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Fír Flathemon, Collective Responsibility and Social Order in Early Medieval Ireland:

Using Audacht Morainn to Interpret Cath Maige Tuired


"...Everyone is the ploughman, Everyone is the seed, Everyone is the harvest, and everyone yields..."[1]


The concept of 'king's justice' [2] - fír flathemon - in a way not unlike the appeal of Greek tragedy. It is not surprising, then, that the unravelling of the consequences of a ruler's failures has attracted much attention in early Irish literature. The result has been, perhaps, that discussion of 'king's justice' has focused overmuch on what it is not rather than what it is. More, it may be argued that too little attention has been given to how fír flathemon operated and why it operated as it did. The following discussion will focus on both the how and the why, and in particular offer a reinterpretation of Cath Maige Tuired [3] as a playing out of the advice in Audacht Morainn [4] and as an illumination of both fír flathemon and gáu flathemon.



Audacht Morainn (The Testament of Morainn) was written in the form of advice to a young ruler. A large portion of the content takes the form of a listing of attributes considered desirable in a ruler, of contrasted pairs of attributes and failings of a ruler, and so on:


It is through the truth of the ruler that he secures peace, tranquility, joy, ease, [and] comfort. 
It is through the truth of the ruler that he dispatches (great) battalions to the borders of hostile neighbours. 
It is through the truth of the ruler that every heir plants his house-post in his fair inheritance 
It is through the truth of the ruler that abundances of great tree-fruit of the great wood are tasted. 
It is through the truth of the ruler that milk-yields of great cattle are maintained. 
It is through the truth of the ruler that there is abundance of every high, tall corn. [5]


and again:

 Darkness yields to light 
Sorrow yields to joy 
An oaf yields to a sage 
A fool yields to a wise man 
A serf yields to a free man 
Inhospitality yields to hospitality 
Niggardliness yields to generosity 
Meaness yields to liberality 
Impetuosity yields to composure 
Turbulence yields to submission 
A usurper yields to a true lord 
Conflict yields to peace 
Falsehood yields to justice. [6]



Useful and sensible advice for any ruler, indeed for anyone. However, the text does not merely define what is good and what is bad in a ruler. As the second excerpt above shows, there is a sense of inevitability, of fate, involved. Meanness yields to liberality, conflict to peace, sorrow to joy. Not 'can yield' but 'will yield'. What is best will always rise to the surface and cast aside what is wrong, unjust or selfish. This is a warning worth heeding but it also gives a hint that there was underlying this advice a sense of a right order for things, that there is a natural balance to life which, however it might be temporarily suppressed, will inevitably come to the fore again.



This hint also seems to have underlain the concept of geis, the system of taboos to which the rulers and great heroes of early Irish tradition were subject. These, too, are common elements in Irish myth and legend. It is, for example, through the breaking of his gessa, one by one, that Cú Chulainn seals his fate in Táin Bó Cuailnge. A similar fate befalls Conaire in Togail Bruidne Dá Derga for similar reasons. It is usually as a result of a wrong deed, voluntarily enacted, that the sequence of broken gessa is initiated. Clearly, the actions of great figures were greatly constrained, in theory at least. Wherever the origins of the concept of geis may lie, the key point here is that there is, again, a strong sense that the actions of great figures - and rulers in particular - had effects far beyond the immediate and often on a scale that can fairly be described as supernatural. As with fír flathemon so with gessa. The latter can be understood almost as a personal collection of extra principles or rules added to the former. In both cases right action results in success, prosperity, fruitfulness and peaceful life. In both cases, breaking the rules rapidly results in terrible consequences: defeat in battle, impoverishment, shame, failure of prosperity, deposition, exile and death.



The inevitability of the process is quite frightening as it is acted out in myth and legend mainly because, as noted earlier, much attention focuses on the failure of right action in an individual and the playing out of the consequences in their life. Audacht Morainn does not lay such great emphasis on the effect of gáu flathemon but instead puts much effort into defining the benefits of fír flathemon, for example:


It is through the truth of the ruler that he secures peace, tranquility, joy, ease, [and] comfort. [7]



Even where examples of gáu flathemon occur, the focus is again on the positive:


A usurper yields to a true lord 
Conflict yields to peace [8]


The working of fate will ensure that the overturned boat of life will right itself.



The question is, Why should it? What could cause disorder and injustice to yield to order and justice? It would seem initially that the forces driving the process are in the main not supernatural external powers of fate but really quite mundane forces. This is suggested in Audacht Morainn also:


Let him raise truth, it will raise him. 
Let him exalt mercy, it exalth him 
Let him care for his tribes, they will care for him 
Let him help his tribes, they will help him 
Let him soothe his tribes, they will soothe him [9]


What is described here is a system of feedback. Of particular interest are the last three lines above where it is made explicit that the people subject to a king's rule play an active role in the process. Stated in plain language, what is being said here is that the position a ruler holds depends in a very real way on the willingness of his subjects to submit to that rule, and that that submission itself depends on the right actions of the ruler. A neat set of checks and balances to counter the great power an early medieval Irish ruler can wield over the lives of his people: do what is best for the people and you will remain secure and loved, fail in this, and your fate will be terrible.



We see a similar feedback system in operation in Cath Maige Tuired (CMT). The selfish, disrespectful actions of Bres lead to revolt among the Túatha De Danann resulting in his deposition and exile [10]. Further, as Audacht Morainn promises, his misrule is replaced by that of Núadu (and shortly after, that of Lug) and prosperity, freedom and happiness returns.



