Tuathal-Conn "of the Hundred Battles"—The Five Great Roads of Ancient
Erinn—Conn's Half—Conairé II.—The Three Cairbrés—Cormac Mac
Airt—His Wise Decision—Collects Laws—His Personal Appearance-The
Saltair of Tara written in Cormac's Reign—Finn Mac Cumhaill—His
Courtship with the Princess Ailbhé—The Pursuit of Diarmaid and
Grainné—Nial "of the Nine Hostages"—Dathi.


uathal reigned for thirty years, and is said to have fought no less
than 133 battles with the Attacotti. He was at last slain himself by his
successor, Nial, who, in his turn, was killed by Tuathal's son. Conn "of
the Hundred Battles" is the next Irish monarch who claims more than a
passing notice. His exploits are a famous theme with the bards, and a
poem on his "Birth" forms part of the Liber Flavus Fergusorum, a MS.
volume of the fifteenth century. His reign is also remarkable for the
mention of five great roads[101] which were then discovered or
completed. One of these highways, the Eiscir Riada, extended from the
declivity on which Dublin Castle now stands, to the peninsula of Marey,
at the head of Galway Bay. It divided Conn's half of Ireland from the
half possessed by Eóghan Môr, with whom he lived in the usual state of
internecine feud which characterized the reigns of this early period.
One of the principal quarrels between these monarchs, was caused by a
complaint which Eóghan made of the shipping arrangements in Dublin.
Conn's half (the northern side) was preferred, and Eóghan demanded a
fair division. They had to decide their claims at the battle of Magh
Lena.[102] Eóghan was assisted by a Spanish chief, whose sister he had
married. But the Iberian and his Celtic brother-in-law were both slain,
and the mounds are still shown which cover their remains.

Conn was succeeded by Conairé II., the father of the three Cairbrés, who
were progenitors of important tribes. Cairbré Muse gave his name to six
districts in Munster; the territory of Corcabaiscinn, in Clare, was
named after Cairbré Bascain; and the Dalriada of Antrim were descended
from Cairbré Riada. He is also mentioned by Bede under the name of
Reuda,[103] as the leader of the Scots who came from Hibernia to Alba.
Three centuries later, a fresh colony of Dalriadans laid the foundation
of the Scottish monarchy under Fergus, the son of Erc. Mac Con was the
next Ard-Righ or chief monarch of Ireland. He obtained the royal power
after a battle at Magh Mucruimhé, near Athenry, where Art the
Melancholy, son of Con of the Hundred Battles, and the seven sons of
Oilioll Oluim, were slain.

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

"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."[104]

The compilation of the Saltair of Tara, as we mentioned previously, is
attributed to this monarch. Even in Christian times his praises are
loudly proclaimed. The poet Maelmura, who lived in the eighth century,
styles him Ceolach, or the Musical, and Kenneth O'Hartigan, who died
A.D. 973, gives a glowing account of his magnificence and of his royal
palace at Tara. O'Flaherty quotes a poem, which he says contains an
account of three schools, instituted by Cormac at Tara; one for military
discipline, one for history, and the third for jurisprudence. The Four
Masters say: "It was this Cormac, son of Art, also, that collected the
chronicles of Ireland to Teamhair [Tara], and ordered them to write[105] the chronicles of Ireland in one book, which was named the Saltair of
Teamhair. In that book were [entered] the coeval exploits and
synchronisms of the kings of Ireland with the kings and emperors of the
world, and of the kings of the provinces with the monarchs of Ireland.
In it was also written what the monarchs of Ireland were entitled to
[receive] from the provincial kings, and the rents and dues of the
provincial kings from their subjects, from the noble to the subaltern.
In it, also, were [described] the boundaries and mears of Ireland from
shore to shore, from the provinces to the cantred, from the cantred to
the townland, from the townland to the traighedh of land."[106] Although
the Saltair of Tara has disappeared from our national records, a law
tract, called the Book of Acaill, is still in existence, which is
attributed to this king. It is always found annexed to a Law Treatise by
Cennfaelad the Learned, who died A.D. 677. In an ancient MS. in Trinity
College, Dublin (Class H.L. 15, p. 149), it is stated that it was the
custom, at the inauguration of Irish chiefs, to read the Instructions of
the Kings (a work ascribed to Cormac) and his Laws.

