Emain Macha – Royal Site of Ulster

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Emain Macha – Royal Site of Ulster

The Province of Ulster derives its name from an ancient Irish tribe known as the Ulaid. Built during the 1st Century BC, Emain Macha in Co. Armagh was the ceremonial seat of the Ulaid Kings and one of the great royal sites of pre-Christian Gaelic Ireland.

The site consists of a circular enclosure 250 metres in diameter, marked by a bank and ditch. Similar to other royal sites, the ditch is on the inside, suggesting that it was not built for defensive purposes. Inside the enclosure two structures are visible. Off-centre to the north-west is an earthen mound 40m in diameter and 6m high. Off-centre to the south-east is the circular impression of a ring-barrow, about 30m in diameter.

Archaeological excavations have revealed that the construction of the bank and ditch that mark the enclosure and the 40m earthen mound date to c. 100 BC; when a timber roundhouse-like structure, possibly a temple, was built, then filled with stones, before being deliberately burnt down and covered in a mound of earth. There is archaeological evidence for similar ritual building and burning at Tara and Dún Ailinne.

No firm date can be assigned to the ring-barrow, but excavations and geophysical surveys have revealed the remains of a figure-of-eight shaped wooden building underneath. Artefacts found in these layers show it was inhabited during the late Bronze Age and early Iron Age (c. 600 to 250 BC).

According to legend, Emain Macha got its name when the King of Ulster, Conchobar Mac Nessa, held a great feast at the site. All the men of Ulster were there, including a man named Cruinniuc. Now Cruinniuc was a widower, but some time after the death of his wife, a strange but beautiful woman had appeared at his house. Without speaking, she began keeping the house and acting as his wife. As long as they were together Cruinniuc’s wealth grew and soon the woman became pregnant.

Before he left for the feast, the woman warned Cruinniuc that he was not to speak of her to anyone, to which he agreed. However, during the feast, when the king was showing off his new horses, said to be the fastest in the land, Cruinniuc boasted that his woman could run even faster. The king overheard this and ordered Cruinniuc be held on pain of death unless he could make good on his claim.

Although heavily pregnant, the woman was brought before the gathering and despite pleading with the men of ulster to intercede on her behalf, she was forced to race against the king’s horses. Despite her condition, the woman won the race but as she crossed the finish line, the pain of childbirth came upon her. Collapsing onto the grass, with a scream that could be heard across Ulster, she gave birth to twins, right there and then.

As she lifted herself off the ground and stood in front of the crowd, a great light shone out of her and all those assembled there, knew then that this was no ordinary woman, but the goddess Macha herself. With a voice that struck terror into their hearts, she told all those gathered there that a blessing and a curse would arise from the birth of her twins.

The blessing would bring the men of Ulster great strength, but the curse was that whenever they needed it most, their strength would leave them. Macha declared that all those who had heard her scream would endure the pain of a woman in childbirth. This curse would last for nine generations: each fighting-man of Ulster, as soon as he was old enough to grow a beard, would fall under the curse.

With that, Macha gathered up her babies, leapt over the heads of those watching and disappeared from sight. From that day forth, the fortress of the King of Ulster was known as Emain Macha meaning ‘The Twins of Macha’.

Emain Macha is the heart of the larger ‘Navan complex’, which also includes the ancient sites of Haughey’s Fort (an earlier hilltop enclosure), the King’s Stables (a manmade ritual pool) & Loughnashade (a lake which has yielded votive offerings). In fact, the County of Armagh itself is named after the goddess Macha: Armagh from the Irish ‘Ard Macha’ meaning ‘the high place of Macha’.