Cormac mac Airt

Cormac mac Airt (son of Art), also known as Cormac ua Cuinn (grandson of Conn) or Cormac Ulfada (long beard), was, according to medieval Irish legend and historical tradition, a High King of Ireland. He is probably the most famous of the ancient High Kings, and may have been an authentic historical figure, although many legends have attached themselves to him, and his reign is variously dated as early as the 2nd century and as late as the 4th. He is said to have ruled from Tara, the seat of the High Kings of Ireland, for forty years, and under his rule Tara flourished. He was famous for his wise, true, and generous judgments. In the Annals of Clonmacnoise, translated in 1627, he is described as:

"…absolutely the best king that ever reigned in Ireland before himself...wise learned, valiant and mild, not given causelessly to be bloody as many of his ancestors were, he reigned majestically and magnificently".

The hero Fionn mac Cumhaill is supposed to have lived in Cormac's time, and most of the stories of the Fenian Cycle are set during his reign.

Cormac's father was the former High King Art mac Cuinn. His mother was Achtan, daughter of Olc Acha, a smith (or Druid) from Connacht. According to the saga "The Battle of Mag Mucrama", Olc gave Art hospitality the night before the Battle of Maigh Mucruimhe. It had been prophesied that a great dignity would come from Olc's line, so he offered the High King his daughter to sleep with that night, and Cormac was conceived. (Geoffrey Keating says that Achtan was Art's official mistress, to whom he had given a dowry of cattle).

The story is told that Achtan had a vision as she slept next to Art. She saw herself with her head cut off and a great tree growing out of her neck. Its branches spread all over Ireland, until the sea rose and overwhelmed it. Another tree grew from the roots of the first, but the wind blew it down. At that she woke up and told Art what she had seen. Art explained that the head of every woman is her husband, and that she would lose her husband in battle the next day. The first tree was their son, who would be king over all Ireland, and the sea that overwhelmed it was a fish-bone that he would die choking on. The second tree was his son, Cairbre Lifechair, who would be king after him, and the wind that blew him down was a battle against the Fianna, in which he would fall. The following day Art was defeated and killed by his nephew Lugaid mac Con, who became the new High King.

In a story reminiscent of the Roman myth of Romulus and Remus, Cormac was carried off in infancy by a she-wolf and reared with her cubs, but a hunter found him and brought him back to his mother. Achtan then took him to Fiachrae Cassán, who had been Art's foster-father. On the way they were attacked by wolves, but wild horses protected them.

Cormac owned a wonderful gold cup given to him by the sea-god Manannan mac Lir in the Land of the Living. If three lies were spoken over it, it would break in three; three truths made it whole again. Cormac used this cup during his kingship to distinguish falsehood from truth. When Cormac died, the cup vanished, just as Manannan had predicted it would.

Cormac mac Airt is asked by his grandson Carbre "what were your habits when
you were a lad?" Cormac replies as follows:

I was a listener in woods,
I was a gazer at stars,
I was blind where secrets were concerned,
I was silent in a wilderness,
I was talkative among many,
I was mild in the mead-hall,
I was stern in battle,
I was ready to watch,
I was gentle in friendship,
I was a physician of the sick,
I was weak towards the strengthless,
I was strong toward the powerful,
I never was hard lest I be satirised,
I never was feeble lest I should have my hair stripped off,
I was not close lest I should be burdensome,
I was not arrogant though I was wise,
I was not given to promising though I was strong,
I was not venturesome, though I was swift,
I did not deride old people, though I was young,
I was not boastful though I was a good fighter,
I would not speak about anyone in his absence,
I would not reproach, but I would praise,
I would not ask, but I would give,
For it is through these habits that the young
become old and kingly warriors.

 

Sources:
Instructions of Cormac, § 7
The Battle of Mag Mucrama (translator unknown)
Geoffrey Keating, Foras Feasa ar Éirinn
Francis J. Byrne, Irish Kings and High Kings, Four Courts press, 2001, p. 65-69
Mairin O Daly (ed.), The Heroic Biography of Cormac mac Airt, Cath Maige Mucrama : the battle of Mag Mucrama, Irish Texts Society, 1975.
Standish Hayes O'Grady (ed. & trans.), The Panegyric of Cormac mac Airt, Silva Gadelica, 1892