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Cormac mac Cuilennáinlocked

(d. 908)
  • Paul Russell

Cormac mac Cuilennáin (d. 908), king of Munster and bishop, belonged to one of the lesser branches of the Éoganacht and his assumption of the kingship of Munster seems likely to have been a compromise arrangement (Byrne, 214, 292). It is likely that his marriage to Gormlaith (d. 948) is a later fiction. The fullest version of his biography is to be found in the seventeenth-century compilation, the annals of the four masters. According to this, he was brought up by the sage, Snedgus of Dísert Díarmada, who died in 890. In 902 he assumed the kingship of Munster in place of Cenngégán. Five years later he and Flaithbertach led a Munster force against Flann Sinna, high-king of Ireland, at Mag Léna. After defeating him, they marched on into southern Meath and also defeated the men of Connacht and brought home hostages from the Uí Néill. The victories brought no lasting peace. In 908 Flann with Cerball, king of Leinster, and Cathal, king of Connacht, brought a great army against Cormac at Belach Mugna (Ballymoon, Kildare). The annals record the doom-laden prophecies accompanying Cormac and his death is described in detail (Radner, 153–9). The Munstermen were subject to great slaughter. As Cormac was escaping on horseback, his horse slipped on the blood-covered road; it fell backwards crushing the king, breaking his back and neck. As he fell, Cormac said, 'In manus tuas, Domine, commendo spiritum meum' ('into your hands, Lord, I commend my spirit'). In the coda of the annal entry, he is described as:

a scholar in Irish and in Latin, the wholly pious and pure chief bishop, miraculous in chastity and prayer, a sage in government, in all wisdom, knowledge and science, a sage of poetry and learning, chief of charity and every virtue; a wise man in teaching, high king of two provinces of all Munster in his time.

Radner, 159

This description is supported by the wide range of works attributed to Cormac. They include the Lebor na cert (the 'Book of rights'), Sanas Cormaic ('Cormac's glossary'), the manuscript compilation known as the psalter of Cashel, and numerous poems and tales (for a selection, see the indexes of the catalogues by Flower and by Abbott and Gwynn). However, recent scholarship has tended towards the view that many of these attributions should be treated with scepticism. Lebor na cert consists of sections on each of the kingdoms of Ireland in which two poems detail the stipend received by the provincial king from the king of Ireland and the stipend paid to the provincial king by the tribes of the province. At various times the work has been attributed en bloc to Cormac or he has been seen as one of the contributors. However, Dillon has demonstrated that the work is a compilation of poems on the rights of provincial kings, probably put together in the reign of Brían Bóruma in the eleventh century. At some stage it had been thought that Lebor na cert had been part of the psalter of Cashel and this was used as part of the argument for connecting it with Cormac. The psalter of Cashel is no longer extant though a number of works claim, in their scribal colophons, to be derived from it. The contents list of the psalter has been reconstructed by Ó Riain and he has argued that a link between Cormac and the psalter cannot be demonstrated before the last quarter of the fourteenth century.

One particular link which has been broken by Ó Riain's work is that between the psalter and an early fragment of 'Cormac's glossary' in the Bodleian Library (MS Laud 610). 'Cormac's glossary' (entitled Sanas Cormaic in the Yellow Book of Lecan version) is an encyclopaedic form of alphabetical glossary on Irish words; it contains not only explanations of difficult words, and in some cases lengthy tales explaining the origin of a word, but also etymological explanations of simple words in a style probably derived from Isidore of Seville. There are several versions of this glossary extant; they divide into two groups, a short version and a longer one with extra entries at the end of many of the letters. Sometimes the work is attributed to a Cormac, but the evidence for its connection with Cormac mac Cuilennáin would be entirely circumstantial were it not for a marginal gloss in the prose Dindsenchas (explanations of place names) on Tara at page 159a of the Book of Leinster, where an entry on Tara which is identical with an entry in 'Cormac's glossary' is glossed 'Corm[ac] m[ac] Cul[ennáin]' (Russell, 10–11). Supporting evidence, though circumstantial, is offered by the use of sanas in the title of the glossary: it basically means ‘secret’ and is not used of any other glossary; but it does occur in references to the secret council of the king of Munster. However, even if Cormac mac Cuilennáin can be linked to this glossary, it is not clear what role he played in its creation. It has emerged from recent work that material in 'Cormac's glossary' can also be found in other early glossaries and that the glossarial tradition can be traced back to a very early period of Irish scholarship. Indeed the etymological techniques employed can be found in Isidore and Jerome. The growth of glossaries was ongoing and it would seem that 'Cormac's glossary' represents a fairly late stage in the process. If Cormac had anything to do with the glossary attributed to him, it was at best as a compiler of pre-existing glossarial material, not as a collector of hard words directly from texts. Moreover, it seems that after Cormac's input the process of growth continued throughout the manuscript tradition right up to the period of the extant manuscripts.

Many of the poems and tales attributed to Cormac await re-evaluation, although it seems that there was a tendency to attribute works to him in order to enhance their status and that of the manuscript containing them. In contrast to the prevailing trend, Breatnach has recently attributed the Amra Senáin, a poem in praise of St Senán, to Cormac on the basis of the historical associations in the poem and language and vocabulary also attested in 'Cormac's glossary'.


  • J. N. Radner, ed., Fragmentary annals of Ireland (1978)
  • F. J. Byrne, Irish kings and high-kings (1973)
  • M. Dillon, ‘On the date and authorship of the Book of Rights’, Celtica, 4 (1958), 239–49
  • P. Ó Riain, ‘The psalter of Cashel: a provisional list of contents’, Éigse, 23 (1989), 107–30
  • Cormac mac Cuilennáin, Sanas Cormaic: an old-Irish glossary, ed. K. Meyer (1912), vol. 4 of Anecdota from Irish manuscripts, ed. O. J. Bergin and others (1907–13)
  • P. Russell, ‘The sounds of a silence: the growth of Cormac's Glossary’, Cambridge Medieval Celtic Studies, 15 (1988), 1–30
  • L. Breatnach, ed., ‘Amra Senáin’, Sages, saints and storytellers: Celtic studies in honour of Professor James Carney, ed. D. Ó Corráin, L. Breatnach, and K. McCone (1989), 7–31
  • S. H. O'Grady, R. Flower, and M. Dillon, Catalogue of Irish manuscripts in the British Museum, 3 vols. (1926–53)
  • T. K. Abbott and E. J. Gwynn, eds., Catalogue of the Irish manuscripts in the library of Trinity College, Dublin (1921)
  • M. Ní Dhonnchada, ‘On Gormfhlaith daughter of Flann Sinna and the lure of the sovereignty goddess’, Seanchas: studies in early medieval Irish archaeology, history and literature in honour of Francis J. Byrne, ed. A. P. Smyth (2000), 225–37
  • M. Ní Mhaonaigh, ‘Tales of three Gormlaiths in medieval Irish literature’, Ériu, 52 (2002), 1–24


  • Bodl. Oxf., MS Laud 610
J. O'Donovan, ed. and trans., , 7 vols. (1848–51); 2nd edn (1856); 3rd edn (1990)