Myths & Legends | The Boyhood of Cuchulain by Standish O'Grady

This story, transcribed by Standish O'Grady and published in Alfred Perceval Graves' The Irish Fairy Book in 1909, tells of the childhood of Setanta, and how he became Cuchulain (the Hound of Culain), the hero warrior of the Táin Bó Cuailnge epic. O'Grady, an author, journalist and historian, published several books about Cúchulainn and was a central figure in the Celtic Revival.

Dectera, one of the sisters of Conchubar Mac Nessa, married a prince whose patrimony lay along the shores of the Muirnict, and whose capital was Dun Dalgan. They had one child, a boy, whom they named Setanta.

As soon as Setanta was able to understand the stories and conversation of those around him, he evinced a passion for arms and the martial life, which was so premature and violent as to surprise all who knew him. His thoughts for ever ran on the wars and achievements of the Red Branch. He knew all the knights by name, the appearance and bearing of each, and what deeds of valour they had severally performed. Emain Macha, the capital of the Clanna Rury, was never out of his mind. He saw for ever before his mind its moats and ramparts, its gates and bridges, its streets filled with martial men, its high-raised Duns and Raths, its branching roads, over which came the tributes of wide Ulla to the High King. He had seen his father's tribute driven thither, and had even longed to be one of the four-footed beasts that he beheld wending their way to the wondrous city. But, above all, he delighted to be told of the great school where the young nobles of Ulster were taught martial exercised and the military art, under the superintendence of chosen knights and of the High King himself. Of the several knights he had his own opinion, and had already resolved to accept no one as his instructor save Fergus Mac Roy, tanist of Ulster.


f his father he saw little. His mind had become impaired, and he was confined in a secluded part of the Dun. But whenever he spoke to Dectera of what was nearest his heart, and his desire to enter the military school at Emain Macha, she laughed, and said that he was not yet old enough to endure that rough life. But secretly she was alarmed, and formed plans to detain him at home altogether. Then Setanta concealed his desire, but enquired narrowly concerning the partings of the roads on the way to Emania.

At last, when he was ten years old, selecting a favourable night, Setanta stole away from his father’s Dun, and before morning had crossed the frontier. He then lay down to rest and sleep in a wood. After this he set out again, travelling quickly, lest he should be met by any of his father’s people. On his back was strapped his little wooden shield, and by his side hung a sword of lath. He had brought his ball and hurle of red-bronze with him, and ran swiftly along the road, driving the ball before him, or throwing up his javelin into the air, and running to meet it ere it fell.

In the afternoon of that day Fergus Mac Roy and the King sat together in the part that surrounded the King’s palace. A chessboard was between them, and their attention was fixed on the game.

At a distance the young nobles were at their sports, and the shouts of the boys and the clash of the metal hurles resounded in the evening air.


uddenly, the noise ceased, and Fergus and the King looked up. They saw a strange boy rushing backwards and forwards through the crowd of young nobles, urging the ball in any direction that he pleased, as if in mockery, till none but the very best players attempted to stop him, while the rest stood about the ground in groups. Fergus and the King looked at each other for a moment in silence.

After this the boys came together into a group and held a council. Then commenced what seemed to be an attempt to force him out of the ground, followed by a furious fight. The strange boy seemed to be a very demon of war; with his little hurle grasped, like a war-mace, in both hands, he laid about him on every side, and the boys were tumbling fast. He sprang at tall youths, like a hound at a stag’s throat. He rushed through crowds of his enemies like a hawk through a flock of birds. The boys, seized with a panic, cried out that it was one of the Tuatha from the fairy hills of the Boyne, and fled right and left to gain the shelter of the trees. Some of them, pursued by the stranger, ran round Conchubar Mac Nessa and his knight. The boy, however, running straight, sprang over the chess table; but Conchubar seized him deftly by the wrist and brought him to a stand, but with dilated eyes and panting.


Boyhood of Cuchulain
An original illustration for the Boyhood of Cuchulain in Graves' The Irish Fairy Book.


“Why are you so enraged, my boy?” said the King, “and why do you so maltreat my nobles?”

“Because they have not treated me with the respect due to a stranger,” replied the boy.

