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

Section 46


It was in the time of Cormac that Fitheal lived; and he was his chief brehon; and as Fitheal was about to die, he sent for his son namd Flaithri; and this Flaithri was a wise and learned man. Fitheal left him his blessing, and advised him to observe four things most carefully, and that it would be to his advantage to do so, namely, not to nurse or take in fosterage a king's son, not to impart a dangerous secret to his wife, not to raise the state of a serf's son, not to commit his purse or his treasure to his sister's keeping. And after Fitheal's death, Flaithri resolved to test each of these points. And to make trial of them he took in fosterage the son of Cormac son of Art; and some time after he took the child with him into a wood, and gave him to one of his people, a swineherd, who lived in the recesses of the wood; and he asked him to conceal the child well until himself should send him a certain token, and then he returned to the town to his own house, and feigned much trouble and distress; and his wife inquired of him the cause of his trouble and distress. He said it was nothing. But when she saw his distress continue, she began to importune him to find out from him the cause of his trouble. He said that, if she would keep it a secret, he would tell her the cause of his distress.

She swore that whatever he should tell her as a secret she would not reveal it. ‘Then,’ said he, ‘I have committed a dreadful act of treachery, that is, the slaying of my fosterson, the king's son.’ Upon hearing this, the wife screamed and called the house-folk, and told them to bind the parricide because he had killed the king's son. And they did accordingly, and they took him bound to the king. Flaithri also had raised the state of the son of one of his own stewards so that he became a rich man. Similarly


very soon after his father's death he committed some of his wealth to his sister's keeping, so that none of the four counsels his father had given him should go unstested by him. Now, when, the steward's son found that he was a prisoner, and the king about to put him to death, none of them was more bitter and severe against him than he, as he hoped to acquire Flaithri's inheritance for himself.

Flaithri, finding himself in this difficulty, sent a message to his sister, asking her to send him the treasure he had give her to keep, that he might make friends for himself around the king's person. But when the messenger reached her, she denied that she had ever received any such thing from him. And when that reply reached Flaithri, as he was about to be put to death, he asked to be permitted to go before the king, in order to speak to him on a secret matter; and when he had come into Cormac's presence, he told him that the child was safe, and asked to be kept in his bonds till his foster-son should be brought in. The son was sent for; and when the child had come in from the swineherd who had been keeping him in safety, as he beheld Flaithri in bonds, he wept without ceasing until he was set free. And when Flaithri had been set free, Cormac asked him privately why he had permitted himself to be placed in this predicament. ‘It was to test the four counsels my father gave me I did so,’ said Flaithri; ‘and I found on testing them that my father's four counsels to me were wise. In the first place, it is not wise for anyone to take upon him the bringing up of a king's son lest he may be guilty of neglect resulting in the injury or loss of the fosterchild, while the life or death of the foster-father who had been negligent was in the power of the king. As to the second counsel my father gave me, the keeping of a dangerous secret is not by nature in the power of women in general; hence it is not prudent to commit such a secret to them. The third counsel my father gave me was not to raise or make


wealthy the son of a serf or of a lowly person; for such persons are usually unmindful of the benefit conferred on them; and moreover, they are hurt that the party who raised them should be aware of the meaness and lowly state whence they rose. Good,’ said he, ‘is the fourth counsel my father gave me: not to give my treasure to my sister; for it belongs to the nature of women to regard as spoil whatever valuables their friends give them to keep in safety.’

