The Golden Age of Pre-Christian Ireland

A. M. Sullivan
c. 1900


As early as the reign of Ard-Ri Cormac the First—the first years of the third century—the Christian faith had penetrated into Ireland. Probably in the commercial intercourse between the Irish and continental ports, some Christian converts had been made among the Irish navigators or merchants. Some historians think the monarch himself, Cormac, toward the close of his life adored the true God, and attempted to put down druidism. "His reign," says Mr. Haverty the historian, "is generally looked upon as the brightest epoch in the entire history of pagan Ireland. He established three colleges; one for War, one for History, and the third for Jurisprudence. He collected and remodeled the laws, and published the code which remained in force until the English invasion (a period extending beyond nine hundred years), and outside the English Pale for many centuries after! He assembled the bards and chroniclers at Tara, and directed them to collect the annals of Ireland, and to write out the records of the country from year to year, making them synchronize with the history of other countries, by collating events with the reigns of contemporary foreign potentates; Cormac himself having been the inventor of this kind of chronology. These annals formed what is called the 'Psalter of Tara,' which also contained full details of the boundaries of provinces, districts, and small divisions of land throughout Ireland; but unfortunately this great record has been lost, no vestige of it being now, it is believed, in existence. The magnificence of Cormac's palace at Tara was commensurate with the greatness of his power and the brilliancy of his actions; and he fitted out a fleet which he sent to harass the shores of Alba or Scotland, until that country also was compelled to acknowledge him as sovereign. He wrote a book or tract called Teaguscna-Ri, or the 'Institutions of a Prince,' which is still in existence, and which contains admirable maxims on manners, morals, and government." This illustrious sovereign died A.D. 266, at Cleitach, on the Boyne, a salmon bone, it is said, having fastened in his throat while dining, and defied all efforts at extrication. He was buried at Ross-na-ri, the first of the pagan monarchs for many generations who was not interred at Brugh, the famous burial place of the pre-Christian kings. A vivid tradition relating the circumstances of his burial has been very beautifully versified by Dr. Ferguson in his poem, "The Burial of King Cormac:"

" 'Crom Cruach and his sub-gods twelve,'
Said Cormac, 'are but craven treene;
The ax that made them, haft or helve,
Had worthier of our worship been:

" 'But He who made the tree to grow,
And hid in earth the iron-stone,
And made the man with mind to know
The ax's use, is God alone.' "

The Druids hear of this fearful speech, and are horrified:

"Anon to priests of Crom was brought
(Where girded in their service dread
They ministered on red Moy Slaught)
Word of the words King Cormac said.

"They loosed their curse against the king,
They cursed him in his flesh and bones
And daily in their mystic ring
They turned the maledictive stones."

At length one day comes the news to them that the king is dead, "choked upon the food he ate," and they exultantly sound "the praise of their avenging god." Cormac, before he dies, however, leaves as his last behest, a direction that he shall not be interred in the old pagan cemetery of the kings at Brugh, but at Ross-na-ri:

"But ere the voice was wholly spent
That priest and prince should still obey,
To awed attendants o'er him bent
Great Cormac gathered breath to say:

"'Spread not the beds of Brugh for me,
When restless death-bed's use is done;
But bury me at Ross-nar-ee,
And face me to the rising sun.

"'For all the kings who lie in Brugh
Put trust in gods of wood and stone;
And 'twas at Ross that first I knew
One Unseen, who is God alone.

"'His glory lightens from the east,
His message soon shall reach our shore,
And idol-god and cursing priest
Shall plague us from Moy Slaught no more.' "

King Cormac dies, and his people one and all are shocked at the idea of burying him anywhere save in the ancient pagan cemetery where all his great forefathers repose. They agree that he must have been raving when he desired otherwise; and they decide to bury him in Brugh, where his grandsire, Conn of the hundred Battles, lies armor-clad, upright, hound at foot and spear in hand:

"Dead Cormac on his bier they laid:
'He reigned a king for forty years;
And shame it were,' his captains said,
'He lay not with his royal peers:

"'His grandsire, Hundred Battles, sleeps
Serene in Brugh, and all around
Dead kings, in stone sepulchral keeps,
Protect the sacred burial ground.

"'What though a dying man should rave
Of changes o'er the eastern sea,
In Brugh of Boyne shall be his grave,
And not in noteless Ross-na-ree.'

"Then northward forth they bore the bier,
And down from Sleithac's side they drew
With horseman and with charioteer,
To cross the fords of Boyne to Brugh."

Suddenly "a breath of finer air" touches the river "with rustling wings."

"And as the burial train came down
With dirge, and savage dolorous shows,
Across their pathway broad and brown,
The deep full-hearted river rose.

"From bank to bank through all his fords,
Neath blackening squalls he swelled and boiled,
And thrice the wond'ring gentile lords
Essay'd to cross, and thrice recoil'd.

"Then forth stepped gray-haired warriors four;
They said: 'Through angrier floods than these,
On link'd shield once our King we bore
From Dread-spear and the hosts of Deece;

"'And long as loyal will holds good,
And limbs respond with helpful thews,
Nor flood nor fiend within the flood
Shall bar him of his burial dues.' "

So they lift the bier, and step into the boiling: surge.

