The Kings of Pagan Ireland

Patrick Weston Joyce

[In the beginning this Chapter is legendary and the dates are still little more than guesses. After the foundation of Emania we begin to have a mixture of real history (25). As we approach the reign of Laeghaire there is a constantly increasing proportion of fact: and the dates are approximately correct].

97. The brothers Eber-Finn and Eremon had no sooner settled down in their new kingdoms than they quarrelled and fought a battle (A. M. 3501), in which Eber was defeated and slain, and Eremon became sole king.

By far the greater number of the Irish Pagan kings after Eremon fell in battle or by assassination: a few only of the most distinguished need be noticed here.

98. Tighernmas [Teernmas], who began his reign A. M. 3581, was the first of the Irish kings to work gold. He distinguished the various classes of his people by the numbers of hues in their garments.

99. This king, we are told, was miraculously destroyed, with a multitude of his people, while they were worshipping the great national idol Crom Cruach on the plain of Moy Slecht in Brefney, on the eve of the pagan festival of Samin (1st November).

The mighty king Ollamh Fodla [Ollav Fola] — A. M. 3922—established the Fes or meeting of Tara; the proceedings of which were entered in the great national record called the Psalter of Tara. And he made laws for the whole country.

100. About 300 years before the Christian era, Macha of the Golden Hair, the queen of Cimbaeth [Kimbay] king of Ulster, built the palace of Emain or Emania, which for more than 600 years continued to be the residence of the Ulster kings. Here in after ages, the Red Branch Knights were trained in military accomplishments and deeds of arms. The remains of this palace are still to be seen two miles west of Armagh: it is now called Navan Fort, Navan being the pronunciation of the old Irish name N-Emain.

100a. Achy Feidlech [Fealagh], who ascended the throne a little before the Christian era, built the palace of Croghan for his daughter, the celebrated Medb [Maive] queen of Connaught, where the kings of that province afterwards resided. This old fort is in the north of Roscommon, and still retains the original name.

The king who reigned at the time of the Incarnation was Conary I., or Conary the Great. In his time occurred the seven years' war between Maive queen of Connaught and Conor Mac Nessa king of Ulster (33).

101. Some time in the first century of the Christian era the Attacottic or plebeian races, i.e. the Firbolgs, Dedannans, and Fomorians whom the Milesians had enslaved, rose up in rebellion, wrested the sovereignty from their masters, and almost exterminated the Milesian princes and nobles: after which they chose Carbery Kinncat for their king. But the Milesian Monarchy was after some time restored in the person of Tuathal [Toohal] the Legitimate, who ascended the throne early in the second century.

This king Tuathal took measures to consolidate the monarchy. Before his time the over-kings had for their personal estate only a small tract round Tara. But he cut off a portion from each of the provinces, and formed therewith the province of Meath, to be the special demesne or estate of the supreme kings of Ireland. He imposed on Leinster an enormous tribute called the Boruma or Boru to be paid to the kings of Ireland every second year. This tribute was never yielded without resistance more or less, and for many centuries it was the cause of constant bloodshed.

102. The renowned Conn Ced-Cathach [Kead-Caha], or Conn the Hundred-fighter, became king late in the second century (A. D. 177). His most formidable antagonist was the great hero Eoghan-Mor [Owen More], otherwise called Mogh-Nuadhat [Mow-Nooat] king of Munster, who having defeated him in ten battles, forced him at last to divide Ireland between them. For a line of demarcation they fixed on a natural ridge of sandhills called Esker-Riada, which can still be traced running across Ireland with little interruption from Dublin to Galway. This division is perpetually referred to in Irish literature: the northern half, which belonged to Conn was called Leth-Chuinn [Leh-Conn] or Conn's half; and the southern Leth-Mogha [Leh-Mow], that is Mogh's half. Conn was succeeded by his son-in-law Conary II, (A. D. 212).

