Built in 1976 and designed by Brian Hogan, the Setanta Centre is a five storey office block that looks over the lawns of Trinity College from its perch on cold, cold Nassau Street. The ground floor frontage is most famously occupied by the Kilkenny Design shop and Read’s Design and Print. It functioned as a short cut on my way to Art College in the late seventies, through an entrance off Nassau Street, which opened onto an internal square leading to the rere of the building and on to Kildare Street. I had quit my job in the Dept. of Posts and Telegraphs that summer. Their HQ, Telephone House, at the top of Marlboro Street, was also designed by Hogan. Setanta seemed to occupy a space on which the sun never shone but this was alleviated by a good mural of the Tain Bo Cuailgne by Desmond Kinney to the right of that inner space.
The Tain is the major story of the Ulster Cycle of mythology, set in the centuries immediately before Irish written history. Hero of the saga is Cuchulainn, whose given name was Setanta. The Tain tells the story of the cattle raid of Cooley, leading to a war between the kingdoms of Ulster and Connaught. Since Connaught wasn’t established that early, drawing its name from Con Cead Catha (Con of the Hundred Battles) some centuries later, we can see that the area covered is a bit elastic. Ulster dynasties at various times annexed Louth, Meath and Dublin. Setanta probably hailed from Dublin. Given his prowess at hurling it could hardly have been Louth, Meath or Ulster.
As a boy, traveling from Dublin to Armagh, he came upon the house of Culann, smithy to the Ulster King, Conor McNeasa. Culann’s hound leapt at the young hero, slavering jaws agape. Setanta, drawing his hurley, thwacked the sliotar down the hound’s throat, killing him. Culann, who one would think should have tethered the brute, was not well pleased. So our hero had to take the post of guard dog to the smithy until a replacement guard dog could be trained. Hence the name, Cu Chulainn, Culann’s Hound.
Cuchulainn at last reached the school for warriors at Navan Fort (Armagh) where he could beat the men of Ulster, combined, at hurling (not hard, mind) and came to be their hero. When Queen Maeve of Connaught launched her audacious raid to capture Ulster’s prize bull, the Men of Ulster were asleep and it was up to Cuchulainn to defend the kingdom single handed. He did this by demanding single combat at a succession of fords until Ulster’s King could muster his forces.
Fighting Cuchulainn was a fearsome prospect. Amongst his special powers, most awesome was his warp spasm. His body would reverse within its skin, his eyes would oscillate, his hair transform into fearsome metallic spikes, and his warrior’s light, shining from his forehead, become a column of boiling blood to the height of a pine tree. If you were flatsharing with Cuchulainn, it was best not to leave the cap off the toothpaste.
Horslips second album was a rock opera based on the saga. They first performed it in concert at the National Stadium in 1973. Standout track is Cuchulainn’s first person eulogy, Dearg Doom. Horslips weird and compelling hybrid of rock and traditional Irish music is probably at its best here. It starts with a to-die-for riff, based on a traditional tune, O’Neill’s March. It became a hit single in Ireland and Germany. Dearg is the Irish word for red, while Doom refers to the legend that he was shadowed by the vision of his death foretold. Combined, the title evokes the red mist emanating from Cuchulainn as he entered warp spasm. It was adapted as the song of the Irish soccer team, the first ever to qualify for a world cup finals tournament in 1990 when they reached the quarter finals. Put Them Under Pressure featured a rare example of Yorkshire Rap from team manager Jack Charlton. Larry Mullen of U2 composed the montage, including the ethereal voice of Maire Brennan of Clannad and a rousing team chorus of Ole Ole Ole.
You speak in whispers of the devils I have slain
By the fire of my silver Devil’s Blade,
And still you dare to flaunt yourself at me.
I don’t want you, I don’t need you,
I don’t love you, can’t you see
I’m Dearg Doom
This painting describes a wet day entering Setanta’s concourse from Nassau Street. There is an echo of the painting The Wanderer, by German gothic romantic artist Caspar David Friedrich. Friedrich’s tableau depicts a silhouette poised before the aching beauty of nature. My wanderer carries an umbrella before her like a shield. But cities in the rain, even in their plainest raiment, are jewels to behold, whether rough diamonds or polished just so.
And a Happy Christmas to yous all.