Emerald Isle

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 too many drops of mead, Cruinniuc said a bit too loudly that even 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.

Further Tales from the Ulster Cycle

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