Aided Díarmata meic Cerbaill (Recension I) ‘The violent death of Díarmait mac Cerbaill’

  • prose
  • Cycles of the Kings, Aided
A composite Middle Irish tale about the reign and (threefold) death of Díarmait mac Cerbaill, king of Ireland. A common theme is the king’s violation of ecclesiastical sanctuary or protection.
Lost, but credited as the source for the copy in Egerton 1782.
ff. 37ra–40vb
Based on a copy in the lost Leabhar Sligig (Book of Sligo).
prose (primary)
verse (secondary)
Textual relationships
Related: Aided Díarmata meic Cerbaill (Recension II)Aided Díarmata meic Cerbaill (Recension II)Aided na trí nÁedAided na trí nÁedShort early Irish poem, with prose introduction, on the deaths of three Áeds (Áed Rón, Áed Sláine and Áed Buide, king of the Uí Maine).Etsecht Bic meic DéEtsecht Bic meic Dé

Short Irish story of Becc mac Dé, his prophetic gift and the three falsehoods he utters on the day of his death, when he meets Colum Cille. The text is essentially an excerpt from the first recension of Aided Diarmata meic Cerbaill.

Associated items
Mairg thochrus fri cléirchib cellMairg thochrus fri cléirchib cell

Early Irish poem attributed to Díarmait mac Cerbaill. In recensions of his death-tale, he is made to utter this poem after two saints, Ciarán and Rúadán, had cursed him for having acted against the rights and authority of the church.

Tairngire Bic mic Dé ar deireadh dhomainTairngire Bic mic Dé ar deireadh dhomainA verse prophecy attributed to the seer Becc mac Dé on evil things to come


Cycles of the Kings
Cycles of the Kings
id. 80


Díarmait mac Cerbaill
Díarmait mac Cerbaill
(supp. d. 565)
In Irish historical tradition, high-king of Ireland, son of Fergus Cerrbél.

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Ciarán of Clonmacnoise
Ciarán (mac int Shaír) of Clonmacnoise
(c. 515–c. 549)
Irish saint, patron of Clúain Moccu Nóis (Clonmacnoise). Feast-day: 9 September.

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Ruadán of Lorrha
Ruadán of Lorrha
(d. 584)
(time-frame ass. with Díarmait mac Cerbaill)
Ruadán mac Fergusa Birn, patron saint of Lothra (Lorrha, Co. North Tipperary)

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Brénainn of Birr
Brénainn of Birr
(d. 565/73)
Brendan mac Nemainn, patron saint of Birr

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Colum Cille
Colum Cille
(fl. 6th century)
founder and abbot of Iona, Kells (Cenandas) and Derry (Daire).

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The following summary is primarily based on O'Grady’s edition and translation (cited below), based on the copy in Egerton 1782. It does not (yet) incorporate variants found in the other manuscript witnesses of the text.

[1] Díarmait becomes king with St Ciarán’s aid

Having been driven out by Tuathal Máelgarb, Diarmait mac Cerbaill moves across Loch Rí and the Shannon. At the same time, Ciarán comes to Druim Tiprat to found a monastery, travelling with a group of 8 on the lake and one of 200 on land. At this site they light a fire.

Diarmait has seen the flame by the time he reaches Snám Dá Én. His druids tell him that the flame is intended to burn forever, but (as the boats reach Tipra Fingin, then Port nGrencha) Diarmait insists that it should be extinguished.

Diarmait meets Ciarán, who tells him that he is there to build a little church, which will be called Eclais Becc. Diarmait allows Ciarán to put his hand over him and Ciarán tells him that he will soon be king of Ireland, as God decides.

The following day, Máel Mór Uí hArgata, a fosterbrother (comalta) of Diarmait, goes to Tuathal at Grellach Eilte (southeast of Ros Ech) and runs his spear through him. Máel Mór is killed shortly thereafter. This is related in the tale Echtra Máil Móir. (Aside: Máel Mór, who belongs to the Uí Chonaill of Muirtheimne, is Diarmait’s third fosterbrother. The others are Luchta of Athferna and Enna mac Uí Laigsi)

Within a week, Diarmait is inaugurated as king of Ireland.

