The Top 10 Books About Ireland’s Greatest Hero: Cú Chulainn

Illustration of Cuchulainn and Emer by Harold Robert Millar

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Yes, it’s a bold statement, calling Cú Chulainn the greatest hero in Irish mythology, but I’ve got the evidence/analysis to support my claim: in the ultimate showdown between Cú Chulainn and  Fionn mac Cumhaill—that other famed warrior from Irish mythology—Cú Chulainn reigned supreme.

He’s been called the Irish Achilles, and his most famous exploit, the Táin Bó Cúailnge (The Cattle Raid of Cooley), has been called the Irish Iliad, but in my humble and honest and eminently wise opinion, Cú Chulainn’s life reads more like a comic book. He is the Irish Incredible Hulk, growing into a nine-foot tall unstoppable rage monster during battle. (No, seriously.)

David Duchovny—yes, that David Duchnovy, from the X-Files and Californication—has even added to Cú Chulainn’s lore, because of course he has. In his 2018 novel Miss Subways, Duchnovy sets the legendary romance of Emer and Cú Chulainn (originally encapsulated in the Tochmarc Emire or The Wooing of Emer) in New York City.

Turns out 2018 was a big year for urban Celtic fantasy, because—shameless plug alert—2018 was also the year I published the short story anthology Neon Druid, which features contributions from sixteen incredible authors (and me!).

But I digress…

Cú Chulainn has been on the tongues of Irish storytellers for centuries. With each retelling and recounting of his deeds, his legend grows larger. To quote Irish poet and dramatist Seumas MacManus:

“He was to become his country’s immortal hero. And the memory of this hero has run the gauntlet or strange vicissitudes in Ireland—the greatness of the man excessively stimulating the imagination of the poet, in the course of centuries, causing his reality to be lost in legend; and in the course of further centuries, the greatness of the legendary Cuchullain creating for him a new reality in the minds of the Irish people.”

source: The Story of the Irish Race: A Popular History of Ireland

The 10 Best Books About Cú Chulainn, Hound of Ulster, Hero of the Táin, Leader of the Red Branch Knights

1) The Tain: Translated from the Irish Epic Tain Bo Cuailnge

by Thomas Kinsella

Per the publisher: “The Táin Bó Cuailnge, center-piece of the eighth-century Ulster cycle of heroic tales, is Ireland’s greatest epic. Thomas Kinsella’s lively translation is based on the partial texts in two medieval manuscripts, with elements from other versions. This edition includes a group of related stories which prepare for the action of the Táin along with brush drawings by Louis le Brocquy.” Learn more…

2) Cu Chulainn: An Iron Age Hero

by Darragh Smyth

Per the publisher: “Cu Chulainn was the greatest hero of a heroic age centered on Ulster and North Leinster. He is in the European tradition of heroes, from Ajax to Achilles to King Arthur. He was a demi-god, having both a solar deity, Lug, and Conchobar mac Nessa, King of Ulster, for his father. All that is known of him comes from a collection of ancient writings that fuse history, myth and biography. Working from his own translations from the Old Irish and from edited manuscript sources, Daragh Smyth has crafted a fascinating and scholarly account of the life of Cu Chulainn and of aspects of social life in Ulster during the Iron Age.” Learn more…

3) Celtic Warrior: The Legend of Cú Chulainn

by Will Sliney

Per the publisher: “An epic saga of greed, sorcery and one man’s heroic sacrifice. Ireland’s legendary super hero, Cú Chulainn, stands alone against the thousands of warriors controlled by the enchantress Queen Maeve, who is determined to capture the Brown Bull of Cooley and claim the lands of Ulster for her own. Supernatural feats of strength, ferocious battles and the tragic destinies of Cú Chulainn and Ferdia are vividly recreated in this action-packed, glorious retelling of one of the most famous stories from ancient Celtic myth. This unique and powerful graphic novel brings to life the legendary figure that is Cú Chulainn.” Learn more…

4a) Tain

by Gregory Frost

Per the publisher: “Only one thing stands between the army of Maeve the Intoxicator and its goal of the great bull of Ulster: a small young warrior named Setanta. Maeve, with all of her cunning, all of her powers, sees no problem in dispatching the gadfly known to Ulster as Cu Chulainn. But Setanta is no normal defender. His father is a god, who has given him a monstrous power and a magical spear, and his skills were learned on a magical isle of women warriors. Alone against all odds and all comers, he fights as strange a war as was ever undertaken – in the narrows of every stream the army must cross.” Learn more…

4b) Remscela

by Gregory Frost

Per the publisher: “Tain and Remscela are two books derived from the Ulster Cycle of Celtic mythology, known also as the “Táin Bó Cuailnge.” The first comprises the story of a cattle raid upon Ulster Province perpetrated by the royal couple of Connacht, its neighbor, and the single-handed defense of the province by its semi-divine hero Cú Chulainn. The second, compiled from pieces of tales of Cú Chulainn and other heroes of Ulster, is the story of a hero in decline while his unforgiving enemy Queen Maeve sides with the supernatural sisters, the Morrigu, to take him on again…and this time for good.” Learn more…

