Arthurian References in the Irish Annals
In the previous post Evidence for a pre-Nennian Arthur we noted four men of the 6th-7th centuries all bearing the name ‘Arthur’ from Irish Royal families with British connections:
• The first historically attested Irish Arthur is found in the family of Áedán mac Gabráin, king of the Scottish Dál Riata from 573-608 AD.
• Artuir ap Bicuir 'the Briton' of Strathclyde who killed an Ulster chieftain. The Irish Annals record the death of Mongán mac Fíachnai of Dal Fiatach in Strathclyde in 625,
• Artur, grandfather of Feradach, documented in 697,
• Arthur ap Pedr of Dyfed, grandson of Vortipor (“tyrant of the Demetae” as mentioned by Gildas). This Arthur is mentioned in the Harleian Genealogies and the Irish text The Expulsion of the Deisi.
It has been argued that these four men were named after a peerless warrior, a military superhero who had by that time attracted mythological properties that the native Britons were so in awe of they could not use the name. Clearly no such qualms applied to these Irish families who were seemingly unaware of this great soldier, mighty defender of the Britons and had complete disregard for any reverence of the name.
Mongán mac Fíachnai
The most intriguing of these connections with these “Irish Arthurs” is Artuir ap Bicuir 'the Briton', who killed Mongán with a dragon stone from the sea.1
The Annals of Tigernach (T627.6) records Mongán’s death:
Mongán son of Fiachna Lurgan, stricken with a stone by Artur son of Bicoir Britone died. Whence Bec Boirche said:
Cold is the wind over Islay;
There are warriors in Cantyre,
They will commit a cruel deed therefor,
They will kill Mongán son of Fiachna.2
This poem by Bec Boirche, a 7th century bard, suggests that Mongán was killed on Islay in a battle against warriors from Kintyre who fought with Artur against the Dal Fiatach of Ulster. Islay may have been a disputed territory at this time.
The account of the death of Mongán mac Fiachnai by a stone dealt by Artur, the son of a British king, is supported in other Irish Annals. An account of the same event is included in Chronicon Scotorum Annal CS625.3
An apparent historical figure Mongán is also a well-known figure in later Irish mythology; tales of Mongán appear in the early 12th century manuscript Lebor na hUidre (The Book of the Dun Cow). He has significant connections with the Otherworld and Manannán mac Lir, the sea god of the Tuatha Dé Danann.
In the tale Scél asa mberar combad hé Find mac Cumaill Mongán (A Story from which it is inferred that Mongán was Finn mac Cumaill) Mongán is also said to be a re-incarnation of Finn, as the title suggests, a character who shares many traits with a pre-Galfridian Arthur of the Britons.
Mongán also appears in Immram Brain the 7th or 8th century text in which Bran mac Febail embarks upon a quest to the Otherworld; The Voyage of Bran. After travelling over the sea for several days Bran and his crew come across Manannán mac Lir in his chariot riding over the sea towards them. Manannán tells them that this may seem like a body of water to them, to him it is an Otherworldly plain. Manannán also foretells the birth of his son as Mongán mac Fiachnai.
There is more than one copy of Mongán’s conception, Compert Mongáin, in addition to that contained in Lebor na hUidre it is also found in Leabhar Buidhe Leacáin (The Yellow Book of Lecan). The tale of Mongán’s birth bears some remarkable similarities to the conception of Arthur of the Britons in later legend. Here the Irish sea god, Manannán mac Lir, claims that Mongán is his son and was conceived while his father Fíachnae mac Báetáin, king of Dal Fiatach, was away assisting Áedán mac Gabráin on his campaigns in Britain. While Fíachnae is away Manannán takes on his appearance and sleeps with his wife Caíntigern to produce Mongán. Mongán bears the patronymic ‘mac Fiachna’ despite his misattributed paternity.