» People: Túathal Máelgarb • Díarmait mac Cerbaill • Ciarán of Clonmacnoise • Máel Mór Uí hArgata • Luchta of Athferna • Enna mac Uí Laigsi » Places: Druim Tiprat • Clúain Moccu Nóis • Loch Rí • Shannon • Snám Dá Én • Tipra Fingin • Port nGrencha • Grellach Eilte • Ros Ech » Textual sources: Echtra Mhail Mhóir (lost)
[1.1] Dinnshenchas of Snám Dá Én
Snám Dá Én (‘Swimming place of two birds’) is so called because here Nár son of Finnchad son of Conall Cernach killed two birds that were on the shoulder of Eistine the female warrior (banfhéinneda).
» Comments: This aside is a comment on the placename Snám Dá Én (see the story above). » People: Nár mac Finnchad • Finncha mac Conaill Cernaig • Conall Cernach • Eistine » Places: Snám Dá Én » Type: Ulster Cycle

[2] Ciarán’s curse on Diarmait

At Beltaine, Diarmait holds the assembly of Uisnech (dál Uisnig), in keeping with customary practice. The three major gatherings (ard-dála) at that time are the assembly of Uisnech (dál Uisnig) at Beltaine; the fair/assembly of Tailtiu (óenach Tailten) at Lugnasad; and the feast of Tara (féis Temrach) at Samain. Anyone who disturbs these activities incurs the death penalty. Ciarán is invited to the gathering.

Before the assembly begins, the king waits for Ciarán at Cnoc mBracáin, at a place known since as Tulach na Comnaide (Hill of halting). Diarmait, thankful for the blessing that brought him the kingship, donates to him the stretch of land on which they stand, including its cattle and oxen.

An enemy of the king, Flann Finn mac Díma, dwells in the same territory (Tulach Dhíma or Tulach Flainn is named for him). Diarmait sets the warrior’s house on fire and the warrior appears to die a threefold death by burning, wounding and drowning: having sustained severe injuries inside the burning house, he steps into a bath of water and dies there.

Ciarán reproaches Diarmait for this transgression and predicts for him a similar death by wounding, drowning and burning. Diarmait is shocked to hear this.

» Places: Cnoc mBracáin • Tulach na Comnaide

[3] After a miracle, Diarmait submits to Ciarán

The king and the saint attend the gathering at Uisnech, which lasts a fortnight. Suddenly, a great drought seizes the land and many 'four-footed' creatures die thereof. The men of Ireland approach Ciarán for help, who makes a prayer and so produces a spell of rain that causes twelve main streams (prím-glaisi) to spring forth. This miracle is cited as the reason why his church is entitled to a common tribute (cána choitchinn) throughout Ireland. In the presence of the men of Ireland, Diarmait submits to Ciarán, offering the services of himself and of his children.

[4] The bacucc

Ciarán attends the Óenach Tailten at Lugnasad and works many miracles. For instance, a man who had just sworn a false oath is suddenly afflicted with an ulcer on his neck. His head falls off and the man continues to walk without it. After the óenach, the headless man, described as in bacucc (?, cf. Ambacuc), dwells for seven years with the monks of Clonmacnoise.
» Comments: Cf. Echtra Ambacuc » Type: miracle

[5] The prophecy of Becc mac Dé concerning Áed Sláine

Includes verse: Ní fo airmirt in araile
The first years of Diarmait’s reign are described in positive terms: Diarmait excels in wisdom, eloquence and government and is highly esteemed for this.

One day, Diarmait is feasting with his wife Mugain, daughter of Conchraid mac Duach (of the Éoganacht of Cashel), at his side. Mugain is with child, carrying their son Áed Sláine. When the feasting company is cooling off outside, Diarmait’s nephew Suibne son of Colmán Mór approaches with a large company of horsemen, whose appearance is described in some detail. Just as Suibne joins the assembly, a loud cry is heard coming from Mugain. Diarmait’s prophet (fáid) Becc mac Dé explains to him that the cry is a sign of things to come: one day, his unborn son (Áed Sláine) will slay Suibne.

