The Hound of Ulster
First edition cover




Short novel




Victor Ambrus

The Hound of Ulster is a retelling for children of the Irish myth cycle about the hero Cuchulain, published by the Bodley Head in 1963 with illustrations by Victor Ambrus.

Sutcliff's foreword notes that she has used modern placenames, and the Anglicised names for the characters. The book is dedicated "For Juliet, with the Author's love, and her apologies for a story from the wrong side of the Border."

Plot Edit

The family of the Red Branch consists of the son and grandson of King Ross the Red and his Sidhe Queen, and the offspring of their second marriages. Early in the reign of King Conor Mac Nessa, his aunt Dectera disappears without a trace. Three years later, Conor and his uncle Fergus Mac Roy are camped near a fairy mound when Dectera appears to them along with her Sidhe husband Lugh the Sun Lord. When her kinsmen awake, her baby son Setenta is lying among them. He is raised in Conor's household alongside his cousin Conall of the Victories, and one day near the time when Setenta is to leave his warrior's training in the Boys' House, Conor invites him to go to the Dun of Cullen the Swordsmith. Arriving late because he wished to finish a game of hurley, Setenta kills Cullen's beloved guard dog. He offers to take its place, and though Cullen declines, Fergus Mac Roy renames his young kinsman Cuchulain, the Hound of Cullen (1).

A few months before he is due to receive his weapons of manhood, Cuchulain overhears his grandfather Cathbad the druid prophesying that the boy who Takes Valour that day will become Ireland's most renowned warrior, though he will not live to see his first grey hair. Small, boyish Cuchulain goes instantly to a skeptical Conor to ask for his weapons, and easily breaks all he is offered, until he must Take Valour with the king's own weapons and chariot. By sixteen, he is so attractive to women that his countrymen beg him to take a wife. At the High King's Hall at Tara, he pitches upon Emer, daughter of Forgall the Druid, but visiting her at her father's Dun, she tells him to come back when he has great deeds to boast of (2).

Cuchulain decides to train with Skatha, a famous warrior-woman. On his long journey to her Dun in the Land of Shadows, he is mired in a bog when his unknown father Lugh the Sun Lord appears to him and gives him a burning wheel that dries his path in front of him. In the Land of Shadows, he is told by the leader of Skatha's pupils, Ferdia of Connacht, that her Dun is on an island accessible only by the Bridge of Leaps, which bucks off all comers. Cuchulain determines to leap it that night, and goaded by Ferdia's laughter he makes it on the fourth try and meets Skatha in her hall, who accepts him as a pupil and tells him not to try it again. Cuchulain challenges Ferdia to a fight, but disarmed by Ferdia's good humour, they make friends instead of killing each other (3).

Skatha goes to war against her threatening larger neighbour, the warrior Princess Aifa, but attempts to leave Cuchulain, whom she loves as a favourite son, behind by drugging his wine. The dose is not strong enough, and he fights in the first clash, where Skatha is injured in the sword arm. Aife challenges her settle the war in single combat, and Cuchulain demands to fight in Skatha's place. He defeats Aife by a ruse about the safety of her beloved chariot team and takes her hostage. Aife swears a pact to leave Skatha's lands in peace, and she and Cuchulain go to bed together (4).

When the war parties part ways, Cuchulain gives Aife a gold ring to give to their potential son, who is to be named Connla and sent to his father under a geise that he must tell his name to no one and never refuse combat. Cuchulain, having learned the Hero's Salmon Leap and the Gae Bolg, the Spear Belly, from Skatha, swears lifelong friendship with Ferdia and returns home, where he learns that the High King Conary Mor has been murdered. Cuchulain sets out upon his first heroic raid, killing the seven sons of Nechtan and working himself into his battle frenzy, in which the Hero light flares on his brow, the foam bursts from his lips, and blood shoots from his head, among other alarming manifestations. As he bears down crazily on the King's Hall at Emain Macha, Conor's only defense is to send the women of the court to stand naked in Cuchulain's path, which shocks him back into self-awareness (5).

