Monday 30 April 2018

Our Gaelic Christian Heritage (Part 2)

Grandson of High King Conn Cétchathach (Conn of the Hundred Battles), Cormac Mac Airt came to the High Kingship about the year AD 116 and is the most glorious of the High Kings of Tara. The works of learning, wisdom and jurisprudence attributed to him, the Psalter of Tara, the Seanchas Mór (at least in original form), and the Teagasc na Ríogh attest to cultural greatness of his reign, apart from the "fruit and fatness" of the land in his time.

Of greatest interest to us is that King Cormac was reputed to have rejected the superstitions of the Druids, refusing to worship the carvings, saying that the carver deserved greater worship still. His reign was brought to an end by a grave disfiguring injury - since such disfigurements excluded the sufferer from exercising Sovereignty among the ancient Irish. He lived for some time thereafter but, his final wish was to be buried, not at the pagan burying-place of Brugh na Bóinne, but at Ross na Ríogh. His wishes were disregarded but Providence intervened to fulfill them. Sir Samuel Ferguson's poem 'The Burial of King Cormac' relates the story thus:

"Crom Cruach and his sub-gods twelve,"
Said Cormac, "are but craven treene:
The axe that made them, haft and helve,
Had worthier of our worship been.

But He who made the tree to grow,
And hid in earth the iron stone,
And made the man with mind to know
The axe's use, is God alone."

Anon to priests of Crom was brought
(Where girded in their service dread
They ministered on red Moy Slaught)
Word of the words King Cormac said.

They loosed their curse against the king,
They cursed him in his flesh and bones
And daily in their mystic ring
They turned the maledictive stones.

Till, where at meat the monarch sate
Amid the revel and the wine,
He choked upon the food he ate
At Sletty, southward of the Boyne.

High vaunted then the priestly throng,
And far and wide they noised abroad
With trump and loud liturgic song
The praise of their avenging god.

But ere the voice was wholly spent
That priest and prince should still obey,
To awed attendants o'er him bent
Great Cormac gathered breath to say:

"Spread not the beds of Brugh for me,
When restless death-bed's use is done;
But bury me at Ross-na-ree,
And face me to the rising sun.

"For all the kings that lie in Brugh
Put trust in gods of wood and stone;
And 'twas at Ross that I first knew
One, Unseen, who is God alone.

"His glory lightens from the east,
His message soon shall reach our shore,
And idol-god and cursing priest
Shall plague us from Moy Slaught no more."

Dead Cormac on his bier they laid:
"He reigned a king for forty years;
And shame it were," his captains said,
"He lay not with his royal peers:

"His grandsire, Hundred Battles, sleeps
Serene in Brugh, and all around
Dead kings, in stone sepulchral keeps,
Protect the sacred burial ground.

"What though a dying man should rave
Of changes o'er the eastern sea,
In Brugh of Boyne shall be his grave,
And not in noteless Rossnaree."

Then northward forth they bore the bier,
And down from Sleithac's side they drew
With horseman and with charioteer,
To cross the fords of Boyne to Brugh."

There came a breath of finer air
That touched the Boyne with ruffling wings,
It stirred him in his sedgy lair
And in his mossy moorland springs.

And as the burial train came down
With dirge, and savage dolorous shows,
Across their pathway broad and brown,
The deep full-hearted river rose.

From bank to bank through all his fords,
'Neath blackening squalls he swelled and boiled,
And thrice the wond'ring gentile lords
Essay'd to cross, and thrice recoil'd.

Then forth stepped gray-haired warriors four;
They said: "Through angrier floods than these,
On link'd shield once our King we bore
From Dread-spear and the hosts of Deece;

"And long as loyal will holds good,
And limbs respond with helpful thews,
Nor flood nor fiend within the flood
Shall bar him of his burial dues."

With slanted necks they stooped to lift;
They heaved him up to neck and chin;
And, pair by pair, with footsteps swift,
Locked arm and shoulder, bore him in.

'Twas brave to see them leave the shore;
To mark the deepening surges rise,
And fall subdued in foam before
The tension of their striding thighs.

'Twas brave, when now a spear-cast out,
Breast-high the battling surges ran;
For eweight was great, and limbs were stout,
And loyal man put trust in man.

But ere they reached the middle deep,
Nor steadying weight of clay they bore,
Nor strain of sinewy limbs could keep
Their feet beneath the swerving four.

And now they slide and now they swim,
And now amid the blackening squall,
Gray locks afloat with clutchings grim,
They plunge around the floating pall.

While as a youth with practiced spear
Through justling crowds bears off the ring-
Boyne from their shoulders caught the bier,
And proudly bare away the King!"

At morning on the grassy marge
Of Ross-na-ree the corpse was found,
And shepherds at their early charge,
Entombed it in the peaceful ground.

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.