The Birth of Cormac
Of all the kings that ruled over Ireland, none had a better and more loyal servant than was Finn Mac Cumhal, and of all the captains and counsellors of kings none ever served a more glorious and a nobler monarch than did Finn, for the time that he served Cormac, son of Art, son of Conn of the Hundred Battles. At the time at which this monarch lived and reigned, the mist of sixteen centuries hangs between us and the history of Ireland, but through this mist there shine a few great and sunlike figures whose glory cannot be altogether hidden, and of these figures Cormac is the greatest and the brightest. Much that is told about him may be true, and much is certainly fable, but the fables themselves are a witness to his greatness; they are like forms seen in the mist when a great light is shining behind it, and we cannot always say when we are looking at the true light and when at the reflected glory.
The birth of Cormac was on this wise. His father, as we have said, was Art, son of Conn, and his mother was named Achta, being the daughter of a famous smith or ironworker of Connacht. Now before the birth of Cormac, Achta had a strange dream, namely, that her head was struck off from her body and that out of her neck there grew a great tree which extended its branches over all Ireland and flourished exceedingly, but a huge wave of the sea burst upon it and laid it low. Then from the roots of this tree there grew up another, but it did not attain the splendour of the first, and a blast of wind came from the West and overthrew it. On this the woman started from her sleep, and she woke her husband, Art, and told him her vision. ‘It is a true dream,’ said Art. ‘I am thy head, and this portends that I shall be violently taken from thee. But thou shalt bear me a son who shall be King of all Ireland, and shall rule with great power and glory until some disaster from the sea overtake him. But from him shall come yet another king, my grandson and thine, who shall also be cut down, and I think that the cause of his fall shall be the armies of the Fian host, who are swift and keen as the wind.’
Not long thereafter Art, son of Conn, fell in battle with the Picts and Britons at the Plain of the Swine, which is between Athenry and Galway in Connacht. Now the leader of the invaders then was Mac Con, a nephew to Art, who had been banished out of Ireland for rising against the High King; and when he had slain Art he seized the sovranty of Ireland and reigned there unlawfully for many years.
But before the battle, Art had counselled his wife:
‘If things go ill with us in the fight, and I am slain, seek out my faithful friend Luna who dwells in Corann in Connacht, and he will protect thee till thy son be born.’ So Achta, with one maid, fled in her chariot before the host of Mac Con and sought to go to the Dún of Luna. On her way thither, however, the hour came when her child should be born, and the maid turned the chariot aside into the wild wood at the place called Creevagh (the Place of the Twigs), and there, on a couch of twigs and leaves, she gave birth to a noble son.
Then Achta, when she had cherished her boy and rejoiced over him, bade her handmaid keep watch over both of them, and they fell asleep. But the maid’s eyes were heavy with weariness and long travelling, and ere long she, too, was overpowered by slumber, and all three slept a deep sleep while the horses wandered away grazing through the wood.
By and by there came a she-wolf roaming through the wood in search of prey for her whelps, and it came upon the sleeping woman and the little child. It did not wake the woman, but very softly it picked up the infant and bore it off to the stony cave that is hard by to Creevagh in the hill that was afterwards called Mount Cormac.
After a while the mother waked up and found her child gone. Then she uttered a lamentable cry, and woke her handmaid, and both the women searched hither and thither, but no trace of the child could they find; and thus Luna found them; for he had heard news of the battle and the death of his King, and he had come to succour Achta as he had pledged his word to do. Luna and his men also made search for the infant, but in vain; and at last he conveyed the two sorrowing women to his palace; but Achta was somewhat comforted by her prophetic dream. Luna then proclaimed that whoever should discover the King’s son, if he were yet alive, might claim of him what reward he would. And so the time passed, till one day a man named Grec, a clansman of Luna the lord of Corann, as he ranged the woods hunting, came on a stony cavern in the side of a hill, and before it he saw wolf-cubs at play, and among them a naked child on all fours gambolling with them, and a great she-wolf that mothered them all. ‘Right,’ cried Grec, and off he goes to Luna his lord. ‘What wilt thou give me for the King’s son?’ said he. ‘What wilt thou have?’ said Luna. So Grec asked for certain lands, and Luna bound himself to give them to him and to his posterity, and there lived and flourished the Clan Gregor for many a generation to come. So Luna, guided by Grec, went to the cave on Mount Cormac, and took the child and the wolf-cubs all together and brought them home. And the child they called Cormac, or the Chariot-Child. Now the lad grew up very comely and strong, and he abode with Luna in Connacht, and no one told him of his descent.
The Judgement of Cormac
Once upon a time it happened that Cormac was at play with the two sons of Luna, and the lads grew angry in their play and came to blows, and Cormac struck one of them to the ground. ‘Sorrow on it,’ cried the lad, ‘here I have been beaten by one that knows not his clan or kindred, save that he is a fellow without a father.’ When Cormac heard that he was troubled and ashamed, and he went to Luna and told him what had been said.
And Luna seeing the trouble of the youth, and also that he was strong and noble to look on, and wise and eloquent in speech, held that the time was now come to reveal to him his descent. ‘Thou hadst indeed a clan and kindred,’ he said, ‘and a father of the noblest, for thou art the son of Art, the High King of Ireland, who was slain and dispossessed by Mac Con. But it is foretold that thou shalt yet come to thy father’s place, and the land pines for thee even now, for there is no good yield from earth or sea under the unlawful rule of him who now sits on the throne of Art.’
