the stone of the big man
Updated: Aug 6, 2020
I drove past it three times. Eventually, I stopped in the local village shop for a bottle of water and directions.
The young woman behind the counter gave me a friendly smile. “We’re always after getting visitors in looking for that stone,” she said. “Sell a lot of bottles of water that way.”
The little old man who was flirting shamelessly with her when I walked in took me outside and pointed out the way, then mounted his equally ancient push-bike. “Used to pick ‘taters in that field when I was a lad,” he added. “The whole village turned out for it.” He gave me a wave and pedalled slowly off.
Surprisingly for Irish directions (I’m sure you know the old joke – ‘Hmmm… well, I wouldn’t start from here…’ 😭), they were spot on. A couple of minutes drive up the road, and over a stile on the right… how could I have missed it?
Because the bloody sign was tiny and hidden by an overgrown hedge, that’s how, and the stone was way off at the other end of a huge field and couldn’t be seen from the road.
It was well worth the trip, though. That thing is HUGE!
Clochafarmore, or Cloch an Fhir Mhóir in Irish means ‘the stone of the big man’, and is located in the townland of Rathiddy, at Knockbridge, in County Louth.
You might be thinking GIANT, and in a way, you’d be right… this particular man was a giant in reputation, if not in physicality. You probably know him as Cuchulainn, legendary hero of Ulster.
Cuchulainn was born Setanta, son of lightning God, Lugh Lámhfada and the mortal princess, Dechtire, who was the sister of Ulster king, Conchubar. Even as a child, he showed great skill beyond his years in the sports of wrestling, hurling, and the arts of warriors.
When he was seven, he went to train at the court of the king. It was during this time that he earned the name of Cuchullain – Cullain’s Hound – by killing Cullain’s fiercest guard dog as the brute leaped to attack him.
But everyone knows that story, so I’m not going to tell it here. As everyone also knows the other story he’s most famous for, the Tain Bo Cuailnge, or the ‘Cattle Raid of Cooley’, in which Queen Medb of Connacht starts a war with Ulster over possession of a bull, and how Cuchulainn holds off her army by fighting a series of single combats with Medb’s choicest warriors.
No, I’m not going to tell that one, either. You don’t have the time, and I don’t have the blog space for that epic.
But I will tell you how the Cloch an Fhir Mhóir got its name….
After a visit to his mother, Cuchulainn was returning to battle against the men of Connacht when he came across a woman crying and washing his bloody clothing in a stream. No matter how much she scrubbed at it, she could not wash out the stain of blood, and he knew it was an omen of his death.
He continued on his journey and after a while came across three old women roasting a dog on spits made from rowan wood, and they bid him sit down and eat with them. Cuchulainn was now in a quandary, for he was honour-bound by two geasa: never to eat dog-meat, and never to refuse hospitality when it was offered.
So he decided it would be more dishonourable to refuse the food, and sat down with them to eat. But no sooner had the first bite of dog-flesh passed his lips, and he felt a weakness claim his body, and he knew this was an omen of his impending death.
After his meal, he continued on his way and soon came across his enemy who were arrayed in battle formation against him; they made a wall of their shields and strengthened it with their strongest men in the centre, and their Druids prepared to take his spears from him, for they had a prophecy in which three kings would be killed by those spears.
When Cuchullain saw them, he ordered his charioteer, Laeg, to drive straight at them…
“and Cuchulain came against them in his chariot, doing his three thunder feats, and he used his spear and his sword in such a way, that their heads, and their hands, and their feet, and their bones, were scattered through the plain of Muirthemne; like the sands on the shore, like the stars in the sky, like the dew in May, like snow-flakes and hailstones, like leaves of the trees, like buttercups in a meadow, like grass under the feet of cattle on a fine summer day. It is red that plain was with the slaughter Cuchulain made when he came crashing over it.”
“Give your spear to me,” called one of the Druids.
“You are not so much in want of it as I am myself,” Cuchulainn growled in reply (love that… Lady G.’s words, not mine, however😜). With that he cast the spear at the Druid, and it went through his head and killed the men also on either side.
Lugaid, Cuchulainn’s enemy, retrieved the spear and cast it at Cuchulainn as he charged by on his chariot, but his aim was not true, and it pierced Laeg, and so it was that the King of Charioteers was killed that day by the Hound’s very own spear.
“Give me your spear,” demanded a second Druid, and Cuchulainn dutifully cast it at him. It passed through his head, and Erc took it this time, and fired it at Cuchulainn, but he charged by in his chariot too quickly for Erc. The missile missed and went through his horse, the great Grey of Macha instead, and so it was that the King of Horses died that day by Cuchulainn’s second spear.
“Give me your spear,” yelled a third Druid, and without delay, Cuchulainn hurled it at him as hard as he could, and it passed clean through the unfortunate man’s head. Lugaid siezed the weapon and threw it, and this time it found its mark: it passed through Cuchulainn’s body, and as he watched ‘his bowels came out on the cushions of the chariot’ he knew he had received his death wound.
‘Then he gathered up his bowels into his body’ and tied himself with his belt to a tall pillar-stone standing close by so that he would meet his death standing on his feet like a warrior.
His enemies gathered at a distance but did not dare approach; no one would be foolish enough to meet the great Cuchulainn in close combat, even with his death wound upon him. Three days they waited, until finally the Morrigan landed on his shoulder in her guise of black raven feathers, and they knew he was dead.
And so it was that the prophecy was fulfilled, and the great King of Heroes was killed by his very own spear.
Stones such as these are thought to have been set up in the bronze age, possibly as memorials to some special person or event, or perhaps as territorial markers. I’d also like to point out that not everything vaguely cylindrical and upstanding has phallic significance.
The area in which Cuchulainn’s Stone is located is named An Breisleach Mor in Irish, meaning ‘the Great Carnage’, and the field is still known locally as the ‘Field of Slaughter’. Perhaps there really was a battle which took place there in the far distant past.
A bronze age spear head was found near the stone some time in the 1920s, and handed over for safekeeping to the parish priest, a Fr Seamus Quinn, after whom the local GAA pitch was named, and subsequently was lost. It’s a nice touch, though… another of those little life coincidences which connect us to the stories of the past.
Cloch an Fhir Mhóir stands over 3m (10ft) tall, and 1.3m wide. It has a deep fissure in it, which looks as if it could have been caused by a lightning strike, at least to my fanciful imagination, which would be fitting, since the Hound’s father was Lugh. I can imagine Lugh lashing out at the stone in fury and sorrow after his son was so cruelly killed there.
It’s a very peaceful place, full of light and space and wind and sky, set on top of a rolling hill, with a wonderful wide panoramic view across the valley. I leaned with my back against the stone, like the hero once did, and could almost see the approach of the army, watching and waiting fearfully for death.
No crow landed on my shoulder, and so far I’m still here…
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