laden horses, who haven’t been seen in three hundred years — “since Macha dwelt visibly in Emain”.

I’ll be honest with you: I don’t know where O’Grady is getting this from. I have never come across the idea of a “sacred chariot” in any of the medieval texts, nor the fact that the Líath Macha and the Dub Sainglend are immortal horses who’ve been roaming free for centuries waiting for a prophesied warrior to come and harness them again. And I’m pretty sure the texts don’t suggest it’s been three hundred years since Macha lived, although O’Grady’s use the word “visibly” suggests he conceptualises her as a figure who lived a mortal life and then became Otherworldly in some way.

On which note: Noínden Ulad tells the story of how the heavily pregnant Macha is forced to race the king’s chariot; she wins, but gives birth as she crosses the finishing line and curses the Ulaid to be afflicted with labour pains in times of great need. We’re told that the curse afflicts all who hear it, and their descendants for nine generations. O’Grady, however, presents Macha’s curse as a looming threat rather than a known reoccurrence. It has yet to fall, but they know it’s coming, and when it does, only their prophesied hero will be able to stand against it…

Now, I’m not ruling out the possibility that elements of this whole sacred chariot malarkey come from texts I’m not familiar with — I will never claim to know everything about medieval Irish literature — but I also think there’s a strong chance here, based on the changes he’s made to recognisable material, that O’Grady is simply… making things up.

Anyway, we have a sacred chariot, we have empty stalls awaiting the return of these ancient horses, and Conchobar has put the young Cú Chulainn in charge of looking after it all. A sacred duty. He wonders, vaguely, whether his nephew is the prophesied warrior, but while Cú Chulainn does excel at games of fighting, we’re told that he’s still… just a boy. Surely, the Ulaid think, the prophesied figure who will come will be like a reincarnation of Lug!

But our promised one is gentle exceedingly. He will not know his own greatness, and his nearest comrades will not know it, and there will be more of love in his heart than war.

I’ll be honest, that doesn’t sound much like Cú Chulainn to me, but it fits well enough with O’Grady’s characterisation — his Cú Chulainn isn’t particularly proud and a lot of his violence has been softened and smoothed away.

Shortly after Cú Chulainn has been given these duties, he receives a visitation from Lug, who tells him that tonight he’ll capture the Líath Macha and the Dub Sainglend. He’s excited about this — enough that Láeg notices something’s up when they’re eating dinner together, and asks him what’s got into him.

“Thy eyes are very bright,” said Laeg.

“They will be brighter ere the day,” he replied.

“That is an expert juggler,” said Laeg. “How he tosseth the bright balls!”

“Can he toss the stars so?” said Setanta.

“Thou art strange and wild to-night,” said Laeg.

“I will be stranger and wilder ere the morrow,” cried Setanta.

Sensing that his friend is in a weird mood, Láeg tries to stop him leaving, but Cú Chulainn manages to get away, and goes off on a wild chase in search of his magic horses.

Here, the details are faintly recognisable: Cú Chulainn encounters the Líath Macha at a lake, and they make a circuit of Ireland until the horse is broken. He then goes in search of the Dub Sainglend, and subdues her by showing that the Líath Macha (“thy better”) has already been tamed. While I’m not aware of any such extended description of how Cú Chulainn obtained his horses in the medieval sources, the broad outline conforms to a reference in Fled Bricrenn:

“Not at all,” said Cú Chulaind, “for I am tired and broken to pieces. Today, I will eat and sleep, but I will not undertake combat.” All this was in fact true, by reason of Cú Chulaind’s encounter that day with the Líath Machae by the shore of Lind Léith near Slíab Fúait. The horse had come towards him from the lake, Cú Chulaind had put his arms round its neck, and the two of them had circled all Ériu until at last night fell and the horse was broken. (Cú Chulaind found the Dub Sainglend in the same way, at Loch Duib Sainglend.)

‘Bricriu’s Feast’ in Jeffrey Gantz (trans), Early Irish Myths and Sagas, p. 231

Fled Bricrenn doesn’t, however, tell us that the horses are three hundred years old, or that they have to be yoked to a specific sacred chariot; one feels, if it were going to come up anywhere, that it would probably be there, since it’s the only account I know of that describes their origins. I suspect, then, that this is like O’Grady’s extrapolation of Cú Chulainn’s brief displays of elemental control into a youthful training to control water, or the invention of the otter incident in his childhood — a passing reference turned into a whole story.