‘If that be so,’ said Cormac, ‘let us go to Tara, and bide our time there in my father’s house.’
So the two of them set out for Tara on the morrow morn. And this was the retinue they had with them: a body-guard of outlawed men that had revolted against Mac Con and other lords and had gathered themselves together at Corann under Luna, and four wolves that had been cubs with Cormac when the she-wolf suckled him.
When they came to Tara, the folk there wondered at the fierce-eyed warriors and the grey beasts that played like dogs around Cormac, and the lad was adopted as a pupil by the King, to be taught arms and poetry and law. Much talk there was of his coming, and of his strange companions that are not wont to be the friends of man, and as the lad grew in comeliness and in knowledge the eyes of all were turned to him more and more, because the rule of Mac Con was not good.
So the time wore on, till one day a case came for judgment before the King, in which the Queen sued a certain wealthy woman and an owner of herds named Benna, for that the sheep of Benna had strayed into the Queen’s fields and had eaten to the ground a crop of woad1 that was growing there. The King gave judgment, that the sheep which had eaten the woad were to be given to the Queen in compensation for what they had destroyed. Then Cormac rose up before the people and said, ‘Nay, but let the wool of the sheep, when they are next shorn, be given to the Queen, for the woad will grow again and so shall the wool.’ ‘A true judgment, a true judgment,’ cried all the folk that were present in the place; ‘a very king’s son is he that hath pronounced it.’ And they murmured so loudly against Mac Con that his druids counselled him to quit Tara lest a worse thing befall him. So he gave up the sovranty to Cormac and went southward into Munster to rally his friends there and recover the kingdom, and there he was slain by Cormac’s men as he was distributing great largesse of gold and silver to his followers, in the place called The Field of the Gold.
So Cormac, son of Art, ruled in Tara and was High King of all Ireland. And the land, it is said, knew its rightful lord, and yielded harvests such as never were known, while the forest trees dripped with the abundance of honey and the lakes and rivers were alive with fish. So much game was there, too, that the folk could have lived on that alone and never put a ploughshare in the soil. In Cormac’s time the autumn was not vexed with rain, nor the spring with icy winds, nor the summer with parching heat, nor the winter with whelming snows. His rule in Erinn, it is said, was like a wand of gold laid on a dish of silver.
Also he rebuilt the ramparts of Tara and made it strong, and he enlarged the great banqueting hall and made pillars of cedar in it ornamented with plates of bronze, and painted its lime-white walls in patterns of red and blue. Palaces for the women he also made there, and store-houses, and halls for the fighting men—never was Tara so populous or so glorious before or since. And for his wisdom and righteousness knowledge was given to him that none other in Ireland had as yet, for it was revealed to him that the Immortal Ones whom the Gael worshipped were but the names of One whom none can name, and that his message should ere long come to Ireland from over the eastern sea, calling the people to a sweeter and diviner faith.
And to the end of his life it was his way to have wolves about him, for he knew their speech and they his, and they were friendly and tame with him and his folk, since they were foster-brothers together in the wild wood.
The Marriage of King Cormac
It happened that in Cormac’s time there was a very wealthy farmer named Buicad2 who dwelt in Leinster, and had vast herds of cattle and sheep and horses. This Buicad and his wife had no children, but they adopted a foster-child named Ethne, daughter of one Dunlang. Now Buicad was the most hospitable of men, and never refused aught to anyone, but he kept open house for all the nobles of Leinster who came with their following and feasted there as they would, day after day; and if any man fancied any of the cattle or other goods of Buicad, he might take them home with him, and none said him nay. Thus Buicad lived in great splendour, and his Dún was ever full to profusion with store of food and clothing and rich weapons, until in time it was all wasted away in boundless hospitality and generosity, and so many had had a share in his goods that they could never be recovered nor could it be said of any man that he was the cause of Buicad’s undoing. But undone he was at last, and when there remained to him but one bull and seven cows he departed by night with his wife and Ethne from Dún Buicad, leaving his mansion desolate. And he travelled till he came to a place where there was a grove of oak trees by a little stream in the county of Meath, near where Cormac had a summer palace, and there he built himself a little hut and tended his few cattle, and Ethne waited as a maid-servant upon him and his wife.
Now on a certain day it happened that King Cormac rode out on horseback from his Dún in Meath, and in the course of his ride he came upon the little herd of Buicad towards evening, and he saw Ethne milking the cows. And this was the way she milked them: first she milked a portion of each cow’s milk into a certain vessel, then she took a second vessel and milked into it the remaining portion, in which was the richest cream, and these two vessels she kept apart. Cormac watched all this. She then bore the vessels of milk into the hut, and came out again with two other vessels and a small cup. These she bore down to the river-side; and one of the vessels she filled by means of the cup from the water at the brink of the stream, but the other vessel she bore out into the middle of the stream and there filled it from the deepest of the running water. After this she took a sickle and began cutting rushes by the river-side, and Cormac saw that when she cut a wisp of long rushes she would put it on one side, and the short rushes on the other, and she bore them separately into the house. But Cormac stopped her and saluted her, and said:
‘For whom, maiden, art thou making this careful choice of the milk and the rushes and the water?’
‘I am making it,’ said she, ‘for one who is worthy that I should do far more than that for him, if I could.’
‘What is his name?’
