On the last day of the journey, the sun came out; too late for my comprehensively sodden gear, but so very welcome on this day of all days. The almost brutal amount of rain that had poured itself on me and at me during the trip seemed completely in keeping with following the Táin bó Cuailnge. If the sun had smiled upon me for 350 miles it would have been too easy; the weather had gifted the journey with an appropriate intensity. But perhaps a little like Medb’s army – routed by Ulster’s forces once they were in retreat towards home – the dogged spirit that had seen me pedal on through epic amounts of water over nine days was suddenly blunted now by the beckoning of rest and a dry bed.
A few hours in the saddle, through a limestone landscape bright with sun, brought me to a hamlet on a shallow rise of land overlooking the plain: Emmoo… When Medb arrived back at the court of Connaught, her army was in tatters but the prize was hers: there stood the pride of Ulster, the Brown Bull of Cooley. Now, at last, her wealth was equal to her husband’s. She watched the magnificent animal – so large that one hundred and fifty children could sit along its back – raise its head to the sky and bellow. But in answer, another vast bull lumbered across the land: Findbannach, the bull of Ailill the King, large enough for a hundred warriors to shelter in the lee of his side. Medb had no idea that she had brought two old enemies together (see part 2): two pigkeepers of the kings of the Sidh – who had years before fought each other as warriors, birds, dragons and sea monsters – now reincarnated as bulls. They charged at each other for the last time. And the place where they met was Emmoo.
Findbennach’s horn pierced the Brown Bull’s leg, breaking it. Locked in combat, they staggered into the waters of a nearby lake and disappeared under the surface. The crowd of onlookers waited….
One pair of horns appeared through the skin of the water: one bull limped out of the lake – with his rival’s shoulder blade lodged on one horn and his liver on the other: the Brown Bull of Cooley. Medb was beside herself with exultation; Findbennach’s death left her the wealthier! But the Brown Bull of Cooley stumbled eastwards and homewards and, with a final bellow, the prize for whom so many had lost their lives dropped to his knees… and died. Medb sighed and looked at her husband: “Oh well”, She said, “… at least that leaves us equal”.
I arrived at Roscommon train station, barely recognizable under a blue sky as the same place from which I’d emerged into a skyfull of raindrops like hailstones at the start of the ride. The train came in. And I left the weather, the land full of stories, the endless tarmac, and I wheeled my bike aboard, and slumped in a seat.
I hadn’t been in a confined space aside from my tent for the duration of the trip. The overriding sensation wasn’t the bittersweet mixture of relief and sadness that it was nearly over. It was the awfulness of the smell from my sodden trainers – an awfulness that I must have shared with every other passenger in that half of the carriage, on what must have been a very, very long trip to Dublin.
I walked out into Dublin with hours to spare before my ferry so I walked my laden bike around the centre. I found myself on O’ Connell Street. On the far side stood the GPO, famous as the HQ of 1916’s Easter Rising. In a window in the front of the building was a bronze statue: a sculpture of a man tied to a rock with his own belt; his dead weight slumped against it, his sword still grasped tight in his right hand. Cú Chulainn. When the Irish erected a memorial to those who had died fighting for independence in those fateful days of 1916, it was his image they chose.
I boarded the ferry, reprised my argument for having a cabin, won again, and was lying in a bunk by the time the boat nosed eastwards into the Irish Sea.
Throughout the journey a feeling had been growing that I wasn’t alone. I had spent twelve hours and more every day with the figures at the core of the stories: Cú Chulainn, Fergus, Conall Cernach, Medb, Fráech, Scáthach, Fer Diad, Conchobor… imagining them, invoking them into the landscape, meditating on how the events in the epic must have affected them. After nine days they had become vivid, concrete, real. And as I lay in my cabin, it was as if they were still there around me. The feeling would persist for a long time after I had walked off the ferry onto English soil, saddled up and cycled through Liverpool to catch a final train to Lancaster.
Even back in Lancashire, the connections to landscape and place were not quite at an end. Though he has become it’s central figure, Cú Chulainn is a relatively late arrival in the Ulster Cycle. Meanwhile, though chariot fighting dominates the action in the stories, there is little archaeological evidence to support its widespread use in Iron-age Ireland. Some have argued this aspect was added by medieval scribes, to create an Irish equivalent of The Iliad. But others have looked elsewhere for an explanation. Cú Chulainn’s original name is Setanta, and along the Lancashire coast lived a Celtic tribe called the Setantii who fought their battles from chariots. Some scholars of Celtic Studies suggest Setanta’s introduction into the stories represents the migration of some of the Setantii from the coast of Lancashire directly across the water to the coast of Louth. In other words, it is possible that in one sense Cú Chulainn came from Lancashire. I don’t suppose we’ll ever know.
Back at my house, at the top of a series of steep hills, I took everything off my long-suffering bike. I was hungry and the fridge was empty. I freewheeled the bicycle back down the hill to the shops. I made it five yards before I fell off. Now that it wasn’t weighed down with twenty five kilos of gear, the slightest turn of the handlebars sent it at right angles into the middle of the road. It would be a couple of days before I was fully safe on its unencumbered frame.
Five years later, I am at last touring my completed performance piece created from the stories of the Ulster Cycle. I’ve been through a very long process of researching, shaping, workshopping and rehearsing it. It’s a one-man show, and nearly three hours long. It is the landscape that keeps me on course through its length and complexity, the landscape I really came to know, yard by cycled yard, in nine days in 2010. My director, Michael Harvey, noted on our first day working together that the times when the stories were working best were when I brought into the telling the real places of Ireland in which they happen. In those moments I can see the landscapes in front of my eyes: the rushes spiking the marshy plains of Connaught; the huge skies of Louth above the flat sweeps of harvest stubble; the rain-dark hills of Carlingford across the grey gleam of the sea. It is when I’m in touch with these physical truths of the landscape that the other hidden truths in the stories can begin to show themselves.