There are also a number of other details in The Coming of Cuculain that suggests familiarity with a version of Fled Bricrenn — more on those in my next post.

[Edit: I was reminded shortly after posting this that an alternative tradition has the horses being born at the same time as Cú Chulainn. If I remember correctly, this comes from Feis Tige Becfholtaig, “version B” of the story of Cú Chulainn’s conception and birth. It’s weirdly hard to find a translation of this version, but I’m pretty sure Lady Gregory uses it, which explains how it ends up in so many retellings and popular accounts. O’Grady doesn’t seem to be using this one, however; his source for the horses’ origins looks to be Fled Bricrenn.]

Cú Chulainn brings these horses triumphantly home and they go to their stalls in the stable that has been waiting for them for centuries, and then he returns to his dormitory. His return doesn’t go unremarked:

Laeg was asleep with the starlight shining on his white forehead; his red hair was shed over the pillow. Cuculain kissed him, and sitting on the bed’s edge wept. Laeg awoke.

“Thou wert not well at supper,” said Laeg, “and now thou hast been wandering in the damp of the night, and thou with a fever upon thee, for I hear thy teeth clattering. I sought to hinder thee, and thou wouldst not be persuaded. Verily, if thou wilt not again obey me, being thy senior, thou shalt have sore bones at my hands. Undress thyself now and come to bed without delay.”

Cuculain did so.

“Thou art as cold as ice,” said Laeg.

“Nay, I am hotter than fire,” said Cuculain.

“Thou art ice, I say,” said Laeg, “and thy teeth are clattering like hailstones on a brazen shield. Ay, and thine eyes shine terribly.”

It seems that running around Ireland in the middle of the night isn’t without its consequences — Cú Chulainn has fallen ill, and after berating him for it, Láeg goes to fetch a doctor to look after him. But let’s pause here a moment, and think about Láeg.

We already saw last week that Cú Chulainn and Láeg are sharing a bed. This is presented as unremarkable, although we’re not told whether it’s typical for the boys to pair up like this — remember that this is before Láeg has been chosen as Cú Chulainn’s charioteer, so they aren’t yet a formal warrior pairing. It’s clearly not a one-time thing, as even when he might have been better served by sneaking in and not waking Láeg up, Cú Chulainn still goes to where Láeg is sleeping, and wakes him up.

I don’t know why Cú Chulainn is crying right now. He cries a lot in this book, and while I have no objection to that, that doesn’t mean I can always tell what emotion is supposed to be expressed by it. In this instance, his tears are met not with sympathy from Láeg, but exasperation — I told you you’d get sick, but would you listen?

I also enjoy that Láeg flexes his authority here — I’m older than you, you have to do what I tell you — and even threatens to beat Cú Chulainn up if he doesn’t get into bed right this instant. Unfortunately, Cú Chulainn is chilled to the bone, so sharing a bed with him doesn’t sound like much fun, and out of concern for his health, Láeg has to go and call for a doctor and explain that his friend is ill.

Exasperated mumfriend Láeg is my favourite Láeg. I enjoy the instances of the two of them being chaotic together, but there’s something about the way Láeg is the one who grabs Cú Chulainn by the scruff of the neck and tells him to Stop that’s special. It’s a relationship that Cú Chulainn doesn’t really have with anyone else — usually, when somebody tries to tell him what to do, he does the precise opposite. Sure, he doesn’t always listen to Láeg, but that just gives Láeg more opportunities to roast him for being a fool.

Now, obviously, being who I am and being interested in queer readings, I’d be remiss if I didn’t highlight the obvious potential for reading O’Grady’s Cú Chulainn and Láeg in that light. It hardly needs to be pointed out — the bed-sharing and the kissing is obvious enough. Of course, within the ancient/medieval setting of the story, bed-sharing doesn’t have the connotations it has for us now in the modern era, but I do think the kissing is unusual. We get a lot of that in later medieval French texts (it’s the feudalism), but I’ve found comparatively few instances of kissing in medieval Irish texts, especially “casual” kissing. Perhaps it’s O’Grady using ideas imported from continental romance literature (there are a few of those in the novel), but for us, it still provides a foundation on which we might build a queer reading.