Hearing that the King of Munster is courting Emer, Cuchulain and his kinsmen go to the Dun of Forgall to claim her. Forgall refuses, and Cuchulain and his men sack the Dun and carry off the willing Emer, fighting her aunt's warband across Meath (6).

The trouble-making chieftain Bricrieu invites the court to a feast where he provokes Cuchulain, Laery the Triumphant, and Conall of the Victories and their wives to quarrel over which is the greatest champion. Conor passes the judgement onto Queen Maeve of Connacht, who no more eager than Conor to offend two of the three warriors, secretly gives each a cup proclaiming him the champion and sends them back to him (7). Conor now sends them to the magician king Curoi of Kerry, whose queen Blanid receives them and asks them to stand night guard each in turn outside the Dun. She conjures a Shadow Giant from the sea that tosses Laery and Conall over the Dun wall, while Cuchulainn defeats three times nine shadow warriors, a dragon, and the giant, but still Laery and Conall will not concede. Blanid sends them back to Emain Macha to await Curoi's judgement, and there Uath the Stranger arrives to challenge each champion to keep his word of honour: they may strike off his head if they will alllow him to strike off theirs the next day. Uath's body reattaches his head, and Laery and Conall in turn break their word to be beheaded. Cuchulain keeps his, and Uath spares him and transforms into Curoi, who proclaims him the Champion of Ireland (8).

Deirdre, a maiden betrothed to Conor and raised in total seclusion because of a prophesy at her birth that her beauty would bring strife and sorrow to Ulster, meets and falls in love with Conor's young cousin Naisi Mac Usna. She flees with the three sons of Usna to Scotland, until a few years later Conor, who also loved her, sends a too-trusting Fergus Mac Roy to tell them that all is forgiven. Their protector Fergus is decoyed away and Conor orders his warriors to attack the Guest House where they are lodged. The sons of Usna are beheaded and Deirdre kills herself in grief, and two intertwining yew trees grow from their graves (9).

Fergus Mac Roy, finding his proteges and his son dead, swears vengeance on Conor and takes service with Maeve of Connacht. Maeve, wishing to steal Ulster's most prized herd bull, gathers a war host. The warriors of Ulster, cursed after an offense against a Sidhe woman to suffer a Great Weakness in time of direst need, have only the half-god Cuchulain and his Leinster-born charioteer Laeg to defend the passes into Ulster. Cuchulain holds off their advance for several days until he and Maeve agree to a daily duel with her champion at the ford halfway through the Gap of Ulster (10). Her army may advance only so long as the duel lasts, but Maeve breaks her word and sends raiders to drive off the Brown Bull. Cuchulain sees off champion after champion until his father Lugh of the Shining Spear comes to take his form and place and give him three days' rest. While Cuchulain sleeps, the Boys' Band of Emain Macha, unaffected by the curse on the men, come down to reinforce him and are killed, and Cuchulain in battle frenzy massacres the Connacht men in return (11). The last of the Connacht champions is Cuchulain's blood-brother Ferdia, who refuses to fight him until Maeve tells him that he will be shamed for disloyalty if he does not. He and Cuchulain fight for four days, camping together at night, until Cuchulain in his battle frenzy uses the invincible Gae Bolg and kills him. The duels ended, the army of Connacht pours into Ulster (12). The Curse of Macha passes off the Ulster men and their army meets Maeve's in battle. Fergus Mac Roy keeps a promise to Cuchulain to retreat as Cuchulain did from their duel at the ford, and Cuchulain spares the life of Maeve and returns her to the border of Connacht. The Brown Bull kills the White and dies himself (13).

Several years later, a youth who will not tell his name lands on the shores of Ulster and defeats all of Conor's champions. Emer, suspecting it is Cuchulain's son Connla by Aife and regretting her own lack of children, begs him not to kill his son, but honour demands he fight. Cuchulain kills him with the Gae Bolg and then sees the ring he had given to Aife for their son (14).

