The Hero Light, my one-man performance of the stories of Cú Chulainn, is now touring. In 2010 I cycled the 350-mile route of The Táin, its central story, across Ireland. To mark the performance’s completion, I decided to serialise excerpts from my account of the cycle trip here. ______________________________________________________________
The day had started with cycling from the edge of the sea to the tops of the Carlingford hills, 500 metres higher; then over the passes, down through the foothills and across the northern edge of the old plain of Muirhemne to Dundalk – hours of cycling. But the day had hardly begun: ahead lay three key places of pilgrimage for any devotee of the Ulster Cycle stories. And the first was on the outskirts of Dundalk itself: the hill of Dun Delgean.
It was on this hill that Cú Chulainn’s home and fortress had stood: ‘Dún Delga’. And when I arrived at its foot there was a six-foot high gate, firmly padlocked, blocking the track that wound up to its top.
I stared at my bicycle with its four bulging panniers weighed down with sodden clothing, and the rucksack on the rack. I couldn’t leave it all by the roadside unguarded, but to take panniers and rucksack up the hill without the bike would require four hands and Cú Chulainn’s physique; and I wasn’t leaving this hill without climbing it, not after several hundred miles of miles of rain-soaked slog. I removed the luggage, grasped the bicycle in one hand and a railing in the other and began The Epic of The Gate. After enough time for the sun to have visibly moved across the sky, I was teetering on its spiked top and lowering the cycle down on the other side. I repeated the manouevre with one pannier after the other, lowered myself in a sweaty heap beside them, put everything back on the bike and pushed it up the steep track.
Looking out from Cú Chulainn’s home, Dún Delga, on the edge of Dundalk
And it was worth it. At the top I stepped into sunlight and onto its wide disc of green grass encircled by a turfed rampart. The trees beautifully framed the views back towards the Carlingford’s hills and onwards – south and west across the plain. A more fitting home for the Hound of Muirhemne it would be hard to imagine.
The remains of an early medieval motte-and-bailey castle jutted from the turf, topped by the stone finger of an 18th century tower. The folly and its medieval foundations simultaneously made it hard to imagine the place as Iron-Age fortress and reinforced the feel of it as a timeless place of dwelling and defence.
I lay down against the grassy earthwork and soaked up sunshine into my waterlogged pores. And then I remembered how far there was still to go, how much more there was still to see, and just how long a day this was looking like becoming. I returned to the gate, wearily willed it to go away, and when it didn’t I repeated The Epic in reverse.
The grassy swathe of Dun Dealgan’s top
Only a handful of miles away stood the second place. In a field by a busy road near Knockbridge stands a stone. It is slightly taller and wider than me. From its top a shallow crack runs. Orange lichen is splashed across the upper part on that side, like paint flicked from a brush. It seeps down the crack as if it was once liquid, now dried to a rough glaze. The stone is upright, but leans a fraction; if you put your back against it, the rock takes a little of your weight.
I gazed out from it across the field. Alone, Cú Chulainn had looked out from here at thousands of enemies. Mortally wounded, he held his innards inside the terrible gash in his stomach with one hand and held his sword in his other. He had tied himself to the stone so he could die facing his foes.
Standing where Cú Chulainn had waited for his lonely death was strangely and strongly affecting. This was a story I was following. But it’s an epic, part of a mythology… neither history nor fiction but some other kind of truth. As Alan Garner says, it is through these kinds of stories that a people dreams. Our collective experiences are distilled into the rich metaphorical brew of our collective stories. And in that way they hold truth for and about us all. And following the concrete route of the story for 12 hours a day, every day, the characters that populate these stories became almost as real as the people I cycled past in the villages and towns, going about their daily lives.
The stone to which Cú Chulainn tied himself so as to die facing his enemies.
Knockbridge, Co. Louth
And then… it is healthy to be brought back entirely to the present world from time to time…
Two hours more in the saddle brought me to the day’s last key stop and the crux moment of the Táin bó Cuailgne: I had arrived at Ardee. Here, Cú Chulainn was confronted by his best friend Fer Diad, sent to kill him by Queen Medb. Despite Cú Chulainn’s pleas, Fer Diad could not find it in himself to back out. By the fourth day of their duel, both had been wounded so grievously that birds could fly through the hacked holes in their bodies. Cú Chulainn resorted to the Gae Bolga, a barbed spear that only he possessed. It pierced Fer Diad’s body and he fell dead. Cú Chulainn grieved and lamented for him, and was too sick in his heart and too badly wounded to fight on.
Now I was standing where this had happened, already sensitized to the tragedy of the story by visiting Cú Chulainn’s stone. I gazed at the water of the ford slipping past as it would have done that terrible day. Another bicycle came to a stop beside me and a man got off. His head wobbled about on his neck in a way that put me in mind of some wooden child’s toy.
“I saw the gear on your bike”, He said, in a local accent. He took a can of Red Stripe from his bag and rolled a cigarette. He told me he’d been on a 30-hour bender – drinking, smoking, doing a bit of cocaine; and there was a party at the Rugby Club that evening so he’d come out for some air before heading back into the fray for another wild night. His wobbly head suddenly made sense.
“So why have you stopped here?” He asked. “I saw you staring at the water”.
I told him I was cycling the route of the Táin, and that this was where Cú Chulainn and Fer Diad had fought their fateful duel.
He nodded. “I know, I know…” He waved his roll-up in lazy circles whilst his head wobbled on “…But it’s all bullshit you know. You don’t believe any of that do you?”
It was a magnificently irreverent counterpoint to the story’s domination of my imagination.
The daylight was subdued by the time I left Ardee. I realised that in aiming for Dún Delga, Cú Chulainn’s Stone and Fer Diad’s ford I had forgotten to plan how I would make headway across the country and where I would stay that night. Whoops. I cycled solidly onwards for an hour, and then another. The light became gloomier. I passed nowhere that invited me to stop and there were no campsites. I cycled dully on, into the growing dark – another hour, and another. I realised I’d been on the road for more than fourteen hours and the perfect place for the night wasn’t going to appear. I stopped in exhaustion by the next field gate, threw panniers and rucksack over it, heaved the bicycle across (wasn’t I practiced at this now, after all?), put up my tent behind the hedge, very badly, and fell into it. In the few seconds between lying down and falling asleep I thought of my friend back at Ardee. While I couldn’t keep my eyes open, he would at this moment be several hours into his next night of partying. He certainly hadn’t looked like a warrior, but his stamina for revelry would surely have impressed the stalwarts of the Ulster Cycle.
The end of the longest day: falling asleep behind a hedge after 14+ hours in the saddle
The Hero Light is coming to Felin Uchaf, North Wales, this Friday, 7th August 2015.
Here’s a link to the venue’s events page: http://www.felinuchaf.org/1/news.htm
And you can see a trailer for the show here: https://youtu.be/27qIzp5zc20