Emerald Isle

The Sword of Cormac

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

A powerful weapon becomes a matter for dispute and treachery

In the time between the Tuatha Princes and St Patrick, there rose over the people of Ireland mighty High Kings, who held power by force of arms, wit and wisdom. One of the greatest among them was Cormac of the wide purple cloak, whose hair was as golden as the heavy torc around his neck, with teeth like a shower of pearls and skin as fair as snow.

Grandson of Conn of the Hundred Battles he was, and during his reign the land was fruitful and rich, slumbering under peace and happiness. The old feuds were forgotten and the raids and plunderings came to an end, for no chieftain or king would raise his hand against Cormac.

And yet all was not perfect in his realm, nor could it ever be on this mortal earth! To his hall at Tara there came a young man called Socht, from the chill northlands, and he bore with him a marvellous sword called the Hard Headed Steeling. Its hilt was of superior craftsmanship, gold and silver wrought throughout, a belt of resolute steel which knew no tarnish and swam with hidden waves, and a double edge to its blade.

It could be bent almost double and it would spring back straight and true, and if it were held in running water it would slice in two a hair floated down to it. Two halves of a man it could make, and yet he'd run for a while before realising what had happened to him.

The High King's steward was called Dubdrenn, and when he saw this wonderful weapon his eyes grew full of it. He tossed and turned at night and could think of nothing but the blade. Soon he approached Socht and offered him great wealth in exchange for the sword – his own meals every day, the meals of four men for his family in Ulster, and after Socht could give the sword whatever price he wished.

But Socht refused, and said he couldn't sell his father's sword  while he yet lived, as it had come to him from his grandfather. Dubdrenn was like a man with a  fever, and continued his questioning and bargaining to no avail. Eventually he lit upon a scheme, and declaring himself weary of banter, challenged Socht to a bout of cups.

Poor old Socht agreed, and became so drunk he never knew up from down, and fell asleep where he sat. Crafty Dubdrenn stole away the sword and brought it to the High King's smith, and asked him if he could open the hilt without harming the weapon. The smith, whose name was Connu, said that he could, and the besotted steward told him to grave his own name on the tang, that is the part of the sword under the hilt.

Putting it back together, Dobdrenn slid the blade back into its sheath beneath the snoozing Socht, and went on his way.

The next day, Dobdrenn brought suit against Socht with the High King, claiming the sword was his own. Socht of course hotly denied it, and swore the sword had been passed down to him from his family.

“Socht's oath is a lie,” said Dobdrenn gravely, “and tis I who can prove it!”

“And how can you prove it?” asked Cormac curiously.

“Easily enough,” said the steward, “for it is my name engraved on the tang under the hilt!”

Well, they broke open the sword and sure enough the name Dobdrenn was carved on the metal.

Socht gathered himself and said to all the assembled hall, “Listen well to me then, this sword is Dobdrenn's and he accepts with it all of its power and properties, passed from me to him.”

“I accept,” said Dobdrenn smugly, thinking it the cheapest purchase he ever made, but Socht wasn't done yet!

“In that case know you that this sword was found in the neck of my grandfather, and the murderer was never caught! Until now, that is,” Socht said.

The High King looked from Socht to Dobdrenn with his mouth opening and closing like a stranded fish, and he knew much was amiss here, so he decided to levy a blood-fine on the steward of twenty one cattle, a high ransom in those days, and the restitution of the sword to Socht, for the slaying of Socht's grandfather.

Dobdrenn straight away began to protest his innocence, and revealed the whole scheme, hoping to escape or lessen his punishment! But instead Cormac levied another fine of twenty one cattle on the smith as well, so Socht was a rich man.

And now the High King held the mighty weapon in his own hand, and his eyes narrowed as he took in its lines and shape. He conferred with his druids, and they passed it from hand to hand, but carefully, eventually coming to an agreement – this was none other than the sword of Cúchulainn himself, who had slain Cormac's own grandfather! And they sang an old poem:

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 Cúchulain's sword!

The druids and Socht agreed then that the sword was a fair blood-price for the slaying of the High King's grandfather, and Cormac held on to it for himself. It was then the third finest of all the treasures of Tara, the second being Cormac's cup that cracked if ever a falsehood was spoken over it, and the first being the Bell Branch that came from the land of the Sidhe, whose music when it was shaken would put to sleep wounded men and women in birth-throes.

The Hall of Tara can be found on the map marked below here.

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