Emerald Isle

The Justice of Cormac Mac Art

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

A prince will be known by his wisdom

Ireland at the beginning of the first millenium was a turbulent place, with many clans and kingdoms fighting among themselves, so that a Lord might be sitting comfortably one day but find himself fleeing for his life the next! And so it was with one of the greatest of Ireland's kings, Cormac Mac Art.

Although he was by blood, law and custom the rightful heir to the throne, he had been deposed as a child by Mac Con and was declared outlaw, to be slain on sight. Showing rare cunning even at this fearful turn of events, he decided to hide right next to his enemy, under his very nose in Tara itself!

Of course he wore a disguise and pretended to be one of the servants, but still he attended the usurper's court every day to watch and listen to the judgements being handed down. All too often he noticed these decisions were poorly considered, biased towards the new king's favourites and cause for discontent among the people at Tara.

Proper observation of the law was very important to the people of ancient Ireland. Unlike today's laws, their legal system, the Brehon laws, were easy to understand and based on the long standing customs and traditions of the people. Contrary to some who might claim the Irish to have been wild and lawless, obedience to the law was very important to them, a central part of ancient Irish society.

The druids and bards would convene once a year at the fire festival to discuss events and happenings in their lands, then they would decide on any changes to the laws, announcing them to the people after the festivities were over.

There were no police back then, and no prisons, for none were needed since the people themselves enforced the law and justice was usually more immediate! While anyone could be named to act as the Brehon, in general terms the king was seen as the highest justice and wisest of all – if the king's judgement were awry in matters of law, they would likely be mistaken in every other matter too. The passing of true judgement was seen as the virtue of a true king.

As it happened, the queen of Tara had been growing a valuable crop of woad-dyeing plants, glaisín, but one morning she awoke to find the entire field of them bare and eaten to the ground by a flock of sheep. The owner of these sheep turned out to be a female bewy called Bennaid, and the queen wasted no time in bringing her to the king for justice.

 Hearing the evidence, Mac Con pondered for a time and then announced that the whole flock of sheep should be forfeit as payment for the glaisín. Unable to restrian himself at this enormity, Cormac Mac Art leaped to his feet, commanding the attention of the whole court!

"Not so!" shouted the lad, "the cropping of the sheep should be sufficient for the cropping of the glaisin – the wool for the woad – for both will grow again."

"A true judgement! A true judgement!" exclaimed all of those present, seeing the wisdom of the boy, "and he who pronounced it is a king's son in truth!" they murmured so loudly against Mac Con that his own druids told him it would be best to clear out before events turned worse again.

With that he handed over his crown to Cormac and went to the land of Mumu where he had allies, the better to raise a strong host against Cormac, but Cormac's men found him in a place called the Hollow of the Gold and slew him as he was paying his mercenaries.

And so it was that Cormac Mac Art became High King of Ireland and master of Tara, and the land burst with bountiful harvests, the fish leaping into the nets of fishermen in the rivers, and scarce a pot could be found throughout the country for they were all filled with honey. Almost the farmers retired their ploughs with the abundance of game, and the seasons were right in their ways.

The Hollow of the Gold is marked on the map below!

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