The Naming of Emain Macha
Irish and Celtic myths and legends, Irish folklore and Irish fairy tales from the Ulster Cycle
The men of Ulster cross a fairy in The Naming of Emain Macha
Cruinniuc was a farmer in the northern part of Ireland back in the days of legend, and often legends are told of heroes and their mighty deeds, but this tale is about humbler folk who change the path of history nonetheless.
Cruinniuc wasn't a bad sort but his life had been struck with ill fortune for years – his wife had passed away and he was left with young children to care for as well as a farm. No small task this, and he wasn't really up to it, so he became used to living in a rough household.
Then one day when he returned bone-weary from the fields, he was astonished to discover his home was clean and neat as you like, tidy and with a good dinner cooking on the fire. A beautiful woman with flaming red hair sat beside it stirring the stew, and she said she was called Macha, and had chosen to be his wife. As happy as he was amazed, Cruinniuc near danced with joy and agreed to let her stay.
Unlucky he might have been but blind he was not, although he didn't question his good fortune too closely, he couldn't help notice the way her feet barely touched the ground when she moved, and that she scarcely had to gesture at a broom and the kitchen would be clean. One of the fair folk she was, to be sure, but as she was his wife he kept that to himself. As time passed she became pregnant and their happiness grew.
It happened that the King of Ulster was a keen charioteer, and he had bought a pair of new horses for their weight in gold. Proudly, he sent messengers to every dun in the land, summoning people to a great feast in his hall. Cruinniuc was delighted but before he set out, Macha put a geas on him, a holy forbidding, telling him that under no circumstances was he to speak of her, or it would end in disaster!
Of course Cruinniuc agreed and he went to join the rest of the people at the king's celebrations. The other men spoke with pride of the cooking of their wives, and of their beauty and grace, but Cruinniuc said nothing. He watched as the two horses of the king carried off prize after prize in the racing, and the people cried “There is not in Ireland anything swifter than the King's pair of horses.”
Having taken a few pints, Cruinniuc said a bit too loudly that his wife could run quicker than those beasts, and who should be passing close by at that moment but the king himself!
Now kings are a touchy lot at the best of times but if you had to pick a moment to insult a king, you couldn't have picked a worse one. Filled with wrath, the king ordered him seized and his wife brought to the hall, and if she couldn't make good his boast, he'd have Cruinniuc's head off for his cheek.
Macha groaned with dismay when she saw the king's men riding up outside the house, but she agreed to go with them, despite it being near her time, and her heavy with child. When she stood before the king she begged him to forgive her foolish husband, and told all the men there that their mothers would weep to see them, but the king's heart was of stone.
Despite being a bit tipsy himself, the king looked narrowly at Macha, for he could tell there was something uncanny about her, so he quietly had his chariot stripped down to the bare planks, and himself wore only a light cloak. They set up to race, the king and the weeping woman, outside the king's hall, and all the men of Ulster stood to watch.
Full as quick as a summer storm the king's chariot flew across the even grass, but no matter how quick he was, Macha was quicker! But as she ran her time came upon her, and she began to scream in anguish. The crowds fell silent, finding this entertainment suddenly no longer to their tastes, and Macha beat the king's horses by the breadth of her belly.
Collapsing to the ground, she gave birth to twins, neither of them alive, and herself perished shortly after. But before she went back to her own lands, she laid a terrible curse on the men of Ulster - “From this hour the shame you have wrought on me will fall upon each man of Ulster. In the hours of your greatest need you shall be weak and helpless as women in childbirth, and suffer her pains, and this shall endure for five days and four nights – to the ninth generation the curse shall be upon you.”
And so it came to pass, and this weakness was used to cause great harm to the men of Ulster for years to come. Despite the curse they still held her in great reverence, the warriors of Northern Ireland would collect the severed heads of their slain enemies and called it “Macha's Acorn Crop” or ”The Tree of Macha” Tributes were paid to her every year at the Assembly of Macha which occurred near the time of the festival of Lughnasadh during August.
For her was named Emain Macha, the twins of Macha, the heart of the kingdom of the north in Ireland, and Ard Macha, the height of Macha, which became Armagh, the city which stands nearby today, and which is marked on the map below.