Who, then, are the people capable of overturning the rule of a failing king? Here it is worth noting a maxim from Tecosca Cormaic: ísel cach aithech - every commoner is base, low. [11] Those who make a king can also break a king, and those people are nemed - noble or, perhaps more accurately, sacred people. It is worth pausing at this point to consider this contrast between commoner and noble. No ruler is able to rule except with the approval of the nemed classes. They elect him, they submit to his authority, they provide him each year with livestock, foodstuffs, labour and so on, they lead warriors to battle under his name. By withdrawing their support, they cause a ruler to lose the ability to function. Similarly, the upper echelons of the non-nemed population are dependant on the protection of a noble and the rental of lands and livestock from him, those of lower rank dependent on their wealthier relatives and immediate family for land and livestock to strive for prosperity. Unfree people such as slaves are even more dependant on those above them in the social order for not just the necessities of life, but for their life itself in some cases.



Here we have a familiar-looking image of a hierarchical social structure. Power lies at the top, and each stratum of society is dependent on that above it for security and a way to make a living. However, the early medieval Irish world-view went beyond simply defining to whom one owed allegience and an appreciation of the dependency of lower echelons of society on those of higher rank. Just as a ruler was dependant on the support of the nobility for their continued dominance, so too it was understood that a noble's success depended in like manner on the continued allegience of their céli, or clients. By way of illustration, we can consider the relationship between dóerfuidir [12] and his lord. The lóg n-enech - honour-price - of the fuidir is calculated as one quarter that of his lord thus the fuidir has a vested interest in the success of his lord. [13] Similarly, the law-text Di Astud Chirt 7 Dligid [14] describes the terrible consequences for a lord should he give a dóerfuidir his freedom: failure of corn, milk and fruits. Also, Gúbretha Caratniad notes that a lord's honour-price is lost if he does not fulfil his side of a contract made with one of his clients. [15] The vested interest in maintaining a good relationship works both ways. The similarity to the consequences of a ruler failing in his duties is also notable, suggesting that the processes operating for the ruler also apply for the lord.



In a similar way all of early medieval Irish society can be thought of as a multiplex of feedback loops that ensure that each member of society has good reason to support those around them on whose support they themselves depend. This has important consequences for the whole structure of society.



Not only is the system hierarchical and loaded with concepts that ensure that each level supports those above and below it, but we can see also some of the consequences in terms of social mobility. While it is shameful for a noble to undertake the work of a commoner, it is also not acceptable for a commoner to act in a manner inappropriate to their station also. Specifically, what is appropriate for a lord is outside the legal rights of a commoner. Certainly there was a mechanism whereby a commoner could rise to nemed rank, but it was hardly designed to allow rapid social climbing. The term used for a commoner looking to rise to noble rank varies: fer fothlai (man of withdrawal), flaith aithig (commoner lord), aire iter da airig (a lord between two types of lord).[16] The process takes three full generations to complete and to initiate the process a bóaire - the highest rank of commoner - must first hold twice the wealth expected of a typical bóaire, and this level of wealth must be maintained or bettered not just by this individual but by his sons and by his grandsons in order for these last to finally be accepted as nobles. [17] As personal property is divided amongst offspring at a man's death, it is not hard to see how difficult an achievement this actually was. Where a bóaire has three sons, he must manage to hold at least six times the typical bóaire's wealth at his death for the process to continue, and each son must match this achievement also if their sons are to stand a chance - finally - of becoming nobles. Thus, though in theory the process is straightforward, its execution cannot have been very often successfully attempted.



So, though some of the system of checks and balances built into Irish society ensured that the power held in royal and noble hands was constrained somewhat in the interests of the general welfare, others ensured that the basic hierarchical system remained fairly stable also. In all, this suite of devices, operating to constrain people of every rank, ensured one thing above all, that the status quo remained substantially intact from generation to generation. It is not often directly stated just how conservative medieval Irish society was. Change was a bad thing, and thus we can appreciate something of the thought processes behind the sequence of contrasted good and bad things in Audacht Morainn quoted above, '…Meanness yields to liberality; Impetuosity yields to composure; Turbulence yields to submission; A usurper yields to a true lord …' [18] These may act to warn a ruler not to overstep their rights and forget their duties, but they also promise that right order and a natural balance will return. The status quo will be safe in the long term, even if it is temporarily disturbed. The great volume, complexity and fine balance of the corpus of early Irish law is also perhaps explained - these were the day-to-day rules that ensured that proper balance was restored as soon as possible and thus were of tremendous importance.



Not all the consequences of right and wrong rule (and right or wrong action at any level in society) can be described in terms of such ordinary earthly processes. How might it be, for example, that misrule should lead to a failure of crops, storms, the arrival of pestilence or the appearance of blemishes on the face of a king? How might it be that simply replacing a bad ruler with a good ruler should result in better weather, a sudden fruitfulness of wild plants or remarkably strong, fit offspring for the peoples' livestock? The cause and effect of a ruler's actions evidently reach beyond the normal.



Here it is necessary to introduce the concept of sacred kingship. There is no specific term in Old Irish that marks out sacred kingship from any other type of kingship. Rather, we have the term nemed which can be translated as noble or alternatively as sacred. It is applied to all ranks of society regarded as noble. Everyone of noble rank is considered in some way to be invested with a degree of sacred, spiritual, magical power or capability. The revolt of nature against the wrong action of the nemed lord (giving freedom to a fuidir client) noted above parallels - albeit on a smaller scale - the revolt of nature against the misdeeds of the ruler: the forces in operation apply not just to the ruler but to all who are of nemed rank, that is, the sacred elite.



Amongst the nemed ranks, the pinnacle is, unsurprisingly, the- the ruler. It is not unreasonable to expect the to undergo a ceremony of inauguration which marks this additional sacredness and lifts them above their peers, and that is very much what we have.