It was ordained in Cormac's time that every high king of Ireland should keep ten officers in constant attendance on him, who did not separate from him as a rule, namely, a prince, a brehon, a druid, a physician, a bard, a seancha, a musician, and three stewards: the prince to be a bodyattendant on the king; the brehon to explain the customs and laws of the country in the king's presence; a druid to offer sacrifices, and to forebode good or evil to the country by means of his skill and magic; a physician to heal the king and his queen and the rest of the household; a filé to compose satire or panegyric for each one according to his good or evil deeds; a seancha to preserve the genealogies, the history, and transactions of the nobles from age to age; a musician to play music, and to chant poems and songs in the presence of the king; and three stewards with their company of attendants and cupbearers to wait on the king, and attend to his wants. This custom was kept from the time of Cormac to the death of Brian son of Cinneide without change, except that, since the kings of Ireland received the Faith of Christ, an ecclesiastical chaplain took the place of the druid, to declare and explain the precepts and the laws of God to the king, and to his household. Thus does the seancha set forth the matter just stated:

    1. There are ten round the king,
      Without rivalry, without anxiety—
      I can name them all,
      Both prince and official.

    2. p.345

    3. There are appointed to attend on gracious kings,
      A brehon, a filé, and a prince;
      The king who has not the three named,
      His honour-price is not sanctioned by Fenian law.
    4. A chaplain to expound the gospels,
      A seancha who sets right every mishap,
      A musician skilled in harp-strings also:
      For these fine and honour-price are appointed.
    5. The fourth person is a physician,
      To look to each one's disease;
      Three stewards to serve famous companies,
      I shall record for the hosts of Erin.
    6. The king who shall not have all these
      Has no right to be in the Reim Rioghruidhe;
      In the house of Tara shall not pass his time
      A king not having the ten.

On account of the excellence of Cormac's deeds and judgments, and laws, God gave him the light of the Faith seven years before his death. And, accordingly, he refused to adore gods made with hands; and he set himself to reverence and honour the true God; so that he was the third man in Ireland who believed before the coming of Patrick. Conchubhar son of Neasa was the first to receive the faith when he heard from Bacrach the druid that the Jewish people would put Christ to death by torment; Morann son of Maon was the second person; and Cormac son of Art was the third. It was at Tara that Cormac usually resided, according to the practice of his predecessors, until his eye was desroyed by Aonghus Gaoibuaibtheach, as we have said above; and thenceforward he abode in Achaill, in the house of Cleiteach, and in Ceanannus. For the men of Ireland considered it neither becoming nor auspicious that a king with a blemish should abide in Tara; and for this reason Cormac gave over the sovereignty to his son Cairbre Lithfeachair; and he gave up Tara to him, retiring himself to the house of Cleiteach and to Achaill not far from Tara. And it was there he


composed the Teagaisc Riogh, setting forth what a king should be, as we have said above, and how he should rule the people through their laws. And from the time that Cormac gave over the sovereignty, he believed only in the one God of heaven.

On a certain day, when Cormac was in the house of Cleiteach, the druids were worshipping the golden calf in his presence; and the general body of the people were worshipping it after the manner of the druids. Maoilgheann the druid asked Cormac why he was not adoring the golden calf and the gods like the rest. ‘I will not,’ said Cormac, ‘worship a stock made by my own artificer; and it were better to worship the person who made it; for he is nobler than the stock’ Maoilgheann the druid excited the golden calf so that he made a bound before them all. ‘Dost thou see that, O Cormac?’ said Maoilgheann. ‘Although I see,’ said Cormac, ‘I will worship only the God of heaven, of earth, and of hell.’

After this his food was cooked for the king, and he began to eat a portion of a salmon from the Boinn. Thereupon the demon sprites came, at the instigation of Maoilgheann the druid, and they killed the king. Others say that it was a salmon-bone that stuck in his throat and choked him. For it was eating fish he was when the sprites, or demons of the air, choked him.

When the king was in the throes of death, he directed his officers not to bury his body at the Brugh, where the kings of Tara had been buried up to then. But when the people were conveying his body to the Brugh to be buried, the sprites put it into the greatly swollen river thrice before them; for they did not wish to let his body into the burial place of the idolaters, since he believed in the true God. And the fourth time its bearers carried the body into the river, and it was snatched away from them by the current of the Boinn, and it reached Ros na Riogh and


became separated from the fuad, or bier, whence the ford Ath Fuaid on the Boinn is named. They mourned for him there; and his grave was made; and he was buried at Ros na Riogh. A long time after this, Columcille came to that place, and found the head of king Cormac there, and buried it. Columcille remained in the place till he had said thirty Masses above his grave, and there is now a church in the place.