I mean, last week we saw Cú Chulainn was prophesied to be Láeg’s “life-friend”, so they’re basically already married, but you know. I try and at least pretend I’m acknowledging a heteronormative reading too (though the utter absence of Emer save for a brief and unconvincing reference later in the text means it really doesn’t lend itself to that).

In any case, a doctor is fetched and we have a healing scene that seems to be lifted straight from the Táin — three days of sleep, after which he wakes recovered. It’s not long before he goes to Conchobar and asks if he could be “knighted”.

This is an instance where O’Grady’s Cú Chulainn considerably diverges from the hero we see in the Boyhood Deeds. In the Boyhood Deeds, Cú Chulainn essentially obtains weapons and a chariot through trickery. He overhears the druid Cathbad saying that whoever takes arms upon a certain day will achieve great fame (in one recension he leaves then and doesn’t wait to hear the “but have a short life” part of the prophecy; in another he hears it and simply doesn’t care) and tricks Conchobar into arming him by saying it was Cathbad’s decree that he should be given weapons that day.

O’Grady’s Cú Chulainn, on the other hand, goes to Conchobar very politely and says, “If it be pleasing to thee, my Uncle Conchobar, I would be knighted on the morrow, for I am now of due age, and […] I am thought to be sufficiently versed in martial exercises”. We’re also told that he’s “now a man’s full height”, which is very much not the case in the Boyhood Deeds, where he’s still only about six years old. O’Grady has extended the Boyhood Deeds to cover Cú Chulainn’s entire adolescence, cutting out his training with Scáthach and any intevening pre-Táin deeds to finish up with a seventeen-year-old Cú Chulainn newly invested in arms.

Is this more realistic? Probably. Does it nevertheless complicate things? A little. It’s why O’Grady has to shove the Deirdre story in where he does. Yes, it’s always a chronologically problematic story; even the early modern authors noticed that, and tried to include an explanation for Cú Chulainn’s absence by having him appear briefly and say, “You don’t want me involved, everybody will die.” (Probably true.) But if we had a gap between these childhood adventures and the Táin itself, there’d be more space for Fergus’s exile to take place off-screen, without having to worry about how to fit it in.

This older Cú Chulainn doesn’t have to resort to tricks and misdirection to get Conchobar’s consent, although the king is still hesitant. He asks him to think carefully, pointing that there’s a prophecy that whoever is knighted on that day “will be famous and short-lived and unhappy”. But Cú Chulainn won’t be dissuaded, so Conchobar agrees. That doesn’t mean he’s happy about it:

They went to the boys’ dormitory and to the couch of Cuculain. Cuculain and Laeg were asleep together there. Their faces towards each other and their hair mingled together. Cuculain’s face was very tranquil, and his breathing inaudible, like an infant’s.

“O sweet and serene face,” murmured the King, “I see great clouds of sorrow coming upon you.”

Brief digression here: last year, Tumblr user riseupriseupandcomealong illustrated this scene, and it makes me emotional every time it crosses my path (click for original):

This isn’t the first time Conchobar’s seen sadness for Cú Chulainn: after giving him responsibility for the chariot, there’s this curious exchange…

“Why art thou sad, dear Setanta?”

“I am not sad,” answered the boy.

“Truly there is no sadness in thy face, or thy lips, in thy voice or thy behaviour, but it is deep down in thine eyes,” said the King. “I see it there always.”

Setanta laughed lightly. “I know it not,” he said.

It’s true that Cú Chulainn is repeatedly described as “sad” in medieval texts. In Fled Bricrenn, he is a “sad, melancholy man”; in Tochmarc Emire he’s a “dark, sad man”. It’s probably these descriptions that O’Grady’s drawing on when he repeatedly paints his Cú Chulainn in these clouds of sorrow. They’ve always struck me as interesting — never is Cú Chulainn’s sadness explained, and it’s not the emotion one would immediately associate with him. (Something like “rage” would be more typical, probably — but then, Anne Carson would say that rage and grief go together, at least in the creation of tragedy.)

From this earlier reference to a sadness of which Cú Chulainn himself is unaware, we’ve progressed to a more immediate sense of threat. Cú Chulainn has won these sacred horses, as the prophecies said that he would, but at the cost of falling ill; is this a sign of things to come? Even as he prepares to take arms, the climax to which his training has been building, sorrow is descending on him. We get the impression that his glory won’t come without a cost, and O’Grady repeatedly implies that it’s going to be high one.

