Setanta Wall (above)

The late Desmond Kinney’s 1974 mosaic mural off Nassau Street in Dublin also goes by the name of the Táin Wall. It is shamefully neglected. There is no on-site identification of the artist or even the name of the work. The colophon that used to be adjacent to the Wall is now missing.

Colophon: scribe distances himself from the Táin story

Colophon: the 12th-century Book of Leinster scribe distances himself from the Táin story

The Setanta (or Táin) Wall depicts major events in the great Irish epic, Táin Bó Cuailnge, the Cattle Raid of Cooley, set 2000 years ago, and the life of its hero, Cúchulainn, who single-handedly defended Ulster against an invasion by Queen Maeve of Connacht to steal the Brown Bull of Cooley. The scenes starting on the left:

How Cúchulainn Got His Name

His birth name was Setanta. At the age of seven, he was invited to a feast at Culann’s house in the Ulster kingdom of Cooley (the Carlingford Peninsula, now part of County Louth in the Republic of Ireland). As he approached the house after dark, Culann’s guard dog attacked him and he killed the dog. He volunteered to guard the house for a year while Culann raised and trained another hound, so Setanta became the Hound of Culann, Cú Chulainn in Irish.

Cúchulainn kills the hound

Cúchulainn kills the hound

The Curse of Macha

Macha died when she was forced by King Conor of Ulster to run a race while she was pregnant, and she cursed the men of Ulster to be as sick and weak as a woman in childbirth at the time of their greatest danger. As Queen Maeve and her army began to march toward the Ulster border, the men of Ulster were prostrated by the Curse.

Cúchulainn and Ferdia’s Mortal Combat (Video)

Cúchulainn was killing Maeve’s warriors by the hundreds, and she sent a series of champions to fight him in single combat. Cúchulainn defeated all of them, until the only remaining Connacht champion was his best friend and foster brother, Ferdia. Maeve tricked Ferdia into fighting Cúchulainn, and the two friends met reluctantly at the ford at Ardee, County Louth. In the fourth day of battle, Cúchulainn used his unique Gae Bolga, a spring-loaded multi-barbed javelin, to kill Ferdia.

Cúchulainn and Ferdia's single combat

Cúchulainn and Ferdia’s single combat

Cúchulainn carries the dead Ferdia

Cúchulainn carries the dead Ferdia – sculpture in Ardee, Co. Louth

All was merely game and sport
Till Ferdia fought me at the ford.
Beloved Ferdia would survive,
I thought, long after I had died.
Who was a mountain yesterday
Today is nothing but a shade.

Standing stone erected by Maeve and Ailill in memory of Ferdia

Standing stone erected at the ford by Maeve and Ailill in memory of Ferdia

The Meeting of the Bulls

The two greatest bulls in Ireland were the Brown Bull of Cooley and the White-horned Bull. Maeve needed the Brown Bull, owned by King Dáire of Cooley, to be equal in wealth to her husband, who owned the White-horned. Dáire refused to give it to her, and she invaded Ulster to take it. When the two bulls, shape-changed druids who were former friends turned bitter enemies, met, they killed each other.

The bulls fight to the death

The bulls fight to the death

The Death of Cúchulainn

Ten years after the Táin, Cúchulainn was defeated by magic at the age of 27. When he received his fatal wound, he tied himself to a pillar so he would die standing and facing his enemies. Though mortally wounded, the Grey of Macha, one of his two chariot horses foaled on the night he was born, fought by his side. The Mórrígan, a battle-goddess, perched on his shoulder in the shape of a raven when he was dead. The exulting red-maned woman on horseback on the extreme right is Queen Maeve.

Death of Cúchulainn

Death of Cúchulainn

Cúchulainn's death pillar in a field near Dundalk

Cúchulainn’s death pillar in a field near Dundalk

Queen Maeve, from the old £1 note

Queen Maeve, from the old £1 note

Read the full story of the Táin Bó Cuailnge / Cattle Raid of Cooley.

My photos of the Wall are used here with the artist’s permission. All rights are reserved.

28 Responses to Setanta Wall (above)

  1. A wonderful discovery. My editor told me about your website. It describes all the characters that I enjoyed learning about and then incorporated into my middle-grade (ages 9-12) fantasy adventure novel. I’ve been selling the novel in California, USA. It would be terrific to have some exposure to it in Ireland. I wrote it with scenes in mind, dreaming that one day it could become a film. Cuchulain has an important role in my story, helping Irish and his friends rescue his sister from the demons bent on capturing the Otherworld and ultimately earth.
    It would be interesting for you to explore my website http://www.charlesmarkee.com. And I would very much like to have your comments on my novel -“Otherworld Tales: Irish the Demon Slayer.” It is available from Amazon UK as either a paperback or a kindle version. You’ll recognize many of the Celtic characters, places and events. Charles

  2. ferd says:

    Táin Wall. Ferdia and Culcullainn who is who? Are you sure its Ferdia that has got the got the shield? in this mosaic

    • I don’t know which is which, but if you zoom in you’ll see that the warrior on the right has no beard. Cú was 17, which suggests that the beardless one is Cú. Also, the warrior on the left is wearing long armour that looks like an iron apron, so that could be Ferdia anticipating Cú’s use of the gae bolga.

