From ancient times up until today, Irish mythology and pop culture have dished up larger than life exemplars of the extraordinary! Here are eight ancient and modern A-listers.
Stan Lee, the father of the modern American comic book superhero, creator or co-creator of such iconic heroes as the Avengers, Spider-Man, Iron Man and the Incredible Hulk, The Fantastic Four and the Mighty Thor defined a superhero thus:
“A superhero is a person who does heroic deeds and has the ability to do them in a way that a normal person couldn’t. So in order to be a superhero, you need a power that is more exceptional than any power a normal human being could possess, and you need to use that power to accomplish good deeds.”
From ancient times up until today, Irish mythology and pop culture have dished up larger than life exemplars of the extraordinary, from the original champion Cú Chulainn, the Hound of Ulster to the First Avenger, Captain America himself and a host of colorful characters in between. Here are eight ancient and modern A-listers.
Cú Chulainn, the Hound of Ulster
From his boyhood days on the plains of Muirthemne in mid-Ulster when he held his own on the hurling pitch against a group of 150 of the king’s sons or when he struck the vicious hound of Cullainn dead with just his hurley and leather ball (and took on the role of guard dog in his stead and won his name, Cú Chulainn, the Hound of Cullain) or when, finally, on the day he took up arms and slew three invincible warriors, Cú Chulainn was marked by the presence of exceptional gifts.
Read more: Ireland’s Cú Chulainn was a Mayan god too
The strangest and most fearsome characteristic, by far, the warp spasm or battle rage resembling that of the incredible hulk at his hulkiest, served to transform Cú Chulainn from mere mortal to man-monster, took place before his fiercest battles and was described by Thomas Kinsella in the Táin Bó Cúailnge (The Cattle Raid of Cooley):
“The first warp-spasm seized Cú Chulainn and made him into a monstrous thing, hideous and shapeless, unheard of. His shanks and his joints, every knuckle and angle and organ from head to foot, shook like a tree in the flood or a reed in the stream. His body made a furious twist inside his skin so that his feet and shins switched to the rear and his heels and calves switched to the front... On his head the temple-sinews stretched to the nape of his neck, each mighty, immense, measureless knob as big as the head of a month-old child... he sucked one eye so deep into his head that a wild crane couldn't probe it onto his cheek out of the depths of his skull; the other eye fell out along his cheek.”
And that’s the short version.
A famous statue representing the death of Cú Chulainn, by the sculptor Oliver Sheppard stands in the foyer of the General Post Office in Dublin, visible from the front window on O’Connell Street. After single-handedly taking on the best warriors of Queen Maedb, Cú Chulainn, no longer able to stand, and unwilling to die on the ground like an animal tied himself to a stone to face off against the entire army. So fearsome he was, that it took three days and the presence of a raven landed on his shoulder before any warrior would dare approach him to confirm that he was dead. The legendary Cú Chulainn stone stands today in the midst of a farmer’s field, at the end of a drill of potatoes, near Knockbridge, County Louth.
Fionn mac Cumhaill
If Cu Chulainn, resembles, in some respects, the Incredible Hulk, then Fionn Mac Cumhaill (fair-haired son of the warrior Cumhaill) most resembles Captain America. Like the Avengers, he even leads his own band of warriors, the Fianna (wild ones), who roamed freely across the country of Ireland, hunting and adventuring (Think an early and less temperate Lost Boys of Peter Pan).
As a boy, Fionn was apprenticed to the wizard Finnegas, who for seven years had been in search of the mythical Salmon of Knowledge that lived in the River Boyne. When he did finally catch the miraculous fish, he ordered Fionn to cook it for him. In the process of cooking the fish, Fionn burned his thump. He immediately placed his thumb in his mouth and was instantly imbued with all of the knowledge of the world. Subsequently, in any difficult predicament, Fionn had only to suck his thumb to figure his way out.
