Cormac Mac Art

John Healy
Tara, Pagan and Christian | start of essay


One hundred and twenty years later the majestic figure of Cormac Mac Art is seen on Tara Hill; and Tara never saw another king like him—neither his grandsire Conn, nor Nial of the Hostages, nor any other pagan monarch of Ireland. If he had an equal at all it was Brian Boru, who may justly be regarded as the greatest of the Christian kings of Erin, even as Cormac was of the pagan kings. The monuments of Tara especially were the creation and the glory of Cormac. Most of its monuments were erected or restored by him; he appears as the central figure in its history, the hero of its romantic tales, the guardian of its glories, and the champion of its prerogatives. For forty years he reigned in Tara; he drank delight of battle with his peers in a hundred fights; but he was not only king but a sage, a scholar, and lawgiver, whose works, at least in outline, have come to our own times, and have challenged the admiration of all succeeding ages. When he came to die he refused to be laid with his pagan sires in Brugh, but told them to bury him at Rosnaree, with his face to the rising sun, that the light from the east just dawning in his soul might one day light up with its heavenly radiance the gloom of his lonely grave.

“Spread not the beds of Brugh for me

When restless death-bed’s use is done;

But bury me at Rosnaree,

And face me to the rising sun.”

Cormac appears first of all as a historian and chronicler. He it was who assembled the chroniclers of Ireland at Tara, say the Four Masters, “and ordered them to unite the chronicles of Ireland in one book called the Psalter of Tara.” That great work is no longer in existence; but Cuan O’Lochan, a poet of the tenth century, gives us a summary of its contents, which would lead us to infer that the Psalter of Tara was somewhat like the Psalter of Cashel, the contents of which are embodied in the Book of Rights. As a lawgiver, Cormac may be regarded as the original author of the great compilation known as the Seanchus Mor, of course not in its present form, but he laid the foundations on which that immense superstructure was afterwards erected. And it is not improbable that in the text, as distinguished from the commentary of the older work, we have many of the legal dicta uttered, if not penned, by Cormac himself.

The learned work known as Teagasc na Riogh has also been attributed to Cormac by our antiquaries, who say that he composed it for the instruction of his son and successor, Cairbre, when he himself was incapacitated to reign from the loss of one of his eyes. He was equally renowned as a warrior, and fought fifty battles against his foes, north, south, east, and west. He was the great patron of Finn MacCumhal and his warrior band, who really composed his staff and standing army; and to secure the friendship of that great warrior, Finn, Cormac gave him his daughter Grainne in marriage. The lady, however, was by no means faithful to her liege lord, and her elopement and wanderings with Diarmaid formed the theme of many a song. Cormac was also a great builder. He erected the rath which still bears his name at Tara; he restored and enlarged the great banquet hall; he erected for his hand-maiden Carnaid the first mill known in Ireland, and thus made Tara the great capital of all the land—the centre of its strength, its power, its grandeur, and its civilisation.

An ancient writer[2] has preserved a picture of Cormac presiding at the Feis of Tara, which we have no reason to think exaggerated. He describes Tara as a beautiful sunny city of feasts, of goblets, of springs, as a world of perishable beauty, the meeting-places of heroes, with twice seven doors and nine mounds around it, a famous strong cathair, the great house of a thousand soldiers, lit up with seven splendid, beautiful chandeliers of brass. Cormac himself sat at the head of all the princes of Erin, clothed in a crimson mantle, with brooch of gold, a golden belt about his loins, splendid shining sandals on his feet, a great twisted collar of red gold around his neck. We might well doubt the accuracy of this description, but that the twisted collars of gold have been found at Tara, and a gold brooch of excellent workmanship, with many other ornaments, not far off. Cormac was a Connaught-man—at least, his mother was a Connaught-woman, and he himself was born and nurtured under the shadow of Kesh Corran, in the County of Sligo.


[2] Kenneth O’Hartigan.