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HIST & MYTH: High Queen of Ireland - Queen Macha

Written by Ben Kesp

Macha is a figure who may not stand out, and in fact, I had not heard of her until I began my research. I felt she was worthy of a mention as she did achieve the highest office in the land to become High Queen of Ireland. I should point out however there are a few notable women with the same name, and writings are unclear and hardly distinguish between the historical, legendary and mythical figures. Those mentioned are: 

  • Macha the daughter of Partholon
  • Macha the wife of Nemed
  • Macha the daughter of Ernmas, sister to Morrígan
  • Macha Mong Ruad
  • Macha the wife of Cruinniuc 

High Queen Macha

I will look briefly at the first three names mentioned. First is Macha, daughter of Partholon of the Partholanians, an ancient mythical race who arrived 312 years after Cesair to Ireland who was son of the King of Greece. Their race died out from a plague after 120 years in Ireland. 

Second is Macha, the wife of Nemed of the Nemedians who were the third ancient mythical race to arrive in Ireland after the Partholanians. Here it states that this Macha had a connection with the Tuatha Dé Danann Goddess Morrígan. However, how they are linked is unclear as the Nemedians abandoned Ireland after their encounters with the Fomorians. Some went to Britain and a group split into two branches retreating to Greece where they would later become the Fir Bolgs and the Tuatha Dé Danann. They would not return to Ireland for many hundreds of years later. 

About the third Macha mentioned above we know from what Irish myth recounts. She forms the triple Irish War Goddess along with her sisters Babd and Morrígan. During the First Battle of Mag Tuired between the Tuatha Dé Danann and the Fir Bolgs, using their magic, Macha and her two sisters caused fear and confusion among the Fir Bolgs through clouds of mist and torrential rains not allowing them to rest for three days. It is also stated that Balor, the evil eye of the Fomorians, slew her in this battle. In the Táin Bó Cúailnge, during the battle between Queen Maeve of Connaught and Cú Chulainn, Babd terrorised most of Maeve’s army wherein soldiers fell from their own weapons. 

The Macha that I want to write about is the historical Macha Mong Ruad who is the only female mentioned in the list of High Kings of Ireland. She was the daughter of Áed Rúad who rotated the Kingship every seven years with his cousins, Díthorba and Cimbáeth. When Áed died, his daughter Macha claimed his throne when it was his turn to rule again. Áed Rúad’s cousins refused to allow a woman to sit on the throne, thus a battle followed. Macha won and Díthorba was killed. She won another battle against Díthorba’s sons who fled to Connaught. She married the remaining cousin Cimbáeth and shared the kingship with him. 

Macha travelled alone in disguise to Connaught to find Díthorba’s sons and overpowered each of them just when they were about to have sex with her. She tied them up and brought them to Ulster. She enslaved and forced them to build the ancient monument of Emain Macha (Navan Forth). This was to become the first Royal Capital of Ulster. 

Emain Macha today dates back over 7,500 years and is an important archaeological site. Excavations began on the site in 1960 and an ancient temple was discovered dating to 94 B.C. The stone and oak temple was dedicated to the Sun God Lugh of the Tuatha Dé Danann. The site was also a place of burial and ceremonial. During excavations, the skull of a Barbary ape was discovered which archaeologists believe signifies the presence of a royal or an important overseas visitor. Today, Emain Macha is open to the public. 

Queen Macha ruled with her husband Cimbáeth for seven years until he died of plague. Macha continued to rule for another fourteen years on her own, until she was killed by Rechtaid Rígderg. Rechtaid ruled for twenty years when he was killed by Ugaine Mor, foster son of Queen Macha. There are three periods recorded for her reign. Lebor Gabála dates her reign to that of Ptolemy I Soter (Greek Macedonian Ruler/Egyptian Ruler) 3rd/4th century B.C.; the chronology of Keating’s Foras Feasa ar Éirinn dates her reign to 468 – 461 B.C.; the Annals of the Four Masters push it back to 661 – 654 B.C. 

The final Macha mentioned in my list above is Macha, wife of Cruinniuc, an unusual figure to say the least, and whose story conflicts with the naming of the Royal Capital of Ulster as Emain Macha. Following the death of Cruinniuc’s first wife, Macha appeared at his house and began acting as his wife. She instructed him not to say who she was or mention her name to anyone. While they were together, Cruinniuc’s wealth increased. At a festival organised by the King of Ulster, Cruinniuc boasted that his wife could run faster than the King’s horses. The king wanted to see her race his horses, even though she was heavily pregnant. She pleaded until after the birth, however, the king wanted to see the race. She raced and beat the horses, collapsing at the finishing line, giving birth to twins, giving the name of the Ulster capital as Emain Macha. This was when Macha cursed the Ulstermen who would be inflicted in their greatest hour of need as we read in the story Táin Bó Cuailnge (Cattle Raid of Cooley against Queen Maeve’s armies). Only the hero Cú Chulainn escaped the curse and could fight. It is also here perhaps where we have the association with horses and possible link to the Tuatha Dé Danann Goddess Macha as goddess of horses. 

Today, Queen Macha has her place in history among the list of High Kings of Ireland. 

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