It’s on this ominous note that we’ll be leaving our discussion for today. The next post will be the last, and we’ll look at Cú Chulainn’s “knighting” and subsequent escapades with Láeg, and then we’ll be done with O’Grady. See you then!


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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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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.

An Early Modern Melancholy

I’ve been working this week on Oidheadh Con Culainn, the Early Modern version of The Death of Cú Chulainn. It’s a fascinating story that pretty much nobody seems to care about, as is often the way with these early modern prose tales — too late for the medievalists, too early for the modernists, or at least that’s how it can feel. This lack of interest means there’s no English translation of it than I can find, so I’ve been translating sections myself, gradually uncovering the story.

I went into it looking for Láeg mac Riangabra. I knew I’d find him — I had, at least, been able to read a summary of the story beforehand, so I knew that his role had grown and developed from the medieval version of the text. As Cú Chulainn’s charioteer, he’s also largely neglected in the scholarship, relegated to footnotes and passing remarks. In one analysis I read that listed the main differences between the two versions of the story, his role wasn’t even mentioned, despite the fact it has changed entirely.

In the medieval story, then, Láeg dies shortly before Cú Chulainn, hit by a spear meant for the hero. It’s poignant enough. There would have been a poem, originally, Láeg’s last words — this is lost, as the redactor of the only surviving copy of the story thought we knew it well enough that abbreviating it to a single line was enough: “Bitterly have I been wounded.” Cú Chulainn draws out the spear, bids him farewell, and goes alone to his death after that. A heroic blaze of glory.

But in this later text, it happens a little differently. Láeg is wounded, not killed, and Cú Chulainn sends him away: begs him to go home, to survive, to tell his story to those left behind. Except Láeg doesn’t go. He takes himself to the edge of the battle and he watches, and when it’s over he goes to bind Cú Chulainn’s wounds and assure him that this isn’t how he dies. Cú Chulainn knows otherwise: he recognises his mortality, the culmination of prophecies, and all that remains is to take some control over the place and manner of his death. He asks Láeg’s help to prop himself against a standing stone, holding his weapons, facing his enemies, and it’s there that he dies. But at least this time, he doesn’t die alone.

For me, the most moving moments of the text are here: as Cú Chulainn begs Láeg to leave, and Láeg refuses. As the hero says, “From the first day we bound ourselves together, we have never before quarrelled or separated, not by day or by night, until this moment.” And this quarrel, this separation, is with the goal of saving Láeg from meeting the same fate. Of saving the charioteer and with him the story.

It seems a very early modern melancholy to me. Of course, I’m a medievalist, and no expert — a piece of A-level coursework on Hamlet and The Duchess of Malfi back in 2013 does not an early modernist make. Still, it’s Hamlet that this brings to mind: the melancholy, the friendship, the tragedy of the one who survives.

It feels, in these moments, that the redactor is appealing to a very different aesthetic and emotive sensibility than their medieval predecessors. No more the blaze of glory — now the grief. Now the friend. Stay alive, begs the tragic hero, in whatever words he’s given. Stay alive so that you can tell my story. No longer the impartial narrator of myth: instead the story is given to the grieving beloved, who holds the narrative in their trust.

And the hero is proven tragic by his ability to die (as Anne Carson says, immortality defies tragedy). It surprises him too. Cú Chulainn says — “If I had known that my heart was one of flesh and blood, I would never have performed half the feats that I did.” He’s caught out. His mortality is almost a shock. So this is it. Our medieval hero is waiting for the end to his short life; our early modern hero finds his humanity a disruption.

But the friend — the friend is condemned to survive. Horatio and Láeg, made unwilling bards by their endurance. Both would probably have found it easier to die there, and the medieval hero would have let them. But the early modern one bids them live, entrusts to them the precious role of remembrance. It’s a cruel kind of love, that one, to abandon your friends to life.

And then the curtain falls. Then Horatio is left among the dead — no word as to whether Fortinbras believes his tale, or if he’s tried and hanged for treason and the murder of a dynasty. Then Láeg, in his grief, leaves Emer and Conall to their revenge — and goes where? The story doesn’t say. As friend, his part is tied to the hero’s. Perhaps he walks the landscape alone. Perhaps he goes home, to his mother, and weeps with his head in her lap for a young man who was beloved by him. Perhaps she saw this coming, and would have tried to protect him from it, if he had let her.