The ceremony whereby a ruler is invested with authority over a people has clear links to the ceremony of marriage. The normal term for marriage - feis - is also used regularly for the ceremony by which a king is inaugurated, perhaps the most famous being feis Temro at which the new holder of the kingship of Tara is proclaimed and acknowledged. This term - feis - derives from the verb fo-aid - to sleep with, to have sex with. [19] This process is, essentially, the sexual union of the ruler-to-be with the goddess of the land. Even in the period when Ireland was clearly Christian, there are signs that the theory at least of union with the spirit of the land was still considered a fundamental element in the designation of an individual as ruler. In myth and legend this process is on occasion rather more explicit. This idea extends to lower levels of society also. Cáin Lánamna describes the relationship between lord and a base client as similar to that between husband and wife. [20]



For present purposes it suffices to note that the ruler, to be accepted as such, must receive the acknowledgement of the people (i.e. those that count - the nemed classes) and the acknowledgement of the land via its resident goddess of sovereignty. Where a ruler is unjust, selfish or otherwise shows himself to be unworthy of his position, it is not just the people who revolt, but nature itself. The land expresses the dissatisfaction of the goddess with her spouse's misdeeds. Just as the linking of a new ruler with the land is performed via a ceremony analogous to marriage, the severing of the ruler-land bond is analogous to divorce.



Divorce was an established element in Irish life and law during the early medieval period. Several law texts detail the reasons why a woman or man could divorce their spouse and the rights and entitlements each brought away from the union with them at its ending. [21] Where a woman chooses to leave a man she is entitled to bring with her - amongst other things - ownership of all land and property which she had brought to the marriage. It appears that the revolt of nature against a ruler's misdeeds is of a similar nature: the goddess-spouse withdraws from the union and takes with her everything she had brought. We can understand the loss of royal position - rulership over the land of the people - as equivalent to the process whereby a divorcing woman takes away use of her lands, but until the people react and depose the ruler, how is that withdrawal of use by the goddess signified? Simply put, the land ceases to produce its bounty: crops fail, livestock grow weak and do not have offspring, wild produce such as nuts and fruits, and fish of the rivers and sea are no longer available.



The consequences for the ruler are terrible and may end not just in deposition and loss of the all-important honour that signifies social and legal status, but even lead to exile, impoverishment and death. There are consequences for the people also. They suffer hunger, loss and disease. We might fairly ask why the people of the land should suffer for the wrongs of their ruler. It seems wholly unfair that they, who may have already suffered at the hands of the rí, should now be subjected to greater suffering. Part of the answer lies in Audacht Morainn again:


Let him care for his tribes, they will care for him
Let him help his tribes, they will help him
Let him soothe his tribes, they will soothe him
Tell him, it is through the truth of the ruler that plagues [and] great lightnings are kept from the people [22] 


This passage informs the ruler that his good deeds will be reciprocated by like good deeds from his people. The implication, though, is that, if the ruler fails to care for his tribes, help them, soothe them, they will neither care, help nor soothe him in return. They are, in effect, part of the process whereby the ruler's misdeeds are punished. The direct link between cause and effect is clear here: "it is through the truth of the ruler that plagues [and] great lightnings are kept from the people": the ruler causes the peoples' suffering, even when it is nature that is the direct agent of that suffering. Likewise, the people will be the direct means of a ruler's downfall because, even though lightning and plague are natural sources of woe, the ruler is the indirect cause of their suffering. The rest of the answer can be found in several myths and legends, but the following from CMT will suffice to make the point.


As a result of that contention which took place among the Túatha Dé, the sovereignty of Ireland was given to that youth [i.e. Bres]. But after Bres had assumed the sovereignty, three Fomorian kings (Indech mac Dé Domnann, Elatha mac Delbaith, and Tethra) imposed their tribute upon Ireland-and there was not a smoke from a house in Ireland which was not under their tribute. In addition, the warriors of Ireland were reduced to serving him: Ogma beneath a bundle of firewood and the Dagda as a rampart-builder, and he constructed the earthwork around Bres's fort. [23]



The nobles of the Túatha Dé themselves chose Bres as their ruler. This is what we would expect, that the nemed classes should elect their king and acclaim him as such. Such rights, however, carry equal responsibilities. Because of this erroneous act on their part they must pay tribute to the Fomorian kings and be reduced to the work of commoners - cutting wood and digging ditches. Because the people choose their king by acclaiming him, they are in part responsible if he turns out to be a bad ruler: they were the ones who gave him the power he is abusing, thus they are in part responsible for the woes that ensue. For their suffering to end, they must undo their error and depose the king. Ruler, people and nature are all linked in one cycle of mutual dependence.



The choosing of Bres as ruler of the Túatha Dé is a crucial point in CMT. The focus is - as so often - on the consequences of the absence of fír flathemon, 'king's justice'. Just as Bres' actions have consequences that ultimately impact on his status and welfare (he loses his position and is exiled), so for the nemed ranks of the Túatha Dé. They chose a ruler who was quite clearly not a good candidate and they suffered for this error. The effect is to give Bres power he is not suited to wield properly, thus allowing him to ruin himself, and places the nemed Túatha Dé under a ruler who degrades and impoverishes them. What, then, of the commoners? They, too suffer, even though they do not get much mention in CMT, and in a sense they also 'deserve' their punishment. By remaining loyal to their nemed lords they are indirectly complicit in the error of those lords. Here we see a full sequence at work. The people of all ranks suffer because they are all acting improperly. Their improper actions are appropriate to their rank in society, but they are all nonetheless at fault.



