The Unique Nature of Gaelic Culture


This article uses the Irish tales Tochmarc Emire ('The Wooing of Emer'), Cú Chulainn's relationship with Scáthach, and the battle between Fer Diad and Cú Chulainn in Táin Bó Cúailnge to begin to examine the unique nature of Gaelic culture.

I began to read direct translations of ancient Irish myths and sagas in the 1970s.  Up until that point, I had only read
about these stories – summaries, impressions, third-party observations, essays, evaluations, reports - but not the real thing or even translations of the real thing.  Boy, was I in for a shock!

Tochmarc Emer - The Wooing of Emer

It seems to me now that the first actual tale I read was Tochmarc Emire ('The Wooing of Emer'), which involves the ancient Irish hero Cú Chulainn.  His name means ‘The Hound of (the blacksmith) Culann, but that’s another story.  At any rate, Cú falls in love with a beautiful young woman named Emer.  He visits her at her lios, a kind of fortress made of earthen walls surrounding the family’s home and farm buildings.  But she won’t have anything to do with him.  He is, as she points out, “a beardless boy” without martial fame and of uncertain parentage.  Was his father a god or a human?  No one is quite sure at this point in the story.

Embarrassed and angry, Cú goes off to what is now Scotland for additional training in the Celtic martial arts with the best teacher of them all, the beautiful warrior-woman Scáthach.  When his training is nearly complete, she grants him the "friendship of her thighs".

Cú is now ready for anything.  Returning to Ireland, he marches up to Emer’s lios but is attacked by the many warriors of her household including her father, her brothers, her warrior-mother, and 24 more.  

It’s a battle to the death.  He kills them all.  At which point Emer basically says, “Wow, what a guy!  I love you, Cú Chulainn.  Take me, I’m yours.”  

What?  Come again?  Are you kidding me?  What kind of a culture could produce that kind of story?  Why would that seem natural and acceptable to the people who heard it 2,000 years ago and continued to hear it regularly up to about 170 years ago?

Before I had recovered from my shock, I read my next story about Cú Chulainn.

Táin Bó Cúailnge

In the great Irish epic called Táin Bó Cúailnge, “The Cattle Raid of Cúailnge”, Cú Chulainn is left to single-handedly defend the Kingdom of the Ulaid, Cú Chulainn’s people, against the forces of the Kingdom of the Connachta, my ancestors.

According to the story, he kills my people ten at a time, by the score, by the hundred, and finally challenges the Connachta to send out their best champion for single combat.  Our best champion was Fer Diad, a wonderful young man who had fostered with Cú Chulainn as a child and had even trained with Cú in Scáthach’s school of martial arts.  In other words, for most of their lives since the time they were babies, Fer Diad and Cú Chulainn had been, for nearly all intents and purposes, brothers.

The only problem, of course, was that they were hereditary enemies.  The Ulaid and the Connachta had been fighting each other for centuries.

Despite the entreaties of the Connachta and our Queen Medb, Fer Diad repeatedly refuses to fight his foster-brother Cú.  Unfortunately, in the end, he is pressured and tricked into doing so.

Fer Diad and Cú meet on the field of battle for three days.  Every day, they slice flesh and bone off each other.  Every night they try to heal each other’s wounds and fall asleep next to each other mourning what the next day will bring.  

Finally, on the last day, Cú Chulainn uses the
gae bolga, a monstrous many-pointed spear, to kill Fer Diad.  Fer Diad dies in Cú’s arms.  Overcome with grief, weeping as if his heart would break, Cú refuses to leave the body of his foster-brother even as the army of my ancestors advances to kill him.  At last, Láeg, Cú’s charioteer, drags Cú away just in time.   

There’s little doubt that this is the most moving depiction of tragedy in all of Irish literature in either Irish or English.  Yet, unlike the bulk of Western tragedy exemplified by the Greek tradition in which members of the same family kill each other, this is cut from completely different cloth.  Somehow, the Irish found it natural and acceptable to make great tragedy out the death of an hereditary enemy - someone whose death, in other societies, would be celebrated rather than mourned!

Well, I was flabbergasted.  But I think the hint, the clue, the solution, the key to the riddle is right there before us in the story of Fer Diad.  Fosterage.


In Gaelic Ireland, fosterage was the custom of having your children raised by another family under a formal contract.  

Often, in order to seal a peace agreement, or to try to keep the peace, you would foster the children of your enemies, and have your children fostered by your enemies.  

If your children were still at home, unfostered, by the time they were twelve, it would indicate that your family were nobodies, that you weren’t dangerous enough or powerful enough to have any enemies.  So, to maintain prestige in a society which sometimes measured greatness by the greatness of your enemies, there was tremendous pressure to engage in the custom of fosterage.

Impact on Gaelic Law and Psyche?

The side effect, of course, was that your children could wind up knowing and loving your hereditary enemies more than they knew or loved you.  This appears to be the explanation of Cú Chulainn’s and Fer Diad’s behavior explicitly intended by the various versions of the tale which have come down to us.

It could also be a reasonable explanation for acceptance in Gaelic culture of Emer’s indifference to the fate of her immediate family and her willingness to marry their killer.  In other words, the tale’s Gaelic audience would expect Emer not to know her family very well and not to love them very much.

Now, I realize that’s a harsh statement, but it also goes a long way to explain why the great sin, the greatest crime, in Gaelic society was
fingal – the slaying of a member of your own family.  In a society in which a strong love for one’s family often might not exist because of customary early removal of the child from the family, we might expect the creation of a law by which to protect the family from that child.

To conclude

Using as examples only two tales, Tochmarc Emire and Táin Bó Cúailnge, you can see what I mean when I say that this was and is a unique culture, and one which has continued to amaze me ever since.  



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