It’s a melancholy erasure, this fading out. It refuses grief. It gives in to it. It crumbles under the weight of aftermath and then it hides from it. Cowardly, almost. Where does Láeg go? Or Horatio? To another story, one nobody will tell, because that kind of survival is too raw a wound to salt it with words. They go to the gravestone of endpapers.

How early modern of them.

Or at least, that’s how it seems to me, a medievalist, caught up in the peculiar, melancholic loss everpresent in this text. “It is then fell the chief of valour and arms, glory and prowess, protection and bravery.” But left behind was Láeg, his most loyal friend. And wounded and grieving, he mounts Cú Chulainn’s one surviving horse and rides home, alone, “and it is slow and spiritless he came,” until Emer spots him from the ramparts of Emain Macha and understands what has been lost.

Maybe Láeg could have had another story — found another hero in need of a charioteer, perhaps, just as Horatio could have stayed at court as an advisor, or perhaps gone back to Wittenberg and his studies. In Horatio’s case, we don’t know that he didn’t. But Láeg tells us clearly: “I will not be the servant of any other person forever after my own lord.” Still an ending, then, but a messier one than his medieval counterpart, who dies at Cú Chulainn’s side, king of charioteers. This one is a loss of identity, he who has been defined by his counterpart now walking the rest of his story alone.

We aren’t told where it takes him. Of course we aren’t. The text isn’t Merugud Laeig, the Wanderings of Láeg, the Going-Astray of Láeg. The text is Oidheadh Con Culainn, the Violent Death of Cú Chulainn. And so the beats it follows, of prophecy and plot and battle and death and mourning and revenge, are those of the hero’s story.

Láeg is, I think, somewhat genre-savvy, though all he tries for optimism when he kneels at the wounded Cú Chulainn’s side and tells him the end of his life hasn’t yet come. He knows what’s coming. If he didn’t, he wouldn’t beg to stay, to be a part of it, to meet the end as he has lived before now: by Cú Chulainn’s side. “A chomalta inmain,” he says: O beloved foster-brother. Perhaps it makes it easier, to think that it didn’t come as a surprise. Perhaps it makes it worse, the anticipation of tragedy a preemptive grief that never eases the sting when it comes for real.

Either way, the result is the same. He is the story-carrier, the news-bearer, the messenger of grief, who takes word back to Ulster and sets in motion Conall’s vengeful rampage. As such he cannot be allowed to die. Cú Chulainn is genre-savvy too, to recognise that. The closest of companions must be sent away.

How early modern of him. Or so it seems to me.

If thou didst ever hold me in thy heart
Absent thee from felicity awhile,
And in this harsh world draw thy breath in pain,
To tell my story.
— Hamlet, Act V Scene II


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The Case for Queer Theory in Celtic Studies

Most of you have heard enough about my research interests to last a lifetime, but for those who may have stumbled on my blog for the first time, one of my primary areas of academic interest is queer readings of medieval Irish literature. In particular, I look at the Ulster Cycle, and I’m fascinated by the character of Cú Chulainn and the various ways in which he performs heroic masculinity, or fails to do so.

This makes me fairly popular in some circles – particularly on Tumblr, where I regularly have people asking when and where they can read my research – but this positivity isn’t universal, and although explicit hostility towards the subject is rare, I still feel the need to defend the legitimacy of this area of study. I’m apologetic about it, careful to couch everything in the most ambiguous of terms and to keep terminology specific to queer theory to an absolute minimum. I was even told not to use the word ‘queer’ in my undergraduate dissertation title – instead, it was about ‘ambiguities of gender and sexuality’.

It’s not just queer theory. Celtic Studies isn’t exactly known for its cutting-edge literary theory in general. Kind of the opposite. There are a bunch of reasons for that, not least because our ratio of scholars to texts compared to, say, Old English literature is completely absurd. This has its drawbacks – it can be hard to know which journals will be willing to publish anything too new-fangled and theory-heavy, for example. Still, queer theory is what I do, so it’s what I know the most about — and I’ve often found myself turning to other disciplines for comparative material I can pillage and bring back with me, because there isn’t nearly enough of it within our own field.

