In The Shadow Of Cú Chulainn

The ancient hero Cú Chulainn – and more specifically, Sheppard’s presentation of the death of the ancient hero Cú Chulainn – has appeared in both republican and loyalist murals.

Cú Chulainn’s death is described in the Book Of Leinster. His renown as a warrior has made him a target. At the behest of Queen Medb of Cannaught, Lugaid sets out to find and kill him, and hits him with a spear. Mortally wounded, Cú Chulainn ties himself to a standing stone so that he will die on his feet. Only when a raven lands on his shoulder do his attackers know that he has died.

This event is only the last in a long-running battle between Ulster and Connaught; Cú Chulainn is most famous for single-handedly holding off the forces of Queen Medb by months of single-person combat. He holds his ground for long enough that the other heroes of Ulster can recover from the curse that made them sick and can now take up the fight.

The death scene was made vivid by Oliver Sheppard in a bronze statue modelled in 1911. It’s the statue that appears in republican and loyalist murals. (Cú Chulainn as the young Setanta has appeared in one mural about hurling – see The Throw-In – and one mural in Derry armed replaced a warrior Cú Chulainn’s sword with a camán – see Culann’s Hound.)

The reason the statue appears in CNR murals is Cú Chulainn’s association with the 1916 Easer Rising and armed Irish resistance thereafter. The tie to the Easter Rising was made in 1935 when, at the request of Irish prime minister Éamon De Valera, the statue was installed in the Dublin GPO (General Post Office) on the anniversary of the Rising. The GPO was a rebel stronghold during the 1916 Rising and had been destroyed by the fighting and shelling. It had been re-built in 1929 by what was by then the Free State government. (There is a separate Visual History page on the archetypal depiction of the Rising in the GPO – Walter Paget’s painting The Birth Of The Irish Republic.)

(Oliver Sheppard’s Cú Chulainn Dying or Death Of Cú Chulainn in the GPO, Dublin. Unattributed image)

According to one scholar, the statue’s use to symbolise the Rising “reflect[s] the ideology of the Celtic Revival and the Irish political resurgence, as expressed by the narratives of Standish O’Grady and Patrick Pearse’s ideology of ‘blood sacrifice’; the image of the pietà with the body of the dead Christ underlies Sheppard’s sculpture” (Turpin 1997, p. 73). Another similarly writes, “By the time Oliver Sheppard’s pieta-like bronze of Cúchulainn was erected in the GPO in 1935, the identification of Pearse, Cúchulainn and sacrificial martyrdom within the public imagination was complete” (Sisson n.d., p. 12; also available in spoken form).

In each of these comments on Sheppard’s statue we find two points: that Cú Chulainn’s death was used to represent the Irish nationalism of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and, the Christ-like presentation of Cú Chulainn’s death.

The first point puts the statue’s placement in the GPO in the wider context of the “Celtic Revival”, to include both the Gaelic Revival and Irish Literary Revival. Cú Chulainn’s exploits and death were made widely known in a 1902 translation by Lady Gregory, whose interest in Irish folklore had been stimulated in part by the many literary renditions of the legends written by Standish James O’Grady, her cousin and “father of the Celtic Revival”. Sisson claims that “Much of Cúchulainn’s dominance as a nationalist icon within contemporary culture comes from his association with Patrick Pearse … In 1898, at only 19, [Pearse] published a series of three lectures on Cúchulainn and the Red Branch Cycle in which he extolled the figure of Cúchulainn as a role model for masculinity and the Gaelic ideal … combin[ing] the artistic sensibility of the Celtic … with the pagan physicality of the Gaelic” (pp. 6-7)

The Revivals of the Irish language and of Celtic folklore and culture generally went hand-in-hand with the fight for Irish independence (O’Grady, however, was a unionist). The fight would require sacrifice, a prospect that Pearse seemed to relish, or at least, think salutary. In 1913, in a speech entitled The Coming Revolution, Pearse concluded, “I am glad, then, that the North has begun. I am glad that the Orangemen have armed, for it is a goodly thing to see arms in Irish hands. I should like to see the A. O. H. armed. I should like to see the Transport Workers armed. I should like to see any and every body of Irish citizens armed. We must accustom ourselves to the thought of arms, to the sight of arms, to the use of arms. We may make mistakes in the beginning and shoot the wrong people; but bloodshed is a cleansing and a sanctifying thing, and the nation which regards it as the final horror has lost its manhood. There are many things more horrible than bloodshed; and slavery is one of them.” (italics added)