‘Buicad, the farmer,’ said Ethne.
‘Is it that Buicad, who was the rich farmer in Leinster that all Ireland has heard of?’ asked the King.
‘It is even so.’
‘Then thou art his foster-child, Ethne the daughter of Dunlang?’ said Cormac.
‘I am,’ said Ethne.
‘Wilt thou be my wife and Queen of Erinn?’ then said Cormac.
‘If it please my foster-father to give me to thee, O King, I am willing,’ replied Ethne. Then Cormac took Ethne by the hand and they went before Buicad, and he consented to give her to Cormac to wife. And Buicad was given rich lands and great store of cattle in the district of Odran close by Tara, and Ethne the Queen loved him and visited him so long as his life endured.
The Instructions of the King
Ethne bore to Cormac a son, her firstborn, named Cairbry, who was King of Ireland after Cormac. It was during the lifetime of Cormac that Cairbry came to the throne, for it happened that ere he died Cormac was wounded by a chance cast of a spear and lost one of his eyes, and it was forbidden that any man having a blemish should be a king in Ireland. Cormac therefore gave up the kingdom into the hands of Cairbry, but before he did so he told his son all the wisdom that he had in the governing of men, and this was written down in a book which is called The Instructions of Cormac.3 These are among the things which are found in it, of the wisdom of Cormac:—
Let him (the king) restrain the great,
Let him exalt the good,
Let him establish peace,
Let him plant law,
Let him protect the just,
Let him bind the unjust,
Let his warriors be many and his counsellors few,
Let him shine in company and be the sun of the mead-hall,
Let him punish with a full fine wrong done knowingly,
and with a half-fine wrong done in ignorance.
Cairbry said, ‘What are good customs for a tribe to pursue?’ ‘They are as follows,’ replied Cormac:—
‘To have frequent assemblies,
To be ever enquiring, to question the wise men,
To keep order in assemblies,
To follow ancient lore,
Not to crush the miserable,
To keep faith in treaties,
To consolidate kinship,
Fighting-men not to be arrogant,
To keep contracts faithfully,
To guard the frontiers against every ill.’
‘Tell me, O Cormac,’ said Cairbry, ‘what are good customs for the giver of a feast?’ and Cormac said:—
‘To have lighted lamps,
To be active in entertaining the company,
To be liberal in dispensing ale,
To tell stories briefly,
To be of joyous countenance,
To keep silence during recitals.’
‘Tell me, O Cormac,’ said his son once, ‘what were thy habits when thou wert a lad?’ And Cormac said:—
‘I was a listener in woods,
I was a gazer at stars,
I pried into no man’s secrets,
I was mild in the hall,
I was fierce in the fray,
I was not given to making promises,
I reverenced the aged,
I spoke ill of no man in his absence,
I was fonder of giving than of asking.’
‘If you listen to my teaching,’ said Cormac:—
‘Do not deride any old person though you be young
Nor any poor man though you be rich,
Nor any naked though you be well-clad,
Nor any lame though you be swift,
Nor any blind though you be keen-sighted,
Nor any invalid though you be robust,
Nor any dull though you be clever,
Nor any fool though you be wise.
‘Yet be not slothful, nor fierce, nor sleepy, nor niggardly, nor feckless nor envious, for all these are hateful before God and men.
‘Do not join in blasphemy, nor be the butt of an assembly; be not moody in an alehouse, and never forget a tryst.’
‘What are the most lasting things on earth?’ asked Cairbry.
‘Not hard to tell,’ said Cormac; ‘they are grass, copper, and a yew-tree.’
‘If you will listen to me,’ said Cormac, ‘this is my instruction for the management of your household and your realm:—
‘Let not a man with many friends be your steward,
Nor a woman with sons and foster-sons your housekeeper,
Nor a greedy man your butler,
Nor a man of much delay your miller,
Nor a violent, foul-mouthed man your messenger,
Nor a grumbling sluggard your servant,
Nor a talkative man your counsellor,
Nor a tippler your cup-bearer,
Nor a short-sighted man your watchman,
Nor a bitter, haughty man your doorkeeper,
Nor a tender-hearted man your judge,
Nor an ignorant man your leader,
Nor an unlucky man your counsellor.’
Such were the counsels that Cormac Mac Art gave to his son Cairbry. And Cairbry became King after his father’s abdication, and reigned seven and twenty years, till he and Oscar, son of Oisín, slew one another at the battle of Gowra.
Cormac sets up the First Mill in Erinn
During the reign of Cormac it happened that some of the lords of Ulster made a raid upon the Picts in Alba4 and brought home many captives. Among them was a Pictish maiden named Kiernit, daughter of a king of that nation, who was strangely beautiful, and for that the Ulstermen sent her as a gift to King Cormac. And Cormac gave her as a household slave to his wife Ethne, who set her to grinding corn with a hand-quern, as women in Erinn were used to do. One day as Cormac was in the palace of the Queen he saw Kiernit labouring at her task and weeping as she wrought, for the toil was heavy and she was unused to it. Then Cormac was moved with compassion for the women that ground corn throughout Ireland, and he sent to Alba for artificers to come over and set up a mill, for up to then there were no mills in Ireland. Now there was in Tara, as there is to this day, a well of water called The Pearly, for the purity and brightness of the water that sprang from it, and it ran in a stream down the hillside, as it still runs, but now only in a slender trickle. Over this stream Cormac bade them build the first mill that was in Ireland, and the bright water turned the wheel merrily round, and the women in Tara toiled at the quern no more.