We now have an amazing Patreon page as well, where you can listen to the many myths and legends on the Emerald Isle! Exclusive to our Patreon, you can now hear stories of ancient Ireland, folklore and fairy tales and more, all professionally narrated. It's at times like these that it's most important to support artists and creative people whose income might be reduced, so if you'd like to support the work that goes into Emerald Isle, the Patreon can be found here: https://www.patreon.com/emeraldisle
Further Tales from the Ulster Cycle
It was a warm and balmy summer's night, heavy with the fragrances of heather and honeysuckle, when Aengus, son of Dagda, awoke to find a beautiful young woman approaching him where he had slept. He was immediately taken with her grace and elegance, and his heart yearned for her, but when he tried to speak, she vanished! He stayed in his bed ... [more]
Many and infamous were the weapons of the tribes of Ireland, and fierce the warriors who wielded them in battle, but few were as notorious as the spear of fire and poison, the Lúin Cheltchair, which thirsted for blood so much that it had to be kept in a cauldron of poison, held down with chains by four foreigners – for who would risk t ... [more]
Cúchulainn, although still a young man, had made many powerful enemies, but none more bitter and dark than Queen Medb of Connaught, whose armies he had routed and whose ambitions he'd thwarted. Long into the dark nights of winter, year after year she brooded on the humiliations visited upon her, for undying is the wrath of a Queen. Sh ... [more]
Queen Medb had invaded Ulster and the lands of the north, thinking it would be an easy victory since the men of Ulster were crippled with birth pangs as a result of a curse place on them, but Cúchulainn had dogged her every step savagely. Attacking her supply wagons, ambushing her men from the trees, burning tents at night, he fought sing ... [more]
Queen Nessa had been known as a gentle and sweet natured woman when she was a maid, but through the hardships of the world she became cold and ruthless. Still, for all that she was still a rare beauty and an indomitable warrior, which many men find to be an irresistible combination! And so it was with King Fergus Mac Ríoch, master of all ... [more]
They say the fury of a storm in a high tempest has nothing on the fury of a woman scorned, and few women have ever felt quite so scorned as Aoife the warrior-queen after she found out that her lover Cúchulainn had married another woman, Emer! She had borne a son for him, but in her wrath she decided to turn the child against him. She spok ... [more]
In the age of heroes, forgotten by all but the storytellers and the legend-weavers, when champions strode the land of Ireland, their halls and Duns now covered in moss, echoing to no songs but those of the blackbird and the red-breasted robin, the people of Ulster were gathered together for a great celebration at Emain Macha, the capital of Ulster. ... [more]
A quarrel arose between Queen Medb of Connacht and the King of Ulster regarding who had the most wealth, but all of his men were cursed with the pains of a pregnant woman giving birth so they couldn't ride out to meet her marching army. Only Cúchulainn who had the blood of the Sidhe running through his veins could even walk, let alone fi ... [more]
Cathbad the Druid was well known throughout the lands of Ireland for his subtle skill and cunning ways, he could make birds speak the language of men and the very stones themselves sing, it was said! But like all Druids, he could also tell the portents of the day, as the ripples may be seen from a rock cast into a still pool in the deepest forest. ... [more]
Cruinniuc was a farmer in the northern part of Ireland back in the days of legend, and often legends are told of heroes and their mighty deeds, but this tale is about humbler folk who change the path of history nonetheless. Cruinniuc wasn't a bad sort but his life had been struck with ill fortune for years – his wife had passed away an ... [more]
The chariot games in Ireland of old were a great event – the mightiest of kings, warriors, princes and champions from around the world would travel from afar to watch and join the fiercely contested races. Each man and his team of horses would thunder round the track, and the cheers of the onlookers would shake the hills. And so it was for ... [more]
It was the time of heroes in ancient Ireland, when giants walked the land, before Fionn MacCumhaill had sent the seven shadows of the Glen back to their dark and restless sleep with his flashing sword, and even before his son Oisín had slain the worm of the lakes, when Setanta was young. He it was who became one of the mightiest heroes of ... [more]
King Aillil, husband to Queen Medb whose famous cattle raid started a war with Cú Chulainn, was deep in his cups as the sun set on Samhain night, red and cloud-torn over the ancient fortress of Rathcroghan. Bothered by the whispering winds, he took a notion that it would be a good test of courage if one of his warriors would go out and put a ... [more]
Bricriu of the venomous tongue he was called, and well named indeed he was, for he loved nothing better than to cause trouble and spread rumours and half-truths to unsettle people. As such he decided to hold a great feast, although he knew that by his reputation few would be interested in attending, so he made a special effort to entice them. He ... [more]
One of the most famed legends of old is that of the war that was fought over the Brown Bull of Cualgne. Now while it might seem an odd thing for us today to think of a war fought over a bull, the matter is not so simple as it might seem, and the bull was no ordinary bull either! For it was in the time of Cú Chulainn, the hound of Chulainn, t ... [more]