Donal Fallon, writing in the Indo, puts Pearse’s call for blood sacrifice in the context of similar rhetoric surrounding the Great War, including by John Redmond, who thought that common sacrifice on the battlefields of Europe would unite Irishmen of both sects. There was a lot of it going around, it seems: for “blood sacrifice” in Connolly and the ICA, see Ferguson. Reeder traces the idea of “noble death” from the Rising to the hunger strikes and from the Somme to the UVF.

An article by Jenkins considers “how easily and naturally Christian rhetoric can be adapted to the cause of warfare and violence”. The absence of any political agenda in the Christ’s sacrifice meant that it could then be extended to any mundane ideology that currently required its adherents to risk their lives. Jenkins discusses both sides in the Great War and Pearse’s language of sacrifice in Ireland. Pearse himself had related the struggle for Irish independence to the divine sacrifice when he spoke of the “Christ-like sacrifice” of Robert Emmet (History Ireland).

The two scholars initially quoted detect in Sheppard’s statue aspects of Michelangelo’s pietà (“pity”) in which Mary holds the body of her dead son after he has been taken down from the cross. Sheppard’s statue is perhaps from a moment just before the pietà – Cú Chulainn is still tied to the rock that holds him upright but is nonetheless akin to the Christ in that he is slumped over and at the point of death, and in that he is not wearing any armour but instead is nearly naked, wearing only a head-band and loin-cloth. (Compare Sheppard’s statue with Leyendecker’s painting of Cú Chulainn in battle, also from 1911.) These features might seem to the fore in statue, relative to Cú Chulainn’s career as a warrior, as his sword and shield are lowered by his sides. At the end, when death is near and the arms fall away, there remains only the impetus for war, self-defense and the desire for self-government, or even just sacrifice itself, and this sacrifice can be transferred to whatever particular political struggle is on-going, whether in the streets of Dublin or the trenches of Europe.

Hence we can see in Sheppard’s statue the pre-Christian Cú Chulainn related to the sacrifice of the Christ, and these in turn are related to the Irish nationalism of the time, first culturally, as part of the Celtic Revival, and second militarily, by being placed in the GPO.

Without denying the Christ-like aspects of Sheppard’s statue, it’s clear from the visual record – some of which is presented below – that in murals of the Troubles era only the armed struggle is represented by Cú Chulainn while the passive sacrifice of the hunger strikes is represented by appealing directly to the Christ. Whatever his Christ-like attributes, Cú Chulainn is too-strongly associated with fighting and the hunger strikes too-strongly associated with non-violent sacrifice for Cú Chulainn to be used to represent the hunger strikes.

The other main point of discussion below is the use made by loyalist paramilitaries of Cú Chulainn.


An Irish Times retrospective called De Valera’s use of Sheppard’s statue “an inspired act of appropriation” because it was created prior to 1916 and concerned an inter-Irish dispute – Ulster versus Connaught. But since the statue was part of the Celtic Revival, which stood for the independence of Irish culture, it was easily applied to the Rising, which stood for the political independence of Ireland.

The appropriation was effective. WB Yeats’s poem The Statues, published in 1938, put Pearse and Cú Chulainn together in the GPO, fighting to restore Ireland to the glory of Greek proportion and escape the “filthy modern tide”:
“When Pearse summoned Cuchulain to his side.
What stalked through the post Office? What intellect,
What calculation, number, measurement, replied?
We Irish, born into that ancient sect
But thrown upon this filthy modern tide
And by its formless spawning fury wrecked,
Climb to our proper dark, that we may trace
The lineaments of a plummet-measured face.”

More officially, to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Rising, Sheppard’s Cú Chulainn made an appearance, along with Pearse, on the nation’s ten shilling coin (with “Éirí Amach na Cásca 1916” on the edge (WP). (For the 75 anniversary, Cú Chulainn appeared on a stamp.)

(Image from IrishCoinage)

While the Irish state’s use of Cú Chulainn was tied to the Rising, in the north, Sheppard’s connection from Cú Chulainn to the 1916 Rising was extended to those who were still fighting for Irish independence. As a result, the legend of Cú Chulainn and the Sheppard statue are familiar in CNR muraling in the modern era (1981 to the present), representing both the Easter Rising and the IRA of the Troubles.