At this point, the story confirms that the prophecy had indeed come true and that Suibne’s son Conall had later avenged his father’s death on Áed Sláine. This is followed by some further remarks:

  1. A poem referring to these events is cited, beg. ‘Ní fo airmirt in araile’ (1 q).
  2. Conall is said to have slain Áed at Loch Semdide. On the same day, Áed Gustan slew Áed Buide, king of Tethbae (Teffia), and Áed Róin, king of Uí Failge, in the hostel of Da Choca.
  3. The two slayings are regarded as the first acts of kinslaying (fingal) by the Síl nÁedo Sláine and Clann Cholmáin respectively.
» People: Mugain ingen Chonchraid • Áed Sláine mac Diarmata • Suibne mac Colmáín Móir • Conall mac Suibni • Becc mac Dé • Áed Gustan • Áed Buide • Áed Róin » Places: Loch Semtide » Keywords: fingal

[6] Becc mac Dé and his prophecy concerning Áed Dub

Becc mac Dé is the best seer of his time, as the following anecdote illustrates. One day, he meets three men coming from Tara, each of whom asks him a question. Becc mac Dé answers them all with a single reply. Even when there are nine of them, he can answer them in the same way.

One day, Becc mac Dé is with Diarmait at Tara, who is much praised by eulogists (in t-aes admolta). Before Becc is Áed Dub, whose father is the late Suibne, king of Dál nAraide. Diarmait had killed Suibne and taken Áed Dub into fosterage. Becc predicts that a canid (terms used include cú conamail or cú ruad), possibly Áed Dub, will destroy the house. Becc continues with a strikingly detailed and seemingly impossible picture of the king’s death:

Diarmait will be in the house of Banbán the hospitaller when Áed Dub offers a poisonous drink to the king’s mouth. At this time, the king will be wearing a shirt woven from a single flax-seed and a mantle woven from a single sheep; drinking ale brewed from a single grain; and eating bacon of a pig that has not been farrowed. Finally, a ridge-pole (the beam of the house) will fall on the king’s head.

All suggest that Áed should be put to death, but Diarmait prefers to send him into exile in Alba (Scotland).

» People: Becc mac Dé • Áed Dub mac Suibni

[7] Áed Guaire (1): his arrest

Diarmait rules with heavy hand, employing stewards (both mair and rechtaireda) and soldiers billetting on local resources. One time in Connacht, he travels in the company of stewards (mair) and baccláim, with a herald/crier (callaire) preceding him. The herald proclaims the king’s arrival when the king pays someone a visit for hospitality (oígidecht, i.e. of the guesting variety). He demands that the gate (dorus) of one’s dwelling should be demolished so that the king could enter with his spear held crosswise. No one dares to raise objections and the herald would be demonically possessed as he presses his instructions.

However, the king finds resistance when he comes to the house of Áed Guaire in the land of Uí Maine Connacht. Áed Guaire, angered at the king’s demand, slays the herald (called gilla in gái ‘servant/lad of the spear’). Áed flees to the Muscraige, secures the protection (commairge) of his maternal cousin, Bishop Senach, who in turn places him in the protection of the saint Ruadán of Lorrha, whose sisters (Cóel and Ruadnait) had fostered Senach as a child. Ruadán, in turn, transfers him to the Britons, but Diarmait’s influence is such that Áed is not safe with the Britons or in Alba. Ruadán receives him once again, concealing him under ground at Poll Ruadáin.

When Diarmait learns of this, he sends a charioteer (anonymous) to drag Áed from his hiding place, but his eyes are lost to him as soon as he goes underground. Diarmait confronts Ruadán, who truthfully tells him that he does not know Áed’s whereabouts unless he is beneath the king. Diarmait only later realises that Áed was, in fact, hiding beneath his feet and sends a certain Donnán to drag him off. Donnán fails, having lost the strength of his arms when he tried to dig the earth. Both the charioteer and Donnán submit to Ruadán, join his monastery and later become venerated as saints at Poll Ruadáin.

Finally, Diarmait arrives in person and drags Áed off to Tara. Here Áed awaits execution by hanging.

» References: Ed. Standish Hayes O'Grady, Silva Gadelica, vol. 1 (1892): 80; tr. Standish Hayes O'Grady, Silva Gadelica, vol. 2 (1892): 75–76. » Keywords: maer • rechtaire • bacclám • callaire • guesting • oígidecht • demonic possession

[8] Áed Guaire (2): his release

Includes verse: Mairg thochrus fri chéirchib cell
Ruadán (of Lorrha) and Brénainn of Birr go to Tara in order to have Áed Guaire released. Diarmait refuses, saying that the Church has no right to provide protection (sarugud) when the offender has breached royal law (recht).