A Pleasant Story of Cormac’s Brehon
Among other affairs which Cormac regulated for himself and all kings who should come after him was the number and quality of the officers who should be in constant attendance on the King. Of these he ordained that there should be ten, to wit one lord, one brehon, one druid, one physician, one bard, one historian, one musician and three stewards. The function of the brehon, or judge, was to know the ancient customs and the laws of Ireland, and to declare them to the King whenever any matter relating to them came before him. Now Cormac’s chief brehon was at first one Fithel. But Fithel’s time came to die, and his son Flahari,5 a wise and learned man, trained by his father in all the laws of the Gael, was to be brehon to the High King in his father’s stead. Fithel then called his son to his bedside and said:—
‘Thou art well acquainted, my son, with all the laws and customs of the Gael, and worthy to be the chief brehon of King Cormac. But wisdom of life thou hast not yet obtained, for it is written in no law-book. This thou must learn for thyself, from life itself; yet somewhat of it I can impart unto thee, and it will keep thee in the path of safety, which is not easily trodden by those who are in the counsels of great kings. Mark now these four precepts, and obey them, and thou wilt avoid many of the pit-falls in thy way:—
‘Take not a king’s son in fosterage,6
Impart no dangerous secret to thy wife,
Raise not the son of a serf to a high position,
Commit not thy purse or treasure to a sister’s keeping.’
Having said this Fithel died, and Flahari became chief brehon in his stead.
After a time Flahari thought to himself, ‘I am minded to test my father’s wisdom of life and to see if it be true wisdom or but wise-seeming babble. For knowledge is no knowledge until it be tried by life.’
So he went before the King and said, ‘If thou art willing, Cormac, I would gladly have one of thy sons in fosterage.’ At this Cormac was well pleased, and a young child of the sons of Cormac was given to Flahari to bring up, and Flahari took the child to his own Dún, and there began to nurture and to train him as it was fitting.
After a time, however, Flahari one day took the child by the hand and went with him into the deep recesses of the forest where dwelt one of the swine-herds who minded the swine of Flahari. To him Flahari handed over the child and bade him guard him as the apple of his eye, and to be ready deliver him up again when he was required. The Flahari went home, and for some days went about like a man weighed down by gloomy and bitter thoughts. His wife marked that, and sought to know the reason, but Flahari put her off. At last when she continually pressed him to reveal the cause of his trouble, he said ‘If them must needs learn what ails me, and if thou canst keep a secret full of danger to me and thee, know that I am gloomy and distraught because I have killed the son of Cormac.’ At this the woman cried out, ‘Murderer parricide, hast thou spilled the King’s blood, and shall Cormac not know it, and do justice on thee?’ And she sent word to Cormac that he should come and seize her husband for that crime.
But before the officers came, Flahari took a young man, the son of his butler, and placed him in charge of his lands to manage them, while Flahari was away for his trial at Tara. And he also gave to his sister a treasure of gold and silver to keep for him, lest it should be made a spoil of while he was absent. Then he went with the officers to Tara, denying his offence and his confession, but when Cormac had heard all, and the child could not be found, he sentenced him to be put to death.
Flahari then sent a messenger to his sister, begging her to send him at once a portion of the treasure he had left with her, that he might use it to make himself friends among the folk at court, and perchance obtain a remission of his sentence; but she sent the messenger back again empty, saying she knew not of what he spoke.
On this Flahari deemed that the time was come to reveal the truth, so he obtained permission from the King to send a message to his swineherd before he died, and to hear the man’s reply. And the message was this, that Murtach the herd should come without delay to Tara and bring with him the child that Flahari had committed to him. Howbeit this messenger also came back empty, and reported that on reaching Dún Flahari he had been met by the butler’s son that was over the estate, who had questioned him of his errand, and had then said, ‘Murtach the serf has run away as soon as he heard of his lord’s downfall, and if he had any child in his care he has taken it away with him, and he cannot be found.’ This he said because, on hearing of the child, he guessed what this might mean, and he had been the bitterest of all in urging Flahari’s death, hoping to be rewarded with a share of his lands.
Then Flahari said to himself, ‘Truly the proving of my father’s wisdom of life has brought me very near to death.’ So he sent for the King and entreated him that he might be suffered to go himself to the dwelling of Murtach the herd, promising that the King’s son should be then restored to him, ‘Or if not,’ said he, ‘let me then be slain there without more ado.’ With great difficulty Cormac was moved to consent to this, for he believed it was but a subterfuge of Flahari’s to put off the evil day or perchance to find a way of escape. But next day Flahari was straitly bound and set in a chariot, and, with a guard of spearmen about him and Cormac himself riding behind, they set out for Dún Flahari. Then Flahari guided them through the wild wood till at last they came to the clearing where stood the dwelling of Murtach the swineherd, and lo! there was the son of Cormac playing merrily before the door. And the child ran to his foster-father to kiss him, but when he saw Flahari in bonds he burst out weeping and would not be at peace until he was set free.