After seven years of truce Maeve and her allies invade Ulster and the Great Weakness falls on its warriors once more, as the Witch Daughters of Calatin conjure illusory armies to draw Cuchulain out to fight. Cuchulain is taken to the Deaf Valley to wait out the enchantment, but a Witch Daughter disguised as Conall's wife Lendabhair summons him to battle (15). Cuchulain decides that his Fate is upon him, and after several bad omens, meets the invaders in the Gap of the North, where in turn his charioteer Laeg, his chariot horse the Grey of Macha, and Cuchulain get their death-wounds from Cuchulain's own spear thrown back at him. Cuchulain binds himself upright to a pillar to die, and his head and hand struck off after dying (16). Conall of the Victories slays Lugy Mac Curoi, Erc Mac Cairbre, the sons of Maeve and the Witch Daughters and returns Cuchulain's body parts to Emer, who has Conall prepare a grave, and dies on it next to Cuchulain (17).

Timeline Edit

  • Midsummer Eve (year 1): Dectera & Co. disappear
  • Midsummer Eve, 3 years later: Dectera delivers Setenta
  • Setenta and Conall are 7: they enter the Boys' House and meet Laeg
    • Deirdre is born (9)
  • Near the end of their time in the Boys' House: Sententa is renamed Cuchulain (1)
  • Shortly afterward: Laeg and Conall Take Valour
  • Shortly afterward, autumn: Cuchulain Takes Valour early
  • Cuchulain is 16: he meets Emer (2) and goes to Skatha (3)
  • Six months later, after harvest: war against Aifa (4)
  • A year and a day after coming to the Land of Shadows: Cuchulain graduates (5)
  • Late autumn: Cuchulain marries Emer (6)
  • A year or two later: the dispute of the champions (7, 8)
  • A few years later (9):
    • Spring, Deirdre is 14: Conor falls in love with her
    • Winter: Deirdre and Naisi fall in love
    • Spring: Deirdre flees with the sons of Usna
  • 3 or 4 years later: they return to Ulster and are betrayed and killed
  • Late autumn: Connacht attacks Ulster (10)
  • Four days later: Cuchulain and Maeve arrange a duel
  • Many days of duelling (11-13)
    • the Witch Daughters of Clan Calatin are born (15)
  • Years later, summer: Connla comes to Ulster, 15 years after Cuchulain left Aifa (14)
  • the Witch Daughters are 7: Maeve invades Ulster again (15)

Characters Edit

The Red Branch:

  • Ross the Red, King of Ulster m. Maga, his Queen, a woman of the Sidhe
    • Fiachtna the Giant, their son, m. Nessa
      • Conor Mac Nessa, King in Cuchulain's time. "a stern man easily moved to anger" (1).
        • Cuscrid (10)
        • Cormac Coilinglass (2), second son of the King, of an age with Cuchulain (2). Goes to Connacht with Fergus (10).
        • Follaman (7), Conor's Queen died at his birth (7), a while before Deirdre was born (9). Leader of the Boys' Band killed by Maeve's army (11).
  • Cathbad, Maga's second husband, the wisest Druid in the land (1). He teaches law, star wisdom, and Ogham writing to the Boys' Band. Golden-bearded (2).
    • Dectera m. Lugh the Sun Lord
      • Cuchulain, né Setenta, a "small dark fighting-cock" (1). "slight and dark...and small for his age", yet irresistible to women. "always until he laughed he looked as though he were listening to sad music in his heart" (2). Under a geise never to refuse a feast (15).
        • Fedelma (2), a favourite falcon
        • the Grey of Macha (7), a Sidhe chariot-horse
        • the Black Seinglend (7), the water-horse of Lough Seinglend
    • Elva m. Usna (1)
      • Naisi (1), among Cuchulain's groomsmen (6). Dark-haired. Husband of Deirdre (9)
      • Ainle, Ardan (1), among Cuchulain's groomsmen (6). Exiled with Naisi and Deirdre (9)
    • Finchoom (1)
      • Conall of the Victories, Setenta's foster-brother and first best friend, a few months his elder (1). One of three members of the High King's bodyguard who fought their way out of Da Derga (5). "a young fair-haired man with a skin as clear red and white as fresh blood spilled on snow." Also called Conall of the Great Spear (7).
        • Dewy Red (17), his horse, a decisive factor in his fight with Lugy
  • Roy, Ross's second wife, a mortal (1).
    • Fergus Mac Roy, their son (1), discoverer of Dectera. He carries Setenta home and renames him Cuchulain (2). "Always he has been as a father to me" (6). Forbidden by a geise to refuse an invitation to a feast (9). Possessor of a rainbow-streaking sword (13).
      • Illan the Fair (9), his son, killed in the defense of the Guest House
      • Buinne the Red (9), his son, bought off from the defense

