The Celtic Literature Collective

This is the Death of Dermot son of Fergus Cerrbeoil
as the Book of Sligo tells it.

It was when by Tuathal Maelgarb once Fergus Cerrbeoil’s son Dermot was driven into banishment on Loch Ree and on Shannon :—Now in that same time it was that Ciarán mac an tsaoir came to Druim tibrat (the spot where Clonmacnoise stands to-day) to found his monastery. With eight upon the loch Kieran travelled, but with twelve hundred on land. A fire is kindled by the clergy.

Where Dermot in his banishment was just then was at snámh dá én (that is to say: two birds that Nar son of Conall Cernach’s son Finncha killed there on Eistine the Amazon’s shoulder, whence it is named snámh dá én, i.e. ‘two birds’ swimming-place'). Said his wizards to Dermot: “the purpose for which yon fire is kindled to-night is such that it never will be quenchcd.” “Verily it shall be even now [that the quenching will be done],” Dermot said, as the boats came to Port-grencha, where Tipra Finghin is to-day.

There it was that the cleric was in act to plant a church. “What is the work thou doest?” Dermot asked. “To build a little church,” Kieran answered. “That might as well be its name: eglais bheg, i.e. ‘little church.”’ “Thrust in the upright with me,” Kieran said to Dermot, “and [as we do it] suffer my hand to be put over thine; so shall thy hand and thy royal rule are this time after to-morrow have been imposed on the men of Ireland.” “How will that be effected; for Tuathal rules over Ireland and I am driven out?” Kieran replied: “that is a matter for God.”

Dermot’s foster-brother, Maelmór ú Argata, went [at the time predicted] to the place where Tuathal was, at Grellach-elite south­east of Ros-ech, and into Tuathal’s breast drove a spear so that be left him lifeless: a deed for which Maelmór is himself killed presently, and hence the tale called echtra Mhaellmhóir, i.e. ‘the romance of Maelmór’ (now Maelmór was of the Hy-Conall of Murthemny, and third foster-brother to Dermot: Luchta of Athfrena and Enna mac ú Laighse were the others). Hereupon, before it was a week’s end, the men of Ireland inaugurated Dermot king.

By Dermot and by the men of Ireland the great congregation of Usnach is held now at Beltane; for at that time Ireland’s three high gatherings were these: the congregation of Usnach, at Beltane; the convention of Tailite, at Lammas; the feast of Tara, at samhain [All-Hallows]; and whosoever of the men of Ireland should have transgressed these, the same [I say] that should have violated this their ordinance, was guilty of death.

From Dermot to Kieran comes a message procuring him to join the gathering, and the king himself proceeds to Cnoc-brecáin to receive him; there he made halt to wait, whence tulack na comnaidke [i.e. ‘hill of halting’] is denominated. Kieran repaired to him accordingly. “Why, how now,” Dermot said: “since here it is that, for the first time since I by thy benediction attained to the kingdom, we are met now; be this stretch of land as it is (with its oxen and with its kine) made over to thee by way of ‘altar-sod.”’ But in this same plain was one that was an enemy to the king: Flann, son of Dima (from whom tulach Dhíma or tulach Fhlainn is named), The king [finding himself in the neighbourhood] has Dima’s house burnt, and within it the owner is wounded sore; which warrior [seek­ing to evade the flames] gets into a bathing-vat that is in the dwelling, and there expires. “Right soon thou hast transgressed thy covenant,” Kieran said to Dermot, “seeing that in the matter of the land thou grantedst us thou hast already done us violence. Yet in any case,” he went on, “nor from thyself nor from thy children will I take either Heaven or Earth [i.e. joys of the one, temporal possessions of the other]; but the violent death which he there bath gotten by thee, that shall be the very one which thou too shalt have: to be wounded, and drowned, and burnt.” “Cleric,” said Dermot, “I am terrified thine own assessment I award thee in satisfaction of the deed.” “Nay,” the cleric answered: “the missile that I have delivered by that same I may myself be hurt to death if it fall not out so” And hence it was that Dermot’s death was indeed brought about as had been promised.

