Joseph Falaky Nagy

“Only the Lonely”[1]

I dedicate this contribution to my esteemed fellow traveler in the realms of epic and myth, Dr Olga M. Davidson, in whose company no one could possibly feel lonely.

In her examination of the themes underlying the tragic story of the violent encounter between heroic father and son in Persian epic and cognate Indo-European traditions, Davidson observes: “Rostam, like Achilles and Cú Chulainn, makes it inevitable that there will be no hero like him. It is almost as if these heroes, these premature or rather immature fathers, go out of their way to ensure that they are one of a kind in their epic traditions. There was no hero as strong before them, nor will there be one as strong after them—of that we may be certain.”[2]

Davidson’s words ring especially true in the case of the Irish hero mentioned above, Cú Chulainn, the story of whose slaying of his own son,[3] in the wording of the medieval texts that tell it, unmistakably emphasizes this theme of singularity—but of the son as well as of the father.[4]

When Cú Chulainn, the hero and defender of the province of Ulster, departs from a female warrior (Aífe) whom he has defeated and then impregnated in an episode of his martial training abroad, he gives her (and to his future offspring) the following instructions, knowing already that he has sired a son: “When it [that is, the ring] fits him, let him come to seek me in Ireland, and let not a single person (óenfer) deter him from his way, nor is he to identify himself to a single person (óenfiur), nor is he to shirk from single combat [literally, “combat with a single person,” comlann óenfir].”[5] Later, wearing the ring, precocious, and eager for fame and adventure, the boy (named Connla) sets out to find the father he has never met. Upon arriving in Ireland on the Ulster seashore and in answer to a warrior sent to inquire about the unknown visitor’s identity, Connla echoes Cú Chulainn’s instructions: “‘I do not identify myself to a single person [óenfiur]’, said the lad, ‘nor do I avoid [combat with] a single person [óenfer]’.”[6] The boy defeats and humiliates everyone who comes to ask his name. When it becomes obvious to the Ulster onlookers, including Cú Chulainn, that the only one among them who can deal with this obstreperous and still anonymous stranger is Cú Chulainn himself, the latter’s wife Emer attempts to stop him. Using the rhetoric of singularity that dominates the text, she presciently proclaims: “‘Do not commit kin-slaying upon your only son (óenmac). . . I know what name would be revealed, if it is Connla the only son (óenmac) of Aífe that is down there [on the beach]’.”[7] Proclaiming that his duty to uphold the honor of Ulster outweighs any concern he may have for this stranger who may be his son, Cú Chulainn confronts Connla and, after being humiliated by the young warrior, resorts to his secret weapon, the mysterious gae bolga, to disembowel his opponent, who otherwise would have defeated him. In identifying the weapon as one in whose use he was not trained by Scáthach, his martial trainer (who had also been Cú Chulainn’s), the dying Connla reveals his kinship to Cú Chulainn. Now a grieving father, the defender of Ulster carries his child to the company of the Ulstermen and gives him the opportunity to take his farewell from those who would have been his companions in arms, had Connla’s destiny, which he reveals before dying, to have expanded the province into a world power within five years been realized. The story ends with the detail that, in commemoration of Connla’s death, the Ulstermen kept their calves apart from their cows for three days, thereby projecting their loss onto the part of the animal realm by which status and wealth were measured.[8]

It is ironic, given what happens in this story, that Cú Chulainn’s son receives the name Connla, which I would argue means ‘(having the quality of being) very, universally dear’,[9] suggesting a figure who brings people together in appreciation of his “dearness,” lovability, and value to society. It is as if he were uniquely gifted in this regard and so, paradoxically, he is an óenfher ‘singular person’ or óenmac ‘singular son or boy’ as well. This uniqueness fatefully reflects that of his father, who proves to be the most formidable opponent with whom Connla, echoing his father, insists he will not avoid a duel. It is significant that the story does not feature a confrontation between Connla and more than one Ulsterman at a time. It is only after he is mortally wounded with an occult weapon Cú Chulainn alone can use that Connla, upon his request, is enabled to come together with the Ulstermen as a whole, to celebrate ever so briefly his dearness to them, and their dearness to him. The alienation of the óenfher/óenmac Connla, who only at the end of his short life can be reunited with his father and his people, leaves a gaping void in the future of the Ulstermen, who sorely miss an up-and-coming hero whom they hardly knew, and are left with a tantalizing prediction of what he could have brought about for them. The loneliest, most isolated figure of all, however, is really Cú Chulainn: the Óenfher of not only this story but of the Ulster heroic cycle in general.

Department of Celtic Languages and Literatures
Harvard University


[1] The title refers to a popular Roy Orbison song, “Only the Lonely (Know the Way I Feel),” penned by Orbison and Joe Melson, which was released in 1960. Two years before, in 1958, a completely different “Only the Lonely,” by Sammy Cahn and Jimmy Van Heusen, was recorded by Frank Sinatra. See (like the other websites cited below, last accessed December 13, 2017).

[2] Olga M. Davidson, Poet and Hero in the Persian Book of Kings [Ithaca NY: Cornell University Press, 1994], p. 140.

[3] A new and comprehensive survey of stories of this type and of the secondary literature that has accumulated concerning them can be found in Kevin Murray, The Early Finn Cycle (Dublin: Four Courts Press, 2017), pp. 64-73.

[4] The thoughts expressed here came to me in the wake of hearing the provocative paper by my colleague in Celtic studies, Professor Morgan Davies of Colgate University, on “Father-Son Rivalry in Early Irish Narrative,” delivered at the Sixteenth International Symposium of the Societas Celtologica Nordica at the Arctic University of Norway, Tromsø, August 31-September 2, 2017. I thank our hosts at the event, Professors Cathinka Dahl Hambro and Eystein Dahl, for staging such a remarkably productive conference.

[5] In tan bas coimse dó, táet dom chuindchidsea I nÉre 7 nacham berad óenfer dia chonair 7 nacha sloinded do óenfiur 7 na fémded comlann óenfir (A.G. van Hamel, ed., Compert Con Culainn and Other Stories, Mediaeval and Modern Irish Series 3 [Dublin: Stationery Office 1933], p. 11. The edited text is also available at: and A translation of the complete text into English is available in the edition of Kuno Meyer, “The death of Conla”, Ériu 1 (1904): 113–121, available at The translations here are my own. The term óenf(h)er, ‘one, single man or person’, in addition to standing out by virtue of its repeated and conspicuous use in this short text (a mere five pages [pp. 111-115] in van Hamel’s edition), is highlighted in the title given to this tale in manuscript tradition, Aided Óenfir Aífe ‘The Death of Aífe’s Only Son’. Davies, in the paper cited above, points out that the more usual way of expressing “only son” in medieval Irish would be óenmac, which in fact also occurs in the text (see below). Óen, cognate with English “one,” in compound formations can also be rendered “unique, without equal, peerless” (see the Royal Irish Academy’s Electronic Dictionary of the Irish Language,, s.v. óen I [e]).

[6]Ním sloindim do óenfiur,” ol in gillae,“7 ní imgabaim óenfer” (van Hamel, p. 12).

[7]Ná fer fingail immot óenmac. . . . Atgénsa cid ainm asind ón, maso Conlae óenmac Aífe in mac fil tís” (van Hamel, p. 15).

[8] van Hamel, p. 15.

[9] At the heart of this name is the adjective dil ‘dear, beloved, previous’—see Dictionary, s.v. cunnla(cht), or connla, from cunnail (com- + dil). See also 1 com-, and 1 dil ‘dear’,