Other inhabitants of Ulster

  • Laery the Triumphant, a companion of Conor (1). Husband of Fedelm. One of Cuchulain's groomsmen (6). "one of the foremost warriors of the Red Branch...loved his horses and could never bear to hear any other team praised above his own." "a big man with blazing red-gold hair and beard." Also called Laery of the Red Hand, and Storm of War (7).
  • Bricrieu of the Bitter Tongue, a companion of Conor (1). "one of his most powerful chieftains...renowned as a trouble-maker" (7)
  • Laeg, Setenta's second best friend, ex-hostage son of a dead Leinster noble, "a year older than Setenta, a tall boy, red-haired, and freckled as a foxglove", a prodigious horse-whisperer (1). Cuchulain's charioteer (2).
  • Cullen, the greatest swordsmith in Ulster (1).
    • His beloved guard dog, killed by Setenta (1).
  • Celthair Mac Uthica Hornskin (5), Conall joined Conary Mor's bodyguard after a feud with him (5). Leader of half of Ulster's army (13).
  • Fedelm the Beautiful (6), wife of Laery, who reproaches Cuchulain about Emer (6). With "strong bay hair."
  • Lendabhair the Favourite (7), Conall's bride, "small she was and sweet, and cherished as a little pet bird... and the colour of her hair soft and pollen-yellow"
  • Cethern Son of Findtan (8), a warrior, who declines to execute the sons of Usna (9)
  • Felim (9), a chieftain, father of Deirdre
  • Deirdre (9), prophesied at birth to bring sorrow to Ulster through her beauty, and betrothed to Conor Mac Nessa
  • Levarcham (9), Conor and later Deirdre's old nurse, "one of the wisest women in all Emain Macha." Goes into exile with Deirdre. Tries to fool Conor into forgetting about Deirdre. (9). Conor's messenger to Cuchulain in the second invasion of Ulster (15).
  • Baruch (9), a veteran warrior who decoys Fergus from the protection of the sons of Usna
  • Dubthach the Beetle of Ulster (9), one of the warriors who avoids executing the sons of Usna (9). Goes to Connacht with Fergus (10).
  • Owen Prince of Ferny (9), the executioner
  • Dara Son of Fachtna the Giant (10), owner of the Brown Bull of Quelgny, the Pride of Ulster
  • Fiacha Son of Firaba (12), who follows Fergus to Connacht but helps Cuchulain against Clan Calatin

