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Dublin: 12°C Tuesday 18 May 2021

Was King Arthur an Irishman?

New book claims it has strong evidence to ground the Arthurian legend in a real-life high king of Ireland.

Irish actor Richard Harris playing King Arthur (with Fiona Fullerton as Guinevere) in the stage play 'Camelot' in 1982.
Irish actor Richard Harris playing King Arthur (with Fiona Fullerton as Guinevere) in the stage play 'Camelot' in 1982.

A NEW BOOK is claiming that the legend of King Arthur may have its factual basis in a real life high king of Ireland.

English historian Dane Pestano is claiming to present new evidence in his book, King Arthur in Pseudo-Historical Tradition, that indicates the Arthurian legend was inspired by the life of Muircertach Mac Erca. Mac Erca ruled in Ireland in the sixth century and was the great-grandson of Niall of the Nine Hostages. He ruled at An Grianán, on the Inishowen peninsula in Donegal.

Pestano says that he found incidents in the life story of Mac Erca and legends that grew up around him – as detailed in medieval Irish verse – which mirrored stories about Arthur. He writes:

Reputedly, he (Mac Erca) was the first Christian King of Ireland who reigned from around 510-513 until about 534-537. King Arthur is said to have died in 537 in the Welsh annals.

Mac Erca fought numerous battles, was in his early years a murderous tyrant, exacted tribute, was in possession of the Lia Fáil, a conquered Ireland and Gaul and assumed the sovereignty of Britain, Scotland, the Saxons, Denmark and the Orkneys; is fostered by a druid and is finally given the ultimate accolade of a famous hero – the triple death.

If this set of circumstances sounds familiar you would be right; this is the same as King Arthur was supposed to have accomplished as related by Nennius and Geoffrey of Monmouth and exactly during the same period.

Other similarities between the two listed by Pestano include how Mac Erca’s name could be interpreted as ‘Arthur’, and how his wife’s name closely resembled ‘Gwenever’ when translated into Welsh. He also draws links between the figure of Merlin in Arthurian legend and the bishop Cairneach who had great influence over Mac Erca when he was king.

However, Pestano is most excited about the links because he says it is the first time that the Arthur figure could be shown to have a basis in an actual historical figure.

The origin of the legend of Arthur has been a bone of contention for historians and genealogists for a long time. One theory, put forward by historian Michael Wood in a series for the BBC, is that the myth could have evolved from the story of warmongering Artúr mac Áedáin, who set out from the Dál Riata kingdom at the very northern part of Ireland to battle the Picts. He was killed in battle in 582.

Whatever the truth, King Arthur did finally come to Ireland – when the movie of the same name was filmed here in 2004:

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