The two of them, king and cleric, repaired to Usnach, joined the congregation of the men of Erin, and there they were for a fortnight. In which meeting a mighty thirst [i.e. drought] afflicted them; so that their human were in strait peril, and their four-footed perished largely. Then they had recourse to Kieran to find them succour. Kieran made prayer, and there came then a wet [i.e. rain] that in token of the miracle left twelve main streams in Ireland; whence it is that Kieran is entitled to a general cess throughout Ireland. In presence of the men of Ireland there Dermot made obeisance to Kieran, and settled on him his own service and his children’s for ever.

Following which again at Lammastide Kieran was in the convention of Tailite, where he worked wonders many, and miracles exceeding great. There too it was that this prodigy was operated, viz, a man that took a perjured oath: and in consequence there came a running ulcer in his neck, whereby his head fell off him; so that in presence of the Men of Ireland he went about in the gathering and he without a head. Which man was the bacuc whom for a length of time (for seven years, that is to say) the monks had in Cluain.

After this, for a long period Dermot reigned in Ireland neither came there in those times a king that was grander, that was more revered, or that in figure and in face, in wisdom, in speech, in royal rule, was more excellent than he.

It was once upon a time that Dermot feasted:-- Mughain, daughter of Concraidh mac Duach of the Eoganacht of Cashel, was at his hand — she that was mother of Dermot’s son Aedh, which same Aedh Slaine she carried at the time. They then, so many as had been at the carouse, stepped abroad upon the green to cool themselves and, as they were there, saw draw near them on the sward Dermot’s nephew, Suibne son of Colman More. A hundred riders, that was his number: dark grey mantles with clasps of silver wrapped one half of the troop, and about the other were crimson cloaks with fringes of gold and silver; under one half of the band were dark grey horses, and white under the other; fifty greyhounds they had with bronze chains on them, and all had bossy shields slung. Even as Suibne entered the assembly, the woman (Mughain namely) uttered a loud inarticulate cry that was heard throughout all the company. “Woman, what may this be?" Dermot asked: “is it on the lad just come thy mind is bent?” Said Beg mac Dé: “thou art indeed no prophet; but thou hast a seer.” “Discover the matter then, since thou art a prophet.” “I know it,” said Beg: “the son that the woman carries, he it is that shall slay yonder stripling.” That was true: Aedh Slaine did [afterwards] kill Suibne, who left a son (Conall mac Suibne) and he again slew Aedh Slaine. It was concerning this that a quatrain was uttered

“Not aright do some of the young men
cast up their accounts: 
it was Conall that slew Aedh Slaine 
because Aedh Slaine had slain Suibne.”

That is to say: Conall mac Suibne, he killed Aedh Slaine at Loch Sewdy; Aedh Gustan, he in the one day slew Aedh Buie king of Teffia, and Aedh Róin king of Offaly in bruidhen Dáchoga; and this was the first fratricide of clan-Colman and of Aedh Slaine’s seed, i.e. Aedh Slaine to kill his kinsman, Suibne son of Colman; and Suibne’s son Conall to kill him in lieu of it.

Now that same Beg mac Dé, ‘tis he was the best seer that was in his time; he too it was that to certain three just issued out of Tara said a cunning thing: “good now,” the three had said, “so hither Beg comes to us; we will e’en say something to him: Beg, all hail!” “‘Tis well,” quoth Beg. “How long will there be dwellers in the fort out of which we come?” asked the first man of them. “What is the river’s depth?” said the second. “What is the thickness of bacon-fat this year?” asked the third man. “Pas go tom arndrach,” answered Beg. He it was that spoke with nine at once, and delivered them a single discourse that satisfied [i.e. answered and resolved] their nine discourses addressed to him. Yet again he it was that in Tara enunciated to Dermot son of Cerbhall (what time the official panegyrists lauded the king, his peace and his good ways) as thus: Black Aedh son of Suibne, i.e. son of the king of Dalaradia, was in front of Beg mac Dé (now it was Dermot that had slain that Suibne, and taken his son Aedh mac Suibne to rear), and Beg said: “I see the gallant wolfdog that shall spoil the brilliant mansion.” “What hound is that, Beg?" asked Aedh. “A cú ruadh [wolf] — some or other — it might well be thyself,” Beg replied. “How could that be?” queried Dermot. “Easily said: that hand of Black Aedh’s it is in sooth that in the house of Banbhan the hospitaller shall make a poisoned draught to enter thy mouth, there being about thee at the same time a shirt derived from a single flax-seed, with a mantle produced from a single sbeep; in thy horn : ale brewed from a single grain of corn; on thy plate: bacon of a pig that never was farrowed; while ‘tis the main beam of the house—the ridgepole—that (after thy foemen shall have as good as done thee to death) shall fall on thy head.” “Black Aedh to the slaughter!” all cried out. “Not so,” said Dermot: “but be he removed forth out of Ireland, and so long as I live he shall not revisit it.” By Dermot thereupon Black Aedh is in exile relegated to the land of Scotland nor, so long as Dermot lived, was he re-admitted into Ireland.

