old Irish martial-arts

the heart swells with blood

rage sunders the world

(Carson 204)

To travel in search of a great master, in the hope of acquiring new skills; trials to determine whether the student deserves the tuition; a period of intense and intimate practice devoted to the study of special techniques: this is martial-arts culture as known to many readers of this blog. It’s also true of the martial arts that are portrayed in Irish legend.

The greatest warrior in Irish lore is Cúchulainn, something of a Hibernian Achilles. The most well-known account of Cúchulainn’s adventures is Táin Bó Cúailnge (‘The Cattle-Raid at Cooley’). This saga is recorded in the twelfth-century manuscript the Book of Leinster, and in other sources. The Táin has at least two distinguished English translations. In 1969 the poet Thomas Kinsella produced a text that was illustrated by the late Louis le Brocquy. Some readers may know the series Sláine the Barbarian in the comic 2000 AD: the character was inspired by Kinsella’s portrayal of Cúchulainn. Ciaran Carson’s 2007 translation is also widely available; Carson pointedly uses the term ‘martial arts’.

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Whole hosts will he destroy,

making dense massacre (Kinsella 63).

Yet martial-arts training is often a neglected part of the story. Popular accounts of Cúchulainn usually allude to his possession of a famous spear, the Gáe Bolga, and that he undergoes a mysterious and grotesque bodily transformation in battle. Carson translates this metamorphosis as the ‘torque’ and Kinsella as ‘warp-spasm’, which was adopted in the Sláine series. Yet Cúchulainn not only carries a special weapon and becomes monstrous in conflict, but dedicates himself to the acquisition of martial arts in at least two periods. The first is with the teacher Domnall:

He stayed with Domnall and was taught first the Pierced Flagstone, with the bellows blowing under it. He performed on it until his soles were blackened and discoloured. Next the ‘Hero’s Coil on the Spikes of Spears’ – climbing up along a spear and performing on its point without making his soles bleed (Kinsella 29).

Subsequently, Cúchulainn travels to complete his training in Alba (Scotland) under Scáthach. To access Scáthach’s island he must cross a bridge that rises up and flings him backward when he sets foot on it. By the end of this period, Cúchulainn has acquired a repertoire of techniques:

The thunder feat; the feats of the sword-edge and the sloped shield; the feats of the javelin and rope; the body-feat; the feat of Cat and the heroic salmon-leap; the pole-throw and the leap over a poisoned stroke; the noble chariot-fighter’s crouch… (Kinsella 34).

His greatest battle will be with Ferdiad, who has studied under the same master. The status of femininity in this martial world is also noteworthy: Scáthach is a woman, and Cúchulainn must defend Ulster single-handed because the rest of the province’s men are under a curse by which they intermittently experience birth pangs.

I approach this subject as a martial artist and a reader, not a scholar of Irish folklore. I suspect there is much more to say about martial-arts traditions in this world, in which fighting is not a matter merely of brute strength. Clearly the skills are of lasting importance to Ireland’s greatest hero:

Cochar tried his special tricks of battle but Cúchulainn parried them as if he had studied them all his life (Kinsella 30).

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