This is why the common folk must suffer the wrath of nature, illness, infertility and failure of crops and livestock. What is referred to as fír flathemon, king's justice, is only one side of the loop of cause and effect. On the other side of the loop we can say that the people get the leaders they deserve.



Thus we see why everyone deserves to suffer when a ruler fails in his duties, and begin to appreciate a force operating in early medieval Irish society of remarkable potency. That force is driven by the concept that each rank in society not only has an appropriate role with specific rights or freedoms, but with that role take on specific appropriate responsibilities and constraints. More, that force is understood to link every person in society into a feedback loop within which - however indirectly - right action of the individual promotes the well-being and prosperity of everyone, and wrong action causes suffering for everyone. Each is responsible for the welfare of all. It is not just the ruler who takes on this responsibility.



With this concept in mind the text of CMT becomes not just an agglomeration of traditions and legends dealing with seasonal ritual, the nature of kingship or an account of Ireland under the rule of the Túatha Dé Danann. Certainly it is likely that CMT contains all these and more, but throughout there is one theme which remains constant regardless of which episode is considered. That theme is the necessity for right action, the benefits of right action, and the terrible consequences of wrong action. The terms fír flathemon and gáu flathemon only deal with one side of the process. That Audacht Morainn should focus on the feedback process from the perspective of the ruler is not surprising as it is designed specifically for a royal audience. CMT gives us somewhat more of the full picture, describes the complete cycle of right and wrong, not just for the ruler but for everyone, and by the end of the tale shows, as Audacht Morainn promises, that natural balance will be restored.



Before addressing CMT directly, it is necessary to consider one final concept, that of the ideal ruler or true ruler. Audacht Morainn defines four types of ruler:


Tell him, there are only four rulers: the true ruler and the wily ruler,
the ruler of occupation with hosts, and the bull ruler.
The true ruler, in the first place, is moved towards every good thing,
he smiles on the truth when he hears it, he exalts it when he sees it. For
he whom the living do not glorify with blessings is not a true ruler.
The wily ruler defends borders and tribes, they yield their valuables
and dues to him.
The ruler of occupation with hosts from outside; his forces turn away,
they put off his needs, for a prosperous man does not turn outside.
The bull ruler strikes [and] is struck, wards off [and] is warded off,
roots out [and] is rooted out, pursues [and] is pursued. Against him there
is always bellowing with horns. [24] 



These four - the true ruler, the wily ruler, the ruler of occupation with hosts and the bull ruler - can be understood as the best ruler, the good ruler, the bad ruler and the worst ruler respectively. This much can be gleaned from the descriptions above. All four are in evidence in CMT. Indeed, it is possible to read that text as a parable about these four types of ruler.



What, then, is the ideal ruler? What are his attributes? Audacht Morainn was written, above all, to describe these attributes. Shortly before the passage quoted above they are summarised:


Tell him, let him be merciful, just, impartial, conscientious, firm,
generous, hospitable, honourable, stable, beneficient, capable, honest,
well-spoken, steady, true-judging. [25] 


Two of these attributes - 'just, … true-judging', however, raise a problem alluded to at the start of this discussion, that of the precise meaning of fír in fír flathemon. The translation of Audacht Morainn used here is that of Fergus Kelly. In most instances Kelly translates fír as justice rather than as truth which inclines the reader to view the key attribute of the ideal ruler as his justice. He becomes 'the just ruler' rather than 'the true ruler'. This is a difficult point to address because fír here does not mean precisely justice or truth, though it does encompass both in its meaning. That we can see simply by reading the summary of attributes above. Rather than attempt to define a single succinct English term that is equivalent it may be better to simply describe. The ideal ruler is 'true' in the sense that his actions are appropriate to his status and to the occasion alike. What he does is right and proper in every circumstance. He is true in the same sense that a plumb line is true, or a die is true. He displays each of the attributes listed above as each circumstance requires, promoting everything right and good and thereby acting solely to the benefit of his people. The outcome, via the internal feedback system within the society itself is inevitable: "he whom the living do not glorify with blessings is not a true ruler" [26] and therefore we can identify the true ruler because he is glorified with blessings. In the figure of Lug, as the model of the ideal king in CMT, ought to display many of the features of the true ruler of Audacht Morainn, and certainly display no failings whatsoever. By doing so he should also brig out the best in everyone around him. Equally, the ideal ruler is just. Thinking of him as both true and just, we can perhaps describe the former as 'taking the right action at the right time' and the latter as 'acting in appropriate measure in each situation'. In everything he does, the quality and the quantity of his actions is appropriate.



The sequence of events within CMT which we will be considering run, in summary, as follows.



The Túatha Dé Danann arrive in Ireland under the leadership of Núadu and engage the Fir Bolg in battle for possession of the land. The Túatha Dé are successful, but Núadu unfortunately suffers the loss of his hand in the fight. Thus blemished, he is no longer suitable to rule and a replacement is chosen: the half-Fomorian, half-Túatha Dé youth, Bres. Under Bres the Túatha Dé are forced to pay tribute to three Fomorian kings, engage in manual labour unsuited to their rank and are denied hospitality at Tara. Ultimately, Bres is satirised for this last failing and is forced from the kingship. Meanwhile Dian Cécht and his son, Miach, have restored Núadu's hand and he can resume his former role. Bres is exiled from Ireland. Lug arrives at Tara and is acknowledged as Samildánach - skilled in all arts. Núadu gives over the kingship to Lug as it is clear he is more capable of leading the Túatha Dé to victory in the impending battle against the Fomorian forces. Lug organises the Túatha Dé defence but when battle comes, the Túatha Dé fear that so valuable a person might be lost in battle and prevent him from joining the fray. Matters remain in stalemate until Balor's evil eye is used by the Fomorians. Núadu is killed by Balor, but Lug has entered the fray now, and knocks Balor's eye out with a sling stone. The Morrígan, goddess of war, enters the battle on the side of the Túatha Dé thus indicating the outcome. The tide of the battle turns and the Fomorians are routed. Bres is captured but Lug spares his life in exchange for the secrets of ploughing, sowing and reaping. All is well - the Túatha Dé hold sway in Ireland, the borders are secured, and they even have the Fomorians' secrets of agriculture.



