Emerald Isle

King Cormac Mac Art

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Irish and Celtic myths and legends, Irish folklore and Irish fairy tales from the Historical Cycle

King Cormac Mac Art, among the mightiest of the High Kings

Ireland has had many high kings, some were wise and kind and others cruel and the holders of grudges, but there were few as great as High King Cormac Mac Art, grandson of Conn of the Hundred Battles and son of Art and Ectach, the daughter of a mighty blacksmith.

In his youth he stayed at the hall of the king of the north, Fergus Dubhdedach, but he was exiled and condemned never to pass the door of that king again. But he wanted vengeance and a crown for himself, and vengeance he got, and a crown too!

After many battles and hardships he eventually succeeded, and was crowned High King of all of Ireland. His reign was splendid, lasting forty years, and saw the flourishing of Gaelic culture to new heights. Not only was he a warrior but also a man of learning and art, he raised great monuments, built the first mill and wrote a mighty body of law which governed the nation for centuries afterwards.

His jewel was the palace he built at Tara, on the old ground which marked the rulers of Ireland into the misty aeons of history. Fourteen doors it had and nine mounds around it, and many the feast was held by the light of its brass lanterns. A thousand warriors made it their home and rich was the red gold that bedecked the princes and ladies of Ireland in his hall.

It was at Tara that Cormac usually resided, as had the kings who came before him, but his eye was cut out by Angus, so afterwards he lived nearby in Achaill, in the house of Cleiteach, where he composed his book of laws, renouncing the kingship.

For the people of Ireland thought it a poor omen that a king who was not whole in body should stay in Tara, and this is why Cormac gave his crown and his palace to his son Cairbre.

And from the time that Cormac surrendered his crown, he believed only in the one God of heaven, one of only three kings of Ireland who so believed before the coming of St. Patrick.

One dark evening after a bloody red sunset, when Cormac was in the house of Cleiteach, the druids were worshipping a strangely glistening golden idol before him, and the people were cavorting and dancing in a frenzy as the druids told them to. Maelgheann the druid asked Cormac why he was not adoring the odd statue and the gods like the rest.

“I will not,” said Cormac, “kneel before a thing made by my own smith! Better to worship the person who made it, for he is nobler than the gold.”

Maelgheann the druid then passed his hands over the idol and all were amazed to see it move – even did it leap into the air and land on a table, which cracked under its heavy weight.

“Do you see that, O Cormac?” said Maelgheann in triumph, ribbons of dark smoke playing around him like wreathing hands.

“Although I see,” said Cormac, “I will worship only the God of heaven, of earth, and of hell.”

After this his food was cooked for the king, and he began to eat a piece of salmon from the Boyne. From the shadows about sprang demon sprites, at the call of Maelgheann the druid who had placed a binding geasa upon them, and they killed the king! Others say that it was a salmon-bone that stuck in his throat and choked him, for it was eating fish he was when the sprites, or demons of the air, choked him.

As the king was in the throes of death he told his captains not to bury his body at the Brugh, where the kings of Tara had been buried up to then, but they paid him no heed and he passed away.

The people prepared his body on a great fuad, or bier, a funeral platform, and many were the wails and keenings that rose into that dark night air. They took his body to the Brugh to be buried, but the sprites threw it into the greatly swollen river three times, for they did not wish to let his body into the burial place of the pagans.

And the fourth time its bearers carried the body into the river, and it was snatched away from them by the current of the Boyne, and it reached Ros na Rí. They mourned for him there, and his grave was made; and he was buried at Ros na Rí. A long time after this, Columcille came to that place, and found the head of king Cormac there, and buried it. Columcille remained in the place till he had said thirty Masses above his grave, and there is now a church where he lies.

Spread not the beds of Brugh for me
When restless death-bed's use is done
But bury me at Ros na Rí,
And face me to the rising sun.

Below on the map is marked the place where he lies.


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