Dermot’s tribute, and discipline, and law prevailed in Ireland generally: his stewards and his managers, also his regular soldiers in their billets, were throughout Ireland up and down. At this particular time the king’s stewards and sergeants accompanied him into Connacht; also the king’s herald, that used to precede them and to make proclamation to any such house at which in quest of guestly entertainment they arrived. And thus it was that the crier heralded them, viz, to the effect that the town’s gate, or the castle’s, into which they had to pass must be demolished be­fore them so that Dermot’s spear should pass in athwartwise; a thing which (for the king’s fear) there was none dared but to perform before them. But Diabolus — he it was that violently possessed [lit. ‘jumped into’] the crier now to urge the following evil thing upon him, to the end evil greater yet should come of it.

For they came once to Aedh Guaire’s house in the land of Hy­Many in Connacht, whose castle must needs be breached before them and the king’s spear. Then anger took Aedh; he slew ‘the lad of the spear’ (the crier namely) and anon, to escape Dermot, fled into the land of Muskerry and under protection of bishop Senach, for the bishop’s mother and Aedh Guaire’s were two sisters. Subsequently Senach the bishop brought him to Ruadhan of Lorrha and committed him to his safeguard; for two sisters that Ruadhan had: Cael and Ruadhnait, it was they that had reared bishop Senach. By Ruadhan Aedh Guaire was bestowed among the Britons however, for by reason of Dermot he might not be anywhere in Ireland. But such was Dermot’s influence and power over others that because of him Aedh ultimately could not be either in Scotland or with the Britons; so that he returned to Ireland to Ruadhan, who had him hidden under ground. Where Ruadhan was then was at the spot in which poll Ruadháin [i.e. ‘Ruadhan’s Pit’] is to-day. It was told to the king that Aedh Guaire was come to Ireland again, and that Ruadhan held him concealed in the earth. Then Dermot repaired to Ruadhan, and despatched his charioteer to recover Aedh Guaire from him forcibly. The young man entered into the sanctuary, but on the instant was deprived of his eyes. The king being now wroth at this, he came to Ruadhan and enquired of him (for he knew that Ruadhan would not tell a lie) where was Aedh Guaire. Ruadhan made answer: “verily I know not where he is, if he be not under thee even where thou art.” The king departed out of the sanctuary then, nor any more heeded that which the cleric had said; but in his mind afterwards he recalled to memory Ruadhan’s utterance, and recognised that in the ground under him where he had stood Aedh Guaire was. He deputed a man of his people (Donnan was his name) to go down to Aedh, over whose head the same fell to dig away the earth; but his arms were left of their power presently. Thereupon he came to Ruadhan and made obeisance to him; the man also that previously was blinded made obeisance, and thenceforth they abode with Ruadhan: which two it is that to-day are reputed saints at Pollruane. Now came Dermot himself into the church and took Aedh Guaire out of the hole in the ground, which to-day is called Pollruane. By the king Aedh was brought in bonds to Tara, where in recompense of all his contrivance Dermot would have had him hanged.

Ruadhan in the mean time had sought out Brendan of Birr for the purpose of taking him with him to retrieve his protégé, and the pair went on to Tara. There they demanded of the king to have him whose safety Ruadhan had guaranteed; but Dermot answered that to him who should have infringed royal law the Church had no right to extend immunity, for that in so doing a violation of right both human and divine was inherent.

The clerics chanted psalms of commination now, and rang their bells against the king. That night, and in the one instant, died in Tara twelve Sons of chiefs that were twelve in pupilage to the king; whose respective guardians came to the clergy and with persistence exhorted them to resuscitate the youths. The saints prayed, and the lads were recalled to life.