Described thus, we have a straightforward tale of how the Túatha Dé defeated both the Fir Bolg and Fomorians and secured control over Ireland, gaining valuable knowledge into the bargain. However, read in the light of the discussion above, things take on a somewhat different slant.



The Túatha Dé are here an ideal model for early medieval Irish secular society through which certain principles can be acted out and lessons taught. They embody all things admirable and fine but they are not so perfect as to be without fault. The Fomorians are often regarded as the forces of chaos and evil - the antithesis of the Túatha Dé and the peace and prosperity they bring. This may be unfair to the Fomorians in this instance. While some of their leaders represent much that is undesirable in a ruler, this does not necessarily make the Fomorians as a whole into the embodiment of chaos and destruction. Rather, they seem to represent a model of society as it operates when the natural balance is upset, when erroneous decisions are taken and the people guided by bad leadership. Viewed in this manner, we can consider both Túatha Dé and Fomorians as parallel models for society, one displaying the characteristics of a well-led community, the other those of a badly-led community. The Fomorians start out with the upper hand, holding secrets of agriculture the Túatha Dé do not have, taking tributes from the Túatha Dé and (apparently) living in peace. The basis for their advantage, however, is the misguided rulership of Bres. By now we can guess where this must lead - destruction, death, shame and loss. The Túatha Dé on the other hand start out with a maimed king and no knowledge of the proper times for sowing, reaping and so on. They compound this by choosing the wrong man to lead them and suffer accordingly. They represent society as it should be, though, and even when errors are made we know they will correct them. Núadu is made whole, Bres exiled, and Lug leads them to victory. He gains the Fomorian secrets of agriculture to boot. It is worth quoting this passage from Audacht Morainn again at this point:


Darkness yields to light
Sorrow yields to joy
An oaf yields to a sage
A fool yields to a wise man
A serf yields to a free man
Inhospitality yields to hospitality
Niggardliness yields to generosity
Meanness yields to liberality
Impetuosity yields to composure
Turbulence yields to submission
A usurper yields to a true lord
Conflict yields to peace
Falsehood yields to truth. [27] 



This is exactly what happens in CMT.



The Túatha Dé represent society as it should be and therefore the focus in naturally on them. The role of the Fomorians in CMT is significant mainly in terms of how it impacts on the Túatha Dé. The first significant Fomorian (or half-Fomorian) we encounter is Bres. He is a remarkable youth, developing at twice the normal rate and being generally acclaimed as of fine appearance. This is predicted by his father, Elatha mac Delbaith:


"You will bear a son as a result of our meeting, and let no name be given to him but Eochu Bres (that is, Eochu the Beautiful), because every beautiful thing that is seen in Ireland-both plain and fortress, ale and candle, woman and man and horse-will be judged in relation to that boy, so that people will then say of it, 'It is a Bres.'' [28]


Due to Núadu's injury he cannot rule, and Bres is chosen to replace him. Certainly he seems to have no physical blemish and to be a fine example of young manhood, but he is untested and he is very young. This decision by the Túatha Dé is rash, and they pay dearly for their rashness. Before following Bres, however, it is appropriate to take a closer look at Núadu.



Núadu led the Túatha Dé against the Fir Bolg and drove them from the land. He no doubt appeared to be an excellent choice as ruler and his success in battle supports this. The borders of Ireland are secured and there is no indication but that prosperity and peace will ensue. Lug was not yet born and at the time it seems that Núadu was the best choice available. The Túatha Dé certainly are not punished for choosing Núadu at this stage in that they suffer no natural disasters and they have gained possession of Ireland. Núadu, however, has lost his hand in battle. By suffering this blemish he becomes physically imperfect and must step down from the rule of the Túatha Dé. It is not so much that a physical blemish prevents him from ruling well, but what that injury indicates. An ideal leader remains physically perfect because each of his actions is appropriate to the occasion. It is simply not possible for such an injury to befall a perfect ruler. Had he led perfectly he would not have been injured because his warriors would have been inspired to ensure that such a thing could never happen.



Núadu's imperfection is not his fault. What his injury signifies, really, is that his leadership was appropriate in times of war but in a time of peace Núadu simply is not the right man for the job. As hints go, this is pretty strong. The Túatha Dé know what they must do. Here we see the first opportunity in CMT for the feedback loop of consequences to come into play. True success against the Fir Bolg requires not just that they be defeated and driven from the land, but that the Túatha Dé emerge from the battle with their leader intact. They act correctly in replacing Núadu, but choose the wrong man. They suffer the loss of Núadu's leadership and the misery of life under Bres for their inappropriate choice. Success of Túatha Dé society (and by implication every society) in all its parts is the collective responsibility of each and every member of that society.



