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15. A visit to Emain Macha in County Armagh

Updated: May 13, 2022

About an hour and a half where we live, in Ireland, there is an ancient site called Emain Macha. It is across the border for us, over in the North, a place we rarely go to. I hope that is about to change, because there is so much in the North that we have yet to visit, and it's not that far away.

It's Bank Holiday Monday and Hallowe'en mid-term break here in the South. The kids are off, I'm off. It's a beautiful sunny day. The kids start the day with the Strictly Come Dancing, the recording from the previous night of the show where one contestant has been kicked off. A fantastic dancer leaves. After the program, the recording continues to run as we chat and drink tea, and The Antiques Road Show comes on. At the sound of the familiar theme tune, I look over and see where they are holding the show this week. In this program, a TV crew visits a different stately home or city every Sunday and gets the locals to come along with their antiques, so that specialists can have a look at them, and if they are lucky, interview them in front of the cameras and give them a value in pounds. The venue is yet another Palladian looking great house, but what is interesting is that it's in Strangford Lough, in Northern Ireland.

In the twenty years I've been living in Dublin, I've crossed the border into the North only twice. I can't explain why. I've seen plenty of places much further away in Ireland, such as Kerry, Cork, Galway, Sligo. I'm conscious of this shortcoming, so I say to the kids: 'Let's go to Strangford Lough'. We look it up. It's a bit of a trek, about 200 km. The kids say nothing. 'Well how about Armagh then, it's a bit closer', I suggest, looking at the map, only one hour and fifteen minutes it says here.' Straight away I think of Navan Fort, or Emain Macha. The sun is shining, we have nothing planned. We're going. (The kids have not protested too much.)

I get them to pick a movie or two for the trip, that usually helps. The kids' violin practice can wait, though for some reason I just have to spend five minutes practising a bit of a piece on the piano before I get ready to go. A large flask of strong tea, and another smaller one with camomile tea, cups and a few bits and pieces are thrown into the pick nick bag. I cook some lamb sausages given to us at a Hallowe'en party the night before, and put them in a heat retaining container for the non-veggies. We stop at the shop and buy crusty bread, milk, chocolate - milk and dark, crisps, sweets... and houmous. One of the boys opens a bottle of fizzy water in the car and it sprays his trousers quite profusely. We stop back at the house so he can change. Eventually, we hit the road. Soon we are zooming down the M1, and as the kids are playing Happy Families - the card game - instead of watching their Black Panther film, I switch on the radio, and the gorgeous Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis, by Vaughan Williams comes on, and it sounds like the Highlands and beautiful panoramic views, and all the things that an eagle sees, and I think I will never be able to listen to that music without remembering the beautiful sunshine of that morning.

Soon the film is put on and when I ask the kids to look out for signs of us crossing the border, they have no ears for me and no eyes for the road. They've never crossed the border, this border which is giving Europe and the UK such trouble at the moment. Just over a week ago, Downing Street published, through it's mouthpiece of the Independent, a piece on how Northern Ireland costs the UK more each year than membership of the EU, a piece designed to alienate the people of Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK, to put them in their place and shut them up - as if that's going to happen. There are many other parts of the UK that are funded by the City of London, not just Northern Ireland, but somehow the people in the British government seem to think disdain for the Island of Ireland, being a time honoured tradition, is a perfectly reasonable response to the pressures of Brexit. I'm sure they wish it were only Britain's exit from the EU, as the name confidently and stupidly suggests, and not a full UK-exit, which Brexit is supposed to be, in all but name. The very word Brexit shows contempt for Northern Ireland, as if somehow the only bit of the UK not to be in Britain didn't matter, and the consistent use of the awful word over the last few years has exacerbated the problem. Strange times to be a unionist.

So are we in the North yet? I ask the question to myself really, as no one else in the car is listening. I'm not sure. There is no road sign to say 'Welcome to the UK', but if there were it wouldn't last long I guess. And yet soon the differences begin to show, the motor way becomes a duel carriage way, there are 'A' roads listed on large green signs, it reminds me of our summer trip to Wales and England. The scene has changed.

Soon we are in suburban traffic. I realise I know nothing of this city, Armagh. Great Gealic football team. Two cathedrals to Saint Patrick. That's kind of it. Armagh has been in the news over the last few days because the driver of the lorry where 39 people died in a refrigerated container is from here, and has been charged with murder. Those poor people were at the mercy of people smugglers. A man from this place near an invisible but troublesome border has made smuggling his business. Of course, there's been smuggling over this border for decades, but it was in England that these poor people were found, having been driven over from mainland Europe.

We save the city for later and head straight for Emain Macha, partly so the kids can have their pick nick sooner rather than later, and partly because it gets cold now after about three.

It's one of those grassed over car parks, so the minute we stop the car the three boys jump out and start kicking a football. There is a lot of space, very few cars. My daughter and I stay near the car and drink tea, while the others stop by only to quickly make up sandwiches, and then back again for furtive sips of tea, or when the contents of their sandwiches fall on the ground because they have had their eyes on the ball, not their lunch.