"And now they slide and now they swim,
And now amid the blackening squall,
Gray locks afloat with clutchings grim,
They plunge around the floating pall.

"While as a youth with practiced spear
Through justling crowds bears off the ring—
Boyne from their shoulders caught the bier,
And proudly bare away the King!"

The foaming torrent sweeps the coffin away; next day it is found far down the river, stranded on the bank under Ross-na-ri; the last behest of Cormac is fulfilled after all!

"At morning on the grassy marge
Of Ross-na-ree the corpse was found,
And shepherds at their early charge,
Entombed it in the peaceful ground.

"And life and time rejoicing run
From age to age their wonted way;
But still he waits the risen Sun,
For still it is only dawning Day."

In the two centuries succeeding, there flourished among other sovereigns of Ireland less known to fame, the celebrated Nial of the Nine Hostages, and King Dahi. During these two hundred years the flag of Ireland waved through continental Europe over victorious legions and fleets; the Irish monarchs leading powerful armies across the plains of Gaul, and up to the very confines of "the Caesar's domains" in Italy. It was the day of Ireland's military power in Europe; a day which subsequently waned so disastrously, and, later on, set in utter gloom. Neighboring Britain, whose yoke a thousand years subsequently Ireland was to wear, then lay helpless and abject at the mercy of the Irish, hosts; the Britons, as history relates, absolutely weeping and wailing at the departure of the enslaving Roman legions, because now there would be naught to stay the visits of the Scoti, or Irish, and the Picts! The courts of the Irish princes and homes of the Irish nobility were filled with white slave attendants, brought from abroad, some from Gaul, but the most from Anglia. It was in this way the youthful Patricius, or Patrick, was brought a slave into Ireland from Gaul. As the power of Imperial Rome began to pale, and the outlying legions were being every year drawn in nearer and nearer to the great city itself, the Irish sunburst blazed over the scene, and the retreating Romans found the cohorts of Erinn pushing dauntlessly and vengefully on their track. Although the Irish chronicles of the period themselves say little of the deeds of the armies abroad, the continental records of the time give us pretty full insight into the part they played on the European stage in that day.[2] Nial of the Nine Hostages met his death in Gaul, or the banks of the Loire, while leading his armies in one of those campaigns. The death of King Dahi, who was killed by lightning at the foot of the Alps while marching at the head of his legions, one of our national poets, Davis, has immortalized in a poem, from which I quote here:

"Darkly their glibs o'erhang,
Sharp is their wolf-dog's fang,
Bronze spear and falchion clang—
Brave men might shun them!
Heavy the spoil they bear—
Jewels and gold are there—
Hostage and maiden fair—
How have they won them?

"From the soft sons of Gaul,
Roman, and Frank, and thrall,
Borough, and hut, and hall—
These have been torn.
Over Britannia wide,
Over fair Gaul they hied,
Often in battle tried—
Enemies mourn!

"Upon the glacier's snow,
Down on the vales below,
Monarch and clansmen go—
Bright is the morning.
Never their march they slack,
Jura is at their back,
When falls the evening black,
Hideous, and warning.

"Eagles scream loud on high;
Far off the chamois fly;
Hoarse comes the torrent's cry,
On the rocks whitening.
Strong are the storm's wings;
Down the tall pine it flings;
Hailstone and sleet it brings—-
Thunder and lightning.

"Little these veterans mind
Thundering, hail, or wind;
Closer their ranks they bind—
Matching the storm.
While, a spear-cast or more,
On, the first ranks before,
Dathi the sunburst bore—
Haughty his form.

"Forth from the thunder-cloud
Leaps out a foe as proud—
Sudden the monarch bowed—
On rush the vanguard;
Wildly the king they raise—
Struck by the lightning's blaze—
Ghastly his dying gaze,
Clutching his standard!

"Mild is the morning beam,
Gently the rivers stream,
Happy the valleys seem;

But the lone islanders—
Mark how they guard their king!
Hark, to the wail they sing!
Dark is their counselling—
Helvetia's highlanders.

"Gather like ravens, near—
Shall Dathi's soldiers fear?
Soon their home-path they clear—
Rapid and daring;
On through the pass and plain,
Until the shore they gain,
And, with their spoil, again
Landed in Eirinn.

"Little does Eire care
For gold or maiden fair—
'Where is King Dathi?—where,
Where is my bravest?'
On the rich deck he lies.
O'er him his sunburst flies.
Solemn the obsequies,
Eire! thou gavest.

"See ye that countless train
Crossing Ros-Comain's plain,
Crying, like hurricane,
Uile liú ai? Broad is his cairn's base—
Nigh the 'King's burial place,'
Last of the Pagan race, Lieth King Dathi!"


[1] This was a sobriquet. His real name was Feredach the Second.

[N.B. To whom the above note relates was not indicated in the original text]

[2] Haverty the historian says: "It is in the verses of the Latin poet Claudian that we read of the sending of troop: by Stilichio, the general of Theodosius the Great, to repe the Scottish hosts led by the brave and adventurous Nial. One of the passages of Claudian thus referred to is that in which the poet says:

"'Totam cum Scotus Iernem
Movit, et infesto spumavit remige Tethys.'

That is, as translated in Gibson's "Camden:"

"'When Scots came thundering from the Irish shores
The ocean trembled, struck with hostile oars.'"