Sometimes, I read queer approaches to Arthurian literature or similar and marvel at the complexity, and how deep it’s able to go, because it feels like I can only skate over the surface, tentatively suggesting that maybe we should allow for the possibility of atypical constructions of gender within a text. Like I’m stuck at 101 level and other medieval disciplines are at 401 and I don’t dare to advance any further until I’ve proved I’m allowed to be here in the first place.[1]

Of course, it’s not wholly negative. It creates a space for younger scholars to take new approaches, knowing that it hasn’t all been said before, and it would be wrong to suggest that nobody in the field is using theoretical approaches. There are a number of scholars who work from a more theory-heavy angle, and queer theory isn’t unheard of – Sarah Sheehan’s 2005 article, ‘Fer Diad de-flowered: homoerotics and masculinity in Comrac Fir Diad’, explores queer readings of the relationship between Cú Chulainn and Fer Diad and is hardly recent, even by medievalist standards. I might be the first within academic circles[2] to argue for a transmasculine reading of Cú Chulainn, but I’m not entirely breaking new ground here, and it would be arrogant to suggest that I am.

Still, the theoretical approach is a minority one. In my experience, it’s entirely possible to study medieval Irish literature without ever being exposed to concepts of literary theory. We explore a lot of angles – but they’re linguistic, historical, mythological angles. Not theoretical frameworks.

I wonder if this is different for those studying Celtic material within an English or Comparative Literature department – and I’m willing to acknowledge, too, that it may also have been a Cambridge quirk, and not universal. But for me, when I brought ideas of narrative foils and literary doubles into my undergrad essays, I was drawing on concepts I learned in A-Level English Literature, and I never moved on from that until I decided of my own accord to go down a queer theory rabbithole. Now, as I embark on postgrad studies, I’m trying to fill some of the huge gaps in my understanding of theory, but that’s because it interests me – because at heart I’m interested in this material as literature (not necessarily mythology, history, or interesting expressions of language). Nobody else is going to make me do it, because it’s not seen as particularly necessary.

I suspect it’s the absence of these broader theoretical approaches in the field that means the possibility of queer readings can often be dismissed out of hand. The most recent and relevant example of this that comes to mind is Tom O’Donnell’s book Fosterage in Medieval Ireland, where he discusses the relationship between Cú Chulainn and Fer Diad and claims that it has been ‘misconstrued as homosexual’ due to a lack of understanding of the emotional richness of fosterage on the part of modern readers.[3]

I’m perfectly willing to accept that their relationship can be read as a normative relationship between foster brothers, and I appreciate that O’Donnell’s purpose in this chapter is to emphasise the bonds of affection within medieval Irish fosterage. However, I don’t accept that this rules out the possibility of a queer reading, and I think implying that a queer reading negates or contradicts a normative interpretation shows a fundamental misunderstanding of what a queer reading is.

Queer theory draws on a post-structuralist approach, which tells us that we can have multiple, even contradictory readings of texts, because there is no single true reading. These readings can exist simultaneously. In our case, we’re working with anonymous material that may have developed over hundreds of years through the oral tradition before reaching anything like its surviving form, so we can make no claims about authorial intent – of course we can’t. But we can look for different ways that we, as modern readers, can interpret and understand material, and no eleventh-century monk is going to take to Twitter to tell us that we’ve misread his intentions. Death of the author has never been so literal.

There’s this pervasive idea that a queer reading is in some way anachronistic, but a queer reading is not an attempt to impose modern identities on premodern characters. For a start, queer identities and behaviours have always existed; both gender and sexuality are culturally defined and therefore change over time. Relationships and expressions of identity that are normative now might be viewed as subversive or queer at various points in history, and vice versa – behaviours we might identify as ‘queer’ may have been normative within specific social structures (see, for example, Ancient Greek pederasty).

We’re in danger of assuming our modern understanding of normativity is the one that applies to these texts, but even in the rigid, hierarchical, Christian world of medieval Ireland, our modern western idea of the gender binary fails to fully encompass the concepts expressed in the texts and the laws.[4] And since ‘heterosexual’ is as much a modern concept as ‘homosexual’ why do we think it’s somehow neutral or historically accurate to position this as the norm?

What a queer reading does is disrupt the assumptions on which our conventional understandings of a text are based. How many more possibilities are opened up when we stop assuming that everybody in a text is heterosexual and cisgender? How much more carefully do we look at characters, power structures, conflicts and oppositions, if we stop making assumptions about gender and sexuality? A queer reading reminds us that there are always other ways of understanding relationships. It reminds us to examine how gender is constructed uniquely within a specific narrative, and to explore how this affects our understandings of other power dynamics.

