Introducion: Dechtine daughter of Neas was the mother of the legendary Cú Chulainn whose birth name was Setanta. This is her account of the story of his conception, birth and early life before he left his home at Muirthemne to join the Court of her brother King Conchubar Mac Nessa.
There was a cup, unlike any other cup, at a feast, just like every other feast. It looked like it had come with some shipment of wine. It was exotic to my eyes. Little men and women dancing, notions of love drawn all about it and full of purple wine. I tasted it. I drank it in, slowly, deeply, blissfully swilling every particle around my mouth. Sip by sip, down into my belly where I felt it warm my senses, awakening them, at the same time as sending me to sleep and from that moment I began a different life to the one I had been living.
A man came to me then with golden hair and eyes so blue you could see a summer sky inside them. His skin was the colour of cream, his robes white and try to believe me because it is true that I saw two white wings behind his shoulders. And then he loved me but remember when I say this that we were not in the world that I already knew. It was in another world that we loved each other, his, for he was one of them, *The Tuatha Dé Danann who came long ago from the northern cities of *Falias, Gorias, Murias and Finias. I am not ashamed to say my body convulsed with ecstasy. Then, he bid me leave *Emain Macha where my brother Conchubar Mac Nessa was King. He bid me to go to *Brúgh na Bóinne and bring with me my fifty handmaidens. And when I said I would, he changed our shapes. We flew as white birds over the plains and forests of *Éire.
How can a woman put words together to describe what it is like to fly. I can tell a mortal more easily about wine because it’s a mortal habit. I can tell about love making because mortals have or will have the experience and if not, they have imagined them selves into its bliss. How can I tell what it is like to fly as a bird to mortals who have never flown.
Once I saw a man open out his arms as if they were his wings. He was telling a story about freedom. I envied him. I remember thinking how easy it is for a man to open up his arms like that. I envied him because it is not so easy for a woman to open her body merely to enhance a story. She might if she were wearing a suit of iron so that what she has is still hers for the keeping, so a man’s looking would not turn into his owning. So, is it possible that it was even more thrilling for me than it would have been for a man to surrender my belly to the force that holds up all birds; the very air we breathe. High, high and higher inhaling, exhaling, lifting, letting go with wings open wide and plain and nothing and everything was there. We made forms in the air, patterns and shapes through the clouds. We flew over plains, saw the tops of trees, the expanse of the forests, the pattern the rivers make through them and the lakes that mirrored us back to ourselves. We saw the lapping of the sea on the shores of Ireland. We flew high as mountains, took rest where there are eagles only to swoop again between the cliffs with joy amid the sound of the waves against the rocks. For the length of time it takes for a human child to gestate inside its mother’s womb was the only thing we knew of time when we were birds. It was my child we were waiting for. My bird husband was Lugh god of light and truth and art and the harvest. He wanted me to bear a son. For what purpose he didn’t say but I guessed it was to keep the magic of his people in our world because he knew we weren’t telling ourselves the truth by taking our harvest and the generosity of the forests and the animals for granted.
Time passed. My child gestated inside my bird belly held up by the wind and while he formed we ate and slept with earth and water. We were lifted into the air by the spirit of fire until it was time to awaken, to take up our human forms again for me to have my child.
It was always deemed that I would come back to my home, to my husband, Sualdamh. Though by then I knew our return would not be in the style of fifty women coming to the gates of my brother’s great fortress asking to be let in and accounting to all for our absence. We were too much to ourselves by then for that to be an option. And so, we flocked together as birds one last time and we flew to Emain Macha where we raided the fields of every seed that had been sown that year. That was an action with two intentions. One was guided by the birds to show the men of Ulster how they lacked the power they thought they had over the natural world. The other was a human tactic to draw them out so we could meet with them on terms of our own. They yoked nine chariots, King Conchobar, Ferghus Mac Rioch who was the man who had been king before him, Laegaire Buadach, Conall Cearnach and many more followed us with anger and enchantment upon them. They followed us all the way to Brúgh na Bóinne that had a spell put on it making it look like an old shack. We were sad to say goodbye to the sky but happy too because my pains had started and so there was to be a child born which is the biggest happiness of all.
The men were outside, unsettled and suspicious. Ferghus came first and as he knocked on the humble door it changed before him and then he recognised the grandeur of Brúgh na Bóinne. As the door opened he saw the fifty women who were missing from Emain Macha who greeted him fondly. He thought he had entered a dream. It was no dream but maybe it was a middle place between the worlds that were dividing in those days. We invited them all. The women who were not tending to me treated our guests with food and drink that was as exotic as Brúgh na Bóinne itself. The only thing they had to bother them was the sound of myself. When they enquired about what was happening they were told only that a woman was giving birth upstairs. They settled in for the night and drank and ate all that was put before them, then fell into the stupor of drunken sleep as if the world about them was quiet as a stone.
