Cormac mac Airt

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Cormac mac Airt (son of Art), also known as Cormac ua Cuinn (grandson of Conn) or Cormac Ulfada (long beard), was, according to medieval Irish legend and historical tradition, a prehistoric High King of Ireland. He is remembered as an ideal ruler, famous for his wise, true and generous judgements. His reign is variously dated as early as the 2nd century and as late as the 4th, and he is counted as an ancestor of numerous medieval dynasties, including the Connachta, the Uí Néill, the Dál Riata, the Uí Maine and the Argialla. The legendary hero Fionn mac Cumhaill is supposed to have lived in Cormac's time, and most of the stories of the Fenian Cycle are set during his reign. Scholars differ over whether Cormac is a historical or mythical figure.

Legendary biography

Birth and childhood

Cormac's father was the former High King Art mac Cuinn. His mother was Achtan, daughter of Olc Acha, a smith (or druid) from Connacht. According to the saga "The Battle of Mag Mucrama", Olc gave Art hospitality the night before his last battle. It had been prophesied that a great dignity would come from Olc's line, so he offered the High King his daughter to sleep with that night, and Cormac was conceived (Geoffrey Keating says that Achtan was Art's official mistress, to whom he had given a dowry of cattle).

The story is told that Achtan had a vision as she slept next to Art. She saw herself with her head cut off and a great tree growing out of her neck. Its branches spread all over Ireland, until the sea rose and overwhelmed it. Another tree grew from the roots of the first, but the wind blew it down. At that she work up and told Art what she had seen. Art explained that the head of every woman is her husband, and that she would lose her husband in battle the next day. The first tree was their son, who would be king over all Ireland, and the sea that overwhelmed it was a fish-bone that he would die choking on. The second tree was his son, Cairbre Lifechair, who would be king after him, and the wind that blew him down was a battle against the fianna, in which he would fall. The following day Art was defeated and killed by his nephew Lugaid mac Con, who became the new High King.

In a story reminiscent of the Roman myth of Romulus and Remus, Cormac was carried off in infancy by a she-wolf and reared with her cubs, but a hunter found him and brought him back to his mother. Achtan then took him to Fiachrae Cassán, who had been Art's foster-father. On the way they were attacked by wolves, but wild horses protected them.

Rise to power

At the age of thirty, armed with his father's sword, Cormac came to Tara, where he met a steward consoling a weeping woman. The steward explained that the High King had confiscated her sheep because they had cropped the queen's woad-garden. Cormac declared, "More fitting would be one shearing for another," because both the woad and the sheep's fleeces would grow again. When Lugaid heard this, he conceded that Cormac's judgement was superior to his and abdicated the throne. Other traditions say that Cormac drove Lugaid out by force, or that Lugaid left Tara because his druids had prophesied he would not live another six months if he stayed. In all versions he went to his kin in Munster, where the poet Ferches mac Commain killed him with a spear as he stood with his back to a standing stone.

But Cormac was unable to claim the High Kingship, as the king of the Ulaid, Fergus Dubdétach, drove him into Connacht, and took the throne himself. He turned to Tadg mac Céin, a local nobleman whose father had been killed by Fergus, promising him as much land on the plain of Brega as he could drive his chariot round in a day if he would help him claim the throne. Tadg advised him to recruit his grandfather's brother Lugaid Láma. Cormac sought him out, and when he found him lying in a hunting-booth, wounded him in the back with a spear. Lugaid revealed that it had been he who had killed Cormac's father in the Battle of Maigh Mucramha, and Cormac demanded, as éraic for Art's life, that Lugaid give him Fergus' head.

Having recruited Tadg and Lugaid, Cormac marched against Fergus, and The Battle of Crinna began. Tadg led the battle, keeping Cormac out of the action at the rear. Lugaid took the head of Fergus' brother, Fergus Foltlebair, and brought it to Cormac's attendant, who told him this was not the head of the king of Ulster. He then took the head of Fergus's other brother, Fergus Caisfhiachlach, but again the attendant told him it was the wrong head. Finally he killed Fergus Dubdétach himself, and when the attendant confirmed he'd got the right man, Lugaid killed him and collapsed from exhaustion and loss of blood.

Tadg routed Fergus's army, and ordered his charioteer to make a circuit of the plain of Brega to include Tara itself. He was severely wounded, and fainted during the circuit. When he came to, he asked the charioteer if he had driven around Tara yet. When the charioteer answered no, Tadg killed him, but before he could complete the circuit himself, Cormac came upon him and ordered physicians to treat his wounds - treatment which took a whole year. Cormac took the throne, and Tadg ruled large tracts of land in the northern half of Ireland.


