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 next morning the weather seemed to be feeling guilty. It treated me to several hours of clear skies and sunshine. I gazed across sun-dazzled water to the Mournes sweeping up from the sea. In their folds lay the Silent Valley, to where Cú Chulainn had been taken by his wife and the druids, long after the action of the Táin. They hid him there in a desperate bid to save him from the illusion of a huge army his enemies had created to lure him to his death.
At the eastern end of the narrow rim of flatland between mountains and sea was Dundrum, home to the Ulster Cycle’s most irascible troublemaker. Bricriu of the Poisoned Tongue was never content until he had turned a peaceful occasion into a bloodbath. He organized a magnificent feast at Dundrum for all the warriors of Ulster. When they refused to attend (“if we go, our dead will outnumber our living”) he threatened to turn every woman’s right breast against her left breast and her left breast against her right breast until they banged against each other and “the milk that comes from them to feed the babes of Ulster will be foul and putrid”. So they agreed to attend but only on condition that Bricriu did not. Always one for a challenge, he wound up the principal warriors and queens of Ulster in advance so that utter mayhem ensued. The account of this – ‘Bricriu’s Feast’ – is one of the comic masterpieces of the Ulster Cycle.
I had camped in the Mournes the previous summer, on my first field trip following the Ulster Cycle stories (the same visit in which I had parked by the roadside in Carlingford that day – see previous excerpt). The campsite had a good fifty tents arranged across it, and looked straight up towards Hare Gap, the notch in the mountain wall of the Mournes. This notch, I now know, funnels the winds from the sea into a jet stream when the weather is wild enough. As it was on our fourth night… A storm came in. It was as though the giant Cú Roí was wandering around the fields flattening tents with his hands. I emerged into the maelstrom at 3am to discover our family tent had several broken poles and was in danger of being flung to the ground entirely. I had a pack of spare guyline so I went to tie the tent down in as many places as humanly possible. I had no more tent pegs so I used our cutlery – banging knives, forks and spoons into the turf as the rain laughed at my waterproofs and soaked me to the skin with the aid of its mate, the wind.
In the morning it was quite a sight: The tent was pinned down beneath a spider’s web of guylines, and protruding from the grass were all manner of household implements. It looked pretty Dali-esque. Our tent was the only one left: the others had been thrust into cars by their owners as they evacuated in the night, or had simply been abandoned where they lay. There wasn’t a single other camper left on site. A couple of dozen destroyed tents littered the field, shattered poles poking through their torn nylon skins like emaciated animals massacred in some wild hunt. The farmer saw me:
“You’re still here”, he observed.
“We are”, I said, “But the tent’s in a bad way. Some poles are broken”.
He gestured across the field at the post-apocalyptic landscape of ruined tents: “Just go and see what you can find from these, and take whatever you need”.
“Won’t their owners be coming back for them?” I asked.
“Oh no”, he said, “They never do”.
I looked at his unperturbed face: he knew very well what came through that gap from time to time. But absolutely nothing had been said when each camper had walked into his office and had paid for their stay (in advance). Bricriu would have been proud of him.
I remember it being a relief in a way, to now find ourselves alone. The other campers were from the Unionist community in Northern Ireland. We had got on well with them and chatted freely. But my experience in the past had been that the name Dominic Kelly had such strong Irish catholic resonances for people from that background that it didn’t always produce a friendly response and I kept it to myself. However on day three, one of my family mentioned my name to our neighbours and that was the last time they talked to us. That was also when things started to go missing from the tent when we were out. This is not a slant on that community. No doubt one could have had a similar situation if the backgrounds of myself and the other campers had been reversed. But as someone mostly sheltered from prejudice it was a striking experience.
The story of Cú Chulainn is interesting in the way it has been adopted by both the Nationalist and Unionist communities. On the one hand it is an epic of all Ireland, with a pedigree going back to at least the Dark Ages; steeped in the Irish language and the old roots of the names in the landscape, it has a natural home with the Nationalists. On the other hand its theme of one lone Ulsterman standing firm against the rest of Ireland chimes with the Unionists’ view of their position and they too have taken it in as one of their stories.
Back in 2010, I looked at Carlingford mountain rearing up behind the hostel. My route lay over the high pass beyond its summit. I loaded down the bicycle and set off. Well, it nearly killed me. Luckily the views were magnificent so I could stop repeatedly and lengthily whilst salvaging some dignity in front of passing motorists by pretending to be merely taking in the panorama. It was up here that the Brown Bull of Cooley had secreted himself. Medb had dragged half her army over the tops, ordering them to hack a cutting through the hills to effect their passage.
Slumped in a sweaty heap at the top of the pass, I stared south and east: it was all downhill from here, all the way to the Louth plain – Cú Chulainn’s beloved Muirhemne. And on the eastern edge of Dundalk, there in the distance, rose a lonely hill: Dún Delga, Cú Chulainn’s own home, his fortress. That was where I was headed. I wheeled the bike back onto the tarmac, pointed it at the plain and let it freewheel wildly down the pass, taking me towards the next stage of the journey.