For a full year after this they anathematised Dermot and plied him with miracles, he giving them back prodigy for prodigy. But in the long run they prevailed nothing over him until to the house-steward, by way of procuring him to tell the king that now at last the clergy partook of a refection, they made promise of Heaven. The house-steward went to Dermot and told him that the clergy ate a meal, so that in this wise [for it was not true] they in the matter of fasting won an advantage over him. That night Dermot saw a dream: that in Tara was a great tree, the top of which reached to the clouds of heaven and its shade over all Ireland. Fifty foreigners he saw (and among them two leading strangers) that felled the tree, but all that which they chopped from it was continually made good again forthwith; they put him from the tree and laid it prostrate, so that it was the falling tree’s crash that awoke him. “Even so,” Dermot said: “I am the tree; the foreigners that chop it are the clergy cutting short my life, and by them also am I fallen.”

On the morrow the king rose and went to the place where the clergy were: “ill have ye done,” he said, “to undo my kingdom for that I maintained the righteous cause. At all events,” he went on, “be thy diocese the first one that is ruined in Ireland and, Ruadhan, may thy monks desert thee!” The saint retorted: “may thy kingdom droop speedily!” Dermot said: “thy see shall be empty, and swine shall root up thy churchyards.” “Tara shall be desolate,” Ruadhan said, “ arid therein shall no dwelling be for ever.” Dermot said: “may shameful blemish affect thy person,” and straightway one of Ruadhan’s eyes burst. Ruadhan said: “be thy body mangled by enemies, and thy limbs disintegrated so that they be not found in the one place.” Dermot said: “may there a wild boar come that he grub up the hill on which thou shalt be buried, and that thy relics be scattered; also at nones continually be there in thy churchyard howling of ‘wild hounds’ [i.e. wolves], and the alarm-cry every evening; neither be they its own monks that shall dwell in it.” Ruadban said: “the knee that was not lifted in reverence before me, be not the same sepulchred with thy body.” Then upon the royal hearth Ruadhan imprecated the blackness of darkness: that nevermore in Tara should smoke issue from roof-tree.

Just then it was that Dermot looked at the ridgebeam. “That beam is hostile to thee; that roof-tree it is that shall yet be hurled upon thy face as thou lookest up at it, after that by them from over sea thou shalt have been stricken down.” “Cleric, take all thy will!” the king cried. Then their prisoner is enlarged for them, and both parties make peace; whereupon Dermot said this

“Alas for him that to the clergy of the churches showeth fight; woe to him that would contend, with giving cut for cut; through this — through my dissension and Ruadhan’s — Tara shall be desolate and dean swept.”

He went on: “evil is that which ye have worked, clerics — my kingdom’s ruination; for in the latter times Ireland shall not be better off than at this present she will have been. But in any wise may it be so that bad chiefs, their heirs-apparent, and their men of war shall quarter themselves in your churches then; and be it their own [i.e. the inhabitants’] selves that in your houses shall pull off such people’s brogues for them, ye being the while powerless to rid yourselves of them.”

The clergy (their prisoner with them) started for home, and so to Pollruane; but first they perceived thirty dark-grey horses, super-excellent in shape, that issued from the sea and came to­wards them. These they presented to the king; their running was tried [against his other horses] and they proved the speedier; but said horses then re-assumed the identical form [which they had worn in the sea] and so returned to the same place out of which at first they came. After which Dermot and the clergy were at peace.

It was when Dermot was of a right, and he sees two draw near him: the one man, as he deems, wears a cleric’s semblance; the other one a layman’s. They come up to him, take off his king’s diadem, make of it a diadem apiece (either man of them having one half, for so they divide it between them), and with that depart from him. Dermot starts out of his sleep then, and tells his vision. “Just so,” said Beg mac be and said Cairidh son of Finnchaemh [his mother] that was Dermot’s poet: “thy dream’s interpretation we have for thee: Thy kingdom is determined, of thy reign there is an end, and for the future thy princely grasp of Ireland is cast off: division between Church and Lay namely, that is what shall subsist nor:; and that which thy royal diadem’s partition forbodes is even such another apportioning of Ireland’s sovereignty betwixt Church and State.” He proceeded : “a time will come when Church shall be enslaved by State, and when privilege of church-lands shall not exist; but they shall be obnoxious to free quartering at the hands of all. In lieu of this, however, evil shall overtake the State : so that the son, the father, the kinsman [of what degree soever], shall kill each other, and every man’s weapon be red with anothers blood. By perfidy of all men [fruits of] the earth shall perish, and mast of trees, and produce of the waters.”