In the Turf Lodge mural shown below, Cú Chulainn is surrounded with portraits of the seven signatories of the Proclamation and Pearse’s Mise Éire (which is discussed below).

(T00084 1988. Image by Paddy Duffy, used by permission.)

In the New Lodge, a 1916 rebel and Cú Chulainn are placed on either side of a large Celtic Cross which sports a lily and gal gréine (sunburst – symbol of Na Fianna) and a line from the Proclamation.

(M01240 1995)

Cú Chulainn is also used to represent the IRA. The mural just below lists dead IRA volunteers from the Derry Brigade alongside Cú Chulainn.

(M00174 1982. For similar in Belfast, see M01641 and in Strabane (in a West Tyrone) memorial see M04563. See also the murals in Lenadoon – Léana An Dúin Unbowed Unbroken – and Ballymurphy – Ballymurphy Unbowed Unbroken. The Glenbawn Cú Chulainn – The Ulster Cycle – does not mention paramilitaries specifically but activism in general.)

(Perhaps because Sheppard’s Cú Chulainn is too pathetic, a living Celtic warrior was sometimes used. For example, there is a Derry Brigade roll of honour in which an ancient warrior and modern paramilitary stand together, but it is the paramilitary who is in funeral gear – see Roll Of Honour, which was repainted in colour – see I gCuimhne Agus In Onóir. See the Visual History page about The Influence Of Jim Fitzpatrick for murals of Nuada and other warriors.

Cú Chulainn’s shield, or the shield of some Celtic warrior is sometimes used as a shorthand. Out Of The Ashes Of 1969, for example, requires the use of symbols only, because of the extent of history covered: it combines a Phoenix and an assault rifle symbolising the Troubles-era IRA (specifically the Belfast Brigade), a Thompson gun symbolising the Civil War IRA, the emblems of Cumann Na mBan and Na Fianna from the Easter Rising, pikes symbolising the 1798 and 1803 rebellions, and a Celtic shield and sword symbolising the ancient … struggle against British occupation.)

Sheppard’s Cú Chulainn is always recreated faithfully in CNR murals, with the single exception of the left-hand (CNR) painting (by Marty Lyons and a Short Strand artist) in a pair of large paintings in the Ulster Museum. In various respects, this indoor painting is made to resemble the classic outdoor mural – the board has been given an apex to resemble the gable wall of a house and a border of Celtic knot-work serves as a frame. In a unique break with tradition, however, Francis Hughes of the IRA takes the place of Cú Chulainn, a tourniquet on his right leg, an assault rifle dangling from his wrist, and instead of the raven that signified Cú Chulainn’s death there is the symbol of republican political prisoner, the lark, which appears in the apex of many other republican murals. (Also unlike murals, the artists have signed the painting, in the lower right corner.)

(X10387)

Despite its originality, it is easy to read the Hughes Cú Chulainn given the prior associations of Cú Chulainn with the Easter Rising, the IRA, and the fight for Irish independence generally. And in case there were any doubt or difficulty in interpretation, to Hughes’s left are two old women, one carrying Pearse’s poem Mise Éire in which Ireland in the form of a woman laments that she gave birth to Cú Chulainn but has now been abandoned (to the British) by her children. Francis Hughes is thus one of those rare people in the mold of Cú Chulainn who is willing to defend Ireland and if necessary with his life.

Hughes did not die at the time of this “last stand” against soldiers of the Parachute Regiment near Lisnamuck – he was captured alive (see image below) – but he would die three years later in the 1981 hunger strike while serving 83 years for killing one soldier and wounding another in the shootout, and for six years’ worth of prior offences (WP). But his eventual death is confirmed in the painting by the beret and gloves at his feet; these are typically seen on the coffins of IRA volunteers. Here is a mural placing them in the apex of an Easter Rising mural.

(Unattributed image. Mo Chara Kelly would reproduce this photo in a painting.)

It seems that for republicans, Cú Chulainn serves as a symbol of military sacrifice only (and for loyalists, too, as we will see below, of military activity only). Sheppard’s Cú Chulainn might have similarities to the pietà, as the Turpin and Sisson quotes given at the top of this page suggest, but while the sacrifice of the hunger strikers is presented as Christ-like in various murals, Cú Chulainn is not employed as a symbol.

