Setanta and the Poc Fada
This is a story about the greatest of our heroes!
As a young boy growing up everyone knew Setanta was going to be famous. He was strong and intelligent boy who loved nothing more than to run as free as the wind across the fields of his father’s farm, hunting and exploring. He loved nature and made friends with many of the animals learning from them the ways of the wild. He learned how to listen to the wind and know when a storm was close. He understood the flow of the silver stream and knew when a fish was swimming upriver so he could be ready to spear it. He could swim as fast as a man could run and he could run faster than a hare. He could jump as high as a stag and when he was only ten years old he was as strong as a young bull. At the great game of hurling he was the best of all. He could puck the sliotar 50 yards into the air yet he could run and catch it before it touched the ground. His yells could be heard echoing from one mountain top to the next yet his singing was so soft and low that he could send a frightened lamb to sleep.
Above all else Setanta longed to be a warrior and dreampt of joining the Red Branch Knights of Ulster. They were the greatest warriors in the world and protected Ireland from the enemies and armies from other countries who tried to attack. Their leader was Conor Mac Neasa the High King of Ireland. Now young boys who wanted to join the Red Branch Knights had to go to a training camp for many years. Even after that only a few were asked to join the Red Branch Knights.
When he was ten years old Setanta told his mother and father that he was off to join the High King’s warriors. His mother said – “ Wait until you are older. You’re only a gorsoon!”
His father was proud of his son’s ambition. “My son, you’re too young. Wait a few more years. Then you will be skilful enough to impress the King.” But Setanta was fed up of waiting. “Father”, he said, “ if the King turns me away I will return home and work with you on the farm and never more talk of the Red Knights”. His father and mother who loved him very much so they agreed. The King would surely laugh at this young boy and send him home!
And so it came to pass one bright morning in May with the sun beginning to climb high in the bright blue sky Setanta set out for Eamhain Macha, the palace of the High King of Ireland. He stepped lightly for his heart was bursting with joy but before he had travelled ten miles he met a woman on the road who needed help. She was struggling to pull a cart full of chikens and flour out of the ditch where it was stuck. Without a thought for his own safety Setanta lept into the ditch and freed the cart. The woman was very grateful and offered him food and drink. As he drank his fill of water and took the edge off his hunger with bread Setanta told her of his plan. The woman smiled at his spirit. She told him her name was Caoimhe and that she lived near Eamhain Macha and offered him shelter should he need it. Setanta thanked her and set off across the Cooley mountains.
As he went he struck his sliotar with his Caman and chased after it striving to hit it again before it touched the ground. After a while he became really good at this. He scattered sheep before him and startled rabbits and hares who scurried off into their burrows and behind rocks. Coming down the Mountain onto the plain of Eamhain Macha Setanta heard the familiar cries of boys playing sport. As he turned a corner his heart jumped for joy. A hurling match! He raced ahead eager to join in. None of the boys, who were all much older and bigger than Setanta, welcomed him at all. At last after much begging he was put in to goals. The match swayed back and forth with mighty blows being struck on man and ball. Setanta earned respect from the other boys for his skill and bravery. He stopped shots of blinding speed and threw himself in the thick of the goalmouth action. No goals went past him but many points were scored as the other team drew ahead.
Setanta was longing to move outfield and score. At last he saw his chance. The tallest of the players on the other team was a fairhaired boy named Ferdia. He was fast and skilled and brave. He grabbed the sliotar from the middle of the crowd of players and raced for goal. As he came closer to Setanta time seemed to stand still. Everyone held their breath as the small figure in the goal stood guard. Setanta never took his eyes off the onrushing Ferdia. As the boy tossed the ball in the air and steadied to hit it Setanta took off. In a flash he flicked the sliotar over the astonished Ferdia’s head and doubled on it. Teams and onlookers stared openjawed as the ball soared into the air. But Setanta didn’t pause.
He sprinted after the ball and as he had been doing all day on the Mountain reached the ball before it fell to the ground and hitting it with all his strength scored a goal before anybody realised what had happened. As Setanta made his way back to the goal he passed Ferdia who for a moment looked as though he would smash Setanta with his hurley. But instead he dropped his caman to the ground and breaking into a broad grin clapped the gaisce he had just witnessed. The other players did the same and cheered loudly and lustily.
Unseen in a grove of trees above the playground a lone horseman nudged his horse and cantered off chuckling. When Ferdia told Setanta that the King was away from the palace and wasn’t expected back til the following day, the disappointed boy remembered the invitation of Caoimhe. He set off for his lodgings, planning to plead with King Conor the following morning. Darkness was falling as Setanta approached Caoimhe’s house. Laughter and music flowed from behind the walls and firelight brightened the night sky. Suddenly Setanta heard a blood-curdling growl and from out of the shadows padded a demon beast. With eyes that smouldered like embers and teeth that shone like knives in the firelight came the most gigantic hound Setanta had ever seen. His lips were drawn back in a snarl and his jowels dripped foam as he was staring at the ten year old boy with a dangerous glare. He launched himself with growls and snarls and in three swift strides was on the boy.
Setanta had no time to think and for a brief moment thought he was finished. But faster than the hound could snap, Setanta fell on his back and using his hurl pushed the beast ten feet in the air. As the hound crashed to the ground in a frenzy of yowls and snarls, Setanta lept to his feet and stood ready with his hurl cocked.Meanwhile inside the fortress the guests fell silent. They knew some unfortunate trespasser was doomed. The silence was broken as Caoimhe, remembering the young boy who had helped her during the day, screamed in terror. She blurted her tale as one the men raced for the door, fearing the worst. The silence was chilling and Caoimhe screamed Setanta’s name.
A quiet voice replied, “I’m sorry for the hound, but I had no choice.” Standing in the flickering half light was the figure of the boy and motionless on the ground beside him was the hound. “The hound belongs to my husband Cullan, the King’s Blacksmith, but I’m not sorry he’s dead”, said Caoimhe. “But how did you kill him?”
Setanta replied, “I fired the sliotar down his throat with my hurl as he ran at me”.
“Well he was the best watchdog I ever had” said Cullan, “but I’m glad he didn’t kill you boy”.
“I will take the place of the hound until you find another one” said Setanta.
A tall noble-looking man standing behind Cullan spoke. “Aren’t you the goalkeeper who scored the goal today. Who are you boy and what are you doing here”?
“My name is Setanta and I have come to join the RedBranch Knights”, replied the boy.
“Well my name is Conor MacNeasa, High King of Ireland and I welcome you among the Red Branch Knights. You are a worthy warrior and from now on you shall be known as Cu Chullain, the Hound of Cullan.”
And so it was that Cuchullain got his name and went on to become the greatest warrior Ireland has ever known.