Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Dubthach Maccu Lugir

DUBTHACH MACCU LUGIR (5th cent.), termed in later documents mac hui Lugair, was chief poet and brehon of Laogaire, king of Ireland, at the time of St. Patrick's mission. The king, jealous of the saint's power, had given orders that when he presented himself next at Tara no one should rise from his seat to do him honour. The next day was Easter day, and it was also a great feast with Laogaire and his court. In the midst of their festivity, ‘the doors being shut as in our Lord's case,’ St. Patrick with five of his companions appeared among them. None rose up at his approach but Dubthach, who had with him a youthful poet named Fiacc, afterwards a bishop. The saint upon this bestowed his blessing on Dubthach, who was the first to believe in God on that day. The Tripartite life of St. Patrick states that Dubthach was then baptised and confirmed, and Jocelyn adds that thenceforward he dedicated to God the poetic gifts he formerly employed in the praise of false gods.

When he had been some time engaged in preaching the gospel in Leinster, St. Patrick paid him a visit. Their meeting took place at Domnach-már-Criathar, now Donaghmore, near Gorey, co. Wexford, and St. Patrick inquired whether he had among his ‘disciples’ any one who was ‘the material of a bishop,’ whose qualifications are enumerated in the ‘Book of Armagh.’ Dubthach replied he knew not any of his people save Fiacc the Fair. At this moment Fiacc was seen approaching. Anticipating his unwillingness to accept the office, St. Patrick and Dubthach resorted to a stratagem. The saint affected to be about to tonsure Dubthach himself, but Fiacc coming forward begged that he might be accepted in his place, and he was accordingly tonsured and baptised, and ‘the degree of a bishop conferred on him.’ O'Reilly, in his ‘Irish Writers,’ erroneously ascribes to Dubthach ‘an elegant hymn … preserved in the calendar of Oengus.’ One of the manuscripts of that work is indeed in the handwriting of a scribe named Dubthach, but he was quite a different person from Maccu Lugir. Another poem beginning ‘Tara the house in which resided the son of Conn,’ found in the ‘Book of Rights,’ and also assigned to him by O'Reilly, is there said to be the composition of Benen or Benignus. But there is a poem in the ‘Book of Rights’ which is assigned to him by name. It relates to ‘the qualifications of the truly learned poet,’ and consists of thirty-two lines beginning ‘No one is entitled to visitation or sale of his poems.’ There are also three other poems of his preserved in the ‘Book of Leinster.’ These have been published with a translation by O'Curry in his ‘Manuscript Materials of Irish History.’ They relate to the wars and triumphs of Enna Cennselach and his son Crimthann, both kings of Leinster. That these poems were written after his conversion to christianity appears from the following: ‘It was by me an oratory was first built and a stone cross.’ The passage of greatest interest in these poems is that in which he says: ‘It was I that gave judgment between Laogaire and Patrick.’ The gloss on this explains: ‘It was upon Nuadu Derg, the son of Niall [brother of Laogaire], who killed Odhran, Patrick's charioteer, this judgment was given.’ The story is told in the introduction to the ‘Senchus Mor.’ By order of Laogaire, Odhran, one of St. Patrick's followers, was killed by Nuadu in order to try whether the saint would carry out his own teaching of forgiveness of injuries. St. Patrick appealing for redress was permitted to choose a judge, and selected Dubthach, who found himself in a difficult position as a christian administering a pagan law. ‘Patrick then (quoting St. Matthew x. 20) blessed his mouth and the grace of the Holy Ghost alighted on his utterance,’ and he pronounced, in a short poem which is preserved in the ‘Senchus Mor,’ the decision that ‘Nuadu should be put to death for his crime, but his soul should be pardoned and sent to heaven.’ This (it is stated) was ‘a middle course between forgiveness and retaliation.’ After this sentence ‘Patrick requested the men of Ireland' to come to one place to hold a conference with him. The result was the appointment of a committee of nine to revise the laws. It was composed of three kings, three bishops, and three professors of literature, poetry, and law. Chief among the latter was Dubthach. It became his duty to give an historical retrospect, and in doing so he exhibited 'all the judgments of true nature which the Holy Ghost had spoken from the first occupation of this island down to the reception of the faith. What did not clash with the word of God in the written law and in the New Testament and with the consciences of believers was confirmed in the laws of the brehons by Patrick and by the ecclesiastics and chieftains of Ireland. This is the "Senchus Mor."' It was completed A.D. 441, and is supposed to have been suggested by the revision of the Roman laws by Theodosius the younger. It was put into metrical form by Dubthach as an aid to memory, and accordingly the older parts appear to be in a rude metre. The work was known by various names, 'The Law of Patrick,' 'Noifis, or the Knowledge of Nine,' but more generally as the 'Senchus Mor.'

[Ussher's Works, vi. 400-1; 'Curry's Manuscript Materials, pp. 482-93; Lanigan's Eccl. Hist. i. 273-303; O'Reilly's Irish Writers, pp. xxvii-viii; Calendar of Oengus, pp. 8, xiii; Book of Rights, pp.xxxiv, 236-8; Hogan's Vita Patricii, pp. 104-6; Senchus Mor, Rolls ed. pp. 5-16.]

T. O.