Ireland and beyond

  • High King Conary Mor (2). Killed with his bodyguard at Da Derga by British pirates including his outlawed foster-brothers (5).
  • Emer (2), daughter of Forgall, eventually Cuchulain's wife. "She was dark-haired almost as himself, and her skin white as mare's milk, and her eyes wide and proud and brilliant" (2). The love of Cuchulain's life, despite his numerous affairs, but sadly childless (14). "'He has never greatly listened to me,' and this she said, not in bitterness, but only as one speaking a true thing." (15).
  • Forgall (2), Lord of Lusca, called the Wily, a Druid. Takes a dim view of his daughters' suitors.
  • Cleena (2), a hawk-eyed maiden of Dun Forgall
  • Fial (2), Emer's unmarried elder sister
  • Skatha (3), mighty warrior woman of the Land of Shadows, a trainer of young heroes. "a lean-faced woman", "the white scars of a warrior on her arms." (3). She has two sons (4).
  • Princess Aifa (4), Skatha's rich and warlike young neighbour, defeated by a ruse in single combat by Cuchulain. Yellow-haired.
  • Eoghan the Druid (4), Skatha's healer
  • The Sons of Nechtan (5), seven great killers of Ulster men, killed by Cuchulain
    • Foill, the eldest, brown-beared and invulnerable to blades
  • Lugaid, King of Munster (6), a rival suitor of Emer
  • Forgall's sister (6), of Meath, whose warband pursues Cuchulain's wedding party
  • Curoi, Lord of Kerry (8), "his sight is deeper and his powers older even than those of the Druids" (8). Later killed by Cuchulain while attempting to abscond with Blanid (15).
  • Blanid (8), Curoi's Queen, a black-haired magician (8). She fell in love with Cuchulain and later asked him to carry her off from Curoi, but was killed by Fercartna to avenge Curoi's death (15).
  • Uath the Stranger (8), Curoi's disguise, "taller than any mortal man, horrible to see"
  • the Pictish King (9), temporary patron of the sons of Usna
  • the King of Leinster (10), brother and ally of Ailell
  • Connla (14), yellow-haired only son of Cuchulain and Aifa, pupil of Skatha
  • Erc the High King of Tara (15), an enemy of Cuchulain
  • Cairbre (15), Erc's father whom Cuchulain killed in battle
  • Lugy (15), son of Curoi of Kerry, an ex-friend of Cuchulain after the death of his father (15). He cuts off the dead Cuchulain's head and has his hand cut off by Cuchulain's falling sword (16).
  • Fercartna (15), Curoi's favourite song maker, who killed Blanid


  • Ferdia Mac Daman (3), "a tall boy with silver-fair hair", leader of Skatha's students. Cuchulain's third best friend (3).
  • Maeve of Connacht (7), referee in the dispute of the champions (7). "Maeve was as all the Royal women of Connacht had been, tall and fierce and very fair and heedful of nothing but her own wild will." (10).
  • Ailell (7), her consort, "the King in her crowned shadow", peaceable
    • the Finnbenach (10), a white herd bull and bone of contention
  • Findabhair the Fair (7), their Royal Daughter, Maeve's heiress (12)
  • Ercol (7), Ailell's foster-father, a magician, one test of the champions
  • Mac Roth (10), Maeve's steward
  • the 7 sons of Maeve (10), leaders of war bands
  • Ket and Anluan (10), the sons of Maga
  • Natchrantal (11), one of their greatest champions
  • Banblai Son of Buic (11), leader of the cattle raiders, killed by Cuchulain
  • Loch Son of Mofobis (11), fighting Cuchulain during Morrigan's revenge
  • the Clan Calatin (12), a wizard and his 27 sons who fight as one, the second-last Connacht champion (12), his widow, and their three witch daughters (15)
  • Bave (15), the most hideous of the Witch Daughters

The Lordly People, the Sidhe

  • Maga, Queen to Ross the Red, who leaves him for Cathbad the Druid (1).
  • Lugh of the Long Spear, the Sun Lord, "golden and fiercely beautiful", Cuchulain's father (1). He rescues Cuchulain on the Plain of Ill Luck. "A young man like a flame, like a ray of sun when it pierces between storm clouds" (3).
  • Fedelma (10), of the Fairy Hill of Cruachan, who prophesies Cuchulain's victory to Maeve
  • [Macha] (10), whose dying curse fells the warriors of Ulster
  • Morrigan, the Lady of War (11), rejected by Cuchulain, who interferes in his next duel in the shape of various animals
  • Labraid of the Quick Sword (14)
  • Fand (14), wife of Manannan, an affair of Cuchulain's
  • Manannan (14), the Lord of the Sea
  • the washer at the ford (16), a forerunner of death, or possibly an alder tree