There is warmth in the sun. One of the boys complains he is too car sick to walk over to the place we've come to see, as he skips off to chase a ball, shoving skittles into his mouth. I pay no notice. We finish our tea and lunch, throw coats over our belongings in the car to hide them, lock up, and walk over. After a while, the boys ask where we are and where we are going. 'It's like a sort of Hill of Tara place', is my answer. We go there every few months for a walk, they know it well. That's good enough for them, and they continue to kick the ball until we get to the doors of a visitor centre, disguised as an oversized hobbit house, where I suggest they carry the ball in. It's not very busy. In fact there's no one there, except two people behind a desk, who look up as we walk in. I look a bit of a mess, and I'm conscious of this as we walk up to the well groomed smiling lady, with recently done sparkly gel nails, which I compliment her on. I get a glimpse of my own nails as I insert my bank card into the machine to pay for our tour, and cringe. An American couple walks up to the desk and asks to see the film, so we are all ushered into the cinema room.

The film is a series of stills, illustrations by several artists of the heroes of Tain, interspersed with talking heads, and the odd slo-mo blurry action shot, which have a comical effect. Several stories are told. After a few minutes the boys stop tapping each other on the back and changing seats, and we can try and listen. The lady in one of the stories is a super fast runner who cannot tell her name except in the right place. She refuses to tell it till the end, when she wins a race against a horse and chariot whilst giving birth (?). When we do finally learn it I can't make it out. It's like the big reveal at the end of a murder mystery when you really don't understand anything after all. I'll have to go back to that one. I have read the Tain various times, but I forget bits a pieces.

Cu Culain's story is told, and of course the story of Emain Macha, the place we have come to visit.

The name Navan Fort is an anglicised form of Eamhain Mhacha, from the Old Irish: Emain Macha, which refers to the goddess Macha. She's the one who's name I didn't catch at first in the movie. She is possibly one of the three Morrigans, the three sisters who decide the fate of mortals, or perhaps the Morrigan are one goddess with three aspects. She is also was called Grian Banchure, which means the "Sun of Womanfolk", an interesting solar reference. She is one of the daughters of the leader of the first human settlement in Ireland after a great flood, according to a poem in the Lebor Gabála Érenn, or the Book of Invasions. Or is this a different Macha? Because another Macha is married to the leader of a second wave of settlers after the flood, and this Macha is buried in a place that was named after her: Ard Mhacha, or "Macha's high place". According to the Annals of the Four Masters, the surrounding woodland was cleared named Magh Mhacha, "Macha's plain". However, there are other traditions. In the Yellow Book of Lecan, Macha is "one of the three morrígna" (the plural of Morrígan), and Mesrad Machae, or "the mast of Macha", refers to "the heads of men that have been slaughtered". This Macha is the daughter of Ernmas, of the Tuatha Dé Danann.

There's another Macha, Macha Mong Ruad, meaning red haired Macha. She is the daughter of Áed Rúad, meaning red fire or fire lord. Macha Mong Ruad is the only queen in the List of High Kings of Ireland. This Macha is also asscociated with Emain Macha: securing her reign was not easy, and as several of her rivals for the kingship tried to rape her, she fought them, tied them up, carried them to Ulster, and forced them to build Emain Macha, as a capital of their people, the Ulaid. In this version, the place name refers to her brooch, which she used to mark out the boundaries. In this etymology, Emain Macha comes from eó-muin Macha, meaning Macha's neck-brooch. She shared the kingship with for seven years with her hsuband Cimbáeth, then for a further fourteen years on her own after his death. This is told in the Lebor Gabála, the Foras Feasa ar Éirinn and the Annals of the Four Masters. However, in another vesion, it is Cimbáeth who, after being made king of Ulster, receives the high kingship of Ireland, and it's in Tara he rules, with Macha, for 27 years. When Cimbáeth died, Macha refused to requislish power, so she continued to rule another seven years as high queen, until Rechtad Riderg of Mumu (Munster) murdered her. This is from the Ulster Cycle, or Red Branch Cylcle, or Ulaid Cycle.

Yet none of these Machas were the one from the movie in the visitor centre, the one in the race against the chariot who gives birth at the end. This story is related in Ces Noinden Ulad – "The Nine Days' Pangs (or Debility) of the Ulstermen".

In the story, a wealthy farmer in Ulster, or Ulaid, has recently been widowed. His name is Crunniuc. One day, this lady arrives at his door, and starts helping out with house hold chores. In the evening, they eat together, and sleep together. After a while, they get married. The woman becomes pregnant. There are two mysterious things about her: she can run supernaturally fast, and she refuses to reveal her name.

One day, near her due date, Crunniuc says he has to go to a festival held by the king. Not very happy with this, the lady places a geis, or a curse, on her husband: she'll stay with him only if he doesn't mention her at the festival.

Crunniuc does go, and has a drink or two. When the king, Conchobar, starts bragging about his chariot skills, he can't help but point out to the king that his wife would beat him in a race even if he were riding his horse drawn chariot and she were running all by herself. The king is offended, arrests Crunniuc, and orders his men to fetch his heavily pregnant wife. Against her will, the poor woman is brought to the King, and ordered to race him. She protests, she's soon to give birth and in no condition to run. Far from sympathetic, the king threatens to kill her husband if she doesn't agree.

