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The instructions of King Cormac Mac Airt: Tecosca Cormaic (Author: Unknown)


Tecosca Cormaic: The Instructions of King Cormac mac Airt


AMONG the gnomic literature of ancient Ireland, the instructions given by princes to their heirs, by tutors to their disciples, or by foster-fathers to their sons form a group by themselves. The oldest among them are those ascribed to Morann mac Móin, addressed to his foster-son Nére to be delivered by him to King Feradach Findfechtnach, who, according to the Annals of the Four Masters, was King of Ireland from 15 to 36 A.D. They are known as Audacht, Auraicept, or Tecosc Morainn ‘The Bequest, Precept, or Instruction of Morann,’ and to judge from their language were composed early in the eighth century.1

The Instructions of Cúchulaind to his foster-son Lugaid of the Red Stripes, known as Bríatharthecosc Conculaind, form an episode in the tale called the Sickbed of Cuchulaind, edited by Windisch in his Irische Texte, vol. 1, p. 213-214. They have often been translated, by O'Curry in Atlantis, vol. 1, pp. 362-392, and vol. II, pp. 98-124; by Brian O'Looney in the Facsimiles of the National MSS. of Ireland; by D'Arbois de Jubainville in L'Épopée celtique en Irlande, pp. 186 -191; and by Miss E. Hull in her Cuchuilin Saga, pp. 231-234.

A third collection of precepts and wise sayings is ascribed

to the poet Fíthel or Fíthal, who is said to have lived at the court of King Cormac mac Airt in the third century. They are addressed to his son, and are known as Senbríatha or Senraite Fíthail.2 Some of them are in the form of question and answer, like Tecosca Cormaic, a circumstance which has led many scribes to a confusion of the two. Some extracts from them will be found in Hardiman's Minstrelsy, vol. II, p.396. Like Tecosca Cormaic, I would ascribe them to the ninth century.

Certain sayings of Fíthel are in some MSS. attributed to Flann Fina mac Ossu, by which name Aldfrid the son of king Osuiu (Oswy) of Northumberland was known in Ireland. Thus the strings of proverbs beginning respectively Atchota soichell saidbrius, Ba faitech ar ná ba fiachach, Descaid cotulta freslige, Tosach eoluis imchomairc, Ferr dán orba are ascribed to him in 23 N 10 and 23 D 2. Both these MSS. also attribute to him a number of sayings which begin like paragraph 15 of my edition of Tecosca Cormaic, and continue Dligid fí fortacht, dligid gó a cairiugud, &c. Under the heading Flann Fí beos 23 D 2 further assigns to him the following interesting piece, which, as I have never come across it in any other manuscript, I will print and translate in extenso:

  1. Cia féighe rángais? Fir Mhuighi Féine & gaoth.
  2. Cia hannsa rángais? Araidh Cliach & archoin.
  3. Cia solmha rángais? Osraighe & deamhnae.
  4. Cia dana rángais? Corco Laeighde & ...
  5. Cia tétem rángais? Na Déisi & miolchoin.
  6. Cia heglaige rángais? Húi Líatháin & caoirigh.
  7. Cia mesgamla rángais? Cíarraige & menntáin.
  8. Cia húallcha rángais? Muscraige & coiligh fedha.
  9. Cia gairbe rángais? Orbraige & aitend.

  10. p.vii

  11. Caite as dech rángais? A n-as mesa do shíol Aodha Sláine & a n-as ferr díb-sein as fri hainglib nime at cosmaile.
  12. Cia mesamh rángais? A n-as deach Glasraighe & a n-as mesa díb-sein as fri demnaibh at cosmaile.
  13. Who are the keenest you have met? The men of Mag Féne and wind.
  14. Who are the most troublesome you have met? The Araid Cliach and watch-hounds.3
  15. Who are the swiftest you have met? The men of Ossory and demons.
  16. Who are the boldest you have met? The Corco Laeigde and
  17. Who are the wantonest you have met? The Deissi and hounds. Who are the most timid you have met? The Húi Liatháin and sheep.
  18. Who are the most drunken you have met? The men of Kerry4 and titmice.
  19. Who are the proudest you have met? The men of Muskerry and wood-cocks.
  20. Who are the roughest you have met? The men of Orbraige5 and furze.
  21. Who are the best you have met? The worst part of the race of Aed Sláne;6 and those who are best of them are like unto angels of Heaven.
  22. Who are the worst you have met? The best part of the Glasraige;7 and those who are worst of them are like unto demons.

