James Lloyd visits Navan Fort in County Armagh, a ritual site of great importance in the mythology of Ancient Ulster.
In Northern Ireland, a little more than a mile and a half west of Armagh, is the pre-historic site of Navan Fort. It consists of a henge eight hundred and twenty feet in diameter enclosing a mound a hundred and thirty feet in diameter and twenty feet high. The site has been occupied since the Old Stone Age. In the fourth century B.C., an 8-shaped pair of roundhouses was constructed within the henge but these were replaced about three hundred years later by a single round house, which was filled with stones and then burnt. The present mound was built over the ruins. This ritual act has attracted much speculative commentary but it does corroborate the impression given in Irish mythology that Navan was a place of religious and administrative importance and had been for hundreds, perhaps thousands, of years.
Navan is said to have been one of the capitals of the Ulaid (pronounced “oo-larth”), a Celtic-speaking tribe who gave their name to the province of Ulster. Whether or not the king of the Ulaid ever really ruled a realm coextensive with the nine counties of modern Ulster is questionable, for, by the time Ireland enters into written history, the territory was already divided amongst several jostling kingdoms, waxing and waning in land and power like tectonic plates. The myths’ vision of a single, mighty kingdom of the Ulaid dominating the north of Ireland is a projection of what the tribe wanted to believe had been true and Navan was part of that propaganda. In Old Irish Emuin Machae, of which Navan is an Anglicization, means “the twins” or “pair” of Macha and there are several stories explaining how it acquired this name. Here is one of them.
In ancient times, a widower named Crunniuc lived in the mountains and waste places with his two sons. He missed his wife and entertained fantasies that one day he would find another woman, who would clean the house and cook the food and look after the boys, giving him time to do man things. He did not find a new wife, however. Rather, a new wife found him. She appeared at the house one morning, without explanation or even introduction. She simply swept in through the door and started cleaning, then she cooked dinner, then she nursed the boys and in the evening she climbed into bed with Crunniuc.
Years passed and this common-law couple were very happy together, until the day that Crunniuc and his sons left to go to a fair that was to be held in the grounds of the King’s fortress. Crunniuc’s woman, who was now heavily pregnant, remained behind to look after the house but she warned him before he left not to say anything foolish at the fair. He rolled his eyes, gave the standard “Yes, dear,” and went to the fortress.
It was a thoroughly enjoyable day, climaxing with a chariot race, won by the King’s own charioteer. Crunniuc, a little the worse for drink, affected to be unimpressed and bragged “My wife could run faster than that!”
“Oh, could she?”
The King had overheard him and would not allow this slight against his own charioteer to go unchallenged. He sent men to Crunniuc’s house to fetch his wife and when she arrived, looking absolutely furious at her husband for not watching his mouth as she had told him, she was brought before the King. He asked her for her name and she told him that she was called Macha. He told her that, as punishment for her husband’s hubris, she was to race against the royal chariot but, just as the King finished twirling his moustache, her water broke.
“This is not a good time,” Macha pointed out. “Please help me, for a mother bore each of you. Wait until I am delivered.”
The King, however, would not be moved. On the contrary, her biological crisis would make the race all the more interesting. Two people would begin the race but at least three would end it.
“I warn you,” she admonished him, as she was dragged onto the track, “the Ulaid will suffer a greater evil than I, which will afflict them for a long time.”
The crowd counted down, as Macha was made to stand beside the chariot. At a wave of the King’s arm the charioteer cracked his reins and the horses ripped parallel scars through the ground. The charioteer felt the air rush over his hair and gazed serenely to his left at the cheering crowds as they blurred past him. He looked round to the right and nearly fell out of the chariot in amazement.
The woman was running alongside him, panting and puffing. Grass and mud were flying around her as her feet churned the earth. Whether because the astonished charioteer was slacking, or maybe because she was just magic, she was overtaking him. The charioteer had to shake his head and remind himself that there was still track to run, more of it for him now than for her.
He had to stop, however, or he would have crushed her. At the finish line, Macha threw herself to the ground right in the path of the chariot, which veered to the side. Her legs were wide apart, her dress was torn open and she was screaming to the skies above.
It was twins, a boy and a girl. They were twins whom the Ulaid would remember for generations to come, for every man who heard Macha’s screams that day himself felt the pains of childbirth for five days and four nights thereafter. For nine subsequent generations, the menfolk of the Ulaid were cursed to feel birth pangs for five days straight at the time of their greatest need. Unsurprisingly, the scene of this doom was commemorated as Emuin Machae: Macha’s twins.
This story makes perfect sense in the light of the tradition that the kings of the Ulaid kept their court at Navan. As readers of a previous blog will recall, the royal inauguration ritual involved a horse-race, which is apparently recalled in the myth. The name “pair of Macha” may have originally referred to the two roundhouses, with the myth of twins being a later retrospective explanation. The heroine’s name also appears in the city of Armagh, in Irish “Ard Macha”, the height of Macha. The name “macha” itself comes from a Proto-Celtic root meaning “plain”, so that the pair and the height of the plain might originally have been purely topographical references.
There is a distinct hint of the supernatural about Macha and the name appears in other myths, possibly all splinters off the same character. Many of the characters in Irish mythology, though presented in human terms, have supernatural characteristics and were probably originally gods, demoted to humans by the monks who wrote down their stories. One of the most consistent themes is their association with barrows, the Bronze-Age archaeological sites that were built long before the Celts invaded Ireland.
Navan itself, of course, is just such a site and it was still considered significant enough for Saint Patrick to found his see at the nearby Height of Macha in the mid-fifth century. Thereafter, however, the site fell into decay and the truth of what rituals might have taken place there slipped out of memory, with their place taken by myth.