Tara’s festival is held by Dermot now: at the actual banquet Curnan (son of Aedh son of Eochaid tirmcharna, a quo síol Maeilruain in Connacht) kills a man, and places himself under protection of Muirchcrtach mac Erca’s two Sons: Fergus and Donall, who in turn put him under Columbkill’s guarantee. The king has him slain in expiation of his misdemcanour, and Con­nacht turns on Dermot: impleading him for slaughter of their king’s son Curnan. Dermot proceeds to ravage Connacht, and reaches cúil sibrinne hard by cúil dreimne. In order to avenge on Dermot his violated guarantee, Columbkill gathers clan-Neill of the North. Along with him Fergus and Donall (Muirchertach mac Erca’s two sons), Ainmire son of Sedna king of Kinelconnell, Muiredach mac Duach, and Eochaid tirmcharna’s son Aedh, proceed into Connacht. But between the two armies Frechan son of Tenesan (Dermot’s wizard) set up ‘a magic barrier,’ and then it was that Columbkill uttered:--

“Wherefore, O God, dost Thou not fend off from us... 

Tuatán (son of Dímán son of Sarán son of Cormac son of Eoghan son of Niall) comes then, capsizes the barrier and clears it at one jump; but on the other side a spear meets him, enters him, and he is killed. Now of all Columbkill’s people he was the only man whom death reached. Then Dermot is defeated. “It is fri feínnidh ndremain, i.e. a case of [a barrier] opposed to a warrior that would not be denied,” said Columbkill; whence the name cúil dreimne, otherwise call dreimfhéinne, has prevailed.

Dermot went to Tara and again said to Beg; “let me have certain knowledge what manner of death it is that shall carry me off.” Beg said : “that is not matter of doubt in Beg’s rath thou shalt drink a malt-drink of a single grain; and there it is that thou shalt be laid, Dermot.”

“My kingdom after me — after what fashion shall it be?” asked Dermot; and then it was that Beg enunciated this:--

“An evil world is now at hand: in which men shall be in bondage, women free; mast wanting, woods smooth, blossom bad; winds many, wet summer, green corn; much cattle, scant milk; dependants burdensome in every country, hogs lean, chiefs wicked; bad faith, chronic killing; a world withered, raths in number.

“These be the princes that shall succeed thee:--

“[The kingdom shall revolve] from Niall to Niall, from land to land: a Niall by sea; a Niall in slaying; a Niall in fire; a Niall to hew down in every night, after the wrecking of Ailech.”

“Be our magicians brought to us,” Dermot said, “that we ascertain whether it be the one thing that they and Beg forbode for us.” “He doubts me does he,” says Beg; and thereupon in great anger and in vindictive dudgeon goes out from Dermot, having after him a great crowd that begged of him a prophecy, and so on until he saw Columbkill that awaited him. He saluted him, and Columbkill said: “it is a marvellous prophecy; from God comes this great foreknowledge that is vouchsafed thee.” “God we thank for the same,” Beg an­swered. Columbkill enquired then: “knowest thou thine own death’s day?” “Cleric, I know it well,” quoth Beg: “there are yet seven years of my life.” “That is a grand thing for him to whom it is so done; if indeed it be true,” said Columbkili. “It is not true,” Beg said: “there are but seven months of my life.” “Good again, if it be true,” said Columbkill. “It is not true,” Beg said: “there are of my life but seven hours of the day — speedily let me have communion and the sacrifice!" Then the cleric tonsured him, gave him communion and sacrifice, and he went [presently] to Heaven. Now it had stood prophesied for Beg that before he attained to death he must utter three falsehoods [as above]; for up to that hour he never had told a lie. For the same reason also it was that Columbkill sought him out, for he knew that in that day he had to die incontinently.