Núadu is replaced by the beautiful Bres. Under his rule the Túatha Dé are obliged to pay tribute to the three Fomorian kings, Indech mac Dé Domnann, Tethra, and Bres' father, Elatha mac Delbaith. Two of the finest of their number, Dagda and Ogma, are forced to engage in work unsuitable - indeed shameful - for men of their rank. Dagda is forced to dig the ditches around Bres' fort while Ogma must cut and transport firewood each day. Further, one of the cornerstones of Irish society, hospitality, was denied the Túatha Dé at Tara:


There was great murmuring against him among his maternal kinsmen the Túatha Dé, for their knives were not greased by him. However frequently they might come, their breaths did not smell of ale; and they did not see their poets nor their bards nor their satirists nor their harpers nor their pipers nor their horn-blowers nor their jugglers nor their fools entertaining them in the household. They did not go to contests of those pre-eminent in the arts, nor did they see their warriors proving their skill at arms before the king [29]



It is notable that Dagda, the god skilled in all things, and Ogma, the champion of the Túatha Dé are singled out here. Both, as powerful figures among the Túatha Dé, ought to have demonstrated leadership and guided the decision away from Bres but evidently did not. Equally we would expect the most powerful of human lords to lend support to the best among their peers to take on the mantle of king.



It is clear that Bres' rule is wholly wrong. He displays none of the attributes expected of a king. Finally, matters come to a head when the poet Coirpre arrives at Bres' house. He is treated foully, housed in a small, dark hut without furniture, bedding or fire and given nothing but three small, dry cakes to eat. Whatever might be said about Bres' poor leadership and his selfishness, this is simply reckless to an extreme. Not just a king, but every member of society is expected to provide hospitality. Having denied hospitality to one so elevated as society's leading poet the outcome is inevitable. Coirpre makes a satire on Bres:


Without food quickly on a dish, 
Without cow's milk on which a calf grows, 
Without a man's habitation after darkness remains, 
Without paying a company of storytellers-let that be Bres's condition.
Bres's prosperity no longer exists. [30] 



Just as a new king is proclaimed publicly at his inauguration, so this public declaration of Bres' failure as king marks the end of his rule. There is little he can do put step down, and he himself acknowledges this. The Túatha Dé expel him from Ireland in shame. As a side-point, it is worth noting that, to effect a divorce, a woman need simply declare her reasons (assuming they are valid) to free her from her obligations to her spouse. Here we again see an analogy between the way marriage ends and kingship ends. Making a public statement invites public rebuttal. If that rebuttal does not come, the statement stands, with tremendous potency. The words 'true' and 'just' come to mind again. Coirpre's satire has great force because it says what is true, and because the occasion is appropriate, it is also just. Though truth and justice are cornerstones of what defines an ideal ruler they also define an ideal satirist, an ideal lord, an ideal champion. The same principles pervade all of society, not just the role of kingship.



Here we have two examples of kingship. Núadu is a good king, but does not display all the attributes of the ideal ruler. Bres acts foolishly and selfishly, but though he rules badly he is not wholly destructive of society. Returning to the descriptions of the four types of ruler provided in Audacht Morainn we can see the picture of the wily ruler reflected in the actions of Núadu:


The wily ruler defends borders and tribes, they yield their valuables
and dues to him. [31] 



He defends the borders of Ireland against the Fir Bolg, certainly, and the Túatha Dé accord him honours due to such a leader, making him king in the first instance, and restoring him once his hand is replaced.



Bres seems to embody the attributes of the ruler of occupation with hosts from outside.


The ruler of occupation with hosts from outside; his forces turn away,
they put off his needs, for a prosperous man does not turn outside. [32] 


He is at least partly an outsider, being half-Fomorian, and his rule involves the payment of tribute to Fomorian kings with the implicit threat of "hosts from outside" should it not be paid. Those hosts ultimately do attack at Bres' urging when he is deposed and exiled. We also see the Túatha Dé "put[ting] off his needs" by paying tribute and engaging in demeaning labour in order to keep him satisfied.



Thus, in Núadu and Bres we see examples of the 'good king' and the 'bad king' and are presented with examples of the consequences of their rule. Later, we see in Lug on the one hand and Indech mac Dé Domnann (and Balor, his champion) on the other examples of the 'best king' and the 'worst king', thereby completing the group of four defined in Audacht Morainn.



Lug has already been defined above as the model for the true king, but what is it that marks Lug out as different from Núadu? What is it that causes Núadu to consider it appropriate to hand the kingship of the Túatha Dé to Lug? If Núadu is the 'good king', Lug must represent something greater, the best or ideal king, the "true ruler" of Audacht Morainn. If this is correct, we ought to be able to identify in the deeds of Lug the characteristics and attributes of the true ruler.



When Lug first arrives at Tara he is stopped at the gate by the gatekeeper, Camall mac Ríagall. None might enter Tara unless they possessed an art, he is told. Lug now proceeds to enumerate all manner of skills which he possesses. In each case Camall states that they already have a master of that art. Undaunted, Lug says:


'Ask the king whether he has one man who possesses all these arts: if he has I will not be able to enter Tara.' [33]



Indeed, no such multi-talented individual exists, not even Dagda, apparently, and Lug is permitted to enter. The relationship between Dagda and Lug - whether they are two versions of the one multitalented god - is an interesting one, as is the question of what talent Dagda lacks that Lug has. Unfortunately, there is not space to expand on this here and we must accept for the present that Dagda is in some way not suited to kingship.



