Corpus of Electronic Texts Edition
The History of Ireland (Author: Geoffrey Keating)

Section 43


Cormac Ulfhada son of Art Aoinfhear, son of Conn Ceadchathach, son of Feilimidh Reachtmhar, son of Tuathal Teachtmhar of the race of Eireamhon, held the sovereignty of Ireland forty years. He is called Cormac Ulfhada, for he had a long ulcha, that is 'a long beard', or from the word Ulfhada, meaning 'Ultonians afar'; for he sent Ultonian chiefs into exile for sixteen years out of Ulster, on account of the injury they had done him before he attained the sovereignty of Ireland. And the mother of this Cormac was Eachtach daughter of Uilceathach the smith; and it was when the Battle of Magh Muchruimh was on the point of being fought that Art Aoinfhear became the father of Cormac by the smith's daughter, who was then his dowered mistress. For it was a custom at that time in Ireland, that whatever king or king's son coveted the daughter of a farmer or biadhtach, desiring to have her as a mistress or paramour, should get her, provided he gave her a marriage portion or dowry of cattle. And it was in this manner that Art obtained Cormac's mother, for it was not she who was his wedded wife, but Meadhbh Leithdhearg, daughter of Conan of Cuala, and from this latter Raith Meadhbha near Tara is named.

Strange was the vision which this Eachtach, that is the mother of Cormac, beheld. She imagined indeed, as she lay asleep beside Art, that her head was severed from her body and that a great tree grew out of her neck which extended its branches over all Ireland, and the sea came over this tree and laid it low; and after this another tree grew out of the roots of the first, and a blast of wind came from the west and felled it; and at the sight of this vision the woman started and awoke from her sleep, and she told the substance of the vision to Art. ‘That is true,’ said Art, ‘the head of every woman is her husband and I shall be taken from thee in the


Battle of Magh Muchruimhe; and the tree that will grow out of thee is a son which thou wilt bear to me, who will be king of Ireland; and the sea that will overwhelm him is a fish-bone which he will swallow, and he will be choked on that occasion. And the tree that will grow out of the roots of the first is a son that will be born to him who will be king of Ireland; and the blast of wind from the west that will overthrow him is a battle that will be fought between himself and the Fian; and he will fall by the Fian in that battle. But the Fian will not prosper thenceforth.’ And this vision was fulfilled in Cormac and his son Cairbre Lithfeachair, since the demons choked Cormac as he was swallowing a fish-bone, and Cairbre Lithfeachair fell by the Fian at the Battle of Gabhra.

Some seanchas state that Cormac's wife was Eithne Thaobhfhada daughter of Cathaoir Mor. But this cannot be true, seeing that she was the mother of Cairbre Lithfeachair. Since there were eighty-eight years from the death of Cathaoir till Cormac assumed the sovereignty of Ireland, namely, the twenty years Conn Ceadchathach held the sovreignty of Ireland, and the seven years Conaire son of Mogh Lamha held it, and the thirty years of Art Aoinfhear, the thirty years of Mac Con, and the one year of Fearghus Duibhdheadach in the sovereignty of Ireland up to the time Cormac assumed the supreme rule of that country.

It is, however, true that Eithne Ollamhdha daughter of Dunlaing son of Eanna Nia was the mother of Cairbre Lithfeachair; and it is she who was the foster child of Buicead, a farmer with hundreds of kine, who lived in Leinster, who kept a hospitable pot over a fire to give food to everyone of the men of Ireland who visited his house. Now this Buicead was thus circumstanced: he had vast wealth, for he had seven herds, and seven score kine in each herd, together with a corresponding number of horses and cattle of every other description, so that the


nobles of Leinster, with companies of their followers, used to frequent his house, and some of them took away from him a number of his kine, and others some of his brood-mares, others again a number of his steeds, and thus they despoiled him of all his wealth, so that there remained to him only seven cows and a bull; and he fled by night with his wife and Eithne, his foster-child, from Dun Buicead, to an oak grove near Ceanannus na Midhe, where Cormac used to reside at that time; and Buicead built a hut, in which himself and his wife and foster-child then resided. And Eithne used to serve or wait upon her foster-father and her foster-mother as a maid-servant.

