Corpus of Electronic Texts Edition
Betha Meic Creiche (Author: Unknown)



This Life is here printed from the only existing MS., Brussels, Royal Library, Nos. 2324-40, ff. 87r-98r. This is one of the O'Clery MSS., and is described in Bethada Náem nérenn, t. I, pp. XII ff. In the colophon attached to the Life, Michael O'Clery tells us that he transcribed it in the year 1634, from a copy made by Melaghlin O'Callannan in 1528, for the 'coarb', or successor, of Mac Creiche at Cell Maelodrain (Killoran, barony Owney and Arra, Co. Tipperary). With the exception of a few lines cited by O'Curry in his Manuscript Materials, pp. 630-2, and another short passage cited by Professor Macalister in his monograph on Inis Celtra,1 p. 135, the Life has not been previously printed.

It cannot be said that it is a favourable specimen of Irish Hagiography. In the first place, the text is in places obviously corrupt, especially in the metrical portions; and, as no other MS. is known, the only remedy available is conjecture; and the translation is in several passages only tentative. In revising the translation I have had the valuable assistance of Miss Maud Joynt, whose Irish scholarship is as accurate as it is extensive; she has read the whole of the translation in manuscript, and made many valuable suggestions and corrections, as well as several excellent emendations of the text.2 But there still remain passages which have resisted our combined efforts.

But, apart from textual corruption, the narrative is often confused and the sequence of events obscure. For example, at the end of paragraph 17, it looks as if a shorter version of the same incident had been conflated with the fuller account which precedes. In paragraph 1 the saint is made son of Pesslan (an obviously non-Irish name), and in paragraph 10 is said to have been a fosterling of St. Ailbe; but in paragraph 46 ad finem he seems to be made an actual son of an Ailbe, who is called the war dog of Sliab Crot. In paragraph 48 a


a story seems implied which is not given in the prose narrative; but the translation is not quite certain.

Like some other Irish Lives, this Life is overloaded with dreary and prolix poems. I do not however think that the whole Life was originally metrical. The poems seem based on the prose narrative, not vice versa. On the other hand the writer has local knowledge; the details in paragraphs 2, 15, 16, 18, seem to suggest an eye witness.

The Life is utterly unhistorical, and the very existence of the hero of it extremely shadowy. This is indicated by the fact that we are never once told his real name. Mac Creiche, Son of plunder, is a mere nickname, derived from his alleged rescue of the prey taken from the Ciarraige by a plundering expedition of their neighbours the Eoganacht of Killarney. His previous name, we are told on this occasion, was Mac Croide Ailbe or Mac Ochta Ailbe, i.e. Son of Ailbe's heart or bosom; but this again is a mere nickname due to the tradition of his having been a favourite pupil of that saint. This relationship is mentioned also in the Life of Ailbe, most clearly in the recension of the Codex Salmanticensis, paragraph 37: 'Alio tempore exiit Albeus ad ciuitatem Ultani, ut ibi uisitaret alumpnum suum, scilicet Maccreky.'3

Unfortunately, the Life of the master is itself so shadowy that it cannot confer any historical reality on the pupil. I have discussed the character of that Life in the Introduction to Vitae Sanctorum Hiberniae, t. 1, pp. 28-31, 183. The view there advocated, that Ailbe is a saint of the fifth and sixth centuries, is consistent with the fact that Aed, son of Eochaid Tirmcharna, King of Connaught, one of the few historical characters occurring in the Life of Mac Creiche, was killed in 576 according to the Annals of Ulster (=577).

Another mention of Mac Creiche is found in the most apocryphal part of the Life of St. Enda of Aranmore, where he is one of a deputation of three sent from Aran to Rome to obtain a decision as to the abbacy of the island; 'Unanimi igitur consensu ... missi sunt tres uiri fide digni, scilicet Finnianus iunior, et Mac Crichi nomine, et Erlatheus.'4 And here also, as in our Life, he is associated with Ailbe, and with Aran.5 Enda also is probably a saint of the fifth and sixth centuries. On this view, association with Brendan of Clonfert6 (ob. 577 or 583) is also possible. But indeed the length of life attributed to Mac Creiche, as to


many other Irish saints, would suffice to cover a multitude of chronological sins.

But perhaps the most interesting mention of Mac Creiche is in the Life of St. Columba of Terryglass in Codex Salmanticensis, paragraph 15: 'Post hec exiit Columba in fines Connactorum... tenuitque alia loca circa stagnum nomine Dercderc... Apparuit ei angelus Domini dicens ei: Surge ad insulam Keltra. Inuenit ibi quendam uirum senem nomine Maccriche. Cui angelus dixit: Hanc insulam relinque sancto Columbe, et perge ad alium locum et esto monachus ei (? ibi)'.7 We may notice in passing that this passage agrees with our Life in representing the saint as a very aged man. But a yet more interesting fact is that, as Professor Macalister has shown in his Monograph on the History and Antiquities of lnis Celtra8 (in Lough Derg), pp. 132-6, there exists on that island a cell which answers almost exactly to the description of the hermitage given at the beginning of our Life, to which the Saint retired for his lenten penances. This hermitage and these ascetic practices of the Saint are alluded to in a passage which probably contains the earliest mention of him, the twenty-seventh stanza of Cuimmin of Connor's poem on the Saints of Ireland. It is there said:

    1. Carais Mac Reithe an chrabaid
      Carcair cruaidh is í idan;
      Ó initt co caisc gan cáin,
      Acht mad páin ocus biror.9
      • Mac Reithe of the (ascetic) devotion loved
        A hard but pure prison;
        From Shrove-tide to Easter without tribute,
        Except bread and cress.