The saints chant psalms of malediction (salmu escaine) and sound bells against the king. That night, twelve royal sons who have been given in fosterage to the king die instantly in Tara. Their guardians beg the saints to bring the youths back to life. The churchmen pray and the youths are restored to life.

For a whole year, the saints heap curses (escaini) on the king and work many miracles, but Diarmait does not give up: for every act of supernatural power (firt) he returns another. One time, however, as the saints and the king fast against one another (this is implicit in the text of Egerton 1782), the clerics reward the house steward (ferthigis) with Heaven if he can make the king believe that they have broken their fast.

That night, the king has a dream in which he sees a tall tree standing in Tara. Fifty foreigners (gall) led by two of them attempt to chop down the tree but at every attempt, the tree is renewed. However, the tree falls as soon as he is removed from it. Diarmait, having awoken at the sound of the crash, interprets the dream as telling him that the clergy are bringing about his downfall, with the tree representing the king himself.

The following morning, Diarmait goes to confront the saints and vent his anger. Diarmait and Ruadán exchange a series of imprecations. Diarmait wishes that Ruadán’s diocese is the first to fall, that Ruadán will suffer a blemish (resulting in the bursting of one of the saint’s eyes), that Ruadán’s bodily relics will be scattered, etc. Ruadán, in turn, utters curses to the effect that Diarmait’s reign will be cut short, his body dismembered and even that Tara will cease to be a residential site for future kings. As Diarmait notices the ridge-beam (cleith) of the house, Ruadán hints at its role in the king’s death.

Diarmait releases Áed and makes peace with the saints. He recites a brief poem, beg. ‘Mairg thochrus fri chéirchib cell’, about the tragic conclusion of his conflict with the clerics, notably the fall of Tara. He continues (in prose) reproaching the clerics for the misery they have contributed to the future of Ireland and wishing that secular lords will oppress the churches with their visits.

Before Ruadán, Brénainn and Áed return to Poll Ruain, they see 30 splendid horses coming towards them from the sea. They donate the horses, which prove to excel in speed, to Diarmait, but the horses assume their original shapes and return to the sea.

» Comments: The poem is considerably longer in RIA MS D ii 1 (22 qq) and also occurs in the second recension. The anecdote about the king fasting against the saints is recalled with some additional details in the conclusion of this text (see below). » People: Áed Guaire • Ruadán of Lorrha • Brénainn of Birr » Keywords: ferthigis • protection • sarugud • supernatural horses

[9] Becc mac Dé and Cáirid the poet interpret Diarmait’s dream

One night, Diarmait has a dream in which two men, resembling a cleric and a layman, take off the king’s diadem (mind), break it in half and take one half each. The king awakes and describes his dream to Becc mac Dé and his poet (file) Cáirid son of Finncháem (his mother). They have interpreted the dream for him, as Cáirid explains to the king: when Diarmait’s reign comes to an end, there will be a division (rann) between the Church and secular Irish society (tuath); that one day, therefore, the Church and her lands will fall prey to secular power, without regard for older privileges of the Church; and that secular society will see an alarming rate of kinslaying.
» People: Becc mac Dé • Cáirid mac Finnchaime • Finncháem » Keywords: dream • dream interpretation • fingal

[10] The revolt of the Connachta

Includes verse: Slóigh do ching a timchioll chairn
One time, as Diarmait holds the feast of Tara, Curnán son of Áed son of Eochaid Tirmcharna (ancestor of the Síl Máil Ruain in Connacht) kills a man (anonymous). He secures for himself the protection (commairce) of Fergus and Domnall, two sons of Muirchertach mac Erca, who in turn place Curnán under the protection of the saint Colum Cille. Diarmait has Curnán executed all the same.

Because of this, the Connachta rise up against Diarmait. Diarmait responds by ravaging Connacht as far as Cúil Sibrinne, near Cúil Dreimne, where he faces the opposing forces. The Connachta are joined here by Colum Cille with the northern Uí Néill; Fergus and Domnall, as well as their father Áed; Ainmire son of Sétna, king of the Cenél Chonaill; and Nindid mac Duach.