He came with the dawn. He was put to my breast and I swear he was the most beautiful child a woman ever bore; fair and fat and if angry roars are a sign of great health then he was healthy beyond health and when he opened his eyes I could see a summer sky inside them. I called him Setanta there and then. And with that name I gave him to my husband Sualdamh who would be his father on the ground.
In the morning my brother Conchubar was the first to rise to the cries of my child. He had been told that a mare had dropped two foals at the same time as the child was born and that was seen to be a strange event and so he took them for his own. He came looking for me and was filled with joy when he saw it was me, his own sister who had birthed the boy. He called his men to tell them the great news. A royal son for Ulster from his sister who had found a way to have him with or without her husband. They didn’t care where he came from as long as he had come from me, a child of *Neas.
Then all the talk began; who would teach him what and I shuddered inside as they spoke about a man and not a child. Ferghus who had been the King of Ulster before Conchobar wanted to teach him all that he knew of protecting his people and battles and crafts. Each and every man there had an idea of himself as the father of my child. The told of how they would raise him naming the qualities that they would teach him. Conchobar who as good a king as any for his diplomacy said they would all in their turns teach the child their own expertise.
I said, Will he be allowed to be a child at all? Will there be time for him to live and play with his mother and father in *Muirthemne. At last my brother listened to me as well as any king can and so Setanta was raised by Sualdamh and myself. But that lasted only for a time because it was as if the child heard all that was said that day. Even though he was only a babe on my breast he heard them say he was destined for great things and so he was always in an awful hurry.
I couldn’t hold him. He never crawled, he climbed, he never walked, he ran, he never whimpered, he roared. I remember the day his father gave him his first hurl; smallest hurl ever crafted said the maker. He never left it down. He played with that hurl and sloitar from morning till night, aiming, getting it right, aiming, getting it wrong, then roaring and screaming until his little face was red as an apple. Over a very short time he mastered his command of that ball so that he could have hurled it through the eye of a needle. A *hurl and *sloitar were the softest toys he would entertain. He would watch the smithy making swords and when his father carved a wooden one he went into a tantrum so big we had to take him for a swim in the sea to cool him down.
He was only seven when he said he wanted to go to Ulster to meet his fate. When did a child ever say that to a mother? I don’t know but it is the truth and I said no, you are too young to go but by hook or by crook he was going to go for the mischief in him was cleverer than any man. I loved him fiercely the way mothers do and he loved me back as he climbed over my body entitled to its softness. I was his softness and I feared for the determination that would take him from me and for how long he would wait to find softness again.
He left before he should have. I forbade him, Sualdamh forbade him but off he went anyway saying, Sure all I am doing is following my ball. He followed his ball sure that it would find the way away and it did. After that I only had my child through the stories he made and I believed them all for I knew his boldness all too well but I hoped he would be taught to steer it and hold it and know when it made sense and when it did not. But I also knew my hope was against hope because of how delighted men would be with such a fearless child. My heart as his mother had been opened up only to be broken as my beautiful boy Setanta went into a world that was delighted by war.
Before he found Emain Macha, Setanta came upon a group of boys, all his own age playing a game of hurling. He joined them and never let one of them take the ball from him. Who is this show off they said and as they said it they began to gang up on him. The disturbance was discovered by Fearghus Mac Ríoch who took him to the king to see what to do with him. When Conchobar discovered it was his own nephew he was delighted. He sat Setanta on his knee and explained that all the boys were like himself, relatives of kings and he must ask for their protection and so he did and they said he could have it and invited him to play. But Setanta drove the ball through them all again, never passing it, heading straight to the goal. They complained bitterly but Setanta said, I asked you for your protection but you didn’t ask me for mine. We cannot play as equals until you do.
I was proud to hear that story. I thought to myself, He is part of a team and so he might be safe. I had seen him show off to make a point when there was a point to be made. That was his way but I feared misinterpretation that could be dangerous for him. Competence can send protective instincts to sleep sometimes.
I was consoled to hear that Setanta had been given Conshubar’s knee as his public seat. So he might be seen as the small boy that he was but that solace only lasted a while because what I feared came to pass.
One night when my brother went visiting a chieftain called Culann. He wanted to bring Setanta to show him off but he wasn’t finished his game of hurling and so he said to his uncle, I will follow you.
Conchubar agreed and went ahead to be welcomed with a feast. He was there a while when his host said, Are there any more coming behind you? I want to put my hound on guard at the gates. My brother, asleep to the tasks of child watching neglected his memory and said, No, my company is complete.
And so Setanta in the dark of evening came upon the hound of Culainn who was baring his teeth as he got ready to spring upon my little boy. Setanta took up his sloitar into his hand and hurled it into the hounds mouth sending it down his throat to kill him outright. The men inside heard the commotion and came out to see a small boy standing up on his prey smiling broadly. Conchubhar was overcome with relief having remembered his mistake. But Culann was distraught at the loss of such a great wolfhound. And so my little boy stood up and said, Until you have found a hound to replace the one I have killed I will be your hound. The men laughed but Culann accepted his offer and so with a lot of wine filled camaraderie and cheer they renamed him that night. The changed my child’s name from Setanta to *Cú Chulainn, wolf of some chieftain who had a lot of wealth to mind.