Then Murtach slew one of the boars of his herd and made an oven in the earth after the manner of the Fianna, and made over it a fire of boughs that he had drying in a shed. And when the boar was baked he set it before the company with ale and mead in methers of beechwood, and they all feasted and were glad of heart. Cormac then asked of Flahari why he had suffered himself to be brought into this trouble. ‘I did so,’ said Flahari, ‘to prove the four counsels which my father gave them ere he died, and I have proved them and found them to be wise. In the first place, it is not wise for any man that is not a king to take the fosterage of a king’s son, for if aught shall happen to the lad, his own life is in the king’s hands and with his life he shall answer for it. Secondly, the keeping of a secret, said my father, is not in the nature of women in general, therefore no dangerous secret should be entrusted to them. The third counsel my father gave me was not to raise up or enrich the son of a serf, for such persons are apt to forget benefits conferred on them, and moreover it irks them that he who raised them up should know the poor estate from which they sprang. And good, too, is the fourth counsel my father gave me, not to entrust my treasure to my sister, for it is the nature of most women to regard as spoil any valuables that are entrusted to them to keep for others.’
The Judgement Concerning Cormac’s Sword
When Cormac, son of Art, son of Conn of the Hundred Battles, was High King in Erinn, great was the peace and splendour of his reign, and no provincial king or chief in any part of the country lifted up his head against Cormac. At his court in Tara were many noble youths, who were trained up there in all matters befitting their rank and station.
One of these youths was named Socht, son of Fithel. Socht had a wonderful sword, named ‘The Hard-headed Steeling,’ which was said to have been long ago the sword of Cuchulain. It had a hilt of gold and a belt of silver, and its point was double-edged. At night it shone like a candle. If its point were bent back to the hilt it would fly back again and be as straight as before. If it was held in running water and a hair were floated down against the edge, it would sever the hair. It was a saying that this sword would make two halves of a man, and for a while he would not perceive what had befallen him. This sword was held by Socht for a tribal possession from father and grandfather.
There was at this time a famous steward to the High King in Tara whose name was Dubdrenn. This man asked Socht to sell him the sword. He promised to Socht such a ration as he, Dubdrenn, had every night, and four men’s food for the family of Socht, and, after that, Socht to have the full value of the sword at his own appraisement. ‘No,’ said Socht. ‘I may not sell my father’s treasures while he is alive.’
And thus they went on, Dubdrenn’s mind ever running on the sword. At last he bade Socht to a drinking-bout, and plied him so with wine and mead that Socht became drunken, and knew not where he was, and finally fell asleep.
Then the steward takes the sword and goes to the King’s brazier, by name Connu.
‘Art thou able,’ says Dubdrenn, ‘to open the hilt of this sword?’ ‘I am that,’ says the brazier.
Then the brazier took apart the hilt, and within, upon the tang of the blade, he wrote the steward’s name, even Dubdrenn, and the steward laid the sword again by the side of Socht.
So it was for three months after that, and the steward continued to ask Socht to sell him the sword, but he could not get it from him.
Then the steward brought a suit for the sword before the High King, and he claimed that it was his own and that it had been taken from him. But Socht declared that the sword was his by long possession and by equity, and he would not give it up.
Then Socht went to his father, Fithel the brehon, and begged him to take part in the action and to defend his claim. But Fithel said, ‘Nay, thou art too apt to blame the pleadings of other men; plead for thyself.’
So the court was set, and Socht was called upon to prove that the sword was his. He swore that it was a family treasure, and thus it had come down to him.
The steward said, ‘Well, O Cormac, the oath that Socht has uttered is a lie.’
‘What proof hast thou of that?’ asked Cormac.
‘Not hard to declare,’ replied the steward. ‘If the sword be mine, my name stands graved therein, concealed within the hilt of the sword.’
‘That will soon be known,’ says Cormac, and therewith he had the brazier summoned. The brazier comes and breaks open the hilt and the name of Dubdrenn stands written within it. Thus a dead thing testified in law against a living man.
Then Socht said, ‘Hear ye, O men of Erinn and Cormac the King! I acknowledge that this man is the owner of the sword.’ And to Dubdrenn he said, ‘The property therein and all the obligations of it pass from me to thee.’
Dubdrenn said, ‘I acknowledge property in the sword and all its obligations.’
Then said Socht, ‘This sword was found in the neck of my grandfather Angus, and till this day it never was known who had done that murder. Do justice, O King, for this crime.’
Said the King to Dubdrenn, ‘Thou art liable for more than the sword is worth.’ So he awarded to Socht the price of seven bondwomen as blood-fine for the slaying of Angus, and restitution of the sword to Socht. Then the steward confessed the story of the sword, and Cormac levied seven other cumals from the brazier. But Cormac said, ‘This is in truth the sword of Cuchulain, and by it was slain my grandfather, even Conn of the Hundred Battles, at the hands of the King of Ulster, of whom it is written:—
‘With a host, with a valiant band
Well did he go into Connacht.
Alas, that he saw the blood of Conn
On the side of Cuchulain’s sword!’
Then Cormac and Fithel agreed that the sword be given to Cormac as blood-fine for the death of Conn, and his it was; and it was the third best of the royal treasures that were in Erin: namely, Cormac’s Cup, that broke if a falsehood were spoken over it and became whole if a truth were spoken; and the Bell Branch that he got in Fairyland, whose music when it was shaken would put to sleep wounded men, and women in travail; and the Sword of Cuchulain, against which, and against the man that held it in his hand, no victory could ever be won.
