The legend of Cuchulain, the greatest of the Celtic warriors it still a favorite in all of Ireland. Also known as the 'Hound of Ulster', Cuchulain defended Ulster from Queen Maeve when only a boy. He is sent by jealous neighbors to Scotland to train as a warrior but after adventures there, returns to claim his bride Emer. After many more adventures in Ireland he is tricked by his nemesis Queen Maeve, and perishes in battle. The story of Cuchulain is heroic, non-stop action and a delight for readers of all ages.
The events that circle round King Conor mac Nessa and Cuchulain as their principal figures are supposed to have occurred, as we gather from the legends themselves, about the first century of our era. According to one of the stories, King Conor is said to have died in a paroxysm of wrath and horror, brought on by hearing the news of the crucifixion of our Lord by the Jews. Though this story is evidently one of the few interpolations having their origin in Christian times (the main body of the legends being purely pagan), the probability that they took shape about this period is increased almost to certainty by the remarkable agreement we find in them with the accounts derived from classical writers who lived and wrote about this same period, and who comment on the habits of the Gauls of France, the Danube valley and Asia Minor, and the Belgic tribes who inhabited South-eastern Britain, with whom the Roman armies came into contact in the course of their wars of aggression and expansion. The descriptions given by Poseidonius, a century before Christ, or Diodorus, Caesar and Livy half a century later, agree remarkably with the notices found in these Irish stories of social conditions, weapons, dress, and appearance. The large wicker shields, the huge double-bladed swords lifted above the head to strike, the courage amounting to rashness of the Celt in attack, the furious onset of the scythed war-chariots, the disregard of death, the habit of rushing into battle without waiting to don their clothes, the single combats, the great feasts, the "Champion's Bit" reserved as a mark of distinction for the bravest warrior; these, and many other characteristics found in our tales are commented upon in the pages of the Roman historians. The culture represented in them is that known to archæologists as "late Celtic," called on the Continent the La Tène period, i.e. the period extending from about 400 B.C. to the first century of the Christian era; and the actual remains of weapons, ornaments, and dress found in Ireland confirm the supposition that we are dealing with this stage of culture.
We may, then, take it that these tales were formed about the beginning of our era, although the earliest written documents that we have of them are not earlier than the eleventh and twelfth century. Between the time of their invention for the entertainment of the chiefs and kings of Ireland to the time of their incorporation in the great books which contain the bulk of the tales, they were handed down by word of mount, every bard and professional story-teller (of whom there was at least one in every great man's house) being obliged to know by heart a great number of these romances, and prepared at any moment to recite those which he might be called upon to give. In the course of centuries of recitation certain changes crept in, but in the main they come to us much as they were originally recited. In some tales, of which we have a number of copies of different ages, we can trace these changes and notice the additions and modifications that have been made.
Over a hundred distinct tales belonging to this one cycle alone are known to have existed, and of a great number of them one or more copies have come down to us, differing more or less from each other.
The old story-tellers who handed down the romantic tales of Ireland handled their material in a very free manner, expanding and altering as suited their own poetic feeling and the audience they addressed. A reciter of poetic power fearlessly re-arranged, enlarged or condensed. As a general rule, the older the form of a story the shorter, terser, and more barbaric is its character. In the long tale of the Táin bó Cuailgne, which forms the central subject of the whole cycle, the arrangement of the episodes and the number of incidents introduced is quite different in the oldest copy we have of it, that found in the compilation called (from the particular piece of parchment on which it was written) the "Book of the Dun (or Brown) Cow," compiled in 1100 in the monastery of Clonmacnois on the Shannon, from the version in the Book of Leinster, a great vellum book drawn up and written for Dermot mac Morrough, the King of Leinster who invited Strongbow and the Normans to come over from Wales half a century later. The oldest form of the story is often the more manly and self-restrained; there is a tendency, as time goes on, not only to soften down the more barbarous and rougher portion, but to emphasise the pathetic and moving scenes, and to add touches of symbolism and imagination. Though they lack the brief dignity of the older versions, the more recent copies are often more attractive and full of poetry. For instance, we have in this book drawn largely on some comparatively recent (seventeenth-eighteenth century MSS, in the British Museum, not hitherto translated, for the details (many of them full of poetic imagination) of the history of Cuchulain's journey into Shadowland to learn feats of bravery, and in the account of his death and the incidents that immediately follow it. In the different versions of the former story, the name of the country to which Cuchulain went is variously given as Alba or Scotland, Scythia, and the "Land of Scáthach," i.e. the home of the woman-warrior from whom he learned. It is evident that Scythia is only a mistake for Scáthach, made by some scribe and copied by others. Scáth means a "Shadow," and probably the original idea was purely symbolic, meaning that the hero had passed beyond the bounds of human knowledge into an invisible world of mystery called Shadowland. The writer of the copy that I have used returns to this original idea, and the whole story, in his hands, becomes symbolic and imaginative. So also, in the account of Cuchulain's death, the modern scribe introduces new details which add to the beauty and striking effect of this most touching epidosde. To my mind the scribes, in making these additions, acted in a perfectly legitimate manner, and I have not hesitated in this book, which does not aim at being a text-book, but a book written for the pleasure of the young, to follow their example. I have freely, in minor points, re-arranged or pruned the tales, adding details from different sources as suited my purpose, and occasionally expanding an imaginative suggestion indicated, but not worked out, by the scribe. But I have seldom allowed myself deliberately to alter a story, or to introduce anything not found somewhere in the tales as they have come down to us. An exception is the story of Cuchulain's visit to fairy-land, commonly known as the "Sickbed of Cuchulain," which required a slight modification of the central situation in order to make it suitable reading for any children into whose hands the book might chance to fall; it was too poetic and touching an episode to be altogether omitted without loss to the conception of the cycle as a whole.
It is, after all, the human interest of these old stories, and not primarily their importance as folklore and the history of manners, that appeals to most of us to-day. As the Arthurian legend all through the Middle Ages set before men's minds an ideal of high purpose, purity of life, and chivalrous behaviour in an age that was not over-inclined to practise these virtues, so these old Irish romances, so late rescued from oblivion, come to recall the minds of men in our own day to some noble ideals.
For, rude as are the social conditions depicted in these tales, and exaggerated and barbaric as is the flavour of some of them, they nevertheless present to us a high and often romantic code of natural chivalry. There is no more pathetic story in literature than that of the fight between the two old and loving friends, Cuchulain and Ferdia; there is no more touching act of chivalry in a woman than Cuchulain's offer of aid to his enemy Queen Meave, in the moment of her exhaustion; there is no more delightful passage of playful affection than that between the hero and his lady in the wooing of Emer. These tales have a sprightliness and buoyancy not possessed by the Arthurian tales, they are fresher, more humourous, more diversified; and the characters, more especially those of the women, are more firmly and variously drawn. For Wales and for England Arthur has been for centuries the representative "very gentle perfect knight"; for Ireland Cuchulain represented the highest ideal of which the Irish Gael was capable. In these stories, as in Malory's "More D'Arthur," we find "many joyous and pleasant histories, and noble and renowned acts of humanity, gentleness and chivalry"; and we may add, with Malory, "Do after the good and leave the evil, and it shall bring you to good fame and renommée."