And the Constraints of the use of Power
Conaire Mór was one of the great mythical high kings of Ireland.
His reign ushered in a remarkable period of abundance, happiness and good fortune. What we learn is that this is a result of an alignment in the early part of his reign with the forces of the otherworld. These are articulated in the geasa (restrictions, taboos) and buada (gifts and responsibilities) of Conaire’s Kingship which are respected.
What happens is that his Enflaith (or reign) which Moriarty described as “the bird reign of the once and future king” was initially exemplary. However, it all starts to go wrong and things start to unravel. What happens is Conaire breaks one of his geasa when he is asked to make a judgement over the forbidden act of diberg or plundering. He favours his foster brothers over the other plunderers and orders a farmer to kill his son according to the law/custom. Conaire only exiles his foster brothers.
This story of which the principal text is Togail Bruidne Dá Derga (The Destruction of Da Derga’s Hostel) tells of the demise of Conaire as he breaks geasa after geasa before ultimately coming to a grisly end as the foster brothers return with helpers to cause the demise of him and the hostel. It is, in essence, a cautionary tale.
The story is an excellent opportunity to explore and understand the ancient ideology of kingship: the role of the otherworld at key ritual moment such as birth, the constraints on power in the form of the geasa, the role of the natural world in the fate of the king, the concept of Fir Flathemon, a ruler’s truth, the way the natural world reflects the behaviour and actions of a king. Wasteland or abundance is tied up to the practice of Fir Flathemon and the adherence to the constraining geasa.
The Connections and insights from Participants
Here are some of the most significant connections and insights from participants that were collected by the Bard team in the breakout groups and the large group discussions.
Connection 1 – Extraordinary Pressures on a King
What was apparent was the extraordinary pressure Conaire Mór was under as King. This was especially when asked to choose between his beloved foster brothers, now plunderers, and the cultural imperative that they be put to death. Conaire fails this test, breaks the geasa and the downfall begins in a comprehensive and unforgiving way. Essentially there is no place for nepotism in this ideology of kingship. Participants put themselves in Conaire’s position. They ask could they put the demands to honour law and custom over family? This is an extraordinary pressure. For many they would not want that kind of responsibility.
Connection 2 – The 45th President
The marked contrast between this Ancient Irish Kingship ideology and the Trump presidency was noted. It was apparent how the 45th President has frequent recourse to nepotism both in terms of his family and his benefactors. The concept of geasa highlights an almost sacred bond between King and his people bound by certain rules. Break the rules, the geasa and you break the bond. Things will unravel. But Ancient Ireland was a culture that had shared values around kingship. They share a common mythology.
Connection 3 – The Good King QuestionIt was clear that the matter of what is a good king is inherent in this story and indeed the other king stories (Cormac MacAirt, Niall of the Nine Hostages, Labhraidh Loingseach). This remains a live and eternal question in all societies? What the Conaire Mór story offered was an image of an ideal king. When things started to unravel it became a cautionary tale. How does contemporary kingship stand up was a natural question.
Connection 4 – Travelling naked to Tara
The image of Conaire travelling naked to Tara suggested to participants the idea of a new start, a transformation of culture with new knowledge. It also represented a willingness to show vulnerability in the “once and future king”. This is the King that brings a childlike perspective to the task, sees things that others see but don’t say.
Connection 5 – Knowing Culture, Representing AllIn a way the Conaire story highlights the centrality of the King knowing the culture and acting out of that knowledge and its rules. Conaire in his judgement clearly moves away from his culture’s rules and is no longer representing everyone. He is favouring his family, a small subset of culture. It is culture that shapes the ideology of kingship and that culture is shaped by the shared compendium of stories.
Connection 6 – The Unforgiving Nature of Kingship
One comment made was how unforgiving is the story of Conaire. He makes one mistake, but there is no way back. It is as if once things start to go wrong a chain of events is set up in which there is no return. Observations were made as to recent ‘collective scapegoating’ incident in politics. When things go wrong, they really go wrong. But as a listener it is hard not to feel some sympathy for Conaire. The question was asked, is there any place for forgiveness in Irish Myth
Connection 7 – Checks and Balances, Constraints on the Powerful
Participants reflected on the balances and constraints there are in the myths as restrictions on the use of power by the powerful. In this case it is less an ‘institutional’ constraint such as the separations of power in a democracy between the executive, legislative and judicial branches of government than a body of myths that provided a cultural set of constraints. The checks and balances are more cultural and embodied in the ‘lore’ more than the ‘law’!
It is almost as if the role of the poet/bard acts as the custodian of the stories which acts as the ‘cultural glue’ and as a balancing force around power as practiced by the king. The notion of Tara/Uisneach as described by the symbol of the kidney captures the same idea