The Disappearance of Cormac
In the chronicle of the Kings of Ireland that was written by Tierna the Historian in the eleventh century after Christ’s coming, there is noted down in the annals of the year 248, ‘Disappearance of Cormac, grandson of Conn, for seven months.’ That which happened to Cormac during these seven months is told in one of the bardic stories of Ireland, being the Story of Cormac’s Journey to Fairyland, and this was the manner of it.
One day Cormac, son of Art, was looking over the ramparts of his royal Dún of Tara, when he saw a young man, glorious to look on in his person and his apparel, coming towards him across the plain of Bregia. The young man bore in his hand, as it were, a branch, from which hung nine golden bells formed like apples. When he shook the branch the nine apples beat against each other and made music so sweet that there was no pain or sorrow in the world that a man would not forget while he hearkened to it.
‘Does this branch belong to thee?’ asked Cormac of the youth.
‘Truly it does,’ replied the youth.
‘Wilt thou sell it to me?’ said Cormac.
‘I never had aught that I would not sell for a price,’ said the young man.
‘What is thy price?’ asked Cormac.
‘The price shall be what I will,’ said the young man.
‘I will give thee whatever thou desirest of all that is mine,’ said Cormac, for he coveted the branch exceedingly, and the enchantment was heavy upon him.
So the youth gave him the bell-branch, and then said, ‘My price is thy wife and thy son and thy daughter.’
Then they went together into the palace and found there Cormac’s wife and his children. ‘That is a wonderful jewel thou hast in thy hand, Cormac,’ said Ethne.
‘It is,’ said Cormac, ‘and great is the price I have paid for it.’
‘What is that price?’ said Ethne.
‘Even thou and thy children twain,’ said the King.
‘Never hast thou done such a thing,’ cried Ethne, ‘as to prefer any treasure in the world before us three!’ And they all three lamented and implored, but Cormac shook the branch and immediately their sorrow was forgotten, and they went away willingly with the young man across the plain of Bregia until a mist hid them from the eyes of Cormac. And when the people murmured and complained against Cormac, for Ethne and her children were much beloved of them, Cormac shook the bell-branch and their grief was turned into joy.
A year went by after this, and then Cormac longed for his wife and children again, nor could the bell-branch any longer bring him forgetfulness of them. So one morning he took the branch and went out alone from Tara over the plain, taking the direction in which they had passed away a year agone; and ere long little wreathes of mist began to curl about his feet, and then to flit by him like long trailing robes, and he knew no more where he was. After a time, however, he came out again into sunshine and clear sky, and found himself in a country of flowery meadows and of woods filled with singing-birds where he had never journeyed before. He walked on, till at last he came to a great and stately mansion with a crowd of builders at work upon it, and they were roofing it with a thatch made of the wings of strange birds. But when they had half covered the house, their supply of feathers ran short, and they rode off in haste to seek for more. While they were gone, however, a wind arose and whirled away the feathers already laid on, so that the rafters were left bare as before. And this happened again and again, as Cormac gazed on them for he knew not how long. At last his patience left him and he said, ‘I see with that ye have been doing this since the beginning of the world, and that ye will still be doing it in the end thereof,’ and with that he went on his way.
And many other strange things he saw, but of them we say nothing now, till he came to the gateway of a great and lofty Dún, where he entered in and asked hospitality. Then there came to him a tall man clad in a cloak of blue that changed into silver or to purple as its folds waved in the light, and with him was a woman more beautiful than the daughters of men, even she of whom it was said her beauty was as that of a tear when it drops from the eyelid, so crystal-pure it was and bright.7 They greeted Cormac courteously and begged him to stay with them for the night.
Cormac then entered a great hall with pillars of cedar and many-coloured silken hangings on the walls. In the midst of it was a fire-place whereon the host threw a huge log, and shortly afterwards brought in a young pig which Cormac cut up to roast before the fire. He first put one quarter of the pig to roast, and then his host said to him,
‘Tell us a tale, stranger, and if it be a true one the quarter will be done as soon as the tale is told.’
‘Do thou begin,’ said Cormac, ‘and then thy wife, and after that my turn will come.’
‘Good,’ said the host. ‘This is my tale. I have seven of these swine, and with their flesh the whole world could be fed. When one of them is killed and eaten, I need but put its bones into the pig-trough and on the morrow it is alive and well again.’ They looked at the fireplace, and behold, the first quarter of the pig was done and ready to be served.
Then Cormac put on the second quarter, and the woman took up her tale. ‘I have seven white cows,’ she said, ‘and seven pails are filled with the milk of them each day. Though all the folk in the world were gathered together to drink of this milk, there would be enough and to spare for all.’ As soon as she had said that, they saw that the second quarter of the pig was roasted.
Then Cormac said: ‘I know you now, who you are; for it is Mananan that owns the seven swine of Faery, and it is out of the Land of Promise that he fetched Fand his wife and her seven cows.’ Then immediately the third quarter of the pig was done.
‘Tell us now,’ said Mananan, ‘who thou art and why thou art come hither.’
Cormac then told his story, of the branch with its nine golden apples and how he had bartered for it his wife and his children, and he was now-seeking them through the world. And when he had made an end, the last quarter of the pig was done.
‘Come, let us set to the feast,’ then said Mananan; but Cormac said, ‘Never have I sat down to meat in a company of two only.’ ‘Nay,’ said Mananan, ‘but there are more to come.’ With that he opened a door in the hall and in it appeared Queen Ethne and her two children. And when they had embraced and rejoiced in each other Mananan said, ‘It was I who took them from thee, Cormac, and who gave thee the bell-branch, for I wished to bring thee hither to be my guest for the sake of thy nobleness and thy wisdom.’