In one story, Fionn and his wolfhounds, Bran and Sceolán got ahead of the hunting party. The dogs led him to the Lake of Sorrow at the top of Slieve Gullion, in County Armagh. Here he encountered a beautiful distraught maiden who claimed to have lost a ring at the bottom of the lake and asked would Fionn kindly fetch it for her. Fionn, under a pledge to never refuse such a request, lest his honor suffer irredeemably, dove to the bottom of the lake and, retrieving the ring from the muddy bottom rose up out of the water. But when he broke the surface, he discovered his body had been transformed into that of a wizened old man. When the rest of the hunting party arrived, they were unable to recognize Fionn, but, upon hearing the old man’s tale, and asking some questions that only Fionn would know the answer to, they recognized him at last. They captured the enchantress (a jealous suitor) and persuaded her to change him back. She did and he was made young again, all with the exception of his hair which was turned grey and would remain so all of his life. To this day, it is said, if you take a dip in the Lake of Sorrow, you will be struck by the curse and your hair will instantly turn grey.
Conan the Barbarian
Robert E. Howard was very proud of his Irish ancestry and single-handedly created the genre of “sword and sorcery” before his death by suicide at age thirty. He imagined the Cimmerians, Conan’s mythical race, as the pre-Celtic ancestors of Ireland and Scotland. Howard wrote dozens of adventure stories that featured in the pulp novels of the 1920’s and 1930’s and inspired countless others to carry on the tales. Conan became the subject of a Marvel comic illustrated by Barry Smith and a film starring Arnold Schwarzenegger. Howard was close friends with horror writer H.P. Lovecraft. They shared an interest in Gaelic culture and writing, became close friends and exchanged letters throughout their lives.
Out of the many characters that Howard created, Conan was the most fully realized and the most popular. Howard said that the character came into his writing fully formed and he wondered at the nature of ancestral memory.
Conan was at various stages a reaver, a pirate, a mercenary warrior and a king. In the last tale Howard wrote featuring Conan, “Red Nails”, Conan fights alongside a formidable woman pirate, Valeria, in a weird city inhabited by warring tribes.
In a penultimate battle with King Olmec himself, Howard describes his mighty hero in action:
“The barbarian's neck and shoulder felt numb from the sled-like impact of Olmec's huge fist, which had carried all the strength of the massive forearm, thick triceps, and great shoulder. But this did not affect his ferocity to any appreciable extent. Like a bulldog, he hung on grimly, rolled, until at last they struck an ivory panel-door at the bottom with such an impact, that they splintered its full length and crashed through its ruins. But Olmec was already dead, for those iron fingers had crushed out his life and broken his neck as they fell.”
Conan is, of course, triumphant, and lives to battle in another story on another day.
The Black Canary
Like many modern comic book heroes, the Black Canary has a number of stories and backstories. In one version, she is Dinah Drake, member of the Golden Age Justice Society of America and mother of Dinah Laurel Lance, the second Black Canary who eventually became a member of the Justice League of America and married her hero Green Arrow. On the Arrow TV show, there have been a number of versions of Black Canary/White Canary, culminating in the death of Black Canary, Laurel Lance and the resurrection of Black Canary, Tina Boland, real name Dinah Drake. Some storyline. Whew!
Among Black Canary’s considerable abilities, including extensive martial arts training is her signature “canary cry”, a sonic blast created when she screams that can shatter animate and inanimate objects alike.
One of the more interesting re-imaginings of Black Canary is the Black Canary of Earth 31, an anonymous Irish bartender who works in a seedy bar called the Black Canary. Her serving uniform also serves as her costume. After beating up a number of rowdy patrons who have harassed her, she heads down to the waterfront where she confronts a group of gangsters but is badly outnumbered. Batman shows up, and rescues her and they proceed to have a romantic liaison. Afterwards, she returns to the bar and sets it on fire. Modern romance!
Sean Cassidy, whose ancestral home of Cassidy Keep overlooks the Atlantic in remote County Mayo, made his first appearance in X-Men #28, in January, 1967. A mutant, like Black Canary he possesses a sonic scream. Like many other heroes, he is at first a villain, forced to commit crimes when a band of explosives is placed on his head (shades of Netflix’s “Evil Genius”). He is eventually rescued by Professor ‘X’ and becomes a member of the X-men team.
Black Tom Cassidy, Banshee’s cousin is also a mutant and an unrepentant villain. He controls the energy of plant life and can wield concussive force through his wooden shillelagh.
Despite a number of bounces in life, including a struggle with alcoholism (okay, this is beginning to sound more than a little stage Irish), Banshee sacrifices his life, using his sonic scream to prevent an airplane collision and being crushed in the process.
