Our Little Celtic Cousin of Long Ago - Evaleen Stein

How Cuchulain Got His Name

"You know," began Angus, "it was in the brave days of the Red Branch Knights, hundreds and hundreds of years ago. Every summer these famous warriors used to go to the dun of Concobar Mac Nessa, king of Ulster, which is in the northern part of Ireland, and while there they would practice drills and hold contests of strength and go through all sorts of feats of arms.

"One summer when they were thus visiting King Concobar, on a certain day a great flock of birds alighted on the wheat fields and began to eat the ripe grain. The king and a party of his knights went out with slings and stones to drive them off. But the birds kept flying farther and farther away till at last when it grew dark they had lured King Concobar and the rest to where a fairy mound rose from the banks of the river Boyne.

"When they looked about for somewhere to sleep, they could find only a tumble-down hut, and with this they had to content themselves; that is, all but one of the knights who went exploring further till he saw an opening in the fairy mound and entering it he came to a beautiful house and was met at the door by a handsome young man who told him his name was Lugh of the Strong Arm. In a little while the young man's wife came in and the knight stared with surprise for he recognized her as Dectera, a lovely girl who with fifty of her maidens had disappeared from the court of King Concobar a whole year before.

"When the knight went back to the hut where the others were and told what he had seen, King Concobar at once sent for Dectera to return to the court with him. She refused, but next morning they found in the hut her beautiful baby boy whom she had sent as a gift to the people of Ulster, for the Druids had made great prophecies about what a great hero he should be."

"Who were the Druids?" asked Conn.

"Why," said Angus, "they were the priests of long ago, before the blessed Saint Patrick came and taught our Celtic people about Christ and started the Christian religion in Ireland.

"But everybody in King Concobar's time believed what the Druids said," went on Angus, "so the Red Branch Knights took the baby back with them and found a nurse for him, and the king gave him a large piece of land and a rath for his inheritance and he was named Setanta. By and by, when he was seven years old, he was sent to be brought up in the court and be a foster-son of King Concobar. He was a fine strong boy and soon excelled all the other boys at court in running and leaping and riding horseback and shooting with bow and arrow and in hurling the spear, and all the things you boys now are being taught.

"Now one summer, when Setanta was about ten, King Concobar and some of the knights who had come again for the yearly practice in arms, decided to pay a two days' visit to their friend a flaith named Culain who lived a number of miles from the king's palace. When they were ready to start they asked Setanta to go with them, but he was busy playing a game of hurley and he wanted to finish it; so he said he would come later in the afternoon.

"The king's party went on, and Culain welcomed them and spread a great feast and by the time they had finished it was quite late in the evening, and they had forgotten all about Setanta. Then all at once they heard a most ferocious baying outside."

"Yes," cried Ferdiad, for the boys were very fond of this story, "it was the hound of Culain that had been let loose to guard the rath for the night, and it was as big and fierce as that lion beast that lives across the sea somewhere and everybody is so afraid of! One of the merchants from the south of Gaul told us about it at the fair!"

"I have heard of the lion," said Angus, "and they say it is very terrible, but I believe I would as soon meet it as one of our Celtic wolf-hounds on guard. As the folks in Culain's rath listened the noise grew louder as if the hound was fighting fiercely. At this they rushed out—"

"And there stood Setanta with his foot on the dead hound!" broke in Conn excitedly.

"Yes," said Angus, "when it sprang on him he had seized it by the throat and killed it all by himself. The king and knights were amazed and they carried Setanta into the house and declared he would be a great hero. But while they were all exclaiming about Setanta's feat, Culain stood apart, sad and silent; for he thought a great deal of his hound that had guarded his rath faithfully for years.

"As soon as Setanta noticed this, he said courteously to Culain that he was sorry he had been obliged to kill his hound, but that if he would give him a young dog he would train it so well that in a few years it would be as brave and faithful as the hound he had lost. And he said that meantime, if Culain would give him a spear and shield, he himself would stay and guard the rath from all harm.

"Wasn't that splendid of Setanta!" exclaimed Ferdiad.

"Yes, indeed!" answered Angus, "and from that time on he was called 'Cuculain,' and every one who knows the stories of our Celtic heroes knows that his is the most famous name of all. But that will do for to-day," and Angus rose to go into the house.

"I must go, too," said Conn, and as the boys strolled together to the door of the dun, he added, "Next week school begins in the monastery over the hill. I'll see you there, won't I?"

"Yes," said Ferdiad, "father Angus says that is where I am to go, so good-by till then."