On a rather unassuming wall along Dublin’s Nassau Street there is a striking mosaic mural. Created in the 1970s by Belfast artist Desmond Kinney, this fiery and spirited mosaic mural depicts a story of the ancient but enduring Irish myth of the tragic hero Cuchulain, and a story known as the “Táin Bó Cúailnge,” or “The Cattle-Raid of Cooley.”
Cuchulain is a heroic figure that occupies a central place in pagan Irish mythology, akin to Achilles and Heracles in ancient Greece, Beowulf in Anglo Saxon England, or Gilgamesh in the cosmology of ancient Assyria. The story of this archetypal Celtic hero still survives within the veins of contemporary Irish culture, largely thanks to the Celtic literary and poetic revival of the 19th and 20th centuries. The revival was initiated by prominent Irish authors such as W.B Yeats, James Joyce, and Patrick Pearse, who sought to reexamine and celebrate indigenous Irish folklore.
Cuchulain was said to have been born the love child of an illicit affair between Deichtine, the queen of a powerful Ulster tribe, and the warlike Celtic sun god, Lugh. During his childhood he was called Setanta. But after killing a gigantic and ferocious guard dog owned by a powerful blacksmith known as Cullan with his bare hands, he was bestowed the name “Cú Chulainn” (“Cullan’s hound”) by the druid religious order, who was greatly impressed by this superhuman feat.
The subject of the mosaic mural is part of the “Ulster Cycle” of myths, and is one of the most famous of these. In the tale, a machiavellian Queen Medb of the province of Connaught raises an army of warriors to attack the hero’s home province of Ulster in order to capture a famous and sacred bull that is kept by the local chieftain, Daire. But Daire’s army has been debilitated by a magical curse that has incapacitated them, leaving the province undefended except for a virile 17-year-old Cuchulain and his friend, who must fight the invaders single-handedly.
First, Cuchulain allows the Connaughtmen to invade Ulster and instead of facing them head-on chooses with the help of his charioteer, Laech, and a number of supernatural entities, to launch a primitive guerilla war against the occupying army. Once the enemy is weakened, he then halts the war by invoking the ancient right of single combat. He engages warrior after warrior by right in bloodthirsty duels staged by sacred fords and manages to slay each and every one of his fearsome adversaries.
The mural depicts several events and characters from the story, including the duels of the fords, the bulls of Ulster, Queen Medb, young Cuchulain killing the hound of Cullan with his bare hands, and a later Cuchulain mortally wounded and tied to a tree, where the hero met his end.
Know Before You Go
The mosaic mural can be seen for free on Nassau Street. Just look for the Kilkenny department store and you will find the mosaic rather unceremoniously located behind it in a car park.