According to the saga "The Melody of the House of Buchet", Cormac married Eithne Táebfada, daughter of Cathaír Mór and foster-daughter of Buchet, a wealthy cattle-lord from Leinster whose hospitality was so exploited that he was reduced to poverty. However, in other traditions Eithne is the wife of Cormac's grandfather Conn Cétchathach. Keating says the foster-daughter of Buchet that Cormac married was another Eithne, Eithne Ollamda, daughter of Dúnlaing, king of Leinster. Also according to Keating, Cormac took a second wife, Ciarnait, daughter of the king of the Cruithne, but Eithne, out of jealousy of her beauty, forced her to grind nine measures of grain every day. Cormac freed her from this labour by having a watermill built.

Cormac is credited with three sons, Dáire, Cellach and Cairbre Lifechair, and ten daughters. Two of his daughters, Gráinne and Aillbe, married the hero Fionn mac Cumhaill. In the well-known story "The Pursuit of Diarmuid and Gráinne", Gráinne was betrothed to Fionn, but instead ran off with a young warrior of the fianna, Diarmuid Ua Duibhne. Diarmuid and Fionn were eventually reconciled, but Fionn later contrived Diarmuid's death during a boar hunt, but was shamed by his son Oisín into making amends to Gráinne. Fionn and Gráinne were married, and Gráinne persuaded her sons not to make war against Fionn.


Cormac's reign is recorded in some detail in the Irish annals. He fought many battles, subduing the Ulaid and Connacht and leading a lengthy campaign against Munster. In the fourteenth year of his reign he is said to have sailed to Great Britain and made conquests there. In the fifteenth, thirty maidens were slaughtered in Tara by Dúnlaing, king of Leinster, for which Cormac had twelve Leinster princes put to death. In other texts he is said to have been temporarily deposed twice by the Ulaid, and to have once gone missing for four months. He is also said to have compiled the Psalter of Tara, a book containing the chronicles of Irish history, the laws concerning the rents and dues kings were to receive from their subjects, and records of the boundaries of Ireland. The text Tecosca Cormaic ("The Instructions of Cormac"), a collection of wise sayings instructing his son in how to rule wisely, is attributed to him.

Although he is usually remembered as a wise and just ruler, one story presents him in a less flattering light. Having distributed all the cattle he had received as tribute from the provinces, Cormac found himself without any cattle to provision his own household after a plague struck his herds. A steward persuaded him to treat Munster as two provinces, the southern of which had never paid tax. He sent messengers to demand payment, but Fiacha Muilleathan, the king of southern Munster, refused, and Cormac prepared for war. His own druids, who had never advised him badly, foresaw disaster, but he ignored them, preferring to listen to five druids from the sidhe supplied by his fairy lover, Báirinn.

Cormac marched to Munster and made camp on the hill of Druim Dámhgaire (Knocklong, County Limerick). His new druids' magic made the camp impregnable and his warriors unbeatable, dried up all sources of water used by the Munstermen, and nearly drove Fiacha to submission. But Fiacha in desperation turned to the powerful Munster druid Mug Ruith for aid, and his magic was too strong even for Cormac's fairy druids. He restored the water and conjured up magical hounds who destroyed the fairy druids. His breath created storms and turned men to stone. Cormac was driven out of Munster and compelled to seek terms.

It is said that the apparent sea-god Manannán mac Lir]] once summoned Cormac to Tír Tairngire, the Land of Promise, and gave him two magical objects: a brach with golden apples attached, which produced such beautiful music when shaken that even the sick and wounded were soothed and put to sleep; and a gold cup which would break in three when three lies were spoken over it, and become whole again when three truths were spoken over it. When Cormac died, the cup vanished, as Manannan had said it would.

In the thirty-ninth year of Cormac's reign, Cormac's son Cellach offended the honour Óengus Gaíbúaibthech of the Déisi, descendants of Cormac's great grandfather Fedlimid Rechtmar who lived in Brega, either by blinding a nobleman under his protection, or by abducting his niece. Óengus came to Tara and killed Cellach, wounded Cormac's lawgiver, and blinded Cormac in one eye, with a single spear-thrust. Cormac fought seven battles against the Déisi, and expelled them from their lands in Brega. After a period of wandering, they settled in Munster. Cormac, having lost an eye, moved into the Tech Cletig on the nearby hill of Achall, as it was against the law for a disfigured king to sit in Tara.


After ruling for forty years Cormac choked to death on a salmon bone. Some versions blame this on a curse laid by a druid because Cormac had converted to Christianity. Some versions of the Lebor Gabála Érenn synchronise his reign with that of the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius (161-180). Keating dates his reign to 204-244; the Annals of the Four Masters to 226-266. An entry in the Annals of Ulster dates his death as late as 366. He was succeeded by Eochaid Gonnat, who ruled for a year before falling in battle, succeeded by Cormac's son Cairbre Lifechair.