Now on a certain day Cormac went out alone on horseback to travel through the lands that surrounded the town, and he saw the fair maiden, Eithne, milking these seven cows of Buicead. And this was her way of doing it: she had two vessels, and she milked the first portion of each cow's milk into the first vessel, and the second portion into the second vessel, and she acted thus till she had milked the seven cows while Cormac kept watching her, through his great love for her. She then went into the hut in which her foster-father was, and left the milk there, and took out in her hand two other vessels and a cup to the stream which was near the town or the hut, and with the cup filled the first vessel from the water which was near the brink, and the second vessel from the water which was in the middle of the stream, and then she returned to the hut. She came out the third time, having a reaping-hook to cut rushes, and as she cut the rushes she used to put each long wisp of fresh rushes that she cut on one side, and the short rushes on the other side. Now Cormac, through his great love for her, was watching her during each of these practices; and Cormac asked for whom she was making the special selection of the water, the milk, and the rushes. ‘He, for whom I am making it,’ said she, ‘is


worthy of a greater kindness from me were it in my power to do it.’ ‘What is his name?’ asked Cormac. ‘Buicead the farmer,’ she replied. ‘Is that Buicead, the Leinster biadhthach, who is celebrated throughout Ireland?’ asked Cormac. ‘It is,’ said she. ‘Then,’ said Cormac, ‘thou art Eithne daughter of Dunlaing, his foster-child?’ ‘I am,’ replied Eithne. ‘It is well,’ said Cormac; ‘for thou shalt be my wife.’ ‘It is not I who can dispose of myself,’ said she, ‘but my foster-father.’ Upon this, Cormac went with her to Buicead, and promised him presents if he got Eithne as his wife. Buicead consented to give Eithne to Cormac as his wife; and Cormac gave him the district of Odhran beside Tara, with its stock of cattle, during his life. And then Cormac knew Eithne, and she conceived of him, and after that she bore him an illustrious son, who was called Cairbre Lithfeachair.

Now this Cormac was one of the wisest kings that ever ruled Ireland; witness the Teagasc Riogh he wrote for Cairbre Lithfeachair; and many laudable customs and laws devised by him, which are recorded in the Breitheamhnas Tuaithe. Moreover, of all the kings that ever ruled Ireland, Cormac was one of those who kept the most princely household, and the largest number of attendants and followers. The truth of this may be the more readily admitted from the account which Aimhirgin son of Amhalghaidh son of Maoilrian, the filé of Diarmaid son of Cearbhall, gives of the Teach Miodhchuarta, which Cormac himself renewed and regulated, though it was long before Cormac the Teach Miodhchuarta was built. For it was in it that Slanoll king of Ireland died, long before Cormac's time. This is what we read in the book of Dinnseanchas, which the above-mentioned Aimhirgin wrote, namely, that it was in Cormac's time it was made into a banquet-hall. It was three hundred feet in length, thirty cubits high, and fifty cubits in breadth. There was a torch kept constantly lighting in it. It had fourteen doors; thrice fifty beds, besides Cormac's bed; thrice fifty


warriors in each bed. Cormac had thrice fifty stewards. There were fifty warriors standing in the king's presence as he sat at his meal. There were three hundred cup-bearers in that dun, and thrice fifty goblets of carbuncle, of gold, and of silver. The total number of that household amounted to one thousand and fifty men; so that on the greatness and goodness of Cormac, the poet composed this stanza:
    1. Of children Art left
      Only Cormac of the district of Corann.
      In dispensing jewels he was not close-fisted;
      Better Cormac than a hundred children.