Then they all sat down to table and feasted and made merry, and when they had satisfied themselves with meat and drink, Mananan showed the wonders of his household to King Cormac. And he took up a golden cup which stood on the table, and said: ‘This cup hath a magical property, for if a lie be spoken over it, it will immediately break in pieces, and if a truth be spoken it will be made whole again.’ ‘Prove this to me,’ said Cormac. ‘That is easily done,’ said Mananan. ‘Thy wife hath had a new husband since I carried her off from thee.’ Straightway the cup fell apart into four pieces. ‘My husband has lied to thee, Cormac,’ said Fand, and immediately the cup became whole again.
Cormac then began to question Mananan as to the things he had seen on his way thither, and he told him of the house that was being thatched with the wings of birds, and of the men that kept returning ever and again to their work as the wind destroyed it. And Mananan said, ‘These, O Cormac, are the men of art, who seek to gather together much money and gear of all kinds by the exercise of their craft, but as fast as they get it, so they spend it, or faster and the result is that they will never be rich.’ But when he had said this it is related that the golden cup broke into pieces where it stood. Then Cormac said, ‘The explanation thou hast given of this mystery is not true.’ Mananan smiled, and said, ‘Nevertheless it must suffice thee, O King, for the truth of this matter may not be known, lest the men of art give over the roofing of the house and it be covered with common thatch.’ So when they had talked their fill, Cormac and his wife and children were brought to a chamber where they lay down to sleep. But when they woke up on the morrow morn, they found themselves in the Queen’s chamber in the royal palace of Tara, and by Cormac’s side were found the bell-branch and the magical cup and the cloth of gold that had covered the table where they sat in the palace of Mananan. Seven months it was since Cormac had gone out from Tara to search for his wife and children, but it seemed to him that he had been absent but for the space of a single day and night.
Description of Cormac8
‘A noble and illustrious king assumed the sovranty and rule of Erinn, namely Cormac, grandson of Conn of the Hundred Battles. The world was full of all goodness in his time; there were fruit and fatness of the land, and abundant produce of the sea, with peace and ease and happiness. There were no killings or plunderings in his time, but everyone occupied his land in happiness.
‘The nobles of Ireland assembled to drink the Banquet of Tara with Cormac at a certain time … Magnificently did Cormac come to this great Assembly; for no man, his equal in beauty, had preceded him, excepting Conary Mór or Conor son of Caffa, or Angus Óg son of the Dagda.9 Splendid, indeed, was Cormac’s appearance in that Assembly. His hair was slightly curled, and of golden colour; a scarlet shield he had, with engraved devices, and golden bosses and ridges of silver. A wide-folding purple cloak was on him with a gem-set gold brooch over his breast; a golden torque round his neck; a white-collared shirt embroidered with gold was on him; a girdle with golden buckles and studded with precious stones was around him; two golden net-work sandals with golden buckles upon his feet; two spears with golden sockets and many red bronze rivets in his hand; while he stood in the full glow of beauty, without defect or blemish. You would think it was a shower of pearls that was set in his mouth, his lips were rubies, his symmetrical body was as white as snow, his cheek was ruddy as the berry of the mountain-ash, his eyes were like the sloe, his brows and eye-lashes were like the sheen of a blue-black lance.’
The Death and Burial of Cormac
Strange was the birth and childhood of Cormac strange his life and strange the manner of his death and burial, as we now have to narrate.
Cormac, it is said, was the third man in Ireland who heard of the Christian Faith before the coming of Patrick. One was Conor Mac Nessa, King of Ulster, whose druid told him of the crucifixion of Christ and who died of that knowledge.10 The second was the wise judge, Morann, and the third Cormac, son of Art. This knowledge was revealed to him by divine illumination, and thenceforth he refused to consult the druids or to worship the images which they made as emblems of the Immortal Ones.
One day it happened that Cormac after he had laid down the kingship of Ireland, was present when the druids and a concourse of people were worshipping the great golden image which was set up in the plain called Moy Slaught. When the ceremony was done, the chief druid, whose name was Moylann, spoke to Cormac and said: ‘Why, O Cormac, didst thou not bow down and adore the golden image of the god like the rest of the people?’
And Cormac said: ‘Never will I worship a stock11 that my own carpenter has made. Rather would I worship the man that made it, for he is nobler than the work of his hands.’
Then it is told that Moylann by magic art caused the image to move and leap before the eyes of Cormac. ‘Seest thou that?’ said Moylann.
‘Although I see,’ said Cormac, ‘I will do no worship save to the God of Heaven and Earth and Hell.’
Then Cormac went to his own home at Sletty on the Boyne, for there he lived after he had given up the kingdom to his son Cairbry. But the druids of Erinn came together and consulted over this matter, and they determined solemnly to curse Cormac and invoke the vengeance of their gods upon him lest the people should think that any man could despise and reject their gods, and suffer no ill for it.
So they cursed Cormac in his flesh and bones, in his waking and sleeping, in his down sitting and his uprising, and each day they turned over the Wishing Stone upon the altar of their god,12 and wove mighty spells against his life. And whether it was that these took effect, or that the druids prevailed upon some traitorous servant of Cormac’s to work their will, so it was that he died not long thereafter; and some say that he was choked by a fish bone as he sat at meat in his house at Sletty on the Boyne.
