Cormac Mac Airt

Margaret Anne Cusack
start of chapter | Chapter VII

The reign of Cormac Mac Airt is unquestionably the most celebrated of all our pagan monarchs. During his early years he had been compelled to conceal himself among his mother's friends in Connaught; but the severe rule of the usurper Mac Con excited a desire for his removal, and the friends of the young prince were not slow to avail themselves of the popular feeling. He, therefore, appeared unexpectedly at Tara, and happened to arrive when the monarch was giving judgment in an important case, which is thus related: Some sheep, the property of a widow, residing at Tara, had strayed into the queen's private lawn, and eaten the grass. They were captured, and the case was brought before the king. He decided that the trespassers should be forfeited; but Cormac exclaimed that his sentence was unjust, and declared that as the sheep had only eaten the fleece of the land, they should only forfeit their own fleece. The vox populi applauded the decision. Mac Con started from his seat, and exclaimed: "That is the judgment of a king." At the same moment he recognized the prince, and commanded that he should be seized; but he had already escaped. The people now recognized their rightful king, and revolted against the usurper, who was driven into Munster. Cormac assumed the reins of government at Tara, and thus entered upon his brilliant and important career, A.D. 227.

Cormac commenced his government with acts of severity, which were, perhaps, necessary to consolidate his power. This being once firmly established, he devoted himself ardently to literary pursuits, and to regulate and civilize his dominions. He collected the national laws, and formed a code which remained in force until the English invasion, and was observed for many centuries after outside the Pale. The bards dwell with manifest unction on the "fruit and fatness" of the land in his time, and describe him as the noblest and most bountiful of all princes. Indeed, we can scarcely omit their account, since it cannot be denied that it pictures the costume of royalty in Ireland at that period, however poetically the details may be given. This, then, is the bardic photograph:—

"His hair was slightly curled, and of golden colour: a scarlet shield with engraved devices, and golden hooks, and clasps of silver: a wide-folding purple cloak on him, with a gem-set gold brooch over his breast; a gold torque around his neck; a white-collared shirt, embroidered with gold, upon him; a girdle with golden buckles, and studded with precious stones, around him; two golden net-work sandals with golden buckles upon him; two spears with golden sockets, and many red bronze rivets in his hand; while he stood in the full glow of beauty, without defect or blemish. You would think it was a shower of pearls that were set in his mouth; his lips were rubies; his symmetrical body was as white as snow; his cheek was like the mountain ash-berry; his eyes were like the sloe; his brows and eye-lashes were like the sheen of a blue-black lance."[5]


[5] Lance.—O'Curry, p. 45. This quotation is translated by Mr. O'Curry, and is taken from the Book of Ballymote. This book, however, quotes it from the Uachongbhail, a much older authority.