Places Edit

Tir-Nan-Og, the Land of Youth, home of the Sidhe


  • Emain Macha, the Royal Dun, surrounded by barley fields and orchards
    • the stream and the ford, where Dectera disappeared
    • the King's Hall
    • the Boys' House
    • the Red Branch Hostel (9), the Guest House
  • the Plain of Murthemney, from Dun Dealgan south into Meath, Cuchulain's inheritance
    • Dun Dealgan (8), Cuchulain's rebuilt Dun
    • Ard Cuillen (10), on the southern border of his lands
  • the Rath of Cullen (1)
  • Slieve Mourne (5), Ulster's tallest mountain
  • Slieve Cuillen and Slieve Fuad (5), southwest mountains framing the Gap of the North from Ireland into Ulster
    • the lough below Fuad, where Cuchulain caught the Grey of Macha (7)
    • the track from Meadhon to Luachair (16)
  • Lough Seinglend, where Cuchulain caught the Black Seinglend (7)
  • Dun Drum (7), Dun of Bricrieu
  • Slieve Gallion (9), site of the hidden house where Deirdre grows up
  • Athgowla, the Ford of the Forked Pole (10), where Cuchulain killed the Connacht scouts
  • the grave mound of Derga (11), where Cuchulain sleeps during the defense of Ulster
  • Slemon Midi, the Hill of the Slain (13), where the armies of Connacht and Ulster meet
  • the Plain of Garach (13), north of Slemon Midi
  • the Maela of Meath (13), three flat-topped hills trimmed by Fergus's magic sword
  • Glean-na-Bodha (15), the Deaf Valley
    • Cathbad's hall


  • Brugh-Na-Boyna (1), the fairy mound where Dectera appears to Fergus Mac Roy
  • Tara, the High King's Hall (1), stands empty after the murder of King Conary Mor (5)
  • the Inn of Da Derga (5), where Conary Mor is killed
  • Bregia (5), a plain south of Slieve Mourne
  • Teltin (5)
  • the Dun of the Sons of Nechtan (5), Connacht
  • the ford of Glondath, Olney, the Boyne (6), river crossings where Cuchulain slays the Meath men
  • Cruachan in Roscommon, Connacht (7), Maeve's Dun
  • the Hill of the Sidhe at Cruachan (7)
  • the river Shannon (10), the eastern border of Connacht
  • the Ridge of the Bull (13), where the Brown Bull dropped dead
  • the river Lifé (17), where Conall fights Lugy Mac Curoi

The wider world

  • the Land of Shadows, possibly Skye (3), home of Skatha
    • the Dun of Skatha, a triple-walled fortress on the crest of an island in a sea inlet
    • the Bridge of Leaps, the bucking, sword-wide bridge between the island and the students' mainland camp
  • the Plain of Ill Luck (3), where Cuchulain is embogged en route to Skatha
  • Britain (5), where Conary Mor's foster-brothers go in exile
  • the Islands (9), tributaries of Ulster (15)
  • Scotland, the Pict Lands (9), where Deirdre and the sons of Usna go into exile
  • Glen Etive, their home, also Glen Archan, Glen-da-Rua
  • Greece, where wine comes from
  • Rome (14), possibly worth conquering
  • Babylon (15), where the witches of Calatin learned their black magic

Background and references Edit

Publication history Edit

In English:

  1. The Bodley Head: London, 1963, 1973. Illus. Victor Ambrus.
  2. Red Fox: London, 1992, 2002, 2013.
  3. RCHP Digital: London, 2013.

In translation:

  1. Cwchwlin penarwr Iwerddon. Welsh by Ivor Owen. Llandysul : Gomer Press, 1986.[1][2]
  2. Hono no senshi kufurin: keruto shinwa. Horupushuppan: Tokyo, 2003. Japanese: Kari Haijima.
  3. Hono no senshi kufurin / Ogon no kishi fin makkuru [The Hound of Ulster / The High Deeds of Finn Mac Cool]. Chinkumashobo: Tokyo, 2013. Japanese: Kari Haijima, Mizuhito Kanehara, Miki Kuji.

References Edit