Diarmait’s sorcerer (drái) Fracchán mac Tenesáin conjures up a druidic hedge (airbre druad) between the two armies. Colum Cille undermines the magical barrier by reciting a brief poem beg. ‘Slóigh do ching a timchioll chairn’. As Tuatán son of Dímán (son of Sarrán son of Cormac son of Eogan son of Niall) brings down this barrier, a spear meets and kills him, making him the only person of Colum Cille’s people to die in this battle. Diarmait is defeated.

Colum Cille is credited as saying that a barrier against a warrior (fri féine ndremain) would not be denied, hence the placename Cúil Dreimne, from Cúil Dreimféine.

» References: Ed. Standish Hayes O'Grady, Silva Gadelica, vol. 1 (1892): 79; tr. Standish Hayes O'Grady, Silva Gadelica, vol. 2 (1892): 84–85; » People: Síl Mail Ruain • Curnán mac Áedo • Áed mac Echach Tirmcharna • Eochaid Tirmcharna • Muirchertach mac Erca • Fergus mac Muirchertaig • Domnall mac Muirchertaig • Colum Cille • Ainmire mac Sétna • Ninnid mac Duach • Fracchán mac Tenesáin • Báetán • Tuatán mac Dímáin » Places: Connacht • Cúil Sibrinne • Cúil Dreimne » Events: battle of Cúil Dreimne • dinnshenchas of Cúil Dreimne » Type: dinnshenchas » Keywords: commairge • airbre druad

[11] The prophecy of Becc mac Dé concerning the king’s death

Includes verse: Cichse a Temair tar fert a fert fogamraigOlc bith aromthá
Back at Tara, Diarmait asks Becc mac Dé to ascertain the manner of his death once again. Becc mac Dé repeats the earlier prophecy in verse, beg. ‘Cichse a Temair tar fert a fert fogamraig’.

Diarmait also asks his seer to describe the fate of the kingdom of Ireland in the wake of his death. Becc mac Dé recites another verse prophecy, beg. ‘Olc bith aromthá’. This includes verse lines that are also known from Baile Chuind, painting a future of violence from one Níall to another: ‘a Niall by sea, a Niall in fire, and a Niall to hew down’, after the ruin of Ailech.

Still unsatisfied by Becc’s answer, Diarmait calls his magicians (dráithe) to him again. Becc is angered at the king’s attitude, leaves him and is followed by a crowd that craves a prophecy of him. He meets Colum Cille, who informs him that the great gift of prophecy comes to him from God. Asked if he can foretell the day of his death, Becc responds that he has seven more years to live, but realising he has erred, he corrects this to seven months and subsequently, to seven hours. Having thus made three false attempts, Becc requests communion from the saint, who tonsures him and gives him communion (comman) and the sacrament (sacarbaic). Becc mac Dé is taken up in Heaven.

The text explains that Becc had never told a lie before; that it was prophesied that Becc would utter three false statements on the day of his death; and that because of this, Colum Cille had come to meet Becc.

The three magicians confirm the prophecy: one refers to death by bloodshed and the shirt worn by the king; the second one to death by drowning and the ale presented to the king; and the third one to death by burning and the bacon on the king’s dish. Nevertheless, Diarmait dismisses these prophecies as unlikely to come true.

» References: Ed. Standish Hayes O'Grady, Silva Gadelica, vol. 1 (1892): 79–80; tr. Standish Hayes O'Grady, Silva Gadelica, vol. 2 (1892): 85–86; » People: Becc mac Dé • Colum Cille » Places: Tara • Ailech

[12] The threefold death of Diarmait mac Cerbaill

Includes verse: Indóin dítin i Ráith Bic
When Diarmait goes on a circuit around Ireland, he travels clockwise (Tara—Leinster—Munster—Connacht—Ulster—Tara), always back in time to celebrate the festival of Tara at Samain. One time, he meets a layman (Banbán, as it turns out later on), who invites the king to a night of entertainment (oígidecht) at his house nearby. Mugain refuses to join Diarmait because an invitation of the king is a bad omen.

Diarmait and Banbán go to the appointed house at Ráith Becc. Here Banbán offers him his daughter (anonymous) to stand in for the king’s wife that night. A bed is made and a meal is prepared. Banbán’s daughter presents the king with a shirt that she made from a single flax-seed as well as a mantle made from the wool of a single sheep.