As we have spoken of the druids here, I think it will be meet to give some account of them, and especially of their sacrifices, and of their geasa, as will appear below. There are, indeed, to be seen in Ireland to-day in many places, as relics of the Pagan times, many very wide flag-stones, and pillarstones supporting them; and these are called idol-altars in the old books, while the general populace call them beds of the Fian, as they are ignorant of the reason of their construction. On these altars the druids were wont to make their sacrifices in the olden time, and slay their he-goats, their bulls, and their rams; and the druids themselves went on their knees under the blood as it dropped from their victims, to cleanse themselves from the uncleanness of their sins, as the high priest did among the Jewish people when he went under the sacrificial bridge to let the blood of the victims flow over him, and hence he was called Pontifex, that is, bridge-wright.

As to the druids, the use they made of the hides of the bulls offered in sacrifice was to keep them for the purpose of making conjuration, or laying geasa on the demons; and many are the ways in which they laid geasa on them, such as to keep looking at their own images in water, or gaze on the clouds of heaven, or keep listening to the noise of the wind or the chattering of birds. But when all these expedients failed them, and they were obliged to do their utmost, what they did was, to make round wattles of the quicken tree, and to spread thereon the


offered in sacrifice, putting the side which had been next the flesh uppermost, and thus relying on their geasa to summon the demons to get information from them, as the conjurer does nowadays in the circus; whence the old saw has since been current which says that one has gone on his wattles of knowledge when he has done his utmost to obtain information.

Formerly, in the times of Paganism, there were two chief cemeteries in Ireland, in which most of the kings of Ireland were buried, namely, the Brugh of the Boinn, and the Cemetery of the Kings near Cruachain. It is plain, from the narrative given above, that the Brugh of the Boinn was a burial-place for the kings of Tara, and it is certain that the Cemetery of the Kings at Cruachain was a common cemetery for the kings of Ireland, according to Torna Eigeas in the following poem:

    1. A fair king of Fail lies beneath thee,
      Dathi son of Fiachraidh, a man of dignity;
      O Cruacha, thou hast concealed this
      From foreigners and from Gaels.
    2. Beneath thee lies strenuous Dunghalach,
      Who brought the hostages across the sea from the west;
      There is beneath thee, make known the gift,
      Conn Tuathal and Tomaltach.
    3. Three sons of Eochaidh Feidhlioch the fair,
      They are beneath thy wall as I aver;
      Eochaidh Aireamh lies prostrate,
      Slain by the mighty great Maol.
    4. Eochaidh Feidhleach the prince
      Is beneath thee, and worthy Deirbhri,
      And Clothra, not reproachful the dignity,
      And Meadhbh and Murasc.
    5. Eire Fodla and Banbha,
      Three beauteous noble young ladies,
      Are in Cruacha of the clans,
      Three women of the Tuath De Danann,

    6. p.353

    7. The three sons of Cearmad, from Sith Truim,
      And Lughaidh from Liathdhruim,
      The sons of Aodh son of the Daghadh,
      And tall brave Midhir.
    8. Beneath thy pillar-stones are lying
      Graceful Cobhthach and Ughaine,
      And Badhbhcha of the prosperous reign,
      And proud, haughty Ollamh.
    9. A fair.

Eochaidh Gunnat son of Fiach, son of Iomchaidh, son of Breasal, son of Siorchaidh, son of Fiatach Fionn from whom the Dal bhFiatach are named, son of Dluthaidh, son of Deitsin, son of Eochaidh, son of Sin, son of Roisin, son of Triun, son of Roithriun, son of Airndil, son of Maine, son of Forga, son of Fearadhach, son of Oilill Earann, son of Fiachaidh Fear Mara, son of Aonghus Tuirbheach Teamhrach of the race of Eireamhon, held the sovereignty of Ireland one year, and he fell by Lughna Feirtre.