His magicians [as aforesaid] were brought to Dermot, and he enquired of them what manner of death he should encounter. “Slaughter,” said the first magician: “and ‘tis a shirt grown from a single flax-seed, with a mantle of one sheep’s wool, that on the night of thy death shall be about thee.” “A light matter it is for me to evade that,” Dermot said. “Drowning,” said the second magician: “and it is ale brewed of one grain of corn that thou shalt despatch that night.” “Burning,” quoth the third wizard “and bacon of swine that never was farrowed — that is what shall be on thy dish.” Dermot said : “all this is unlikely.”

Then on his regal circuit Dermot [set out and] travelled right-handed [i.e. south and west about] round Ireland, that is to say: from Tara into Leinster; thence into Munster; thence into Connacht, and athwart Ulster’s province; so that at the end of a year’s progress he would by santkain again reach Tara in time to perform his samhain-tide office and to meet the men of Ireland at Tara’s festival.

One day then as Dermot was on this circuit, he saw a warrior enter the house to him and: “whence comest thou?" he asked. “Not from any distance,” he replied: “come along and spend with me a night of guestly entertainment.” “Good,’ said Der­mot, “tell Mughain.” “Not so,” she answered: “so long as I live, never will 1 go on an invitation; and if thou eat [with him], it is in my despite: for to go upon an invitation will [so ‘tis prophesied] have an ill event for thee.”

With Banbhan [that bade him] Dermot goes to Rathbeg, and when they were set down in the house they saw a graceful young woman enter, with raiment that was rarely fine. “Whence the woman?" Dermot queried. Banbhan made answer: “a daughter to me she is and, to spite Mughain because she came not with me, the girl shall this night be thy wife.” “I am well pleased,” quoth the king.

Pending the preparation of meat a bed was made for them, and [the meal being now ready] Banbhan said: “Well, girl, hast thou brought raiment for the king?” “I have,” she said, and handed shirt and mantle, which the king took and put on. “‘Tis a good shirt,” said all. “It is one worthy of thee,” said Banbhan, “being the shirt of one flax-seed: a fanciful girl is that one there, and she it was that sowed a single seed of flax and made a strike of it, which then became a ridge-full.” “‘Tis a good mantle,” cried all. “Good it is,” said Banbhan : “of a single sheep’s wool ‘tis made.”

Then meat and liquor were supplied to them, and said Banbhan: “the bacon that never was farrowed is good.” “How so?” asked Dermot. “It was pigs that were with young: they took knives to them so that their piglings (and they alive) were extracted from them, and fattened afterwards.” “‘Tis good ale!” said all. “Good it is,” said Banbhan, “ale brewed of a single grain of corn: it was one day that I went out to survey my tillage, and I killed a ringdove; in whose crop was found one grain, but of what cereal was unknown. It was committed to a ridge however, and its yield was a sickle-full. This again was sown, and this is its produce in the shape of ale” [lit. ‘this is its corn and its ale.’]

After this Dermot looked upwards, and said: “the lower part of the house is new, but its upper-work is not recent.” Banbhan answered: “it was once upon a time that in currachs we went to take fish, and we saw towards us the ridgebeam of a house that floated on the sea. For the curiosity of the thing I had a house made with it.” Dermot said now: “truthfully was Beg’s prophecy uttered!" and with that sprang to get out. “This is thy way!” said Black Aedh in the doorway, giving him at the same a spear in the breast that pierced him through and so broke his spine. Then Dermot turns back into the house; on the outside, Ulster surrounds the dwelling, and the same is burnt upon them [that are in it]. Dermot himself [seeking refuge from the flames] entered the ale-vat, and anon the mansion’s roof-tree fell on his head so that he died [lit. ‘so that he was dead of it.’]

Thus perished the king; and his body was consumed all but the head, which with his relics was carried to Clonmacnoise and buried in [the slope called] the claen ferta, or otherwise the céite; for there it was that he (what time he fasted in eglais bheg, whereby he was healed of his head-sickness after he had done his fasting against the saints of Ireland, his cure having previously been denied him) had elected to be laid. Concerning which death it was that this was pronounced:--

“The spell of shelter in Rathbeg—loss of Dermot that was . . . — extinction of a prince — abundance of battles — alas for him that shall contrive his utter destruction.”

And this is the death of Dermot son of Cerbhall (which is as much as to say cerrbhall, i.e. ceirrbheal, i.e. bél cerr).