“Who are you yourself?” said Conchubar.

“I am Setanta, the son of Sualtim, and Dectera, your own sister, is my mother; and it is not before my uncle’s palace that I should be insulted and dishonoured.”


his was the début and first martial exploit of the great Cuculain, type of Irish chivalry and courage, in the bardic firmament a bright and particular star of strength, daring, and glory, that will not set nor suffer aught but transient obscuration till the extinction of the Irish race; Cuculain, bravest of the brave, whose glory affected even the temperate-minded Tierna, so that his sober pen has inscribed, in the annals of ancient Erin, this testimony: “Cuculain, filius Sualtam fortissimus heros Scotorum.”

After this Setanta was regularly received into the military school, where, ere long, he became a favourite both with old and young. He placed himself under the tuition of Fergus Mac Roy, who, each day, grew more and more proud of his pupil, for while still a boy his fame was extending over Ulla.

It was not long after this that Setanta received the name by which he is more generally known. Culain was chief of the black country of Ulla, and of a people altogether given up to the making of weapons and armour, where the sound of the hammer and husky bellows were for ever heard. One day Conchubar and some of his knights, passing through the park to partake of an entertainment at the house of the armourer, paused awhile, looking at the boys at play. Then, as all were praising his little nephew, Conchubar called to him, and the boy came up, flushed and shy, for there were with the King the chief warriors of the Red Branch. But Conchubar bade him come with them to the feast, and the knights around him laughed, and enumerated the good things which Culain had prepared for them. But when Setanta’s brow fell, Conchubar bade him finish his game, and after that proceed to Culain’s house, which was to the west of Emain Macha, and more than a mile distant from the city. Then the King and his knights went on to the feast, and Setanta returned joyfully to his game.

Now, when they were seen afar upon the plain the smith left his workshop and put by his implements, and having washed from him the sweat and smoke, made himself ready to receive his guests; but the evening fell as they were coming into the liss, and all his people came in also, and sat at the lower table, and the bridge was drawn up and the door was shut for the night, and the candles were lit in the high chamber.

Then said Culain, “Have all thy retinue come in, O Conchubar?” And when the King said that they were all there, Culain bade one of his apprentices go out and let loose the great mastiff that guarded the house. Now, this mastiff was as large as a calf and exceedingly fierce, and he guarded all the smith’s property outside the house, and if anyone approached the house without beating on the gong, which was outside the foss and in front of the drawbridge, he was accustomed to rend him. Then the mastiff, having been let loose, careered three times round the liss, baying dreadfully, and after that remained quiet outside his kennel, guarding his master’s property. But, inside, they devoted themselves to feasting and merriment, and there were many jests made concerning Culain, for he was wont to cause laughter to Conchubar Mac Nessa and his knights, yet he was good to his own people and faithful to the Crave Rue, and very ardent and skilful in the practice of his art. But as they were amusing themselves in this manner, eating and drinking, a deep growl came from without, as it were a note of warning, and after that one yet more savage; but where he sat in the champion’s seat, Fergus Mac Roy struck the table with his hand and rose straightway, crying out, “It is Setanta.” But ere the door could be opened they heard the boy’s voice raised in anger and the fierce yelling of the dog, and a scuffling in the bawn of the liss. Then they rushed to the door in great fear, for they said that the boy was torn in pieces; but when the bolts were drawn back and they sprang forth, eager to save the boy’s life, they found the dog dead, and Setanta standing over him with his hurle, for he had sprung over the foss, not fearing the dog. Forthwith, then, his tutor, Fergus Mac Roy, snatched him up on his shoulder, and returned with great joy into the banquet hall, where all were well pleased at the preservation of the boy, except Culain himself, who began to lament over the death of his dog and to enumerate all the services which he rendered to him.

“Do not grieve for thy dog, O Culain,” said Setanta, from the shoulder of Fergus, “for I will perform those services for you myself until a dog equally good is procured to take the place of him I slew.”

Then one jesting, said, “Cu-culain!” (Hound of Culain) and thenceforward he went by this name.

This page was last updated on Tuesday, 7th November 2017 @ 19:16:05