5) Cú Chulainn of Eirú – Book I: The Isle of Shadows

by Richard Roche and Derek Fennell

Per the publisher: “His name was Setanta. Born into the most brutal era of mythical Eirú, the young warrior will strive to fulfil his destiny as champion of his people, fending off the threat of a foul invading race, and confronting the sinister agents of the dark powers that pit their will against him. The romance, drama and tragedy of his tale would ensure his place as the greatest hero of Celtic folklore, though all would come to know him by another name. Now, his story will be told as never before.” Learn more…

6) The Tain

by Ciaran Carson

Per the publisher: “The story of the emergence of a hero, a paean to the Irish landscape, and a bawdy and contentious marital farce, The Tain tells of a great cattle-raid, the invasion of Ulster by the armies of Medb and Ailill, Queen and King of Connacht, and their allies, seeking to carry off the great Brown Bull of Cualige. The hero of the tale is Cuchulainn, the Hound of Ulster, who resists the invaders single-handed while Ulster’s warriors lie sick. In its first translation in forty years, Ciaran Carson brings this seminal work of Irish literature fully to life, capturing all of its visceral power in what acclaimed poets Seamus Heaney and Paul Muldoon individually called one of the best books of the year.” Learn more…

7) The Hound Of Ulster (Red Fox Classic)

by Rosemary Sutcliff

Per the publisher: “The boy who takes up the spear and shield of Manhood on this day will become the most renowned of all the warriors of Ireland, men will follow at his call to the world’s end, and his enemies will shudder at the thunder of his chariot wheels. So the ancient prophecy went, and as the boy Cuchulain heard it, he went forward to claim the weapons of his manhood. This is the story of how he became the greatest of heroes – the Hound of Ulster.” Learn more…

8) Cuchulain, the Hound of Ulster

by Eleanor Hull

Per the publisher: “Herein, Eleanor Hull chronicles the life of Cuchulain in 30 chapters in what is now considered to be a classic volume. This volume is further enhanced with 9 full page plates illustrated by Stephen Reid. Cuchulain is an Irish mythological hero who appears in the stories of the Ulster Cycle, as well as in Scottish and Manx folklore. He is believed to be an incarnation of the god Lugh, who is also his father. His mother is the mortal Deichtine, sister of Conchobar mac Nessa.” Learn more…

9) Red Branch

by Morgan Llywelyn

Per the publisher: “Tells the story of the revered legendary warrior Cuchulain in a land where the human and animal worlds merge, battles rage, and one man fully captures all the passion, violence, and enchantment of ancient Ireland. In a land ruled by war and love and strange enchantments, Cuchulain — torn between gentleness and violence, haunted by the croakings of a sinister raven — fights for his honor and his homeland and discovers too late the trap that the gods have set for him in the fatal beauty of Deirdre and the brutal jealousy of King Conor.” Learn more…

10) The Raid: A Dramatic Retelling of Ireland’s Epic Tale (Ulster Cycle Book 1)

by Randy Lee Eickhoff

Per the publisher: “Queen Maeve has declared war upon the province of Ulster in an effort to take possession of the Brown Bull of Cooley. Ultimately, this is an attempt to match the wealth of her husband, King Ailill of Connacht, who owns a magnificent white bull. Only Cuchulainn, a boy warrior, stands between Ulster and certain annihilation. Supported by the Morrigan, the goddess of war, he begins a reign of terror upon the Connacht warriors. In his heroic stand, the reader discovers the genesis of the determination of the Irish people, their will to stand alone against oppression.” Learn more…

Want to learn about the darker side of Irish mythology? Check out…

Samhain in Your Pocket (Celtic Pocket Guides 2)

Perhaps the most important holiday on the ancient Celtic calendar, Samhain marks the end of summer and the beginning of a new pastoral year. It is a liminal time—a time when the forces of light and darkness, warmth and cold, growth and blight, are in conflict. A time when the barrier between the land of the living and the land of the dead is at its thinnest. A time when all manner of spirits and demons are wont to cross over from the Celtic Otherworld. Learn more…

Neon Druid: An Anthology of Urban Celtic Fantasy

“A thrilling romp through pubs, mythology, and alleyways. NEON DRUID is such a fun, pulpy anthology of stories that embody Celtic fantasy and myth,” (Pyles of Books). Cross over into a world where the mischievous gods, goddesses, monsters, and heroes of Celtic mythology live among us, intermingling with unsuspecting mortals and stirring up mayhem in cities and towns on both sides of the Atlantic, from Limerick and Edinburgh to Montreal and Boston. Learn more…

More the listenin’ type?

I recommend the audiobook Celtic Mythology: Tales of Gods, Goddesses, and Heroes by Philip Freeman (narrated by Gerard Doyle). Use my link to get 3 free months of Audible Premium Plus and you can listen to the full 7.5-hour audiobook for free.

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