  3. Pingback: Hurling Legends on Display in Dublin | Blog Of Good Cheer

  4. Lynn Dunnicliff says:

    I think it a disgrace that the mural and artist is not acknowledged by at least a plaque at the site. We were fortunate enough to have a local resident explain the mural from his childhood memory and were then able to follow up on-line. Visitors to Dublin miss out on a wonderful mural and legend. We feel it was the most beautiful thing we saw (quite accidentally) in Dublin.
    Valarie and Lynn (Australia).

    • Thanks for the comment, Valarie and Lynn. The Wall is one of the stops I make with groups on my Dublin Walking Tour, and they are always appreciative.

  5. bellurganmay says:

    I was so sad to see that on a very recent visit to Dublin with an English friend this magnificent mosaic depicting such a famous Irish epic(on a par with Greek epics) was so neglected. Where a plaque should be was an ugly parking sign. Ther was a small gathering of tourists admiring this wonderful piece and when they heard me speak came to me for some information. I remembered that this was my son Ultan’s favourite place in Dublin when he was a little boy. I tried to tell him in my own words the story behind it. Roll on the years (pre internet) and when he was applying to Art College in Glasgow he highlighted this mosaic as his very favourite work of Art. I tried to get some official information at the time and ended up contacting an office nearby the mosaic who gave me the artist’s name. I felt compelled to go online this afternoon and am so delighted to find your ‘story’. With some pressure we will have a proper plaque erected to honour this masterpiece and proper order, May.

  6. I’m glad you share my enthusiasm, May. The Wall was commissioned by the owners of the Setanta Centre (now closed), the entrance to which is opposite the Wall. Desmond Kinney has no legal interest or authority regarding the Wall, nor does Dublin City, and the owners of the Setanta Centre don’t seem to care. I hand out a one-page description of the images on the Wall to my tour clients, and when the Centre was open I left extra copies with the porter to give to enquirers.

    Some years ago I was invited to tell stories for two days to 30 11-year-old boys in a school in a notorious neighbourhood that only got into the news when there was a stabbing, shooting or drugs haul. On the second morning I told them Táin and Cúchulainn stories, and in the afternoon we visited the Wall. There is a 2-foot ledge in front of the Wall. One by one, volunteers stood on the ledge in front of an image and told the episode represented by the image. They all performed like stars and were very pleased with themselves.

    Just around the corner is the National Library of Ireland, which, at the time, was running free weekly storytelling sessions. I took the boys to the Library to show them the venue and suggested they drag their parents to the sessions. That didn’t work. But as we were leaving, the young woman in the W. B. Yeats exhibition asked me if I wanted to bring the boys in. I frantically waved my hands and shook my head No. The boys had been behaving like angels so far, and I didn’t want to chance the loss of halos; what interest would kids with their background have in a literary figure?

    But they surged in before I could stop them. They listened politely and asked intelligent questions like perfect gentlemen. I learned something, too: about preconceptions. For years afterward, whenever I ran into that young woman in the Library café (the NLI is one of my homes away from home) she would rave about the boys and ask me when I was going to bring them back.

  7. John Paul Neville says:

    A brilliant summary to an outstanding story – fair play. I am going to definitely showcase your video to primary school children next month when I go on teaching practice

    • Thanks for the comment, John. Others have noticed the excellence of the story: “the Iliad of Ireland … the queen of Irish epic tales, and the wildest and most fascinating saga-tale, not only of the entire Celtic world, but even of all western Europe” (from the preface to The Ancient Irish Epic Tale: Táin Bó Cúalnge, Joseph Dunn; David Nutt, London, 1914).

  8. Lorelei Hunt says:

    Discovered this site by chance – thank you so much for the trouble you’ve taken to try to make sure this lovely mosaic is not lost. I’ve visited Dublin several times – and have a passion for mosaic – but didn’t know this existed! I’ll definitely follow it up now and use my links in the British Association of Modern Mosaic (BAMM) to bring it to wider attention.
    The response of the children to the stories is wonderful too.
    I’ve also recently discovered the New Grange prehistoric site, just a short drive from Dublin; and was lucky enough to win a place in the annual raffle for one of a small number of places to be inside the tombs on the Winter Solstice. Can’t find words to describe how special this was. There are parts of the mosaic which echo the neolithic art which is present in abundance at the site, which is what bought it to mind when I looked at these lovely photos.