There is a tradition that Cormac became a Christian before his death. In
the thirty-ninth year of his reign, one of his eyes was thrust out by a
spear, and he retired in consequence to one of those peaceful abodes of
learning which were so carefully fostered in ancient Erinn. The
high-minded nobility of this people is manifest notably in the law which
required that the king should have no personal blemish; and in obedience
to this law, Cormac vacated the throne. He died A.D. 266, at Cleiteach,
near Stackallen Bridge, on the south bank of the Boyne. It is said that
he was choked by a salmon bone, and that this happened through the
contrivances of the druids, who wished to avenge themselves on him for
his rejection of their superstitions.

This reign was made more remarkable by the exploits of his son-in-law,
the famous Finn Mac Cumhaill (pronounced "coole"). Finn was famous both
as a poet and warrior. Indeed, poetical qualifications were considered
essential to obtain a place in the select militia of which he was the
last commander. The courtship of the poet-warrior with the Princess
Ailbhé, Cormac's daughter, is related in one of the ancient historic
tales called Tochmarca, or Courtships. The lady is said to have been
the wisest woman of her time, and the wooing is described in the form of
conversations, which savour more of a trial of skill in ability and
knowledge, than of the soft utterances which distinguish such narratives
in modern days. It is supposed that the Fenian corps which he commanded
was modelled after the fashion of the Roman legions; but its loyalty is
more questionable, for it was eventually disbanded for insubordination,
although the exploits of its heroes are a favourite topic with the
bards. The Fenian poems, on which Macpherson founded his celebrated
forgery, are ascribed to Finn's sons, Oísin and Fergus the Eloquent, and
to his kinsman Caeilté, as well as to himself. Five poems only are
ascribed to him, but these are found in MSS. of considerable antiquity.
The poems of Oísin were selected by the Scotch writer for his grand
experiment. He gave a highly poetical translation of what purported to
be some ancient and genuine composition, but, unfortunately for his
veracity, he could not produce the original. Some of the real
compositions of the Fenian hero are, however, still extant in the Book
of Leinster, as well as other valuable Fenian poems. There are also some
Fenian tales in prose, of which the most remarkable is that of the
Pursuit of Diarmaid and Grainné—a legend which has left its impress in
every portion of the island to the present day. Finn, in his old age,
asked the hand of Grainné, the daughter of Cormac Mac Airt; but the lady
being young, preferred a younger lover. To effect her purpose, she
drugged the guest-cup so effectually, that Finn, and all the guests
invited with him, were plunged into a profound slumber after they had
partaken of it. Oísin and Diarmaid alone escaped, and to them the Lady
Grainné confided her grief. As true knights they were bound to rescue
her from the dilemma. Oísin could scarcely dare to brave his father's
vengeance, but Diarmaid at once fled with the lady. A pursuit followed,
which extended all over Ireland, during which the young couple always
escaped. So deeply is the tradition engraven in the popular mind, that
the cromlechs are still called the "Beds of Diarmaid and Grainné," and
shown as the resting-places of the fugitive lovers.

There are many other tales of a purely imaginative character, which, for
interest, might well rival the world-famous Arabian Nights'
Entertainments; and, for importance of details, illustrative of manners,
customs, dress, weapons, and localities, are, perhaps, unequalled.

Nial of the Nine Hostages and Dathi are the last pagan monarchs who
demand special notice. In the year 322, Fiacha Sraibhtine was slain by
the three Collas,[107] and a few short-lived monarchs succeeded. In 378,
Crimhthann was poisoned by his sister, who hoped that her eldest son,
Brian, might obtain the royal power. Her attempt failed, although she
sacrificed herself for its accomplishment, by taking the poisoned cup to
remove her brother's suspicions; and Nial of the Nine Hostages, the son
of her husband by a former wife, succeeded to the coveted dignity. This
monarch distinguished himself by predatory warfare against Albion and
Gaul. The "groans"[108] of the Britons testify to his success in that
quarter, which eventually obliged them to become an Anglo-Saxon nation;
and the Latin poet, Claudian, gives evidence that troops were sent by
Stilicho, the general of Theodosius the Great, to repel his successful forays. His successor, Dathi, was killed by lightning at the foot of the
Alps, and the possibility of this occurrence is also strangely verified
from extrinsic sources.[109]