As a case that “proves [i.e. tests] the rule”, here is the only such case that we know of: a long wall in Derry which begins a series of portraits of the 1981 dead with a crude Cú Chulainn:

(M01392 1998)

Another anomalous instance is this Ligoniel Cú Chulainn. The plaque in the centre asks Muire Banríon Na nGael to pray for all those from the area who lost their lives and it was previously at the centre of a large (painted) Celtic Cross. This was repainted with the Cú Chulainn mural and the Mary statue added in front. Both were later replaced by a (stone) Celtic Cross, a stone to the IRA’s Declan McCluskey, and an additional plaque immediately below the first which named the dead (only one of whom is a volunteer). Cú Chulainn, it would appear, is a little too militaristic for this wall.

(T00329 2000. Image by Paddy Duffy, used by permission.)

The sacrifice of the hunger strikers is represented directly by the Christ (and Mary). One mural showed hunger strikers on the cross (see T00048). Another invokes the pietà directly: a dead hunger striker lies in the arms of his parents having been removed from the suffering-place that is “Long Kesh 1981”

(M00111 1981. Image by LC, used by permission.)

The same artist who painted Long Kesh 1981 – Con – also painted a mural showing hunger striker being visited by Mary under the Biblical phrase Blessed Are Those Who Hunger For Justice, and another surrounding Dali’s Christ Of St John of the Cross with portraits of the men on strike at that time (X05399). His aim was to reach those west Belfast nationalists whose Catholicism would not permit sympathy for paramilitary activity but might recognise the passive sacrifice of the hunger strike (source: in-person conversation).

Using Cú Chulainn would not have sufficed to make this argument, even with the Christ-like aspects of Sheppard’s statue, as Cú Chulainn is also a warrior and by the time of the hunger strikes firmly associated with the 1916 Rising. In other words, the Cú Chulainn imagery used to represent the republicans who died from bullets and bombs needed to be cleanly separated from the religious imagery used to represent the republicans who would die on hunger strike.

In the years since 1981, the direct appeals to the Christ have disappeared and memorials to the dead hunger strikers have used Celtic crosses and religious invocations (in Irish) for the safety of their souls.


Girel-Pietka’s statement of the appearance of Cú Chulainn in the GPO says that “Irish Republicanism … appropriated the famous “Champion of Ulster,” paradoxically emphasizing the fact that national culture cannot be confined within the 1922 borders” (Girel-Pietka 2016, p. 82). In other words, Cú Chulainn as hero of Ireland (rather than Ulster) meant the 32 counties rather than the 26 that now formed the political unit of Ireland. A reverse form this point, re-asserting the original incongruity of using Ulster versus Connaught, would later allow loyalists to appropriate Cú Chulainn for themselves.

The use of Cú Chulainn in PUL muraling goes back (at least) to a 1992 UDA mural in east Belfast (shown below), in which Sheppard’s statue of the dying Cú Chulainn is cartoonishly reproduced, especially when it comes to the “raven” on top. The shield bears the flag of Northern Ireland and is moved to the front and flanks an armed – but unmasked – volunteer who is described as one of “Ulsters present day defenders”. Both defenders, ancient and present-day, stand on a Union Flag.

(M00959. Image by Alan Gallery, used by permission. Adamson himself is perhaps depicted alongside the statue, though given paramilitary clothes and rifle.)

The impetus behind using Cú Chulainn to link Ulster/Northern Ireland with the Union was the hypothesis of Thomas O’Rahilly (Early Irish History and Mythology 1946) as developed by Ian Adamson (The Cruthin: A History of the Ulster Land and People 1974) that Cú Chulainn was a member of the Pretani (or in old Irish, the Cruthin) and that the Cruthin were a pre-Celtic British race that had settled in Ulster and engaged in wars with the Irish Gaels before fleeing in the 600s, only for their ancestors to return a thousand years later during the plantation of Ulster. Thus, the claim “Northern Ireland is British” goes back not just to the plantation or William Of Orange but to ancient Ireland, and has the same standing as the claim that Northern Ireland is Irish.