103. From the earliest ages the Irish of Ulster were in the habit of crossing the narrow sea to Alban or Scotland, where colonies were settled from time to time. The first regular colony of which we have any reliable account was conducted by Carbery Riada, the son of king Conary. Hence that part of Scotland in which he settled got the name of Dalriada, i.e. Riada's portion. There was also a Dalriada in the north of Antrim, which still retains the old name in the form of Route.

104. Cormac Mac Art, or Cormac Ulfada (A. D. 254), the grandson of Conn the Hundred-fighter, was the most illustrious of all the pagan kings of Ireland. He founded three colleges at Tara, one for the study of military science, one for history and literature, and one for law.

After a prosperous reign, Cormac abdicated on account of the accidental loss of an eye, for no king with a personal blemish was allowed to reign at Tara (52). He retired to his kingly cottage, called Cletta, on the shore of the river Boyne; where he composed the book called Tegasg Righ [Ree] or Instructions for a king, and other law tracts, of which we have copies in our old manuscript Volumes: and here he died in the year 277.

In the time of Cormac flourished the Fianna [Feena] of Erin, a sort of militia, like the Red Branch Knights, in the service of the monarch. They were commanded by Cormac's son-in-law, the renowned Finn Mac Cumhail [Cool] who is remembered in tradition all over Ireland to this day. Finn's son was Oisin or Ossian the poet; the brave and gentle hero Oscar was the son of Oisin (34).

Cormac was succeeded (A.D. 279) by his son Carbery of the Liffey; who defeated the rebellious Fena in the battle of Gavra near Skreen in Meath, and dispersed them for evermore.

105. During the reign of Muredach (A.D. 881) his three cousins, Colla Huas, Colla Menn, and Colla Da-Crich [Cree]—commonly called the Three Collas—invaded and conquered Ulster, destroyed the Palace of Emania, and took possession of that part of the province lying west of the Newry river.

Niall of the Nine Hostages (A.D. 879) was one of the greatest, most warlike, and most famous of all the ancient Irish kings. Four of his sons settled in Meath, and four others conquered for themselves a territory in Ulster, where they settled. The posterity of Niall are called Hy Neill; the southern Hy Neill being descended from those that settled in Meath, the northern Hy Neill from those that went to Ulster. By far the greatest number of the Irish kings, from this period till the Anglo-Norman invasion, were descended from Niall through one or the other of these two branches.

106. At this time the "Picts and Scots" gave great trouble to the Britons and Romans in Britain. The Picts were the people of Scotland—a branch of the Goidels or Gaels: the Scots were Irish Gaels. In those times the Scots often went from Ireland on plundering excursions to the coasts of Britain and Gaul, and seem to have been almost as much dreaded then as the Danes were in later ages.

During the whole time of the Roman occupation of Britain we constantly hear—both from native and Roman sources—of the excursions of the Scots to Britain; and when the Roman power began to wane they became still more frequent. The most formidable invasions of all were led by Niall. He collected a great fleet and landing in Wales carried off immense plunder, but was forced to retreat by the valiant Roman general Stilicho. In one of Niall's excursions St. Patrick was brought captive to Ireland, as related in next Chapter.

It was in one of his expeditions to the coast of Gaul that Niall, while marching at the head of his army, was assassinated (A. D. 405) on the shore of the river Loire by the king of Leinster, who shot him with an arrow beside the river.

107. Dathi [Dauhy] Niall's successor (A. D. 405), was the last king of pagan Ireland. He too made inroads into foreign lands; and he was killed by a flash of lightning at the foot of the Alps. His soldiers brought his body home and buried it at Croghan (100a) under a red pillar stone which remains in the old pagan cemetery to this day.

108. Laeghaire [Leary] the son of Niall succeeded in 428. In the fifth year of his reign St. Patrick came to Ireland on his great mission. This king like many of his predecessors waged war against the Leinstermen to exact the Boru tribute; but they defeated him and took him prisoner. Then they made him swear by the sun and wind and all the elements that he would never again demand the tribute; and when he had sworn they set him free. But the very next year, A. D. 463, he invaded Leinster again; whereupon—so says the legend—he was killed while on his march by the sun and wind for having broken his oath.