Where Now with Warrior
What we have experienced experienced in the Bard is that as we tell the many stories of the Tain that the take on the story becomes ever more tragic and sad. Cú Chulainn is, as you tell the story, absolutely not a romantic hero but rather a figure of tragedy.
We told the story of “The Curse of Macha” and how this farmer Crunchu has all his dreams come true when Macha comes into his life. But she tells him one thing he is not to do, don’t boast about me. He can’t resist! And the race with Kings horses is set up. The twins are born but Macha dies but not before cursing the Men of Ulster, who, at their time of greatest need will be struck down, and unable to fight.
The Curse of Macha story sets up the Battle with Ferdia at the Ford. Cú Chulainn’s fights with his foster brother, Ferdia who is representing the Men of Connacht and Medb’s army. We told this story but because of time had to omit much else. We also told the story of the death of Connla, Cú Chulainn’s son with Aoife during his time with Scatchach in Scotland.
And finally, we covered the Death of Cú Chulainn at the hands of the Sons of Calatan and how some of his past victories (he had killed Calatan) came back to haunt him. The combined effect of the battle with Ferdia, the death of Connla and the death of Cú Chulainn created a powerful aggregated effect. It is simply tragic but most of all you are left with a feeling of how little agency this extraordinary warrior had! How ironic that someone so apparently powerful had so little power to shape his destiny!
The Connections and insights from Participants
Here are some of the most significant connections and insights from participants that were collected by the Bard team in the breakout groups and the large group discussions.
Connection 1 – Medb’s Ease of Manipulation
In the telling of the Battle at the Ford the way in which Queen Medb is so easily able to manipulate Ferdia into a fight he does in no way desire. She did this through appealing to his pride, or perhaps more accurately the threat of shame if he did not take up the challenge. The role of emotion and manipulation was noted as an important feature in setting up the ‘brother battle’ between Cú Chulainn and Ferdia.
Connection 2 – How People of Strength are Manipulated
One reflection on Cú Chulainn and Ferdia is how the strong are manipulated by the powerful. The power figure could be a Queen as in Medb but the ‘powerful’ could also create a culture that value certain sacrificial behaviour that is the duty of the physically strong. The young, often men, are then a sacrificial victim within a particular cultural context. They have little or no agency. Those that do exercise a sense of agency e.g. conscientious objectors, deserters or those who commit suicide in these horrific circumstances in contrast earn only spite and contempt.
Connection 3 – The Tain: A Cautionary Tale
One way we can read the Cú Chulainn story is as a celebration of the warrior spirit, energy and the idea of the ‘blood and sacrifice’. In this regard the archetype seems to have played a powerful role in the cultural imagination. The events of 1916 and the actions of figures like Padraig Pearse seeming to act out the ultimate blood sacrifice. In modernity, the exploits of our sporting heroes across sports and in every village, county, province and the nation, are embodiments, surely of those figures who ‘put their necks on the line’ to defend the honour of the community.
But ultimately, and hearing these stories, Ferdia’s battle, Connla’s death and Cú Chulainn’s demise, the collective feeling was that the Tain can be understood as a critique, a total critique of the warrior archetype and of war and where it can lead. Every battle, every death in battle is essentially the death of a brother.
Connection 4 – Silence and Speechless-ness
Such was the impact, the cumulative impact of the stories of the Ferdia battle, the Connla death and the Cú Chulainn demise that the participants were left with a sense of speechlessness ……. what was there to say, what could be said after that …. the stories were so powerful. The collective experience seemed to be …. this is so sad, so tragic. Only a wish to be silent.
Connection 5 – Cú Chulainn’s Red MistThere was another angle on the powerlessness of the apparently most powerful. It was the reflection that when Cú Chulainn was in his rístrádh, when the ‘red mist’ descended, he was actually not in control. Internal emotions and instincts had completely taken him over, he was unable to distinguish friend from foe, he had lost any sense of agency. So both from forces outside him and from forces inside him, Cú Chulainn is not in control.
Connection 6 – Warrior and the Return Journey
One participant had a son who worked as a psychiatrist in the US Military dealing with post war trauma and post traumatic stress disorder. He spoke of the difficulty of the return journey after the conflict. It is as if the mental places a warrior goes in battle, what they do, what they see makes it very difficult to return to normal life. And then if they do not return as ‘heroes’, as happened after the Vietnam War in the US, it makes it doubly difficult. The classic deal for the warrior/soldier is ‘you put your neck on the line’ (ref. the Champion’s Portion) and on return you get the best of everything, return a hero and if you die we will sing about you for eternity. But modern psychiatry and experience highlights the lie that there may be in this warrior code.
Connection 7 – War Ritualised …. To Contain the RageOne point that was made was that some scholars (for example Proinsias MacCana – Early Irish Ideology and the Concept of Unity in “The Irish Mind” P 64/65) have pointed out that fighting in early Irish society was rigidly patterned and that it had strong elements of ritual. It was pointed out that the use of ritual in the Good Friday Agreement was helpful in containing the rage. In this regard language using forms of address, Mr. Speaker, Mr. Adams, was helpful in creating a contained anger.
And one current question for participants was as to whether this was essentially a tale of a violent society in Irish pre-history or one where the fighting was contained within ritual structures and not that harmful. Indeed, did the fighting act to strengthen cultural ties and bonds?