In 23 N 27, p. 33, a set of sayings beginning Maith dán ecna dogní ríg do bocht is attributed to Flann Fíona mac Cosa (sic). The Instructions of Cormac have not before been published or translated in their entirety. A few selections from the text of the Book of Ballymote were translated by


Hardiman l.c. O'Donovan's edition and translation from the Book of Lecan in the Dublin Penny Journal of December, 1832, and January, 1833, are well known; but the text which he followed is both incomplete and faulty, and his renderings can now be much improved upon. The following edition is based upon a comparison of all available MSS. which I will briefly characterize.

L, i.e. the Book of Leinster, a MS. of the twelfth century, pp. 343-345. In spite of its age and fine penmanship this MS. does not, as I have repeatedly pointed out, supply us with accurate and trustworthy texts. The copy of Tecosca Cormaic contained in it has many faulty readings, such as ríglach (p. 343b 40) for riaglach (paragraph 3, 10), ales (p. 343b21) for ata lais (paragraph 2, 24), imtholta (p. 345, 17) for imscoltad (paragraph 22, 10), cátingud (ib. 25) for cathugud (ib.17), éthech (p. 345c) for etech (paragraph 31, 9), trebar (ib.) for trebad (ib. 10), forus (ib.) for árus (ib. 11), fuacht (ib.) for fuchacht or fuichecht (ib. 14) &c.

B, i.e. the Book of Ballymote, a MS. of the fourteenth century, pp. 62a-65a. Like L, it mixes up Tecosca Cormaic with Bríathra Fíthail, passing suddenly from Cormac dixit fri Coirpre (p. 65a13) to ol a mac fri Fíthul (ib.32). The text, though good on the whole, is never quite reliable, the scribe often blundering in an almost incredible manner.8 Several sections are left out.

Lec, i.e. the Book of Lecan, a MS. of the fifteenth century, fo. 420a-422a, and pp. 179-180 in the codex H. 2. 17 (Trin. Coll.), with which some of the leaves of the Book of Lecan are now bound up. Neither a complete nor very accurate version.


N1, i.e. the MS. marked 23 N 10 (R.I.A.) containing in its vellum portion from p. 1-6 a large fragment of our text.9 A careful and trustworthy copy on the whole.

N2, i.e. the paper MS. marked 23 N 17 (R.I.A.) written in 1714 by Domhnall Ó Duind mac Eimuinn. Here on fo. 7b-32b is a carefully written and heavily glossed copy of the Tecosca. In 1828 O'Donovan made a transcript of it which, numbered 23 O 20, is preserved in the library of the Royal Irish Academy.

D, i.e. a small paper octavo marked 23 D 2 (R.I.A.). Though written in the seventeenth century it contains in a remarkably neat hand both the most complete and by far the best copy of the Tecosca.

H1, i.e. the paper MS. numbered H. 1. 15 (Trin. Coll.), written in 1745 by Tadhg Ua Neachtain. Under the title Teagasg Riogh it contains on pp. 140-174 a fairly complete and on the whole pretty accurate copy of our text.

H2, i.e. the eighteenth-century paper manuscript numbered H. 1. 9. (Trin. Coll.) pp. 59 to the end, a poor copy, of which I have hardly made any use.

H3, i.e. the paper MS. numbered H. 4. 8. (Trin. Coll.), copied in the latter half of the seventeenth century by Dr. Joannes Beaton from a vellum manuscript. It once belonged to the Welsh antiquary Edward Lloyd, entries in English and Welsh by whom are found at the beginning of the volume. This copy also has so many defects that I have but rarely used it.

