The death-place of an Irish hero

In a lonely field, about a kilometre from the village of Knockbridge, in the townland of Rathiddy, one will encounter the intriguing phenomenon known as Cuchulainn’s Stone. According to legend, this is the very spot where the archetypal Ulster superhero, immortalised in Irish (and Louth) folklore, lost his life in a final stand valiant enough to befit any mythical icon.

In an age when the planet has gone superhero-loco – where the Hollywood-induced populace of a world without true meaning can’t get enough of Spiderman, Batman, Hellboy and a host of generic carbon copies whose names thankfully escape this writer – it is worth remembering that an Irishman by the name of Cuchulainn was arguably the world’s first superhero.

According to legend, Cuchulainn walked the earth around about the same time as Christ – and his story is no less captivating.

The authenticity of the Cuchulainn chronicles may be questionable, but what glorious tales they are, conjuring images of an era when Ireland was a magical, extraordinary place. With meaning.
As youngsters, we listened without any scepticism (it comes with age) to the stories and marvelled at the might of this young warrior who took no prisoners and could defeat entire armies unassisted.
Without need of special effects or multi-million dollar budgets, the legend of Cuchulainn lives in our mind’s eye from the power of words alone. It’s part of our heritage, particularly here in the Wee County.

Cuchulainn spent much of his life in the area that now constitutes Louth, and he drew his last breath here.

From here on, let’s assume that the story of Cuchulainn is true. It’s more fun that way…
He died in Knockbridge, in an upright position, tied to a large phallic structure now known as Cuchulainn’s Stone or Clochfearmore (Stone of the Big Man).

Cuchulainn’s Stone is located along the R171 north east of the village of Knockbridge, on the Dundalk Road. Drive about three-quarters of a mile and it’s on your right. There’s a signpost on the left hand side of the road pointing directly into the field. There’s a stile, allowing entry to the field and a notice briefly detailing the significance of the impressive pillar contained therein. Enter at your peril, though – even Cuchulainn didn’t make it out alive!

Treat it with respect (unlike the idiot who inscribed his name in large letters down one side of the stone, one who has already got enough publicity from his pathetic act of vandalism and who shall therefore remain unnamed here). It’s a monument of huge historical significance, as this is the very spot where the inimitable boy-warrior died the most spectacular of deaths.

Legend has it that Cuchulainn was mortally wounded but tied himself around the stone so that he would be in an upright position as his enemies approached. Thus, he could continue to engage in his preferred hobby of open combat, even as his life ebbed away. Even in this debilitated position, literally on his last legs, his enemies dared not face him such was his incredible power.

It wasn’t until a crow or a raven (the Messenger of Death) had the audacity to land on the great hero’s shoulder that onlookers were finally convinced that he was dead and mustered up the courage – if you could call it that - to approach the lifeless, upright body.

There are a number of different spellings of the word that started out as ‘Clogh an Fear Mor’ – the Stone of the Big Man. It’s a standing, pillar stone in the otherwise sleepy townland of Rathiddy, three-quarters of a mile from Knockbridge on the road to the nearest town, Dundalk (which is 6km away).
There is a fascinating story relating to one of Cuchulainn’s final acts before he finally died, tied manfully to his stone. Reputedly, the very first animal Cuchulainn killed as a boy was an otter and he achieved a nice touch of symmetry by sorting out another otter just before he departed mythical Ireland.

Wounded mortally (probably by his own sword after being cursed by a bout of uncontrollable madness courtesy of his nemesis Queen Medb), bruised by fierce blows and tied to the stone to die in a standing position like every hero worth his salt should do, Cuchulainn was bleeding profusely. As his blood seeped into the land, the ill-fated otter was attracted by the smell and, spurred on by its animal instincts, decided to take a closer look. Perhaps dinner had been served…

Needless to say, Cuchulainn was having none of it. He spotted the otter emerging from the lake and promptly killed it with an instant, accurate hurl of his spear. Impaled by the spear, the otter tumbled backwards into the murky depths of the lake, which became ‘Lochan An Claiomh’ (Lake of the Sword).
Before he died, Cuchulainn cast his eyes westwards and beheld the great mering (the dividing line of two kingdoms).

A bronze spearhead was found in the area in the 1920s and was given to the then parish priest (Fr Seamus Quinn, after whom the gaelic football pitch in the village in named) for safekeeping. Unfortunately, this item cannot be accounted for today.

Cloghafarmore or Clochafarmore or Clochfearmore stands tall and proud in the north part of Rathiddy Townland. The historic standing stone is sometimes referred to as the Pierced Standing Stone and is the very centre of an area known in the Tain as ‘An Breisleach Mor’ (The Great Carnage). The field where the stone is located is beautifully named: The Field of Slaughter.

The menhir is a three-metre-plus tall stone and is strategically placed at the highest point of an undulating field system. This makes it clearly visible from a distance and, more pertinently in the case of Cuchulainn, renders it a good vantage point from which to observe the trembling approach would-be assassins.

The field today is owned by a local man called Pat Murnaghan. It’s a quiet place, betraying no hint of the slaughter that took place here a couple of millennia ago. The notice at the entrance declares in no uncertain terms that this is “CuChulainn’s Stone”. The stone can be found at the top of a slight incline, after one negotiates the pseudo electric wire with a swift dipping-of-the-head motion.

Approaching it, the stone towers over you and you can almost imagine the figure of Cuchulainn fighting off his foes. Is that a silhouette against the evening sky? As you get closer, it grows in stature and the stone certainly has a presence, if one is prepared to let his/her imagination flow.

The view from standing alongside the stone is panoramic; lending further credence to the legend that accompanies it.

There’s a large crack running down the full length of the stone, from top to bottom, as if it was struck by lightning, or perhaps time alone has inflicted that damage. From the village side, it looks almost like a piece of the Giant’s Causeway or The Burren, lifted by some supernatural force and placed on its side into the ground. It would take your breath away, if you had any left after trekking up the field.
Over three metres tall, the stone is 80 cms thick and a good 120cms wide at the base.

Here, at the age of 27, our great hero died on his feet, his face as pale as “one-night’s snow”.
Cuchulainn’s death in the Field of Slaughter is depicted by a bronze statue inside the GPO and a replica of the stone itself can be seen much closer by, in the church car park in Knockbridge. The history of the field and its most famous resident are detailed below this miniature reproduction: “Cuchulainn, the hero of the Tain Bo Cuailgne is reputed to have died at the Rathiddy Standing Stone one km north east of here about 2000 years ago. As befitting a hero, he died facing his enemies unconquered and unbowed.”