Among all the early literatures of Europe, there are two which, at exactly opposite corners of the continent, display most strikingly similar characteristics. These are the Greek and the Irish, and the legend of the Irish champion Cuchulain, which well illustrates the similarity of the literatures, bears so close a resemblance to the story of Achilles as to win for this hero the title of “the Irish Achilles.” Certainly in reckless courage, power of inspiring dread, sense of personal merit, and frankness of speech the Irish hero is fully equal to the mighty Greek.
Cuchulain was the nephew of King Conor of Ulster, son of his sister Dechtire, and it is said that his father was no mortal man, but the great god Lugh of the Long Hand. Cuchulain was brought up by King Conor himself, and even while he was still a boy his fame spread all over Ireland. His warlike deeds were those of a proved warrior, not of a child of nursery age; and by the time Cuchulain was seventeen he was without peer among the champions of Ulster.
Upon Cuchulain’s marriage to Emer, daughter of Forgall the Wily, a Druid of great power, the couple took up their residence at Armagh, the capital of Ulster, under the protection of King Conor. Here there was one chief, Bricriu of the Bitter Tongue, who, like Thersites among the Grecian leaders, delighted in making mischief. Soon he had on foot plans for stirring up strife among the heroes of Ulster, leaders among whom were the mighty Laegaire, Conall Cearnach, cousin of Cuchulain, and Cuchulain himself. Inviting the members of King Conor’s court to dinner, Bricriu arranged that a contest should arise over who should have the “champion’s portion,” and so successful was he that, to avoid a bloody fight, the three heroes mentioned decided to submit their claims to the championship of Ireland to King Ailill of Connaught.
Ailill put the heroes to an unexpected test. Their dinner was served them in a separate room, into which three magic beasts, in the shape of monstrous cats, were sent by the king. When they saw them Laegire and Conall rose from their meal, climbed among the rafters, and stayed there all night. Cuchulain waited until one cat attacked him, and then, drawing his sword, struck the monster. It showed no further sign of fight, and at daybreak the magic beasts disappeared.
As Laegire and Conall claimed that this test was an unfair one, Ailill sent the three rivals to Curoi of Kerry, a just and wise man, who set out to discover by wizardry and enchantments the best among the heroes. In turn they stood watch outside Curoi’s castle, where Laegire and Conall were overcome by a huge giant, who hurled spears of mighty oak trees, and ended by throwing them over the wall into the courtyard. Cuchulain alone withstood the giant, whereupon he was attacked by other magic foes. Among these was a dragon, which flew on horrible wings from a neighboring lake, and seemed ready to devour everything in its way. Cuchulain sprang up, giving his wonderful hero-leap, thrust his arm into the dragon’s mouth and down its throat, and tore out its heart. After the monster fell dead, he cut off its scaly head.