K, i.e. the sixteenth-century vellum marked VII, No. 3 in the Advocates' Library, Edinburgh. It contains from fo. 9 a1-9b2 an imperfect, but fairly good copy of our text. It breaks off with paragraph 18 of my edition.


Lastly, the paper MS. No. II among the Gaelic MSS. in the Advocates' Library in Edinburgh contains on ten pages an incomplete and faulty copy of our text written in the seventeenth century. I have not used it.10 Nor have I thought it worth while to collate throughout a copy in the Book of Húi Maine, fo. 182a-182b, as it is identical with that of B.

I have already stated that N2 is copiously glossed. Occasionally glosses are also found in B and in some of the other MSS. These glosses, like those of the Triads, were written at a time when Old-Irish was no longer understood, and are therefore of hardly any value. Besides, some of them are not explanatory, but etymological, such as ilach (paragraph 10, 4 in my edition) .i. imat focul. Many of them were collected for the purpose of forming a glossary of Old-Irish words,11 and are to be found under the title Incipit din Tecusc Rig budesta in H. 3. 18, col. 539a. A few samples will characterise them sufficiently: — argrinn goit (paragraph 2, 8) .i. tabach. airiti dála (paragraph 6, 39) .i. aentugud. turchomrac (paragraph 3, 4) .i. tinol. clandad dligid (paragraph 2, 11) .i. sadad nó cur. forsmaltaib (paragraph 2,21) .i. caithem. foltaib (paragraph 2, 2;1) .i. acra. athcomarc (paragraph 3, 6) .i. fiarfaide. diubairt (paragraph 3, 30) .i. lethtrom. deide (paragraph 1, 6) senchasa .i. damachtain nó fulang. rob sobraid (paragraph 6, 4) .i. soabraid. rop


sognasaig12 (paragraph 6, 17) .i. gnai uais. tochus (paragraph 6, 43) .i. ealada. suilid (paragraph 7, 10) .i. sofulaing. duilid (paragraph 7, 10) .i. dofulaing. meilcend (paragraph 7, 17) .i. tabartus. cuire. (paragraph 8, 5) .i. uir. riancobra (paragraph 11, 5) .i. rianocobrach .i. saithech. teiti (paragraph 10, 10) .i. slighi. suanach (paragraph 13, 12) .i. conaich. solom (paragraph 13, 34) .i. soluam. gabail (paragraph 14, 1) .i. tinol ut dixit (leg. dicitur) Lebar Gabála. turrtugud (paragraph 14, 27) .i. timpud. tirfochraic13 (paragraph 14, 27) .i. cennach. toimdinach (paragraph 15, 2) .i. dochusach. crinnach14 (paragraph 15, 5) .i. crin. disgir (paragraph 15, 17) .i. diaisc. itfaide (paragraph 16, 17) .i. saithech. resca (paragraph 16, 81) .i. grasta. forcomat (paragraph 16, 87) .i. rogabat. faenbleogan (paragraph 16, 106) .i. cendsugad, &c.

Some of the glosses were evidently made on a text occasionally differing from ours, e.g. déide senchasa instead of dethide senchasa paragraph 1, 6. Here déitiu, the O.-Ir. verbal noun of damur or daimim (Middle-Ir. daimthiu), is rightly glossed by .i. damachtain no fulang.

I think there can be no doubt that Tecosca Cormaic in the form in which it has come down to us was compiled during the Old-Irish period of the language, and, so far as I can judge, not later than the first half of the ninth century. The numerous verbal forms which it contains seem to point to that time. The later forms of the infixed pronouns which Strachan has pointed out in Ériu III, p. 158, such as -das- or -dos-, do not appear in our text.

A tendency is occasionally apparent to link some of the lines of each paragraph together by alliteration in such a way that the initial sound of the last word in one line is repeated at the beginning of the next, e.g. paragraph 14, 4:

    1. luge ria mbreith,
      bretha díana,
      dúscud ferge
      folabra gúach &c.


Professor O. J. Bergin and Dr. Whitley Stokes have had the kindness to read proofs of the text and translation, to point out mistakes and to suggest the emendations, for which I desire to express my best thanks to them.

K. M.