After being abandoned by his mother, Matthew (Matt) Murdock is being raised in Hell’s Kitchen by his Irish American prizefighter dad, Battlin’ Jack Murdock. As a young man, Matt is blinded when he pushes a man to safety out of the path of a truck transporting radioactive material. As a result of the spill, all of Matt’s other five senses are heightened enormously. In addition, Matt develops what has come to be known as a “radar” sense, that reacts to electromagnetic energy and acts as a kind of surrogate sight, allowing Daredevil to create a 3-Dimensional map of the world around him.
After the death of his father, killed by the mob for refusing to take a fall, Matt decides to dedicate his life to fighting crime and Daredevil is born. Somewhere along the way, he meets his trainer, blind martial arts master, Stick.
One of the saving graces of the mediocre film version of Daredevil is the appearance of Colin Farrell as the Irish assassin “Bullseye”, who can kill his victims with ordinary objects like playing cards, pencils and toothpicks! Here is one of the pieces of dialogue from the film:
‘Bullseye: "Fisk was right about you. He said you wouldn't go easy."
Daredevil: "Fisk? Fisk is the Kingpin?"
Bullseye: "Yeah. That whole red rose thing? He loves that shite. It's not my style. He hired me to kill Natchios, and to gut your pretty girlfriend too. But me, I'm going for the hat-trick. I told him I'd do you for free!"’
The real hat-trick of this film is that it almost ended three careers: Affleck’s, Farrell’s and Jennifer Garner’s. Garner went on to make the absolutely forgettable superhero sequel “Elektra”.
Kyle Rayner the Green Lantern
Kyle Rayner is an American of mixed Irish and Mexican descent. As a boy, his Irish mother, Maura even made him study Irish. Discovered by Ganthet, the last living member of the Green Lantern Corps, after the rampage, destruction of the Corps and subsequent flare up by the previous Green Lantern of earth Hal Jordan, Kyle inherits the last re-forged power ring.
Green Lantern is one of the most powerful characters in the DC Universe, whose power ring allows him to create almost anything he is able to think of or imagine. Essentially the ring is powered by the bearer’s willpower.
In the “Blackest Night” and “Brightest Day” storylines Green Lantern is transformed into the even more powerful being called “Ion”, before reverting again to his Green Lantern persona.
Joe Simon, the co-creator of Captain America (with Jack “the King” Kirby) said that “Captain America was created to be the perfect foil for the ultimate villain, Adolf Hitler. At the same time, he wasn’t just meant to be a propaganda device—he was designed to be one of us…”.
In 1941, two years into the Second World War, scrawny army recruit destined to fail out of training, Steve Rogers agreed to an experimental treatment that would create the world’s first super soldier. Super strong, lightning quick and with extraordinary healing powers, Captain America, his signature vibranium shield and best friend Bucky fought the Axis powers to a standstill when the war ended in 1945. Little did Simon and Kirby dream, then, that Steve Rogers, the Brooklyn-born child of Irish immigrants, would still be out saving not only the world but the very universe nearly seventy-five years later, outliving both of his creators.
After a nearly 15-year hiatus, from 1950-1964, Captain America was recovered, frozen in a block of ice by a newly formed team of superheroes, Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk, The Mighty Thor, Giant Man and the Wasp – the Mighty Avengers - and thus really began the Silver Age of Comics.
Stan Lee said, “I think people are fascinated by superheroes because when we were young we all liked fairy tales, and fairy tales are stories of people with superpowers, people who are super in some way—giants, witches, magicians, always people who are bigger than life. Well, as we got older, we outgrew fairy tales. Most people don’t read fairy tales when they’re grown-ups, but I don’t think we ever outgrow our love for those kinds of stories, stories of people who are bigger and more powerful and more colorful than we are. So superhero stories, to me, are like fairy tales for grown-ups. I don’t know why, but the human condition is such that we love reading about people who can do things that we can’t do and who have powers that we wish we had.”
As a child of the sixties and seventies, I grew up with the comic book heroes of the Silver Age alongside the fairy tales of Grimm and Anderson. As I got older I became acquainted with the myths and legends of Ancient Ireland and fell in love again. As an adult who has reached my prime I have come to enjoy them both in equal measure and now there are a range of films and TV – Lord of the Rings, Game of Thrones, The Avengers, The Mighty Thor, Arrow, the Flash, Spider-Man, and Ant-Man that I have been able to enjoy with my children and that have made these Irish superheroes come to life for a whole new generation.
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