A note appended to the poem identifies the author with Cuimine, bishop of Nendrum, whose death is placed both by the Four Masters and by the Annals of Ulster in 658 (=659). But the author himself in the last verse gives his name as Cuimmin of Connor, and it is possible that the identification of him with Cuimine of Nendrum may be due to a confusion;


for the entry in the Annals of Ulster runs thus: Dimma niger epscop Condire, & Cummeni epscop Naendroma... mortui sunt; i.e. Dimma Dub, bishop of Connor, and Cuimine, bishop of Nendrum, died. But however this may be, the poem cannot possibly be as early as the seventh century; Dr. Stokes, the editor, would place it in the eleventh or twelfth.

As regards other characters mentioned in the Life of Cremthann or Crimthann, son of Cobthach, the plundering chief of the Eoganacht, with his numerous progeny, I can find no trace in the Annals, with the possible exception, pointed out to me by Miss Joynt, of Aed Bennain. In the Chron. Scotorum, s.a. 619, we have the death of 'Aed Bendan, airdri Muman, dond Eoganacht'.10 That he is called over-king of Munster might be regarded as a fulfilment of Mac Creiche's prophecies about him in paragraph 25.

The least historical of all these characters is the alleged king of Corcumruad, Baeth-brónach (i.e. the foolishly sorrowful),11 who had never smiled or laughed. Evidently he has been transplanted bodily from some folk-tale of a king who never smiled. We should have expected the saint to work some miracle which would rouse the melancholy monarch to merriment; but instead of this we have only the common-place issue of grants of land.

This shadowy character of Mac Creiche is further illustrated by the fact that, though Michael O'Clery copied his Life at great length, he and his associates found no place for him in their Martyrology of Donegal; though they cite this Life as an authority for Luchtigern at April 28th. Evidently they did not even know the date of his festival.12

Mac Creiche is a very local saint; through his mother he is said to be connected with the Ciarraige (Kerry), but his father belongs to Corcumruad (in the wider sense); and the only mark, as far as I know, which Mac Creiche has left on the topography of Ireland, is the parish of Kilmacrehy in the barony of Corcumroe, Co. Clare; O'Clery however, in his colophon, speaks of a 'coarb' or successor, of Macrehy at Cell


Maelodrain (Killoran, bar. Owney and Arra, Co. Tipperary), so that we may say perhaps that he belongs to the diocese of Killaloe.

Such interest as the Life has belongs to folk-lore, and not to history or hagiography. In the notes to the translation I have called attention to some points which are interesting from this point of view; and the story of the king who never smiled has been commented on above. One other point deserves notice: the curious idea that the pestilences which ravaged Ireland were embodied in various deadly monsters, which laid waste the land and were slain by the Saint's power. The destruction of two of these is described in the Life, the Crom Conaill and the Broicsech, the latter at great length. O'Curry13 translates ‘broicsech’ by Badger-monster, from brocc, a badger; and Mr. Westropp, cited by Professor Macalister,14 shows that this conception of the monster still survives in local tradition, aided perhaps by a folk etymology which analyses ‘broicsige’ the genitive of ‘broicsech’ into ‘broic-sidhe’ a broc-shee, or fairy badger (cf. banshee).

The hard bargains driven by the Saint with his admirers in return for his miraculous aid, is an unpleasant feature which this Life shares with other Lives of Irish Saints, notably that of St. Caillín in the Book of Fenagh. The statement in paragraph 42 that Mac Creiche was 'without love of gold or silver', is by no means borne out by the conduct of the Saint; while, if a suggestion which I have made for emending a corrupt passage in paragraph 32 of the Life is correct, we should find the Saint making the extremely business-like offer to return one per cent of his tribute in consideration of prompt payments. Miss Joynt indeed suggests that the Saint's name ‘Son of plunder’ may have originated in this unlovely characteristic, and that the story of the raid may have been invented to conceal the real origin of the name.

I am inclined to hazard a yet bolder suggestion. It may have been noticed that in the passages cited from the Lives of St. Enda and St. Columba of Terryglas, the name is written Mac Criche,15 not Mac Creiche. Mac Criche would mean Son of the Border; and if his original settlement was at Inis Celtra, we can well understand the reason of the name.


So much is that island a border country, that in the last century it was twice transferred, first from Co. Clare to Co. Galway in 1849, and fifty years later, in 1899, from Galway back to Clare.16

I have printed the Life in much the same way as other texts which I have edited. {...}. The divisions of chapters are those of the MS., but for convenience of reference I have broken up the text into shorter sections, the numbering of which runs continuously.