We asked Vincent Byrne to tell us a story. The Irish mythology buff of Celtic Wedding rings, decided on the legend of Cormac mac Airt – a story of battles, wolves, warriors and high kings, with an unexpected ending.
Cormac mac Airt was one of the most legendary High Kings of Ireland. Legends say he ruled from Tara for 36 years but as is often the case with Irish mythology, the exact era of his reign is disputed. It is commonly believed that his reign began in the early second century AD though other scholars say he ruled in the fourth century AD.
What isn’t in dispute however, is his ability to rule. The Annals of Clonmacnoise state that he was the best king to have ever reigned in Ireland. Cormac also receives special attention from scholars because he is believed to have ruled during the life of the incomparable Fionn mac Cumhaill, arguably the greatest of all Irish mythological heroes.
Cormac’s father was former High King Art mac Cuinn and his grandfather was Conn of the Hundred Battles. Cormac’s mother was Achtan, daughter of highly respected Connacht ironworker Olc Acha. Olc prophesied that his lineage would achieve greatness and offered his daughter to Art who was preparing for the following day’s Battle of Maigh Mucruimhe.
Achtan had a vision of her own as she lay with Art that night. In the dream, she saw her head cut off with a huge tree growing in its stead. Its branches spread out all over Ireland before the sea came to destroy it. A second tree grew from the roots of the main tree but it was blown away by the wind. When told of the dream, Art told Achtan that a woman’s head represents her husband and he saw it as a sign he would die in the upcoming battle. Art said the first tree was his first son (Cormac) who would become High King but be choked to death on a fish bone. The second tree was Cormac’s son (Cairbre Lifechair) who would succeed Cormac but fall in battle against the fianna.
Art died in the battle as was foreseen, but not before telling Achtan to seek out his friend Luna in Corann where she would be safe until Cormac was born. Achtan followed his instructions but after she gave birth to Cormac, he was carried off by a she-wolf. A hunter called Grec found the infant and received land as a reward. Cormac was then taken to Art’s foster father Fiachrae Cassan, surviving a wolf attack on the way.
Becoming High King
Lugaid mac Con, nephew of Art, had become High King after Art’s death and reigned for 30 years until the adult version of Cormac came to Tara. Once again, the accounts of the annals differ. One version claims that Lugaid vacated the throne after Cormac displayed superior judgment in a matter involving a woman’s sheep and the Queen’s woad-garden (or because Lugaid’s judgement was illegal).
Another version says that Lugaid left because his druids foresaw death if he stayed. As Lugaid became High King by force, it is likely that Cormac drove him out.
Yet the path of the throne was not smooth for Cormac. Fergus Dubdetach, king of the Ulaid, became High King, forcing Cormac to flee to Connacht. A Connacht nobleman by the name of Tadg mac Cein hated Fergus, because the new king had murdered his father. So Tadg sought to assist Cormac, by directing him to Lugaid Lama, brother of his grandfather.
Cormac found Lugaid, and was shocked to learn that Lugaid had killed his father Art in battle. Cormac demanded that Lugaid pay éraic (tribute paid in retribution for a serious crime) by bringing him the head of the errant King Fergus. At the Battle of Crinna, Lugaid killed Fergus and his brother. The shrewd nobleman then Tadg marshalled the troops to a famous victory and was rewarded with an incredible amount of land when Cormac took the throne.
As king, Cormac took Eithne Ollamda as his wife with some accounts saying he had 13 children. The reign of Cormac is well recorded with stories of battles against the Ulaid, and tribes in Connacht, Munster and Britain. He was also said to be a fair king and would not tolerate brutality. Cormac is also accredited by some sources with the creation of the Psalter of Tara, a text which contains the chronicles of Irish history.
Interestingly, some accounts say he was deposed on two occasions by the Ulaid and is also believed to have disappeared during his reign. One such account mentions Cormac going missing for seven months in 248 AD when he lost his wife and two children to a man from the plain of Bregia. He eventually found them after a lengthy quest.
The end of a reign
It is said that Cormac lost an eye in battles with the Deisi and was forced to abdicate his throne because a disfigured king could not rule in Tara by law. He was succeeded by his son Cairbre Lifechair.
For such a legendary king, his death was ignominious to say the least; he followed his father’s prophesy by choking to death on a salmon bone. Some sources suggest that the druids of Erinn cursed him because of his conversion to Christianity. His body is believed to have been left out to sea.
Even today, the brave, noble warrior-king Cormac mac Airt remains one of Irish mythology’s favourite figures.
More of Vincent’s writing can be found on his Celtic Wedding Rings blog
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