Cormac had ten daughters, and three sons, as the poet says in this stanza:

    1. Ten daughters had gentle Cormac,
      And three most prosperous sons,
      Plunderers of Claire of the spoils,
      Daire, Cairbre, and Ceallach.

Daire was slain in Dubhros on the Boyne, in Breagha, and Ceallach was slain by Aonghus Gaoibuaibhtheach, as the poet says:

    1. It was Aonghus Gaoibuaibhtheach of fame
      Who slew Ceallach son of Cormac:
      Daire and noble Tadhg son of Cian died
      In Dubhros of the Boyne in Breagha.

And that the sequence of these events may be better understood by setting down here a short genealogical account of these persons, know that Feidhlimidh Reachtmhar had three sons, namely, Conn Ceadchathach, Eochaidh Fionn, and Fiachaidh Suighdhe, as we have said above. The descendants of Conn were at Tara, and held the sovereignty; and the second brother of Conn, namely, Eochaidh Fionn, went to Leinster, and his descendants multiplied there; and it was his descendants that possessed the seven Fotharta of Leinster. It was in his time that Cu Chorb son of Mogh Corb held the sovereignty of Leinster. It was,


moreover, by this Eochaidh Fionn that Laoighseach Ceannmhor son of Conall Cearnach was brought up and educated in politeness. It happened at that time that the Munstermen gained great sway in Leinster, so that they were in possession of Osruighe and Laoighis as far as Mullach Maistean.

Now, when Cu Chorb saw the Munstermen gaining power in Leinster, he asked Eochaidh Fionn to help him in expelling them from Leinster. Eochaidh consented to this; and he assembled his friends from all sides, and thus brought together a large army, and made his fosterson Laoighseach Ceannmhor leader of the host; and he himself and Cu Chorb king of Leinster, with their hosts, marched against the Munstermen, having Laoighseach Ceannmhor as commander-in-chief of the forces; and they drove the Munstermen from Mullach Maistean to the Bearbha, and routed them at Ath Troistean, which is called Ath I, on the Bearbha; and they followed up this rout till they defeated them a second time at Coirtheine in Magh Riada, which is called Laoighis Riada; and they continued the rout thence till they overthrew them a third time at Slighe Dhala — that is, Bealach Mor Osruighe; and thus they delivered the province of Leinster from the bondage of the Munstermen; and, in consideration of this, Eochaidh obtained the seven Fotharta of Leinster for himself and his descendants; and, similarly, his foster-son got the seven Laoighises for himself and for his descendants as a handsel in consideration of his leadership in expelling the Munstermen from the places we have mentioned.

Moreover, the king of Leinster ordained on his own behalf and on behalf of every king who should succeed him that the back of every beef and the ham of every hog slaughtered in the house of the king of Leinster be given as a champion's portion to the king of Laoighis, and that an axe-man should be in the house of the king of Leinster constantly, at the expense of that king, to receive that tribute


for the king of Laoighis. Besides, the king of Laoighis belonged to the council of the king of Leinster; and he took the fourth next place to the king at a general assembly; and it was to him was given in charge every present made by the king of Leinster for distribution to nobles and to ollamhs; and it was to the king of Laoighis that every gift made to the king of Leinster was given to be presented to the king of Leinster.

In addition to this, there were seven of the king of Laoighis's men in the pay of the king of Leinster;and they always attended the king to dress his body. And when the king of Leinster went on tour with his host, the only provision the king of Laoighis was bound to give him was seven beeves which he sent to the king's own camp. But the king of Laoighis was bound to maintain seven score warriors at his own expense for the king's host, and he had also the right of leading the van of the king of Leinster's host when entering hostile territory and in positions of danger. Again, the king of Laoighis was bound to make muster at general assemblies along with the king of Fotharta, because Eochaidh Fionn son of Feidhlimidh Reachtmhar, ancestor of the king of the Fotharta, was tutor to Laoighseach Ceannmhor, from whom sprang the king of Laoighis. And this custom was ever observed by them till the Norman Invasion.