K3D – King Cormac’s Grave

Early Medieval Cross-Slab in 3D

Text and Model by Digital Heritage Age (additional text by Sharon Greene)


St James Churchyard, Castledermot, Cross-Slab (National Monument KD040-002017-)
Pre-1200 cross-slab. This recumbent, tapering granite slab (dims. L 1.65m; Wth 0.30-0.57m; T 0.26m) has a simple incised Latin cross. It is known locally as the grave of a Munster King, Cormac MacCuillinan, the celebrated Archbishop of Cashel and King of Munster, who was educated in the monastery of Diseart Diarmada under the abbot Snedgus, and at his death at the Battle of Ballaghmoon, in 907 or 908, was interred here.

The Latin cross runs the length of the stone with a gap near the centre. This may indicate an area where the stone is weathered due to extended exposure, or possible rubbing/touching the stone at this point. His grave is believed to have been a pilgrimage location.

Survey: @Dh_Age Funded: Kildare County Council Community Heritage Grant 2017

NOTE: This model requires good bandwidth and a reasonably powerful computer to view successfully, as the download size is 445MB.

King Cormac mac Cuileannán’s Grave

Sharon Greene of Castledermot Local History Group, who commissioned this model, has written the following piece on their Facebook page (https://www.facebook.com/CastledermotHist), the original article is available here: https://www.facebook.com/photo/?fbid=193417409907746&set=ecnf.100077184642310

King Cormac mac Cuileannán’s grave
by Sharon Greene

Many of our readers will be familiar with the sub-rectangular block of granite that lies on your left hand side as you approach the door of St James’s church in Castledermot. It is plain apart from a simple Latin cross that has its head at the east end and the middle of which is worn away. This is known as King Cormac mac Cuileannán’s grave – but do you know who he was?

Cormac mac Cuileannán was connected to two lines of the Eoghnachta dynasty of Munster and rose to the kingship of Cashel in AD 902. At one point he was betrothed to Gormlaith, daughter of High King Flann Sinna, but instead chose a life of celibacy. Despite being a cleric, his kingship had been forseen by Saint Bearchán of Clonsast (in Offaly), a famous prophet and visionary, who described Cormac as saoi, fáidh, file, easpag, ardbhile, ‘scholar, prophet, poet, bishop, nobleman of distinction’. Cormac’s predecessor, Feidhlimidh mac Criomhthann, had begun the tradition of ecclesiastical kingship in Munster – this is why you sometimes hear Cormac being referred to as the king-bishop of Cashel. Indeed, it may have been Cormac’s strong spiritual leanings that influenced his choice as king.

A significant part of Cormac’s legacy is his literary work. Many poems are attributed to him, including one on the Munster kings, one on the causes of the battle of Magh Mhucramha and another on the saints and churches that were to receive his relics. He is also believed to be the author of the famous text known as ‘Cormac’s Glossary’ (written c. AD 900).

So how did a king-bishop of Munster come to be buried in a graveyard that did not even lie in his own province?

To begin with he was no stranger to Leinster having been sent to the King of the Ui Dúnlainge as a foster son. Fosterage was an important system for creating and maintaining political and familial bonds in the early medieval period and a foster child’s links to his foster family were regarded as extremely important. This makes it interesting that in 908, Cormac faced his foster brother Cearbhall mac Muireacáin, king of Leinster, in battle at Ballaghmoon, about 4 km to the south-west of Castledermot. Cormac was challenging Flann Sinna for the high-kingship of Ireland. Unfortunately for Cormac his foster brother Cearbhall chose to stay loyal to Flann Sinna and the combination of Meath and Leinster forces proved too much for the Munstermen. Cormac lost the battle and his life.

Initially his body was decapitated and the head brought to Flann Sinna, but the high king reprimanded the soldiers who had done it saying that such a holy man deserved more respectful treatment. Cormac’s remains were then brought to Castledermot so that he could be buried near his old master Sneidhghus, who had been his teacher and abbot of Diseart Diarmada and had died in 885.

The simple coffin-like slab that marks Cormac’s grave has always been remembered as the grave of the Munster king, but it is aligned to face west because he was first and foremost a man of the church.

By Sharon Greene

Michael Herity (ed) 2002 Ordnance Survey Letters Kildare. Four Masters Press, Dublin.
Pádraig Ó Riain 2011 A Dictionary of Irish Saints. Four Courts Press.