  9. Thank you, Lorelei, for the compliments on behalf of the artist, Desmond Kinney. It’s a pity more people don’t know the Wall is there, and if they do stumble across it, there is no information at the site to tell them what it is.

  10. I was just in Dublin for eight amazing days and being a 69 year old artist from Oregon, I keyed in on mosaic just off Nassau Street. No one in any business nearby could tell me anything about it. There is no signage. Yours the first info I found. Thank you! What would it take to have a plaque there with information? I’d be glad to contribute something. Surely someone could make this happen.

    • I’m glad you found it, Lynn. It’s a hidden-in-plain-sight treasure. I’ll ask around and see if I can find someone who will take official responsibility for installing a plaque. Whenever I pass by, I collect tiles that have fallen. I might organise a posse of art students some day to glue them back on. Note that I have used photos of the whole Wall and closeups of it on my blog with the permission of the artist.

  11. The plaque needs to be mounted in some way it can’t be removed easily. Even signage inside the surrounding businesses would be helpful. I am a mosaic artist myself. Thank you for picking up tile pieces that have come loose. I would be glad to help in some way, write letters, contact people, return to Ireland to help in a hands on way. Maybe in the end it should be moved to a better location, indoors in nearby museum of Archeology? It’s so worth the effort. Keep me on your list.

  12. I doubt that it could be moved, and I can’t think of any place indoors that could accommodate it. Scroll down on the blog for the sad fate of Kinney’s Buile Shuibhne mural. I’ll see what support I can drum up here for at least an informative plaque, and talk to some artists and Kinney’s studio for advice. I appreciate your interest.

  13. Update for Lynn and others who have commented on the Setanta Wall. I’ve been talking to various people interested in the art work and the subject matter and have received enthusiastic promises of support. Lorelei, if Irish and/or Dublin authorities and/or arts bodies don’t get involved, perhaps the British Association of Modern Mosaic (BAMM) that you mentioned might take an interest.

  14. I’m so glad of your caring about this incredible piece of art and am willing to contribute what I can to encourage its repair and respect. I have belonged to The Society of American Mosaic Artists…and will enquire with them what they could suggest. Keep us updated. Love hearing about your own work too!

  15. Christine Raquepaw says:

    I happened upon a small detail of this mural on Pinterest. It’s fantastic!! I’m astounded that I haven’t seen it before. Thank you so much for making the images and information available.

    • Thanks, Christine. Where do you live, and what is your interest in the Wall and its contents? I am working on something that will broaden the awareness of the mural and celebrate its cultural importance. Watch this space.

  16. ms6282 says:

    I stumbled across this mural while I was in Dublin on Sunday. I’ve passed the ginnel many a time when visiting the city but this time I happened to notice the mosaic as I passed. I was disappointed that there was no information but by the wonders of t’internet I managed to find your blog post. In the 1970’s I had a copy of Horslip’s the Tain LP so I guessed it had something to do with the legend. Now I know it is!

    • Thanks for the comment — may I call you ms for short? I’m planning on getting support for an information plaque at least, along with some repair work and perhaps the uncovering or restoring of the colophon that’s gone missing. There should be some progress in the next few weeks. Watch this space.

      • ms6282 says:

        That’s good news. Hope you manage to sort that out. It’s a real shame that it’s been neglected. Good luck 😉
        Mick

  17. Pingback: The Táin Wall | Down by the Dougie

  18. I’ve learned a new word: “ginnel”. Mick used it in his first comment. It’s “dialect Northern English [meaning] a narrow passageway between buildings”, which is a good description of the Wall’s location off Nassau Street near Trinity College.
    http://www.thefreedictionary.com/Ginnel
    You’ll find more on Mick’s lively blog.

  19. Raivenne says:

    Oh I love learning new lore and mythologies and this is classic epic, so I adore this. The colophon depicting this grand tome is magnificent. That Desmond Kinney is not acknowledged in some way at the site is a shame. I really hope the it can be properly repaired and Kinney acknowledged.

    • Thanks for the comment, Raivenne. Some months ago, I started a project to get a plaque installed on the site that would explain the story and credit the artist. I broke off to do other things, but I’m back on track now. The son and daughter of the late Desmond Kinney are enthusiastic. As you can see from other comments, many people have learned about the Wall only through this blog page. That’s not right — anyone stumbling across the Wall should be able to see the basic information on site. I’ll post reports of progress on this page as it happens.

  20. This wonderful mural needs information indeed. Might help if small signage is put inside windows of businesses nearby as well. The more employees and business owners know, the better treatment the mural will receive. People living and working near will develop a real connection to it. Thank you for your efforts, mosaic artist Lynn Ihsen Peterson

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