The following story tells of a seminal event that took place in Ireland during the latter half of the first century A.D., and which set in motion a chain of events that would influence and forever change the political and economic landscapes of Ireland, Britain and Scotland. The event involved three kings, who together with their many nobles and attendants, had assembled at a fortress in Ireland's western province of Connaught. The reason for the gathering, a sumptuous banquet, was conceived by a rural chieftain, meticulously planned in minute detail, and took three years of careful preparation. As soon as the details had been finalized, invitations were dispatched and delivered by couriers.
In 56AD, the reigning high King of Ireland, Fiachaidh Fionnoladh, a descendant from a long line of the Milesian nobility, his wife Eithne, daughter of the king of Scotland; Feig, son of Fidheic Caoch, king of Munster, whose wife was Beartha, daughter of Goirtniad, king of Britain; Breasal, son of Firb, king of Ulster, whose wife Aine, was the daughter of the king of Sacsa? her father's name was Cainneall, accepted the invitations and traveled with their respective retinues, in two-wheeled chariots, horse drawn carts, horseback and on foot, meeting en-masse, on an open plain below the imposing stronghold of ‘Magh Cru’ (Field of Blood,) not far from Lough Conn in county Mayo. As their attendants led the horses to the stables, the retinue proceeded up the ramp, crossed the earthen ditches, were met by the ever-alert gatekeepers, and escorted to the entrance of the great hall.
The great hall, with its thick walls and oak roof beams, was laid out in readiness for the hungry guests. Rows of flickering birch-twig torches, wrapped in sheep’s wool dipped in beeswax, gave off a warm, inviting glow. The walls, usually displaying an array of battleaxes and broadswords, were instead adorned with colorful banners and woolen fabrics, reaching all the way to the vaulted ceiling, high above the wooden, plank floor. Sturdy trestles supported the tables lining the walls on either side, resplendent with large platters, piled high with roasted wild boar, beef, venison, mutton, salmon and jugs of ale and mead. The wall at the far end of the long hall was dominated by a large, open fireplace that crackled noisily and sent plumes of smoke and fiery sparks up through the wide chimney. Stacked close to the hearth were piles of dried peat blocks and seasoned logs, enough fuel to keep the fire burning well into the night.
To the left of the fireplace sat a small table, reserved for the Ollamhs, scribes associated with the high king and his clan, their birch-bark parchments and styli, already laid out neatly in readiness for recording the evenings events. Careful note of the names of all in attendance would be taken, using the newly developed ogham inscription system. Behind the small table and near to the corner, concealed behind a long wall hanging, was the flight-door, a small exit which could be used for escape in times of trouble. The doorway opened onto a stone stairway which led to a dark, narrow, passageway (souterrain,) that ran underground and came up under a trapdoor, set in one corner of the stable floor. To the right of the fireplace were benches where the bards and minstrels would sit, waiting their turn to entertain the audience with word and song, their harps and bodhrans tuned and ready.
As was the custom, females were assigned a separate hall in which they were served and attended to. This would turn out to have far reaching effects on future events in the aftermath of the nights gathering. Another custom stipulated that before the guests were admitted, the banquet-hall was cleared, so that only three people remained within. The three who remained were the Seancha, similar to our present day master of ceremonies; the Bollsaire, the marshal of the premises and a Trumpeter who would summon the guests. All three stood inside to the right of the entrance doors, then, when everything was ready, the trumpet would sound to call the shield bearers of the kings, their nobles and attendants.
Each bearer in turn, would hand the shield, emblazoned with a coat of arms, to the Bollsaire who, directed by the Seancha, would then hang it on one of the iron hooks that protruded, at intervals, from the walls above the seats. When the trumpet sounded a second time, the shields of the rural Chieftains and their followers, were hung on the opposite wall above their seats. When the trumpet sounded a third time, everyone entered the banquet-hall and took their seats beneath his own shield. The gatekeepers then swung the heavy, wooden doors shut, the iron hinges creaking as they slowly closed. Large barrel bolts were slid into place and a stout wooden brace was dropped in position. The great hall was secure, and the stage was set for what was to follow.