In contest against Ogma, in harp-playing and in fidchell Lug again proves his capability. Núadu, after some discussion, decides Lug is the ideal leader for the coming battle against the Fomorians and stands aside from the kingship. Lug immediately calls a conference:


The next day he and the two brothers, Dagda and Ogma, conversed together on Grellach Dollaid; and his two kinsmen Goibniu and Dían Cécht were summoned to them… They spent a full year in that secret conference [34]



More than this, Lug then calls the sorcerers, cupbearers, and so on, each in turn, and asks each what talents they can bring to bear in the coming battle. A year of planning and a careful accounting of the resources available; here we see Lug the conscientious king. This process is repeated on the eve of battle, on which occasion


Lug addressed each of them in turn concerning their arts, strengthening them and addressing them in such a way that every man had the courage of a king or great lord. [35]



As the true ruler should, he gives to his people what they need, and elevates all that is good and honourable and noble in them. Once again, CMT acts as a sort of dramatisation of the key message of Audacht Morainn, which tells us the true ruler 'is moved towards every good thing, he smiles on the truth when he hears it, he exalts it when he sees it'. [36]



When battle begins, the Túatha Dé fear that so valuable a leader as Lug might be injured or killed in battle and place a guard of nine men on him to keep him from the fight. Despite this, he escapes to take the role of the true leader "and it was he who was in front of the battalion of the Túatha Dé". [37] It would seem that the injury to Núadu suggested to the Túatha Dé that Lug, too, might be harmed. Lug, however, knows his true role and is sure of his own capability. Here we see the Túatha Dé fail again to exercise proper judgement; having chosen the correct ruler in Lug they now seek to prevent him from fulfilling his duties. Had they a proper understanding of - or faith in - their true ruler they would not have erred here once again. Lug is true to his calling, however, and leads from the front, exhorting the warriors to great things. Far from being injured or killed, Lug remains untouched while Núadu falls at the hand of Balor, champion of the Fomorians. The lesson given in battle against the Fir Bolg is thus repeated with more serious results for Núadu. Not only does he not lead the Túatha Dé, he now cannot. The message: Lug is here to lead; Núadu is not needed. The Túatha Dé have erred and lost one of their shining lights as a result, but are fortunate to have Lug as their new leader, and he reverses their mistake as the best of rulers should. Rather than seek retribution for his captivity he inspires the Túatha Dé and turns the battle in their favour.



With the 'wily king' dead, Lug, the 'true king', is now unquestionably the only person appropriate to the role of leader of the Túatha Dé. The Fomorians, in an effort to break the stalemate, raise the lid on Balor's evil eye and Lug's reaction is swift, sure and decisive. With a sling stone he not only knocks the poisonous eye from Balor's head, killing him, but as the eye falls among the Fomorians it kills many of them with its evil gaze.


Immediately afterwards the battle broke, and the Fomoire were driven to the sea. The champion Ogma son of Elatha and Indech mac Dé Domnann fell together in single combat. [38]



We have seen three of the four kings from Audacht Morainn already, and here we see the fate of the fourth, and of his champion. Indech mac Dé Domnann and Balor both die in battle. What, then, of Indech's followers? The Fomorians, those who supported Indech as ruler and followed him into battle against the Túatha Dé are routed and driven forever from Ireland. Worse, many die from the gaze of Balor's eye. Nothing but disaster comes to those who support the worst of leaders, the bull ruler. Indech himself loses the battle, his champion, his tribute, and in the end Ogma takes his life.



One of the attributes of the true ruler according to Audacht Morainn is true-judging. Bres has been captured and the intention is to kill him, but he pleads for his life. He comes up with two offerings - cattle constantly in milk and grain harvests every quarter - but Lug confers with Máeltne Mórbrethach who advises against both arrangements. His reasoning seems to be that what nature has provided is sufficient and warping the rules of nature or trusting to the talents of one individual to gain greater yields is not right:


'He shall not be spared,' said Máeltne. 'He has no power over their age or their calving, even if he controls their milk as long as they are alive.'

'This has suited us,' said Máeltne. 'Spring for ploughing and sowing, and the beginning of summer for maturing the strength of the grain, and the beginning of autumn for the full ripeness of the grain, and for reaping it. Winter for consuming it.' [39]



Lug has done his work well and restored the balance to Túatha Dé society. What Bres is offering is as much a disordering of nature as plague or storms or barren livestock. To accept his offers would be ill-advised. Bres' Fomorian instincts are showing through here, the instincts that led his rule to disaster, that brought all Fomorian society to ruin in battle and that here offer short-term gains regardless of the long-term consequences. We see clearly the contrast between the Túatha Dé inclination to natural balance and the Fomorian inclination to natural disorder. Máeltne advises well, and Lug was correct both to seek his wisdom and to accept it. Bres cannot cause havoc for the Túatha Dé any more.



Just as undertaking the position of of the Túatha Dé means Lug must focus his actions and thoughts on restoring and maintaining the social balance and bringing out the best of what comes naturally to his people, so also with nature. The ruler is chosen not just by the people but by the goddess of sovereignty. She represents the land, and by extension all of nature. It is his responsibility to ensure that a natural balance and right order of things is maintained not just in society but in nature, and especially in the way natural things are utilised by his people. Specifically, farming has its seasons and an annual order to it and Lug must ensure that what nature provides is not abused by forcing cattle to give milk all year round or forcing crops to yield a harvest four times a year.



Lug exercises true-judgement by seeking guidance from Máeltne and in seeing the appropriateness of the approach he advises. He also exercises true-judgement in returning to Bres and asking instead for the knowledge required to ensure that crops are grown and harvested as is right and proper. He is conscious that what he asks seems less by far to ask than the nature-warping skills Bres had offered but apparently is aware that, as the modern saying goes, all that glitters is not gold: Bres' offerings seem wonderful and to the benefit of the Túatha Dé initially but the long-term effect cannot but be retribution by nature for the abuse.


'Less rescues you,' said Lug. 'What?' asked Bres.

