Conn Cétchathach

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Conn Cétchathach ("possessing a hundred battles" or "a hundred battalions", pron. /kɒn 'kʲeːdxəθax), according to medieval legend and historical tradition, a prehistoric Irish king who was considered the ancestor of many dynasties, including the Dál Cuinn, the Connachta, the Uí Néill, the Uí Maine, the Airgialla, the Dál Riata. Although he is included in the traditional list of High Kings of Ireland, Ireland is said to have been divided in his time and after between him and Mug Nuadat, ancestor of the Eóganachta dynasties. North of a line between Dublin and Galway was Leth Cuinn, Conn's Half, while south of that line was Leth Moga, Mug's Half. The legendary hero Fionn mac Cumhaill is supposed to have been born during Conn's reign.

Legendary biography

Birth and rise to power

Conn was the son of the former High King Fedlimid Rechtmar, son of Tuathal Techtmar. On the night of his birth, five roads appeared leading to Tara. He took power after killing his predecessor, and father-in-law, Cathair Mór.

It is said in the Lebor Gabála Érenn that the Lia Fáil, the coronation stone at Tara which roared when the rightful king stood on it, roared under Conn for the first time since Cú Chulainn split it with his sword when it failed to roar under his protegé Lugaid Riab nDerg. In the saga Baile in Scáil ("The Phantom's Ecstatic Vision"), Conn treads on the stone by accident while walking the ramparts of Tara, implying that the stone had been lost and half-buried since Cú Chulainn's time. A druid explains that the number of cries the stone made is the number of kings who will follow Conn, but he is not the man to name them. A magical mist arises, and a horseman approaches who throws three spears towards Conn, then asks him and the druid to follow him to his house, which stands on a plain by a golden tree. They enter, and are welcomed by a woman in a gold crown. First they see a silver vat, bound with gold hoops, full of red ale, and a golden cup and serving spoon. Then they see a phantom, a tall beautiful man, on a throne, who introduces himself as Lug mac Ethnenn, an apparent deity, although he insists he is human. The woman is the sovereignty of Ireland, and she serves Conn a meal consisting of an ox's rib 24 feet long, and a boar's rib. When she serves drinks, she asks "To whom shall this cup be given?", and Lugh recites a poem which tells Conn how many years he will reign, and the names of the kings who will follow him. Then they enter Lugh's shadow, and the house disappears, but the cup and serving spoon remain. An earlier text, Baile Chuinn Cétchathaigh (The Ecstatic Vision of Conn Cétchathach") gives a poetic list of kings, many of which are recognisable from the traditional list of High Kings, but without narrative context.

Rivalry with Mug Nuadat

Conn had a long reign - twenty, twenty-five, thirty-five or even fifty years according to different versions of the Lebor Gabála - but spent much of it at war with Mug Nuadat, king of Munster. Ireland was divided in two between them - Conn controlling the north, or Leth Cuinn ("Conn's Half"), from Tara, and Mug controlling the south, or Leth Moga ("Mug's Half"), from Cashel, with the border lying between Galway in the west and Dublin in the east. Mug was able to gain such power because his druid predicted a famine, which he prepared for by storing grain. Conn eventually killed Mug in his bed, the morning before their armies were due to meet in the Battle of Mag Lena.

Modern historians believe that the division of Ireland between Conn and Mug Nuadat is a political fiction of the 8th century, when Conn's descendants the Uí Néill controlled the northern half of Ireland and Mug's descendants the Eóganachta controlled the south. The names Leth Cuinn and Leth Moga can also be interpreted as meaning "the chief's half" and "the slave's half" respectively, perhaps reflecting the eventual dominance of the kings of Tara over the kings of Cashel.

