Cormac's Saltair

Margaret Anne Cusack
start of chapter | Chapter I

As we shall speak of Cormac's reign and noble qualities in detail at a later period, it is only necessary to record here that his panegyric, as king, warrior, judge, and philosopher, has been pronounced by almost contemporary writers, as well as by those of later date. The name Saltair has been objected to as more likely to denote a composition of Christian times. This objection, however, is easily removed: first, the name was probably applied after the appellation had been introduced in Christian times; second, we have no reason to suppose that King Cormac designated his noble work by this name; and third, even could this be proven, the much maligned Keating removes any difficulty by the simple and obvious remark, that " it is because of its having been written in poetic metre, the chief book which was in the custody of the Ollamh of the King of Erinn, was called the Saltair of Temair; and the Chronicle of holy Cormac Mac Cullinan, Saltair of Cashel; and the Chronicle of Aengus Ceilé Dé [the Culdee], Saltair-na-Rann [that is, Saltair of the Poems or Verses], because a Salm and a Poem are the same, and therefore a Salterium and a Duanairé [book of poems] are the same."[6]

The oldest reference to this famous compilation is found in a poem on the site of ancient Tara, by Cuan O'Lochain, a distinguished scholar, and native of Westmeath, who died in the year 1024. The quotation given below is taken from the Book of Ballymote, a magnificent volume, compiled in the year 1391, now in possession of the Royal Irish Academy:—

Temair, choicest of hills,
For [possession of] which Erinn is now devastated,[7]
The noble city of Cormac, son of Art,
Who was the son of great Conn of the hundred battles:
Cormac, the prudent and good,
Was a sage, a filé [poet], a prince:
Was a righteous judge of the Fené-men,[8]
Was a good friend and companion.
Cormac gained fifty battles:
He compiled the Saltair of Temur.
In that Saltair is contained
The best summary of history;
It is that Saltair which assigns
Seven chief kings to Erinn of harbours;
They consisted of the five kings of the provinces.—
The Monarch of Erinn and his Deputy.
In it are (written) on either side,
What each provincial king is entitled to,
From the king of each great musical province.
The synchronisms and chronology of all,
The kings, with each other [one with another] all;
The boundaries of each brave province,
From a cantred up to a great chieftaincy.

From this valuable extract we obtain a clear idea of the importance and the subject of the famous Saltair, and a not less clear knowledge of the admirable legal and social institutions by which Erinn was then governed.


[6] Same.— Ibid. p. 12. The Psalms derived their name from the musical instrument to which they were sung. This was called in Hebrew nebel. It obtained the name from its resemblance to a bottle or flagon. Psaltery is the Greek translation, and hence the name psalm.

[7] Devastated. —This was probably written in the year 1001, when Brian Boroimhe had deposed Malachy.

[8] Fené-men.—The farmers, who were not Fenians then certainly, for "Cormac was a righteous judge of the Agraria Lex of the Gaels."