When meat and drink are provided, Banbán explains that the bacon is good because it comes from piglets that were never farrowed, having been cut out from their mother; and that the ale is good because it is brewed from a single grain of special corn: he found it when he inspected the crops of his land and killed a small dove (ferán eidinn).

Diarmait remarks that the upper part of the house is relatively new. Banbán explains to him that it was built from a single ridge-beam (cleith) that he found floating on the sea while he was out fishing.

Realising that Becc’s prophecy (faistine) is being fulfilled, Diarmait jumps up to escape the house. However, he is met at the door by Áed Dub, who pierces the king’s breast with his spear. Fire is set to the house (by the Ulstermen?), roasting Diarmait and all those inside. To evade the flames, Diarmait enters the ale-vat, but the ridge-beam falls on his head and deals out the fatal blow.

Nothing is left of the king’s body but his head. Diarmait’s head and relics are brought to Clonmacnoise and subsequently buried at Claoin Ferta (a slope) or the Céite. This is where Diarmait had chosen to be buried when he was in Eclais Becc, having been cured of a head illness after fasting against the saints of Ireland.

A quatrain about the king’s death, beg. ‘Indóin dítin i Ráith Bic’, is cited.

The text concludes that this is Aided Diarmata meic Cerbaill (with a side-note that Cerball’s name derives from bél cerr ‘wry mouth’).

» Comments: Francis J. Byrne, Irish kings and high-kings (2001): 97 locates Ráith Becc near the Cruthin/Dál nAraide seat of Ráith Mór in modern Co. Antrim. The same etymology of Cerball’s name is found in Cóir anmann. » People: Mugain ingen Chonchraid • Banbán of Ráith Becc • Áed Dub mac Suibni » Places: Ráith Becc ... (Mag Line) • Tara • Céite • Clúain Moccu Nóis • Clóen Ferta (Cluain Moccu Nóis) • Eclais Becc » Type: aided


Primary sources Text editions and/or modern translations – in whole or in part – along with publications containing additions and corrections, if known. Diplomatic editions, facsimiles and digital image reproductions of the manuscripts are not always listed here but may be found in entries for the relevant manuscripts. For historical purposes, early editions, transcriptions and translations are not excluded, even if their reliability does not meet modern standards.

[ed.] [tr.] Wiley, Dan M., “An edition of Aided Diarmata meic Cerbaill from the Book of Uí Maine”, unpublished PhD thesis, Harvard University, 2000.
[ed.] OʼGrady, Standish Hayes, Silva Gadelica (I–XXXI): a collection of tales in Irish, vol. 1: Irish text, London: Williams & Norgate, 1892.
Digitale-sammlungen.de: <link> Internet Archive: <link> Internet Archive – originally from Google Books: <link>, <link> CELT – various: <link>, <link>, <link>, <link>, <link>, <link>
72–82 Edition based on Egerton 1782 direct link
[tr.] OʼGrady, Standish Hayes, Silva Gadelica (I–XXXI): a collection of tales in Irish, vol. 2: translation and notes, London: Williams & Norgate, 1892.
Digitale-sammlungen.de: <link> Internet Archive: <link> Internet Archive: <link>
76–88 Translation direct link
[tr.] Carey, John [tr.], “[Various contributions]”, in: John T. Koch, and John Carey (eds), The Celtic Heroic Age. Literary sources for ancient Celtic Europe and early Ireland & Wales, 4th ed., 1, Aberystwyth: Celtic Studies Publications, 2003. [Various].
§ 101 [id. 101.] English translation of a section of the text

Secondary sources (select)

Rekdal, Jan Erik, “From wine in a goblet to milk in cowdung. The transformation of early Christian kings in three post-Viking tales from Ireland”, in: Gro Steinsland, Jón Viðar Sigurðsson, Jan Erik Rekdal, and Ian Beuermann [eds.], Ideology and power in the Viking and Middle Ages: Scandinavia, Iceland, Ireland, Orkney and the Faeroes, Leiden, Boston: Brill, 2011. 211–267.
OʼGrady, Standish Hayes, Silva Gadelica (I–XXXI): a collection of tales in Irish, vol. 2: translation and notes, London: Williams & Norgate, 1892.
Digitale-sammlungen.de: <link> Internet Archive: <link> Internet Archive: <link>
viii–ix direct link
Dennis Groenewegen
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October 2010, last updated: January 2024