Celtic Knotwork Peacock


Among other affairs which Cormac regulated for himself and all kings who should come after him was the number and quality of the officers who should be in constant attendance on the King. Of these he ordained that there should be ten, to wit one lord, one brehon, one druid, one physician, one bard, one historian, one musician and three stewards. The function of the brehon, or judge, was to know the ancient customs and the laws of Ireland, and to declare them to the King whenever any matter relating to them came before him. Now Cormac's chief brehon was at first one Fithel. But Fithel's time came to die, and his son Flahari, a wise and learned man, trained by his father in all the laws of the Gael, was to be brehon to the High King in his father's stead. Fithel then called his son to his bedside and said:—

"Thou art well acquainted, my son, with all the laws and customs of the Gael, and worthy to be the chief brehon of King Cormac. But wisdom of life thou hast not yet obtained, for it is written in no law-book. This thou must learn for thyself, from life itself; yet somewhat of it I can impart unto thee, and it will keep thee in the path of safety, which is not easily trodden by those who are in the counsels of great kings. Mark now these four precepts, and obey them, and thou wilt avoid many of the pit-falls in thy way:—

Woodcut of Dying Man

    "Take not a king's son in fosterage,
    Impart no dangerous secret to thy wife,
    Raise not the son of a serf to a high position,
    Commit not thy purse or treasure to a sister's keeping."

Having said this Fithel died, and Flahari became chief brehon in his stead.

After a time Flahari thought to himself, "I am minded to test my father's wisdom of life and to see if it be true wisdom or but wise-seeming babble. For knowledge is no knowledge until it be tried by life."

So he went before the King and said, "If thou art willing, Cormac, I would gladly have one of thy sons in fosterage." At this Cormac was well pleased, and a young child of the sons of Cormac was given to Flahari to bring up, and Flahari took the child to his own Dún, and there began to nurture and to train him as it was fitting.

After a time, however, Flahari one day took the child by the hand and went with him into the deep recesses of the forest where dwelt one of the swine-herds who minded the swine of Flahari. To him Flahari handed over the child and bade him guard him as the apple of his eye, and to be ready deliver him up again when he was required. The Flahari went home, and for some days went about like a man weighed down by gloomy and bitter thoughts. His wife marked that, and sought to know the reason, but Flahari put her off. At last when she continually pressed him to reveal the cause of his trouble, he said "If them must needs learn what ails me, and if thou canst keep a secret full of danger to me and thee, know that I am gloomy and distraught because I have killed the son of Cormac." At this the woman cried out, "Murderer parricide, hast thou spilled the King's blood, and shall Cormac not know it, and do justice on thee?" And she sent word to Cormac that he should come and seize her husband for that crime.

But before the officers came, Flahari took a young man, the son of his butler, and placed him in charge of his lands to manage them, while Flahari was away for his trial at Tara. And he also gave to his sister a treasure of gold and silver to keep for him, lest it should be made a spoil of while he was absent. Then he went with the officers to Tara, denying his offence and his confession, but when Cormac had heard all, and the child could not be found, he sentenced him to be put to death.

Flahari then sent a messenger to his sister, begging her to send him at once a portion of the treasure he had left with her, that he might use it to make himself friends among the folk at court, and perchance obtain a remission of his sentence; but she sent the messenger back again empty, saying she knew not of what he spoke.

On this Flahari deemed that the time was come to reveal the truth, so he obtained permission from the King to send a message to his swineherd before he died, and to hear the man's reply. And the message was this, that Murtach the herd should come without delay to Tara and bring with him the child that Flahari had committed to him. Howbeit this messenger also came back empty, and reported that on reaching Dún Flahari he had been met by the butler's son that was over the estate, who had questioned him of his errand, and had then said, "Murtach the serf has run away as soon as he heard of his lord's downfall, and if he had any child in his care he has taken it away with him, and he cannot be found." This he said because, on hearing of the child, he guessed what this might mean, and he had been the bitterest of all in urging Flahari's death, hoping to be rewarded with a share of his lands.

Then Flahari said to himself, "Truly the proving of my father's wisdom of life has brought me very near to death." So he sent for the King and entreated him that he might be suffered to go himself to the dwelling of Murtach the herd, promising that the King's son should be then restored to him, "or if not," said he, "let me then be slain there without more ado." With great difficulty Cormac was moved to consent to this, for he believed it was but a subterfuge of Flahari's to put off the evil day or perchance to find a way of escape. But next day Flahari was straitly bound and set in a chariot, and, with a guard of spearmen about him and Cormac himself riding behind, they set out for Dún Flahari. Then Flahari guided them through the wild wood till at last they came to the clearing where stood the dwelling of Murtach the swineherd, and lo! there was the son of Cormac playing merrily before the door. And the child ran to his foster-father to kiss him, but when he saw Flahari in bonds he burst out weeping and would not be at peace until he was set free.

Then Murtach slew one of the boars of his herd and made an oven in the earth after the manner of the Fianna, and made over it a fire of boughs that he had drying in a shed. And when the boar was baked he set it before the company with ale and mead in methers of beechwood, and they all feasted and were glad of heart.

Cormac then asked of Flahari why he had suffered himself to be brought into this trouble. "I did so," said Flahari, "to prove the four counsels which my father gave them ere he died, and I have proved them and found them to be wise. In the first place, it is not wise for any man that is not a king to take the fosterage of a king's son, for if aught shall happen to the lad, his own life is in the king's hands and with his life he shall answer for it. Secondly, the keeping of a secret, said my father, is not in the nature of women in general, therefore no dangerous secret should be entrusted to them. The third counsel my father gave me was not to raise up or enrich the son of a serf, for such persons are apt to forget benefits conferred on them, and moreover it irks them that he who raised them up should know the poor estate from which they sprang. And good, too, is the fourth counsel my father gave me, not to entrust my treasure to my sister, for it is the nature of most women to regard as spoil any valuables that are entrusted to them to keep for others."

Text Source:
The High Deeds of Finn and other Bardic Romances of Ancient Ireland.
T. W. Rolleston, ed. Illustrations by Stephen Reid.
London: G. G. Harrap & Co., 1910. 186-191.

Image Source:
Woodcut — "The Fortunatus Woodcuts." Dr. Michael Haldane. Link.

Background courtesy of Windhaven Web Art.

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