Learning from our past: how the tale of “CuChulainn” can show us some ways forward…



I am fascinated by what values my Irish ancestors saw as worthy of mythologizing. After examining these qualities, I believe our past may offer an insight into how we might behave in the future. Have we lost touch with some of our core values and can we bring them to life again?




Ireland was a land where women ruled just as effectively as men. Think of Medb, the Queen of Connacht, in the story of CuChulainn. There was no doubting her brilliance and ruthlessness as a leader based solely on her gender. Clearly it was a monarchical system so, logically, it could be argued that she took power by default. The question still arises: in the superior, modern democratic system that we currently have, why is it that we have not had a female leader in over a hundred years since the beginning of the State? I am not critiquing democracy, it is the only game in town. Yet, it is a telling insight into the inherent misogyny in our political system that this has not happened yet.

Women were warriors in Ireland at the time. CuChulainn went to Scatach, the legendary Scottish warrior Queen to receive his training to be a warrior King. She was the very best at her trade and honed his fighting skills, teaching him to use a spear that enabled him “to rip (a person’s) innards to shreds”. I love the fact that she was the best warrior available in the Emerald Isles to train the young CuChulainn. Why, then, were Irish women not allowed to serve in the Irish military until 1979? 

CuChulainn marries Emer, who is “wise, modest and chaste”. This is the archetypal Irish woman at the time. Not that women were expected to be as pure as this. Medb  was evidence of this as she “took many male lovers”.

This is not glorify the role of women in Irish mythology. Chonchobar sent nine men to “find a wife for CuChulainn”. During this process, which women were not included in, they discuss “which of the women of Ireland CuChulainn might take”. That women were seen as objects for men to “take” is shocking and shameful. There is no going back to that dark era. Doubtless, we have evolved. Yet, the tale of CuChulainn can show us that we need to shed our deep rooted sexism that is pervasive in Ireland. Women should lead our country as much as men do. Is anyone seriously suggesting that there are no women that could lead Ireland more effectively than our last two Taoiseach, Enda Kenny and Brian Cowen?




CuChulainn was pre-ordained to “right all wrongs”. It is interesting to interpret this as the great Irish hero as trying to choose the correct moral course of action and not just superficially slaying other clans of fellow warriors. Maybe this higher level of ethics is what set him apart from all the other warriors.  It would be imprudent to draw too many conclusions about his morality as he was extremely violent, staking his claim as a warrior by slaying Chonchobar’s slobbering, snarling jowly mutt. Still, as a trait for Irish people to aspire to: doing the right thing seems like a worthwhile goal. In fact, when you think about, is there anything that each Irish person should be aspiring to over this? If we all chose, to the best of our ability, to “right all wrongs”, I think we can definitively say that we would have a better country. Especially now that we have, largely, managed to resolve our disputes through peaceful means and not with the spear.

CuChulainn’s education was instructive. Three talented experts in their fields were deliberately chosen to mould his character. The disciplines chosen were revealing. Poetry, fighting and caring for the weak. With the obvious exception of the redundant field of learning to fight, it would be beneficial if we could revisit our roots here and teach our young to care for other people. A cursory look at the despicable levels of homeless on the streets tells us that we have gone wrong somewhere. Once religious schools are finally phased out from Irish society and we have belatedly discarded all vestiges of theocracy in our primary and secondary schools, it is time that we begin to teach children ethics in school. Not just a perfunctory whizz through Buddhism etc but as a distinction in itself. Again, what could possibly have more long term benefits for our society than teaching young people help the weak and care for other people? We are more focused on personal finances than personal morality in modern Irish society. Paying our way and saving are of course part and parcel of doing the right thing, so we can do both.


Gaelic Sports:


150 “warriors” were playing Hurling in Emain Macha when Setanta first arrived. Indeed, he played hurling himself as a child, oftentimes by himself, helping to build his great strength. With the Anglicisation of Ireland from when the first British plantations arrived in the 16th Century, our national sports of Hurling and Gaelic Football have been constantly eroded away with other alternative’s. I am indicative of this too, I follow U.K. football. Would the great dilution have happened if we were not colonised for generations?  Should we move towards promoting our own sports or continue to diversify as we are at the moment? Every Irish citizen has, and should have, the freedom to choose the sport they want to play. Yet, there should be a duty on us collectively to promote Gaelic Games and keep the tradition alive.




Ireland was a land of warriors, poets, of wise sages, storytellers and of magicians. We loved nature. Artists and sages were prominent in local communities.

We liked a drink, even back then. Think of the wine that Deirdre drunk that sent her into a stupor and ended up with her beginning her epic journey.




The tale of CuChulainn can point us towards some parts of our past that we have lost touch with. Traits that we should not have discarded. Certainly, we should keep alive our great tradition of playing and promoting Gaelic Games. Women should lead in Ireland as much as men do. Hopefully, the election of Varadkar, a gay son of an immigrant and the youngest Taoiseach in our history, can open up the path for a woman to lead the nation. It speaks volumes that it was possible for him and not a woman though. However, the most important lesson for all of us, woman and man, is the need to focus on “right(ing) all wrongs” and helping the “weak” in Ireland. If we all did that…


About Mick Gilbride

Aside | This entry was posted in Benedict Flynn, Bravery, celtic mythology, CuChulainn, Ethics, Ireland, Medb, Meliorism, Queen of Connacht, Setanta, Trying to make sense of it all, Women and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

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