But when he felt his end approaching, and had still the power to speak, he said to those that gathered round his bed:—
‘When I am gone I charge you that ye bury me not at Brugh of the Boyne where is the royal cemetery of the Kings of Erinn.13 For all these kings paid adoration to gods of wood or stone, or to the Sun and the Elements, whose signs are carved on the walls of their tombs, but I have learned to know the One God, immortal, invisible, by whom the earth and heavens were made. Soon there will come into Erinn one from the East who will declare Him unto us, and then wooden gods and cursing priests shall plague us no longer in this land. Bury me then not at Brugh-na-Boyna, but on the hither-side of Boyne, at Ross-na-ree, where there is a sunny, eastward-sloping hill, there would I await the coming of the sun of truth.’
So spake Cormac, and he died, and there was a very great mourning for him in the land. But when the time came for his burial, the princes and lords of the Gael vowed that he should lie in Brugh with Art, his father, and Conn of the Hundred Battles, and many another king, in the great stone chambers of the royal dead. For Ross-na-ree, they said, is but a green hill of no note; and Cormac’s expectation of the message of the new God they took to be but the wanderings of a dying man.
Now Brugh-na-Boyna lay at the farther side of the Boyne from Sletty, and near by was a shallow ford where the river could be crossed. But when the funeral train came down to the ford, bearing aloft the body of the King, lo! the river had risen as though a tempest had burst upon it at its far-off sources in the hills, and between them and the farther bank was now a broad and foaming flood, and the stakes that marked the ford were washed clean away. Even so they made trial of the ford, and thrice the bearers waded in and thrice they were forced to turn back lest the flood should sweep them down. At length six of the tallest and mightiest of the warriors of the High King took up the bier upon their shoulders, and strode in. And first the watchers on the bank saw the brown water swirl about their knees, and then they sank thigh-deep, and at last it foamed against their shoulders, yet still they braced themselves against the current, moving forward very slowly as they found foothold among the slippery rocks in the river-bed. But when they had almost reached the mid-stream it seemed as if a great surge overwhelmed them, and caught the bier from their shoulders as they plunged and clutched around it, and they must needs make back for the shore as best they could, while Boyne swept down the body of Cormac to the sea.
On the following morning, however, shepherds driving their flocks to pasture on the hillside of Ross-na-ree found cast upon the shore the body of an aged man of noble countenance, half wrapped in a silken pall; and knowing not who this might be they dug a grave in the grassy hill, and there laid the stranger, and laid the green sods over him again.
There still sleeps Cormac the King, and neither Ogham-lettered stone nor sculptured cross marks his solitary grave. But he lies in the place where he would be, of which a poet of the Gael in our day has written:—
‘A tranquil spot: a hopeful sound
Comes from the ever-youthful stream,
And still on daisied mead and mound
The dawn delays with tenderer beam.
‘Round Cormac, spring renews her buds:
In march perpetual by his side
Down come the earth-fresh April floods,
And up the sea-fresh salmon glide;
‘And life and time rejoicing run
From age to age their wonted way;
But still he waits the risen sun,
For still ’tis only dawning day.’14
1 Woad is a cruciferous plant, Isatis tinctoria, used for dyeing.
2 Pronounced Bweé-cad. His name is said to be preserved in the townland of Dunboyke, near Blessington, Co. Wicklow.
3 The Instructions of Cormac (Tecosa Cormaic) have been edited with a translation by Dr. Kuno Meyer in the Todd Lecture Series of the Royal Irish Academy, vol. xv., April 1909.
5 Pronounced Fla’-haree—accent on the first syllable.
6 The institution of fosterage, by which the children of kings and lords were given to trusted persons among their friends or followers to bring up and educate, was a marked feature of social life in ancient Ireland, and the bonds of affection and loyalty between such foster-parents and their children were held peculiarly sacred.
7 See Miss Hull’s CUCHULAIN, THE HOUND OF ULSTER, p. 175. The pair were Mananan, god of the sea, and Fand his wife, of whom a tale of great interest is told in the Cuchulain Cycle of legends. The sea-cloak of Mananan is the subject of a magnificent piece of descriptive poetry in Ferguson’s CONGAL.
8 The original from the BOOK OF BALLYMOTE (14th century) is given in O’Curry’s MS. MATERIALS OF IRISH HISTORY, Appendix xxvi. I have in the main followed O’Curry’s translation.
9 Angus Óg was really a deity or fairy king. He appears also in the story of Midir and Etain. q.v.
10 See the conclusion of the Vengeance of Mesgedra.
11 The image was doubtless of wood overlaid with gold.
12 There are still Wishing Stones, which are used in connexion with petitions for good or ill, on the ancient altars of Inishmurray and of Caher Island, and possibly other places on the west coast of Ireland.
13 This famous cemetery of the kings of pagan Ireland lies on the north bank of the Boyne and consists of a number of sepulchral mounds, sometimes of great extent, containing, in their interior, stone walled chambers decorated with symbolic and ornamental carvings. The chief of these mounds, now known as Newgrange, has been explored and described by Mr George Coffey in his valuable work NEWGRANGE, published by the Royal Irish Academy. Brugh: mansion.
14 These lines are taken from Sir S. Ferguson’s noble poem, The Burial of King Cormac, from which I have also borrowed some of the details of the foregoing narrative.