Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Laeghaire

LAEGHAIRE or LOEGHAIRE (d. 458), king of Ireland, succeeded Dathi, his first cousin, as king in 428, and was the eldest of the fourteen sons of Niall Noighiallach, king of Ireland, slain in 405. None of the chronicles mention the year of his birth, but as he was the eldest of his family, and as his son was in an independent chieftainry about 430, it may probably be fixed near 380. At Easter 432 St. Patrick came towards Tara. Easter Eve came very near the time of lighting the spring fire, which the king himself, in accordance with ancient custom, used to light upon the hill of Tlaghta in Meath. All fires were extinguished and relighted in succession to this. Patrick lit a great fire of his own in the plain, easily seen from Tara, and thus at once excited the attention and the anger of Laeghaire. When Patrick on the next day came slowly up the hill of Tara, singing his famous song, ‘Faed Fiadha,’ Laeghaire expressed a wish that he and his clerics should be killed at once; but neither the king nor his followers ventured to attempt what seemed likely to be followed by uncertain supernatural consequences, and he became awed by the powers which Patrick asserted that he possessed. ‘It is better for me,’ said Laeghaire, ‘to believe than to die’ (Book of Armagh, f. 5, b. 1), and was forthwith baptised. Two tales called ‘Comthoth Laeghaire’ and ‘Siabur Charput Conculaind,’ of which there is a manuscript written before 1106 (Leabhar na h-Uidri, f. 117 and f. 113), describe his unwilling conversion, relapse, and death. He is made to demand that Patrick should give experimental proof of his assertions about his power and a future state by raising Cuchullain from hell, where he stated that the heroes of ancient Ireland were. After some conversation with the famous champion of Ulster, as to the reality of whose spectre the king at first expresses some doubt, he yields, and is baptised. The account of his unwilling resignation of paganism is everywhere to be found in Irish literature, and is confirmed by the fact that the historians record no Christian acts of his. He founded no church, relieved no poor, hated his enemies to the last, made vows by the elements and not upon the gospels, and received a pagan funeral. The fixing of the primacy of Ireland at Armagh, and not in Meath, is confirmatory evidence of his hostility to Christianity. The story that he caused the revision of the native law by three kings, three bishops, and three sages (Brit. Mus. Harleian MS. 432), forming the body of law known as the Senchus Mor, contains several obvious anachronisms, and does not appear in any early authority. In 453 he made war upon the Leinster men and defeated them, and in the following year celebrated at Tara the Feis Temrach, a sort of general assembly with games. In 457 he was defeated and taken prisoner by the Leinster men in the battle of Athdara, a ford of the river Barrow. He swore by sun and moon and all the elements never to come against them again, and was set free. In the next year, disregarding his oath, he tried to levy upon them an obsolete tax, claimed by the kings of Tara as an eric for a very ancient injury by the king of Leinster to the daughter of an ardrigh, called from its celebrity by Irish poets and historians, ‘An Borama,’ or ‘The Tribute.’ He claimed fifteen thousand cows, pigs, and sheep, thirty white cattle with red ears and trappings for driving, a huge cauldron capable of boiling twelve pigs, a quantity of cloth and of silver, and a number of smaller cauldrons (Book of Leinster, f. 295). The war began by his seizing cattle at Sidh Neachtain, near the source of the Boyne. He was attacked by superior force, and had to retreat, and fought a battle on the banks of Caissi, a small stream in the territory of Ui Faelan. Here he was defeated and slain by the Leinster men. A very ancient verse about his death, beginning ‘Atbath Loeghaire MacNeill, for toebh Caissi,’ is often quoted by Irish writers. He desired to be buried in the outer rampart of his dun at Tara, standing upright in the ground, fully armed, and with his face southwards towards his foes, the Leinster men. The site of his dun is discussed by Petrie (History and Antiquities of Tara Hill), and some part of what is probably this earthwork remains on the slope of the hill towards Trim, but has been much injured in recent years. The O'Coindealbhains of the country round Trim claimed descent from him.

Laeghaire Lorc, a much earlier and probably mythical king of Ireland, is the subject of many Irish tales. The chroniclers assign B.C. 593–5 as the date of his reign, and say that he was son of Ugaine Mor, and that he was slain at Wexford. There is a story of his murder in Keating (Foras Feasa ar Eirinn), and a poem on the loss of his crown in the ‘Dindsenchas’ (Book of Leinster), printed with translation by the present writer, London, 1883.

[The earliest account of Laeghaire occurs in Muirchu Maccu-Machtheni's composition in the Book of Armagh. The date of the manuscript is 807, and of the composition about 690. Various parts of his history are to be found in Leabhar na h-Uidri (1106), Book of Leinster (1200), and the Annals of Tigernach (1088), Book of Lecan (1400). Flann Mainistrech [see Flann] and all the later annals agree with these authorities. Points in relation to him are discussed in O'Donovan's Topographical Poems of John O'Dubhagain and Gilla na naomh O'Huidhrin, Dublin, 1862; Petrie's History and Antiquities of Tara Hill; O'Beirne Crowe's ‘Siabur-Charput’ in Journal of Royal Hist. and Archæological Assoc. of Ireland, 1871, vol. i. pt. ii.; W. Stokes's Tripartite Life of St. Patrick, 1887, and ‘The Boroma’ in Revue Celtique, January 1892; O'Clery's Annala Rioghacta Eireann, under the years 438–58.]

N. M.