Adamson’s hypothesis was taken up by the UDA, who lacked the UVF’s origin-story of the 1912 Ulster Volunteers. (UDA thinking nonetheless included a proposal for an independent Northern Ireland; in its second and third iterations, the east Belfast mural used the proposed flag of an independent Northern Ireland rather than the flag of Northern Ireland of the first version.)

In the second of the pieces in the Ulster Museum – the PUL piece, painted by Dee Craig – the raven sits on the shoulder of a Cú Chulainn who has a red cloak and carries a Northern Ireland shield. “Down through the years, his shadow has cast a new breed of Ulster defender”: a (loyalist) hooded gunman. Thus while Cú Chulainn is the “Ancient defender of Ulster!”, loyalist paramilitaries are its modern defenders, now that the B Specials and UDR are gone.

(X10385)

The dripping red hand in the top left is the ‘red hand of Ulster’; one version of the origin-story for the red hand is that the man who avenged Cú Chulainn’s death made a bloody hand-print to indicate his completion of the deed. Most people, however, will think of the legend that in a race to be first to touch the land of Ulster one contestant (perhaps Érimón Uí Néill) cut off his hand and threw it ahead of the others. (This legend was depicted in a lower Shankill mural and narrated in an east Belfast mural: The Strangest Victory In All History.)

“Cuchulainn” (as his named was typically rendered in PUL contexts) also appeared in the (UDA) Shankill (see Indigenous Ulster People) and in (UDA) Highfield (see just below). The Highfield rendition is not faithfully of the Sheppard statue but shows a modified Cú Chulainn, without shield or sword, and tied not to a rock but to an upright log or broken-off tree-trunk. A turn-of-the-century origin story was found (in 2007) in the UDU, the Ulster Defence Union (see UDU-UFF-UDA). Finally, although this is a UDA mural, memorials to the 36th Division of WWI and hence the Ulster Volunteers are included in the lower left – an early indication that Cú Chulainn’s moniker as “defender of Ulster” can equally be transferred to the UVF.

(M02972)

Adamson’s hypothesis has not been widely adopted – there is no evidence of a separate race in either a DNA survey or an archaeological survey (p. 177) and so it cannot be judged where the Cruthin might have originated – but it does seem to have been taken up also by the UVF, or at least, the Ulster Scots association now promoting the hypothesis, dalaradia.co.uk (cf. pretani.co.uk), is permitted to post in UVF areas. A number of boards similar in design and colour-scheme to the one below have appeared – see also the nearby Kingdom Of Dalaradia and in UVF/RHC Rathcoole Kingdom Of The Pretani and On The Occasion Of Her Platinum Jubilee. This one – which is outside Crusaders’ soccer ground in a UVF area of north Belfast – is the only one to feature Cú Chulainn (and a warrior from Game Of Thrones), along with a battle between the tribes of Antrim and Down in a period much later than Cú Chulainn; the battle is illustrated by a Jim Fitzpatrick picture, but, ironically, this is Fitzpatrick’s take on the Battle Of Moira, after which (according to the Adamson hypothesis) the Cruthin retreated to Britain.

(X08100)

Although the Cruthin-as-Britons hypothesis has been found wanting by scholars, it too is a remarkable piece of appropriation, in that it brought out one of the incongruities of the original appropriation of the Cú Chulainn myth to represent the fight for Irish freedom, namely that an inter-Irish conflict (between Ulster and Connaught) was supposed to represent the conflict between Ireland and Britain. Cú Chulainn’s defence of Ulster more naturally matches the loyalist fight to prevent the absorption of Northern Ireland into the Republic, though it is not clear that the hypothesis has spread widely among enough among the PUL community to prevent most loyalists from intuitively identifying Cú Chulainn as Irish.


In both sects, there is a desire to provide ancient roots and a continuous lineage that reaches the present day. On the CNR side, Cú Chulainn is tied to the 1916 Easter Rising and the Troubles-era IRA but not to the hunger strikers, despite the extent to which Sheppard’s statue of the death of Cú Chulainn reminds one of the pietà; on the PUL side, Cú Chulainn is tied to the Troubles-era paramilitaries, initially the UDA but latterly the UVF; the B-Specials and UDR of previous generations have been similarly categorised as “defenders of Ulster/Northern Ireland” but without the comparison to Cú Chulainn.


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