The story of King Arthur’s conception as told by Geoffrey of Monmouth in the 12th century Historia Regum Britanniae (The History of the Kings of Britain) has Arthur’s father Uther take on the appearance of Gorlios, Duke of Cornwall, by Merlin’s magic, so that he can enter the castle at Tintagel and sleep with the Duke’s wife Igerna. We can dismiss any possible borrowing from Geoffrey’s later work which was not very popular in Ireland with no Middle Irish translation known, although Latin manuscripts were in circulation. Arthurian literature did not flourish until the late medieval period in Ireland and this does not appear to be influenced by Geoffrey’s work, but more from continental Romance.4
The Arthurian Legend in Ireland
Supporting the apparent disregard for the Arthurian legend is evidenced by the treatment of the Arthuriana in the Lebor Bretnach (LB), the Irish translation of the Historia Brittonum (HB). As we have seen above, the Arthurian legend came late to Ireland; the date for the reception and translation of the HB was proposed as the second half of the 11th century by van Hamel editor of the Lebor Bretnach. Irish Historian Ann Dooley sees the date as slightly earlier, circa 1050.5
Elements of the Arthurian legend did not receive the most attention in the translation, the material apparently not of particular interest to the Irish literati, resulting in the Arthuriana being handled rather carelessly.6
In the Irish version, LB ch.43 the battle list, it simply refers to Arthur who fought with the Britons, omitting his military leader status as “dux bellorum” and the reference to the Kings of Britain. The battles are summarised carelessly except for the religious appeal of the symbolism in the eighth battle at the “fort of Guinneain” in which Arthur carried the image of the Virgin which seemed to attract the attention of the Irish translator.7
The “Miracula” section (Wonders or Marvels of Britain) chapters 44-46 treat the Arthurian material in a similar manner. The tenth marvel refers to the cairn for Arthur’s dog, Cafal without reference to the legendary boar hunt as found in the Latin text of the Historia Brittonum. The eleventh marvel in the Irish version recalls the tomb in the region of Ercing of varying size but without reference to Arthur or his son Amr at all.8
Artur, son of Bicuir the Briton
We find the earliest mention of the Britons of Strathclyde in Irish literature. Beinne Britt, or Beinne the Briton (we find various spellings), led a Strathclyde army at the Battle of Magh Mucruimhe (Cath Maige Mucrama), against the Irish in the middle of the 3rd century. Some Annals date this battle earlier, toward the end of the 2nd century.
|Location of Strathclyde (Ystrad Clud)|
Cath Maige Mucrama
In the tale Cath Maige Mucrama. Lugaid MacCon of Cork was foster-brother to Eogan son of Aileel Aulom, king of Munster. He and Eogan quarrelled over the possession of a fairy minstrel. They assembled their forces and fought a battle at Cenn Abrat which ended in the defeat of Lugaid. Lugaid went to Alba (North Britain) where he took refuge with the king of that country. This king was grandson of the king of the Britons and son-in-law of the king of the Saxons. He took up Lugaid's cause, and the combined forces of the Britons and Albanachs (North Britons) set out to attack Art MacCon, the king of Ireland. When the two armies met, one of the British detachments was led by Beinne the Briton who is fairly well known in Irish heroic literature.
From the Annals of the Four Masters:
M195.1 After Art, the son of Conn of the Hundred Battles, had been thirty years in the sovereignty of Ireland, he fell in the battle of Magh Mucruimhe, by Maccon and his foreigners. In the same battle, along with Art, fell also the sons of his sister, Sadhbh, daughter of Conn, namely, the seven sons of Oilioll Olum, who had come with him against Maccon, their brother. Eoghan Mor, Dubhmerchon, Mughcorb, Lughaidh, Eochaidh, Diochorb, and Tadhg, were their names; and Beinne Brit, King of Britain, was he who laid [violent] hands upon them. Beinne was slain by Lughaidh Lagha, in revenge of his relatives….9
In addition to the 9th century tale of Cath Maige Mucrama, Beinne Britt is also mentioned elsewhere in Irish literature: as we have seen he appears in the Irish Annals as the father of the man who killed Mongán, and in the tale of the Battle of Crinna. There is also a passage in the Coir Anmann, a compilation which gives popular etymologies for certain well-known names, that records the "Three Fothads" who were the offspring of Lugaid Maccon and Fuiche the daughter of Beinne Brit, king of Britain.10
However, as a king from the early medieval kingdom of Strathclyde (Ystrad Clud) he is noticeably absent from the early king lists, although it must be admitted the early years are not good, yet Gaelic storytellers claim him as an ancestor of MacCailín, the Gaelic style of the Duke of Argyll. Clearly a Strathclyde king who fought at Cath Maige Mucrama in the 2nd or 3rd century cannot be the same as the father of the man who killed Mongán in the 7th century; were there two kings called Beinne Britt, or was this a title rather than a personal name?