This is the moment when she reveals her name to everyone: she is Macha, daughter of Sainrith Mac Imbaith. She races against the king's horses, and is winning, when she suddenly falls just before the finishing line. Her labour has begun.

But so has her revenge: at that moment, all the male spectators are seized with pain, the same pain she is going through as she goes into labour. All of them writhe around, until Macha gives birth to twins.

Curse of Macha Stephen Reid Illustration, 1910 , Wikimedia Commons

In this story, the place of the race is named after her, and Emain Macha is taken to mean the "The Twins of Macha".

Macha curses the men of Ulster: In their greatest hour of need, they will experience labour pains for five days and five nights, and this curse will last for generations.

In this story, Macha has to endure the cruelty of men as a heavily pregnant

woman, and in the previous story, it is as a woman fighting off attackers that she is portrayed. And yet in both stories, despite two aspects of being a woman which put her at the mercy of men, being threaten with rape, and being threatened whilst pregnant, she shows amazing physical and mental strength. She can carry three men to the site of her new capital where she forces them to build, and she can outrun horses, even while carrying twins near full term. Despite her supernatural strength, her weapon is the weapon of so many women who've been attacked and threatened and left with no other recourse: a curse. What else can you do really?

We left the cinema and went back to the desk in the reception area. We were ten minutes too late for the scheduled tour, so I asked if we had missed it, but we hadn't: we were the only ones on it.

It turns out it wasn't a bank holiday in the North, nor even a school holiday week. That said, there were no other southern cars in the car park, those who did have a bank holiday in the South obviously hadn't thought 'Let's go to Armagh for the day'.

The Iron Age round house at Emain Macha - I forgot to take a picture, this one is from Wikimedia Commons

Our guide was a lovely man, named Ciaran, who took us first to a recreated Iron Age round house, entirely made of willow and wicker, in one single weave, from a circular shape on the ground to a conical pointy roof. Then we walked over to the mound itself. It was pretty big, but only the top part was man made, apparently. There had been a structure on top, made of wood: pillars , or the remains of them, had been found, 27 of them. The guide pointed out that this could not have been a defensive structure, as the ditch and ramparts were all the wrong way round for that - as at Stonehenge. It was a sacred space, and maybe, he suggested, the ditch being the way it was, may have been designed to conserve any energy from crossing ley lines running through the site inside the sacred circle. From the top of it you could see across to the city of Armagh. I asked why the city hadn't been built on this mound. There was another ancient mound, on top of which the city had grown around the present Church of Ireland Cathedral, dedicated to Saint Patrick. That made sense. And yet this mound felt so peaceful and as far removed from city life as you could imagine.

View from the top of Emain Macha, October 2019

From the top of Emain Macha, October 2019

Rolling down the side of Emain Macha, October 2019

You could see all around for miles. Our guide said that on a clear day you could see all the way to Donegal. We walked back down the hill, or at least some of us did, the boys rolled all the way down.

We walked back to the visitor centre, and the kids had a look in the little shop. I kind of wanted to go back to have a look around just ourselves, but the kids couldn't see the point of going round the same place twice, so we went off in search of the city.

View from the top of the other sacred hill, City of Armagh, October 2019

We parked at the first place we saw, and walked in: we followed a street lined with shops like Boots and Top Shop, which kind of lead us to the cathedral on top of the hill, the one founded by Saint Patrick, on the other mound, the Emain Macha's twin. My suggestion to have a look inside was only met with weak resistance, so we all went in for a quick peep. Fortunately, there was a little gift shop area to keep them interested, so I had a walk around. There were some beautiful stained glass windows, and all the reclining statues and wall plaques you'd expect, marking the names and dates of the more important people who came to this Cathedral. I spotted a couple of Irwins, which is my husband's surname.

We managed to leave without buying any trinkets, and walked into the city, hoping perhaps to find a nice cafe for a nice cup of tea. There was none. The shops sort of fizzled out, there were a few banks, a few discount clothes shops, a chipper, that was it. No one about either. A quiet place, a little run down. I felt a bit bad for the kids who were hoping to spend some of their sterling coins.

St Patrick's Cathedral, Church of Ireland, Armagh, October 2019

Eventually, whilst walking back to the car, we found a Coop, and they were amazed at how cheap everything was. They bought chocolate and sweets, of course, what else? My daughter looked in Top Shop. It was getting dark so we headed back to the car and drove home, talking about coming back again at least for shopping one day, as everything was so cheap.

If Brexit does ever happen, will things get even cheaper?

The kids watched The Avengers on the way home, or at least half of it.

I was impressed by Macha, the story of the supernatural woman. Why is Macha not a name you hear now days? You hear Deirdre often, another name associated with Emain Macha: in Irish myth, she is the beautiful girl who fell in love with Naoise, and her story ends very sadly, she is a sort of Juliet figure. I would have thought Macha was a good strong name for a girl.

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