The hosts of the banquet on that fateful night were three renegade chieftains of the lower tribes, the Attacotts, named, Monach, Buan, and Cairbre Caitcheann. Of the three, Cairbre, known as ‘cats head,’ was the more vengeful and ruthless individual. He was a descendant of the Fir Bolg, a lowly, violent race that had inhabited Ireland much earlier. Before arriving in Ireland, the Fir Bolg (men of bags) had been made slaves by their masters, the Greeks, and forced to carry and distribute bags of soil in barren areas in an effort to create new tracts of arable land. In serfdom for more than 200 years, they planned and staged a violent revolt against their oppressors and after slaughtering and robbing them, commandeered several ships and set sail, eventually arriving in Ireland. In time they established a kingship and a succession of nine Fir Bolg kings ruled over Ireland for many generations. Following a prolonged series of pitched battles, the Fir Bolg were finally ejected from Ireland, but returned some time later from Scotland, with a leader called Aengus, an episode loosely referred to as a ‘Pictish’ invasion. They were forced onto the Aran Islands on which they settled, and where remnants of a fortress on Inishmore, related to Aengus and the Fir Bolg, can still be seen.
Regular incursions were made onto the mainland in attempts to recover their former positions of power, but as they were too few in number, it was impossible for them to re-gain control. In the end, they had to be satisfied with blending in with the ordinary people and grudgingly owe their allegiance to the elected king. Cairbre however, seething with vengeance, never gave up on his desire to re-establish power and avenge the perceived wrongs. Believing that he was the true heir to the kingship, he felt that his birthright had been taken illegally from his forebears, and was determined to retrieve the royal throne. Knowing that a full frontal assault would not be successful, he devised a cunning plan and for three years, cultivated relationships and formed alliances with two rogue chieftains who were well known to harbor ill feeling toward the ruling king and his followers. With promises of shares of the spoils and positions of power, the chieftains readily agreed to Cairbres’ devious plot, and on the night of the banquet Cairbre set his plan in motion.
In the great hall, the feast was well underway, everybody had eaten their fill and the ale and mead flowed freely. Attendants, instructed to keep the drinking mugs filled, moved from table to table ensuring a steady flow. The revelers, in high spirits, conversed loudly with their fellow guests, their raucous laughter resounding and filling the great hall. Bards and minstrels, in their colorful cloaks, strolled among the tables singing the praises of the king and his clan members, the melodic sounds of their harps ringing and echoing off the walls. From the opposite side of the hall, Cairbre eyed his unsuspecting guests with careful deliberation; the time had arrived and now he would take his rightful place and restore honor, in the name of his ancestors. As pre-arranged, he rose slowly to his feet, removed his cloak and threw it onto the floor. His men, in unison, grabbed their swords and battle-axes, hidden earlier under their seats, and with blood-curdling screams, leapt over the tables and charged the kings and their nobles. Surrounded, and with nowhere to run, Cairbre and his men proceeded to systematically slash and hack the unfortunate victims. Taken by surprise, and with no chance of escape, the kings, nobles and their attendants were overpowered and cut down in an unbridled orgy of violent savagery.
In the corner behind the scribes’ table, the Ollams huddled together against the wall and watched helplessly, as Cairbre grabbed the dead king, Fiachaidh Fionnoladh, by the hair, dragged his bloody body to the middle of the hall floor and with several blows of his axe, decapitated him. Monach and Buan grasped the lifeless bodies of Feig and Breasal, and, in an equally frenzied act of senseless butchery, severed their heads. Holding the heads aloft, they were met with a deafening roar of approval that reverberated off the walls, proclaiming the approval of the victors. The mutilated bodies of the nobles and attendants lay bleeding where they fell, on the floor, strewn across the tables, many still in their seats. Some ran towards the doors, hoping for escape, but were cut down with both axe and sword and lay dying, their blood seeping and staining the wooden planks. Shocked, but knowing he must keep his wits, the ard Ollamh quickly gathered the scrolls and hid them in an inner pocket of his cloak, then, his back to the wall, he inched slowly toward the corner, his mind racing. As he moved along, his foot caught on the fringe of the wall hanging covering the door to the tunnel. When he tried to free it, the fabric dislodged and fell to the floor, revealing the small door. Motioning to his fellow scribes he quickly opened the door and all three disappeared inside. Once inside, the door was shut and the three men hurried down the stone steps and ran blindly along the passage.