In the Agallamh na Senorach (AnS -Tales of the Elders of Ireland), an early 13th century compendium of Fenian tales, there is a tale of Artuir, son of Benne Brit, here a member of the Fian, the band of Finn, in a tale in which he stole three of Finn's hounds and took them across to Britain:
“Artuir, son of Benne of the Britons, was at that time a member of the Fian with a retinue of twenty-seven. Finn had arranged a hunt on Benn Etair and the hounds let loose. Finn sat at Carn in Feinneda (The cairn of the Fian-warrior) between Howth and the sea. Artuir was positioned on the coast, between the hunt and the sea to prevent the quarry swimming away. While he was at the edge of the water he saw three of Finn's hounds, Bran, Sceolaing and Adnuall and decided on a plan. He and his twenty-seven companions would cross the sea and take the three hounds with them to their own land. Executing the plan they landed at the estuary of the Sandy Shoal in the territory of the Britons. They then went to the Mountain of Lodan, son of Lir, and hunted there.
"After the hunt, the Fian found three of Finn's hounds were missing. He ordered three companies of the Fian to carry out a search but the hounds were not found. Finn washed his face then put his thumb under his Tooth of Wisdom so that the truth would appear to him.
"It was Artuir, son of the King of the Britons" he said. Nine men were chosen to go after them. They found Artuir sitting on his hunting mound, they captured him and killed all of his twenty-seven companions. They returned across the water to Finn with Artuir, the heads of the twenty-seven men, the three hounds Bran, Sceolaing and Adnuall, and two horses, a stallion and a mare, from these stock have come all the horses of the Fian. Artuir remained Finn's warrior till the day he died."11
The late arrival of the Arthurian legend in Ireland would explain why there was no reason why the use of the name should hold any prohibitions for the Irish immigrants of the 6th-7th centuries. The poor treatment of Arthuriana in the Irish version of the HB and the disregard for Geoffrey of Monmouth’s work clearly demonstrates that Arthur of the Britons did not hold any great interest for the Irish storytellers. This only too well demonstrated by the tale in Agallamh na Senorach in which Arthur is subservient to Finn. Thus, there is no reason why these Irish families would not have used the name; they were probably not aware of the Arthur of the Britons until they arrived in the British Isles. There is also the possibility that, on these rare occasions, when they came into contact with stories of this "Great Arthur" they used the name purposefully to demonstrate their military prowess over the local Britons.
Despite the various references to Beinne Brit in Irish Literature, he remains elusive in the British record and attempts to uncover him come to a dead end. We cannot even be certain if Beinne Brit’s son Artuir as mentioned in the AnS is meant to be THE ARTHUR. However, the enigmatic connection between Mongán and Arthur and Finn is suggestive of a tale that binds these three men together and suggests a knowledge of Arthur the Briton before the 9th century Historia Brittonum on both shores of the Irish Sea.
Notes & References
1. Joseph Falaky Nagy, “Arthur and the Irish”, in: Helen Fulton, ed., A Companion to Arthurian Literature, Wiley-Blackwell, 2009. pp.117–127.
2. The Annals of Tigernach (T627.6) - Translated by Gearóid Mac Niocaill Electronic edition compiled by Emer Purcell, Donnchadh Ó Corráin. CELT: Corpus of Electronic Texts: a project of University College Cork, 2010.
3. Chronicon Scotorum Annal CS625 - Translated by William M. Hennessy, Gearóid Mac Niocaill, CELT: Corpus of Electronic Texts: a project of University College, Cork (2003) (2010).
4. Joshua Byron Smith, "The Reception of Geoffrey of Monmouth in Ireland", in Joshua Byron Smith and Georgia Henley editors, A Companion to Geoffrey of Monmouth, Brill, 2020, pp.475–476.
5. Ann Dooley, "Arthur of the Irish: A Viable Concept?", in Arthurian Literature XXI: Celtic Arthurian Material, edited by Ceridwen Lloyd-Morgan, DS Brewer, 2004.
9. Cath Maige Mucrama - Background information - References in the Annals of the Four Masters: Irish Sagas Online
10. Clark Harris Slover, Early Literary Channels Between Britain and Ireland, Studies in English, 1926, No. 6, pp. 5-52.
11. Ann Dooley, op.cit. Appendix pp.26-28.
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