If it’s written in the annals…

I get a kick out of the commercial where a man’s using his State Farm app to diagram an accident. A female friend of his comes along and asks what he’s doing. She says, “I thought State Farm didn’t have all those apps.” He says, “Where did you hear that?” She says, “The Internet. They can’t put anything on the Internet that isn’t true.” She turns at the approach of a gangly, geeky, unsophisticated man. She beams. “Look, here comes my date. I met him on the Internet. He’s a French model.” “Bonn-jure,” the geek throws out in a blatant American accent, curling an arm about her.

The commercial’s meant to be silly, but it does bring up a valid point about the willingness of people to blindly believe anything that’s printed, posted, tweeted, or otherwise published. It seems society had the same problem in ancient Ireland long before the printing press was even invented.

In the middle of the sixth century, the monks in the great monastic houses set out to record the noteworthy events – mostly battles and deaths of kings – that took place in the region during a given year. It wasn’t until the eighth century that these annalists began recording the affairs of the Laigin (the people of Leinster), but “Leinster does provide us with one extremely interesting set of documents which throw much light on archaic attitudes to kingship…and the oral transmission of genealogical information in verse form” (Byrne, 1973, p. 134). These are regnal poems composed in honor of Leinster’s kings, boasting of their prowess, legitimizing their pedigree, and lamenting their deaths. Here’s an example:

Mál ad-rualaid iathu marb      mac soer Sétnai,

Selaig strathu Fomoire     fo dóene domnaib

Di óchtur Alinne     oirt triune talman,

Trebunn trén tuathmar     Mes-Telmann Domnann.

 

A prince has entered the realms of the dead, the noble son of Sétnae;

he ravaged the meadow-valleys of the Fomorians underneath the worlds of men.

From the summit of Ailenn he smote the strong ones of the earth –

a mighty tribune of many peoples, Mes Delmann of the Domnainn.  (Byrne, 1973, p. 134)

The mythical Fomorians were thought to actually have been raiders from across the Irish Sea – perhaps Picts – but Byrne goes on to say that it’s unclear whether this poem was composed to honor Mes Delmann at his funeral – boasting that he’s conquered the realms of the dead as he conquered the realms of the living – or if it was to commemorate an actual journey the prince made across the sea on a raid of his own. The Laigin did, after all, establish a foothold in Wales for a time.

Anyway, my purpose here is not to delve into the mythology of the poems but to give you a taste of the language and tradition. Scholars haven’t been able to reach a consensus in dating these poems and have suggested dates as early as the fifth century and as late as the seventh. Nonetheless, they would seem to predate the annals, stemming from an oral tradition that dates back even further, which brings us to their real value: the poems contradict the official history laid down by later annalists in later royal genealogical tracts.

For example, official doctrine suggested that the Uí Dúnlainge tribe monopolized the overkingship of Leinster since the sixth century – that is, the king was consistently chosen from the Uí Dúnlainge, even though men from other tribes were equally eligible. Apparently, the pedigree (genealogical chart) of the Uí Dúnlainge was converted by later genealogists into a regnal list, suggesting that the kingship passed from father to son without fail for generations, which doesn’t jive with early Irish law. It was the Normans who brought with them the notion of primogenitor, under which kingship passed from father to oldest son.

“The obscurity of their language protect [the poems] from tampering emendations while their traditional prestige ensured their preservation.” Byrne foes on to say that, “elsewhere in Irish literature, particularly in the hagiography…are fossilised fragments of earlier tradition which have escaped the notice of the revisers of the genealogical texts” (1973, p. 136). For example, the Lives of St. Comgall and St. Fintan show evidence that the Uí Dúnlainge did not enjoy a monopoly on the kingship. These texts mention that Colman mac Cormaic of the Uí Cheinnselaig was “king of North Leinster.” Furthermore, annals that have not been tampered with maintain that Crundmáel, who died in 656 AD, grandson of this Coman, “was king of Leinster, which suggests that his father Rónán is probably the king of Leinster who died in 624 rather than…Rónán mac Colmán of the Uí Dúnlainge, as the regnal lists would have us believe” (Byrne, 1973, p. 136-137).

It seems unlikely that three generations of men bore the same names in the same order – Cormac, Colman, and Rónán – in two different tribes. In the Uí Dúnlainge list, Colmán is the son of Coirpre, not Cormac. It seems possible that the Uí Dúnlainge genealogists commandeered Colmán and Rónán from the Uí Cheinnselaig and conveniently forgot to mention that fact. Or, there were two contemporary kings among the Leinster tribes named Colmán and their lineages were confused.

The Leinster regnal poems indicate a king list for the late fourth and early fifth century of names that do not agree with later Middle Irish sources. The men came from the Uí Bairrche, Uí Dego, and Uí Enechglaiss – “all septs…which were never admitted into the later regnal scheme” (Byrne, 1973, p. 137).

History is constantly being rewritten…by the victor, by the privileged. Today, the Internet just might function like the bard(s) who composed the regnal poems; with all the data being captured and stored on servers around the globe, it’ll be impossible to erase all traces of a particular reference – especially if the masses tweet about it!

SOURCES

State Farm Commercial http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=v_CgPsGY5Mw

Byrne, F.J. (1973). Irish kings and high-kings. New York: St. Martin’s Press.

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