That was heartbreak to me. Why, why did my brother allow that? My child didn’t need to be named for someone other than himself. That is why I gave him the name Setanta. His name! He had no need of a name to do with anyone other than himself. He was the son of Sualdamh, son of the heavenly Lugh of the harvest with a name all of his own and now he was named as someone’s hound! I let my brother know what I thought but all he would say was the child accepted the new name. Why at that time did every man who knew my son forget that he was a child. Why did they not see he was in need of firm hand and surely a king who was his uncle could have been that to him. Anger has been rising in me ever since that day at the taking of his name. To this day I cry for the beautiful name I gave to him, Setanta.
He called himself to arms after that. He heard a prophesy told one day by the poet Cathbhadh that whoever came to arms on that day would be remembered forever but he would die young. I wished with all my heart that those supposed to be wise would keep their prophesies and the tragedies they make to themselves. Can they not see that we hear them and then we live them. What boy doesn’t want to think himself a great a warrior. It was a green little boy who heard that, wanted that. How does a boy know that when he is a man he will want to live on past his renown. He will have a wife and children to live for. Why did Conchobar not say you will be a great warrior in time and after that you will learn the greater deeds of wisdom for the greatest of all renown lies there. It is clear that wisdom was not used for my child on that fateful day.
He went to his uncle and said, Uncle today is the day I come to arms.
Conchubhar gave him a sword, spear and shield and he broke them all. He gave him other sets that he broke too. Finally the king gave him his own spear and shield that turned out to be strong enough. The same happened with chariots. I don’t know how many he went through before he was using the king’s chariot. He circled the kingdom with great satisfaction, then he said, There is no point in me having weapons on this day if I don’t mean to use them. Surely the day I take up arms I have to kill my enemies. So he went to the fort of the three sons of Nechtan who had killed as many Ulster men as were alive at that time. Fearful warriors that none had ever gotten the better of. He killed them all and I say they deserved to die for they were all prepared to fight a boy who was taunting them. When I heard it I said, May they rot where they were slain.
And so, with the heads of the sons of Nechtan decorating his chariot he set out for home. On his way he saw a sight he had never seen before and that was a herd of red deer. He chased them until they were exhausted, took two and tied them to his chariot. Along another way he saw a flock of the whitest swans he had ever seen. He asked *Laeg his chariot driver, Which was the most difficult: to bring them home alive or dead. Laeg said it is more difficult if not impossible to bring them home alive. Setanta used his sling and a light rope to capture them and so went on with twenty wild swans flying over his chariot.
Imagine the sight of a boy racing home in a king’s chariot lead by the two horses that had been born the same day as himself and twenty swans that were connected to life in the heavens having left death on the ground that is the fate of all men.
Though none of these feats could have been won if he was not still occupied by his *ríastradh. That was what brought him beyond the feats of ordinary boys. The company at Emain Macha had seen it before. The savage ríastradh of Cú Chulainn, as they called him. They were afraid of it and it was only then when they wanted to control him they remembered how young he was and that he was a virgin boy and they could use his youth against him for their own safety. So they gathered fifty maids and bid them lift their skirts to stop him in his tracks and when it did, they took him and doused him three times in a vat of cold water and I know because I am his mother that it shamed him. And all I could do was pray to the goddess that he would find a good woman when the time came, that he would find a soft breast again sometime in his life.
The retellings on this site (though true to the myths them selves) are my own work and copyrighted to me so please ask before using elsewhere.
Painting by Kathy Tynan
- The Tuatha Dé Danann : The People of the Goddess Danú
- Falias, Gorias, Murias and Finias : The four northern cities the mythological Tuatha Dé Danann came from bringing four gifts:
- Spear of Lugh: never defeated in battle
- Sword of Nuada: Owned by Nuada once King of the The Tuatha Dé Danann from which no opponent escaped
- Daghda’s cauldron : a cauldron that was ever full
- Éire: Ireland
- Emain Macha :Navan Fort
- Brúgh na Bóinne :Palace of the Boyne river
- Neas : Mother of Dechtine and Conchubar Mac Nessa who tricked Fearghus Mac Ríoch out of his Kingship saying she would marry him if she allowed her son to be king for a year. He remained King after that
- Muirthemne: Co Louth by the sea
- Hurl : A stick used for the Gaelic game of hurling
- Sloitar : Hard ball used for the Gaelic game of hurling
- Cú Chulainn : The hound of Culann
- Laeg : Cú Chulainn’s chariot driver
- Ríastradh : A warrior’s battle frenzy