Who Killed the King? Was it Eochaid the Slayer? An Ancient Irish Murder Mystery
It might almost be a shocking moment from a Shakespeare play or even a plot-line from Game of Thrones, but the murder of an ancient Irish king, Crimthann mac Énnai, is an event which actually took place over 1500 years ago.
Most sources state that it was Crimthann’s grandson, the unsubtly-named ‘Eochaid the Slayer’ who carried out the deed, but there is the possibility that there was another who had more reason to seek Crimthann’s death.
This is an ancient Irish murder-mystery with familial and tribal intrigues — a dramatic yet often overlooked moment in Ireland’s past.
An illustration of two axe-wielding Irishmen from Royal MS 13 B VIII (Topographia Hibernica). ( Public Domain )
The Sacred Tree
Crimthann mac Énnai was a king of the Irish province of Leinster, who reigned from 443 AD to 483 AD. His residence was located in Rathvilly, which today is part of County Carlow but at this time was a tribal territory, as county borders had yet to be established in Ireland.
Rathvilly translates as ‘Ringfort of the Sacred Tree’ and this description gives tantalizing clues as to Rathvilly’s forgotten prominence as a place of worship and site of power for Ireland’s Druids and potentially the Irish people who lived there thousands of years earlier. The sacred tree in this case is most likely the oak but other trees which were considered gateways to the spiritual realms for the ancient Irish include the ash, the yew and hawthorn.
Ancient Oak Tree, Fowlet Farm, Hollybush. (Jerry Fryman/ CC BY-SA 2.0 )
Rathvilly is surrounded by many historic and sacred monuments including dolmens and stone circles which have alignments to solstices, equinoxes and even the stars.
Who Built the Homes of Gods and Kings?
Although these sites were held sacred by the Druids and the Celtic and European people arriving in Ireland at this time, their builder’s origins are still shrouded in mystery. For many who read Celtic legends today, these sites are the locations and homes of the Kings, Queens, Gods and Goddesses of Irish mythology but it is worth restating that these places were in fact rediscovered by the Celts, and not built by them.
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Recent DNA evidence has found that some people living in Ireland when these sacred monuments were built were from the Fertile Crescent area. However, there is also evidence that people from Northern and Eastern Europe were travelling to Ireland at this time as well. Perhaps the facts are pointing us towards a scenario of a mixture of races and cultures that traded, shared the same land, and called the same gods by different names. Archaeology continues to reveal new information which makes any definitive statement shaky ground. Irish legends even speak of a mysterious people called the Tuatha Dé (The Tribe of the Gods) who were said to possess supernatural powers and who arrived in Ireland in ‘dark clouds’.
The Tuatha Dé (The Tribe of the Gods) were said to arrive in dark clouds ( Public Domain )
With this in mind, Crimthann mac Énnai would have inherited great power presiding over a territory containing such important local ceremonial and ancestral monuments such as Baltinglass Hill and Castleruddery stone circle.
Castleruddery Stone Circle (© David Halpin)
Death by Werewolf and Shape-Shifting Cannibals
Ireland’s landscape at this time was thickly forested and home to other powerful chieftains and tribes. It was also a time when packs of wolves roamed and stalked the whole of Ireland. Settlements were reinforced and guarded, not just to repel attacks from rival tribes but to also protect against the wolves.
The fear instilled by these creatures informed many Irish myths and beliefs, from werewolves to shape shifting cannibals. Traveling by day was a dangerous undertaking; traveling at night would have been perilous. Kings not only held the power to rule, but the power to banish. Being cast outside of protective territory would have been a terrifying and potentially fatal outcome for individuals and whole families. It is worth bearing this in mind when we look for potential reason for Crimthann’s murder.
Being out in the dark woods was dangerous territory ( Public Domain )
New Religion and Shifting Alliances
This was also the time when Christianity began arriving in Ireland and some local accounts even say that Crimthann met, and was baptized by, St. Patrick. An ancient pagan holy well in Rathvilly was later named after Ireland’s patron saint in honor of this legendary event. The politics and power of this ‘new’ religion and its influence upon kings and tribes is yet another factor which began to change alliances in Ireland at this time.