Off to one side, on an elevated mound close to the stables, sat the small hall. Similar in construction to the great hall, it was generally used as a safe haven for women and children in times of unrest, but on that occasion it was used to accommodate the wives and servants of the visiting dignitaries. Although not designed to be as secure as the great hall, it was nevertheless strong enough to withstand any initial assault and the single, large door could be bolted from the inside, yet on this night it was deemed unnecessary. Inside, the women, terrified by the shouting and horrible screams coming from the great hall, clung together in fear. They were startled by the sudden sound of the door opening, and turning, were surprised but relieved to see the scribes and two stable attendants enter. Quickly, they guided the women out of the hall and helped them onto three waiting horse-drawn carts, and with no time to waste, moved rapidly toward the open entrance gates. The gatekeepers, already overpowered by the attendants, posed no threat, allowing the carts to disappear into the night. By the time Cairbre and his murderous henchmen reached the small hall, they found it silent and empty.
In the aftermath of the brutal extermination at ‘Magh Cru,’ Cairbre did indeed establish a kingship and ruled ineffectually until his sudden death five years later. True to his word, he honored his promises to Monach and Buan and granted them lands and titles. The old annals tell us that Ireland suffered greatly after the events that took place on that unforgettable night. Civil unrest, severe drought and famines all made for terrible conditions throughout the island and the usurper Cairbre, despised and feared, was seen as the cause of all ills. On the death of his father, Cairbres’ son Morann refused the throne and a lesser noble named Eilim became king and ruled for 20 years. The survivors who fled from Connaught on that night traveled to Scotland and found sanctuary with Eithne’s father, the king of Scotland. Sometime later it was revealed that the murdered kings’ wives were pregnant and eventually gave birth to three sons. Eithne named her son Tuathal Teachthmar; Beartha named her son Corb Olum and Aine named her son Tibraide Tireach. Tuathal, being the son of Fiachaidh Fionnoladh, and following the true line of succession, was the rightful heir to the kingship of Ireland.
When news reached Ireland that the sons of the slain kings were alive, and after consultation with the Druids, it was decided that envoys be sent to Scotland in an effort to encourage Tuathal to travel to Ireland and assume the sovereignty, which his father had held. Tuathal, by then aged 25, agreed and, with help from his grandfather and his followers, assembled a large army and set sail for Ireland at the end of the first century A.D. He landed at Malahide, north of Dublin, and proceeded to Tara, convened a Feis, and summoned the loyal clans and those others who supported his claim to the throne. His army, by then a considerable force, marched west and engaged Eilim and his forces in an all-out war for supremacy. At the Battle of Aichill, he defeated his enemy, slew most of their forces and set out on a countrywide campaign of subjugation.
Tuathal Teachthmar, son of Fiachaidh Fionnoladh and direct ancestor of the UiNeill dynasty, was crowned high king of Ireland at Tara and reigned for 30 years, returning the line of Milesian nobility to its rightful place.
© John A. Brennan 2021. All Rights Reserved.
Information verified by Geoffrey Keating’s “History of Ireland” and Michael O’Cleary’s writings in the “Annals of the Four Masters.”
Further information provided by the “Annals of Ulster,” the “Annals of Clonmacnoise,” the “Book of Invasions” and the “Book of Leinster.”
A special thanks for the some of the invaluable information provided by Wikimedia.