In other words, a queer reading is a way of thinking outside the box when we analyse a text, creating alternative understandings that may contradict, inform, or problematise the mainstream interpretations.

Cú Chulainn and Fer Diad’s relationship is a great illustration of this multiplicity of possible interpretations, because I’d argue that the fosterage argument and the queer reading are in no way contradictory. Firstly, because a relationship that was normative to a contemporary audience may still hold queer resonances for modern readers. Secondly, because even within its historical context, a structure doesn’t have to be inherently queer in all its iterations to create space for queer identities and behaviours to exist. It would be absurd to suggest that historically, all brothers-in-arms were ‘kinda gay for each other, actually’ – but that doesn’t mean there weren’t those who found this brotherhood a space in which they could express themselves within a normative structure that rendered it acceptable.

We see elsewhere how institutions formed around homosocial bonds can facilitate queerness. In the medieval church, we find the rite of spiritual brotherhood (or ‘adelphopoiesis’ – brother-making), intended as a spiritual bond between two men and invoking aspects of marriage rites. This rite wasn’t intended as a romantic or sexual one, and historians have often argued with attempts to compare it to modern queer relationships. But in the 13th century, Athanasius I condemned it because it “brings about coitus and depravity.”[5] This structure, then, was creating a space for queer behaviours. The institution was not itself inherently queer, but for those looking for ways to express their unswerving commitment to their close companion and repudiate the possibility of heterosexual marriage… well, it clearly looked appealing.

Thus a type of relationship doesn’t have to be inherently or universally queer to create space for queer behaviours and readings to exist. We can simultaneously read Cú Chulainn and Fer Diad’s relationship as a societally normative bond between foster brothers, and acknowledge a queer reading, without either necessitating opposition to the other.

And yet I’m still nervous about doing so. Still afraid that expressing my interest in and enthusiasm for queer readings will mean more advanced scholars look down on me, or that I’ll be dismissed as not really understanding the historical context of material. When I stand up at a conference and say I’m talking about transmasculine readings of Cú Chulainn, as I did a couple of weeks ago, I couch it in caveats and disclaimers. Emphasise that ‘all’ I’m suggesting is an unconventionally expressed masculinity which may resonate with modern transmasculine experiences, and that this reminds us not to automatically categorise Cú Chulainn as a ‘hypermasculine’ figure simply because he’s a hyper-martial figure.

I was grateful that on this occasion the response to my paper was so positive – people responded far better to it than I feared, and I had a bunch of really interesting questions. But that doesn’t mean I wasn’t nervous, before and during it, because I had absolutely no idea how it was going to go down. And I still hesitate, when meeting someone new within the field – especially a more senior academic – to talk to much about that side of my research.

I hope one day I’ll be able to be unapologetic about it. Because it’s not anachronistic, to suggest that we as modern readers might interpret texts in ways which resonate with modern queer identities and experiences. Nor to point out the ways that gender is constructed, and how characters succeed or fail at performing that. Nor is it ahistorical to look beyond the normative explanation of relationships and explore alternative understandings.

Queer theory and queer readings belong in Celtic Studies. We make no claims to have the only truth or the only valid interpretation. We accept contradiction and alternatives and arguments which problematise our own. But we’re sticking around, because our readings have value, too.

Or at least, I am. You couldn’t be rid of me if you tried.


[1] I can’t imagine a Celtic Studies journal publishing something like Blake Gutt’s “Transgender genealogy in Tristan de Nanteuil”, for example, nor half of what I’ve read by Jeffrey Jerome Cohen.

[2] I say ‘in academic circles’ because it’s actually quite a popular reading among young people on the internet, most of whom aren’t studying the material formally.

[3] O’Donnell, Fosterage in Medieval Ireland (2020), p.95. This is in no way intended to call Tom O’Donnell out specifically – I have a lot of respect for him, and his pop culture-heavy blog posts about medieval Irish lit have been an inspiration to me in thinking about public-facing academia. But I have to admit this statement made me grumpy when I read it.

[4] When we look at material from outside the western/Christian world, we have to be even more wary about imposing colonialist ideas about binary gender – this is not, and has never been, a universal truth.

[5] See https://time.com/5896685/queer-monks-medieval-history/ for more on this.


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