Mythology frequently tells of great battles between huge giants. These epic contests at their core, are battles to determine who it is that runs things, whose power dominates. In Irish myth, it is the battle at the ford between two exemplary warriors, Cú Chulainn and Ferdia that is at the centre of the story, the Táin Bó Cúailnge. In Greek myth, the battle between Cronus and Uranus established the reign of the Titans when under Cronus’s leadership, the father Uranus is hurled into Tartarus.
Reading extracts from Matt Cooper’s newly released book, “The Maximalist: The Rise and Fall of Tony O’Reilly”, it seems like a similar epic battle has been going on between two modern day god-like Tycoons, Tony O’Reilly and Denis O’Brien. Such was the place of these men in Irish culture, that it would be no surprise if thunder and lightening were to be in the air at any time they met, especially when in dispute.
What insight does myth shine on such modern day battles? It seems first of all that what goes with the territory of the super (hyper competitive) high achieving warrior is that success is achieved at the same time as making many enemies. So it was that Cú Chulainn, who by his late teens, finds Queen Maeve to be his chief enemy among many. And often the animosity that exists is over a humiliation, whether that be real or perceived.
What is also learned from the great battle between Ferdia and Cú Chulainn is that the warrior is bound by a “code of behaviour”. This code is all about honour and pride. Ferdia and Cú Chulainn were foster brothers, soul mates who trained together on the Isle of Skye with the Warrior Queen Scatcach. But with the heroic code, honour will always win out over friendship. And the forces of trickery and deception hover all round. And so it is that when, on the fourth day of fighting, Cú Chulainn calls for the deadly Gae Bolga, there is no other outcome than the horrible death of his much loved foster brother.
What is clear is that for three days the fight seemed more like a sport. Not unlike a game of rugby, with much bashing against each other, with good humour and shared food at the end of each the day. But on the fourth day something happened and it became a fight with a different ethos, different rules, a fight to the death.
And so, going back to Matt Cooper’s book and his account of the O’Reilly vs. O’Brien ‘battle’ we can ask, what was it that took two fellow super warriors and achievers from a state of mutual admiration to one where they moved from potential friendship and respect to that Cú Chulainn Ferdia fateful fourth day?. What was obvious was that any respect and possible friendship had turned to bitter animosity. What was it then that turned what could have been a competitive contest fought within the codes of business and the framework of law, that had O’Brien telling O’Reilly’s son, Gavin, that “I will destroy you and your father, and I will go after everything”. And it seems even though both were wounded, O’Brien had his equivalent of the Gae Bolga, more money!
But when we step back from these great mythic contests, and one so brilliantly portrayed in the Tain, we are surely left with a feeling of the tragedy of victory. Cú Chulainn has won the brother battle but he has lost a soul mate. Warrior honour has won over friendship. Cú Chulainn’s life feels much more tragic than heroic!
And if we look again at another mythology, we see that while Cronus has overthrown his ruthless father, Uranus, fate has it that he, in time, will be overthrown by his son, Zeus no matter what he does to swallow (and silence) them? So it is that Zeus, in time, defeats his father and so removes the Titans and establishes the reign of the Olympians.
No matter how much worldly power a man has, there are other far more powerful forces at play that remind us of ‘mans precarious place in the order of things’. Mythology spells out these unconscious forces so poetically, so beautifully in a narrative format if we care to listen and pay heed!
If this note connects with you, you might choose to listen to the story in the Irish Myth Telling of the Battle at the Ford on the Bard Mythologies Site