THE DEATH AND BURIAL OF CORMAC
Strange was the birth and childhood of Cormac, strange his life and
strange the manner of his death and burial, as we now have to narrate.
Cormac, it is said, was the third man in Ireland who heard of the
Christian Faith before the coming of Patrick. One was Conor mac Nessa,
King of Ulster, whose druid told him of the crucifixion of Christ and
who died of that knowledge. The second was the wise judge, Morann,
and the third Cormac, son of Art. This knowledge was revealed to him by
divine illumination, and thenceforth he refused to consult the druids or
to worship the images which they made as emblems of the Immortal Ones.
One day it happened that Cormac after he had laid down the kingship of
Ireland, was present when the druids and a concourse of people were
worshipping the great golden image which was set up in the plain called
Moy Slaught. When the ceremony was done, the chief druid, whose name was
Moylann, spoke to Cormac and said: "Why, O Cormac, didst thou not bow
down and adore the golden image of the god like the rest of the people?"
And Cormac said: "Never will I worship a stock that my own carpenter
has made. Rather would I worship the man that made it, for he is nobler
than the work of his hands."
Then it is told that Moylann by magic art caused the image to move and
leap before the eyes of Cormac. "Seest thou that?" said Moylann.
"Although I see," said Cormac, "I will do no worship save to the God of
Heaven and Earth and Hell."
Then Cormac went to his own home at Sletty on the Boyne, for there he
lived after he had given up the kingdom to his son Cairbry. But the
druids of Erinn came together and consulted over this matter, and they
determined solemnly to curse Cormac and invoke the vengeance of their
gods upon him lest the people should think that any man could despise
and reject their gods, and suffer no ill for it.
So they cursed Cormac in his flesh and bones, in his waking and
sleeping, in his down sitting and his uprising, and each day they turned
over the Wishing Stone upon the altar of their god, and wove mighty
spells against his life. And whether it was that these took effect, or
that the druids prevailed upon some traitorous servant of Cormac's to
work their will, so it was that he died not long thereafter; and some
say that he was choked by a fish bone as he sat at meat in his house at
Sletty on the Boyne.
But when he felt his end approaching, and had still the power to speak,
he said to those that gathered round his bed:—
"When I am gone I charge you that ye bury me not at Brugh of the Boyne
where is the royal cemetery of the Kings of Erinn. For all these
kings paid adoration to gods of wood or stone, or to the Sun and the
Elements, whose signs are carved on the walls of their tombs, but I have
learned to know the One God, immortal, invisible, by whom the earth and
heavens were made. Soon there will come into Erinn one from the East who
will declare Him unto us, and then wooden gods and cursing priests shall
plague us no longer in this land. Bury me then not at Brugh-na-Boyna,
but on the hither-side of Boyne, at Ross-na-ree, where there is a sunny,
eastward-sloping hill, there would I await the coming of the sun of
So spake Cormac, and he died, and there was a very great mourning for
him in the land. But when the time came for his burial, the princes and
lords of the Gael vowed that he should lie in Brugh with Art, his
father, and Conn of the Hundred Battles, and many another king, in the
great stone chambers of the royal dead. For Ross-na-ree, they said, is
but a green hill of no note; and Cormac's expectation of the message of
the new God they took to be but the wanderings of a dying man.
Now Brugh-na-Boyna lay at the farther side of the Boyne from Sletty, and
near by was a shallow ford where the river could be crossed. But when
the funeral train came down to the ford, bearing aloft the body of the
King, lo! the river had risen as though a tempest had burst upon it at
its far-off sources in the hills, and between them and the farther bank
was now a broad and foaming flood, and the stakes that marked the ford
were washed clean away. Even so they made trial of the ford, and thrice
the bearers waded in and thrice they were forced to turn back lest the
flood should sweep them down.
At length six of the tallest and mightiest
of the warriors of the High King took up the bier upon their shoulders,
and strode in. And first the watchers on the bank saw the brown water
swirl about their knees, and then they sank thigh-deep, and at last it
foamed against their shoulders, yet still they braced themselves against
the current, moving forward very slowly as they found foothold among the
slippery rocks in the river-bed. But when they had almost reached the
mid-stream it seemed as if a great surge overwhelmed them, and caught
the bier from their shoulders as they plunged and clutched around it,
and they must needs make back for the shore as best they could, while
Boyne swept down the body of Cormac to the sea.
On the following morning, however, shepherds driving their flocks to
pasture on the hillside of Ross-na-ree found cast upon the shore the
body of an aged man of noble countenance, half wrapped in a silken pall;
and knowing not who this might be they dug a grave in the grassy hill,
and there laid the stranger, and laid the green sods over him again.
There still sleeps Cormac the King, and neither Ogham-lettered stone nor
sculptured cross marks his solitary grave. But he lies in the place
where he would be, of which a poet of the Gael in our day has written:—
"A tranquil spot: a hopeful sound
Comes from the ever-youthful stream,
And still on daisied mead and mound
The dawn delays with tenderer beam.
"Round Cormac, spring renews her buds:
In march perpetual by his side
Down come the earth-fresh April floods,
And up the sea-fresh salmon glide;
"And life and time rejoicing run
From age to age their wonted way;
But still he waits the risen sun,
For still 'tis only dawning day."
The High Deeds of Finn and other Bardic Romances of Ancient Ireland.
T. W. Rolleston, ed. Illustrations by Stephen Reid.
London: G. G. Harrap & Co., 1910. 202-206.
Engraving — Knight, Charles: "Old England: A Pictorial Museum" (London, 1845).