 'How shall the men of Ireland plough? How shall they sow? How shall they reap? If you make known these things, you will be saved.' [40]



Considering true-judgement we can also note in passing that Lug is sparing Bres, who was the direct cause of all the woes suffered by the Túatha Dé. As with his true-judgement in relation to Bres' offered skills, this is not a matter requiring the immediately obvious choice. Bres is spared above all because his errors come about for reasons beyond his control. He is chosen for the role of ruler by the Túatha Dé, his inappropriateness for the role is due mainly to his youth and inexperience. Certainly he acted foolishly and selfishly as rí, and brought about war between the Túatha Dé and Fomorians and for this he is punished in several ways, but taking his life at this stage in proceedings will serve no purpose. The early medieval Irish legal system is based, where injury of any kind is concerned, on compensating for a loss rather than simply punishing. Within this system true-judging means seeking compensation first, and punishing second. Knowledge of the proper techniques for growing crops provides the compensation - something that may seem less to Bres but is of immense value to any society that values balance and proper order above all things. The punishment for Bres lies in his exile from Ireland, and possibly in living his life in the knowledge that his own stupidity lost him a kingship, exiled him from his homeland among the Túatha Dé and brought about the destruction of his Fomorian kindred. Above all, he cannot now have any honour among either the Túatha Dé or the Fomorians.



The people of the Túatha Dé chose Lug to lead them, and they chose well. Not only have they had the order restored to their society and external threats to that society removed forever, but they have gained the knowledge by which their relationship with nature - through farming - can be carried on in a way that ensures balance and order in the natural realm is also maintained. Only the 'true ruler' can achieve this outcome and only a society operating as it should could both produce such a man and select him to lead them.



The advice in Audacht Morainn is built on a set of ideas about the individual's place in society and the rights and responsibilities this brings, about proper social order and the impact individual action has on this order and about the proper ordering of nature and the impact that the balance of social order has on that natural order. Cath Maige Tuired, though a mythical tale of the Túatha Dé Danann, is structured such as to demonstrate both the effects of disrupting the social and natural order and of restoring the balance to both systems. The central role of the rí, as the pinnacle of the social hierarchy, means that attention naturally falls on the actions of the holder of that position in both texts, especially in Audacht Morainn. This does not mean that his actions are the only ones that have an impact, and while this is implied in Audacht Morainn it is a constant theme in Cath Maige Tuired. Everyone has a place in society, everyone's actions have consequences, everyone is affected by those consequences. Lug's request for knowledge from Bres completes the loop of action and consequences, linking individual, society and nature. The individual affects society, society affects nature, nature affects the individual.



Audacht Morainn, though written in the form of advice sent to a young ruler, contains within it a world-view capable of informing the actions of everyone in early medieval Irish society. Cath Maige Tuired, written as a mythical history of the gods and goddesses of Ireland's ancient past, contains in it a working-out of the world-view of Audacht Morainn and, though not structured as a lesson, it, too, can also inform the actions of the medieval Irish individual. For us, Cath Maige Tuired, though perhaps failing to give us a 'mirror on the Iron Age' can at least hold up a mirror to the society of early medieval Ireland.



Stiofán MacAmhalghaidh

Stiofán MacAmhalghaidh is Project Manager of the IRQUAS online Irish heritage project and Editor of INSIGHT Journal










1 - Excerpt from Transglobal Underground, Eyeweigh Souljah, Psychic Karaoke, Nation Records, 1996

2 - Fergus Kelly, A Guide To Early Irish Law, DIAS, 1988, 18-21. Kelly tends to favour 'justice' as a translation of fírinne, though one of the purposes of the present discussion is to show that 'truth' may be closer to the original meaning in most cases.

3 - Elizabeth A. Gray, Cath Maige Tuired: The Second Battle of Mag Tuired, Irish Texts Society, 1982

4 - Fergus Kelly, Audacht Morainn, DIAS, 1976

5 - Kelly, 1976, 14-19

6 - Kelly, 1976, 54

7 - Kelly, 1976, 14

8 - Kelly, 1976, 54

9 - Kelly, 1976, 7-11

10 - Gray, 29-35

11 - Kuno Meyer, Tecosca Cormaic, RIA, 1909

12 - dóerfuidir = base semi-freeman. Such clients lie at the lower end of the scale and cannot make legal contracts without the permission of their lord. Allowing such a person 'freedom' implies they gain the right to arrange contracts without permission. For details see Kelly, 1988, 33-35

13 - David Binchy, Corpus Iuris Hibernici, DIAS, 1978, 426-35 - 427.1

14 - Binchy, 1978, 231.15-7

15 - Binchy, 1978, 2196.29-30

16 - David Binchy, Críth Gablach, DIAS, 1979, 248-9

17 - Binchy, 1979, 335

18 - Kelly, 1976, 54

19 - Francis John Byrne, Irish Kings and High Kings, Batsford, 1973, 17

20 - Rudolf Thurneysen, 'Cáin lánamna', § 2, in D. A. Binchy & Myles Dillon (eds.), Studies in early Irish law, 1936

21 - Binchy, 1978, 4.33-5.32, 47.21-48.26, 2198.24-6 for example

22 - Kelly, 1976, 9-12

23 - Gray, 29

24 - Kelly, 1976, 58-62

25 - Kelly, 1976, 55

26 - Kelly, 1976, 59

27 - Kelly, 1976, 54

28 - Gray, 29

29 - Gray, 33

30 - Gray, 35

31 - Kelly, 1976, 60

32 - Kelly, 1976, 61

33 - Gray, 41

34 - Gray, 43

35 - Gray, 55

36 - Kelly, 1976, 59

37 - Gray, 59

38 - Gray, 65

49 - Gray, 69

40 - Gray, 69





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