Birth of Fionn mac Cumhaill

Legend has it that the hero Fionn mac Cumhaill was born in Conn's time. His father, Cumhall mac Trénmóir, a warrior in Conn's service, was a suitor of Muirne, daughter of the druid Tadg mac Nuadat, but Tadg refused his suit, so Cumhall abducted her. Conn went to war against him, and Cumhall was killed by Goll mac Morna in the Battle of Cnucha. But Muirne was already pregnant, and Tadg rejected her, ordering her to be burned. She fled to Conn, and Conn put her under the protection of Cumhall's brother-in-law Fiacal mac Conchinn. It was in Fiacal's house that she gave birth to a son, Deimne, who was later renamed Fionn. When he was ten, Fionn came to Tara put himself into Conn's service. He learned that every year at Samhain, the monster Aillen would put everyone at Tara to sleep with his music, and burn down the palace with his fiery breath. Finn killed Aillen, having kept himself awake by pressing the head of his spear to his forehead, and warded off Aillen's flame with his magical cloak, and Conn made him head of the fianna in place of Goll.

Wives and children

Conn's wife is normally named as Eithne Táebfada ("long-side"), daughter of the former High King Cathair Mór, although she is sometimes named as the wife of Conn's grandson Cormac mac Airt. They had a son, Art, known as Art Óenfer, literally "one-man", meaning "lone" or "solitary", often in the sense of "only son", who would succeed his father to the High Kingship. Legend gives him another son, Connla, who fell in love with a fairy women and left Ireland with her, never to be seen again (although Geoffrey Keating records a tradition that Art had two brothers, Connla and Crinna, who were killed by Conn's brother Eochaid Finn).

He is also credited with three daughters, Máen, Sadb and Saruit. Sadb married Macnia mac Lugdach and bore him the future High King Lugaid Mac Con. After Macnia died she married Mug Nuadat's son and successor as king of the south of Ireland, Ailill Aulom, and bore him nine sons. Saruit married Conaire Cóem, who was to succeed Conn as High King (or king of the north).

The Adventure of Art mac Cuinn

After Eithne Táebfada died, another fairy woman, Bé Chuille, was banished by the Tuatha Dé Danann to Ireland. She had fallen in love with Art from afar, but on learning that Conn was widowed, agreed to marry him instead, on the condition that Art be banished from Tara for a year. Because of this injustice there was famine in Ireland, which the druids declared could only be ended by the sacrifice of the son of a sinless couple in front of Tara. Conn travelled to several magical islands in Bé Chuille's boat in search of this boy, and found him on an island of apple trees, and persuaded his mother to let him take him to Ireland, claiming the boy only had to bathe in the water of Ireland to end the famine, and when the druids tried to sacrifice him he, Art and Fionn mac Cumhaill swore to protect him. A woman appeared with a cow and two bags, and the cow was sacrificed in the boy's place. The bags contained two birds, one with one leg, the other with twelve. They fought, and the one-legged bird won, and the women explained that the twelve-legged bird represented the duids, and the one-legged bird the boy, who was her son. She told Conn that the famine would end if he put Bé Chuille away, but he refused. Bé Chuille was eventually banished from Tara after Art challenging her to a series of games of fidchell, an ancient board game, involving forfeits, and eventually defeated her.


Conn was eventually killed by Tipraite Tírech, king of the Ulaid. The Lebor Gabála and the Annals of the Four Masters say Tipraite defeated him in battle in Túath Amrois. Keating says Tipraite sent fifty warriors dressed as women from Emain Macha to kill him at Tara. His son-in-law Conaire Cóem succeeded him as High King, and Conn's son Art would later succeed him. The Lebor Gabála synchronises Conn's reign with that of the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius (161-180). The chronology of Geoffrey Keating's Foras Feasa ar Éirinn dates his reign to 116-136, that of the Annals of the Four Masters to 122-157. However, medieval Irish chronology is inconsistent and highly artificial, and Conn's grandson Cormac mac Airt's death is dated as late as 366 in the Annals of Ulster, suggesting a potentially much later late for Conn, if indeed he ever existed: O'Rahilly considers him a euhemerised ancestor deity.