Emain Macha, Stronghold of Ulster Kings or Site of Sacred Ritual?
Updated: Jan 26
Last week, I told you the legends of Macha; today we look at the monuments in the Irish landscape she is said to have inspired. EMAIN MACHA, also known by the name of Navan Fort, is real and still standing today, and like the Hill of Tara, and Cruachan, is open to the general public to access, free of charge.
The Hill of Tara gets all the glory and the visitors, but much as I love it, I think this is a bit of a shame. There is as much a wealth of heritage, in terms of archaeology, history, and mythology at our other provincial ritual sites as there is at Tara, and they are well worth experiencing.
The early literature of Ireland has identified a number of ‘Royal Sites’: Tara, in Co. Meath as the seat of Ireland’s high kings; Dún Ailinne in Co. Kildare, which is associated with the kings of Leinster; Cruachain, Co. Roscommon, as the fort of Queen Medb, and Emain Macha, said to be the palace of King Conchobar of Ulster.
These sites are all depicted in the literature as the royal residences of pre-historic provincial kings and queens. What the medieval writers saw in the landscape was pretty much the same as what we see there today, and they would have noted that these sites all share similar characteristics. What else could they be but the remains of the palaces of mighty pagan kings?
It wasn’t difficult, then, for scribes to connect the legends and local folklore of heroes and kings and battles which they must have heard being told of an evening around the fireplaces by Gaelic storytellers, with these features in the landscape. In fact, the connections may already have existed in the oral tradition, but we have no way now of knowing this for certain.
What we do know is that medieval scribes created, or manipulated, these stories to suit their own political and religious allegiances at the time they were writing, so that often, these stories reflect what was really going on in medieval society, rather than the Iron Age which they claim to portray. This is particularly true of Emain Macha, but that’s a story for another post.
According to legend, Emain Macha was the court of King Conchobar mac Nessa. You may remember, Nessa the ‘un-Gentle‘, who married Fergus and tricked him out of the throne in favour of her son, Conchobar. Fergus then sought exile in Connacht with Queen Medb, and became her lover. Queen Medb went to war with Ulster over the Brown Bull of Cuilnge, and the men of Ulster were unable to defend against them due to the labour pangs with which Macha cursed them. Fortunately, Cuchulainn saved the day, but Conchobar went on to kill Naoise for eloping with his intended, the beautiful Deirdre. Got that? I love how all the stories are interconnected, and there are a host more that I didn’t even mention here.
When you go to Emain Macha, you will see that it stands atop a low rise, much like Tara, yet which gives way to panoramic views right across grassy rolling open light-filled countryside. You can see for miles. Our ancient ancestors certainly knew how to pick a site!
Less than 3km from the city of Armagh, and thus with St Patrick’s Church (you can see both from the site), it is surrounded by a huge ditch approximately 250m in diameter, and an external bank, thought to have been constructed in the third century BC.
There is something I find very interesting about this ditch; it becomes progressively shallower towards a certain point of the site, not because of infill or farming activity or attempts at destruction. It was built that way. Our guide suggested that the ditch may have been used as a processional way to approach the site.
I was immediately struck with this idea, because I personally am naturally drawn to wind my way through the ditches around a site like this. I particularly noticed it at Tlachtga a couple of years ago, which has four ditches and banks surrounding the site. Processing through them creates particular effects which could be conducive to a ritual or shamanic experience, but again, that is a story for another post.
Archaeological work carried out at Emain Macha in the 1970s revealed a long history of activity but no evidence of habitation. This indicates that the site could not have been the location of a royal palace as the ancient literature describes.
Two mounds remain today; a large one approximately 50m in diameter and 6m high, to the west of the site, encircled with beautiful very ancient trees, and a smaller one which is barely visible. This has echoes of the layout of Tara, with its Mound of Hostages and the conjoined figure-of-eight structures of the Forradh and Tech Cormaic.
In fact, the excavations at Emain Macha uncovered a similar figure-of-eight structure beneath the existing large mound which was rebuilt in situ nine times over a period of about 350 years.
But here’s the most intriguing aspect of the site; in 94BC, the existing structure was demolished, and a new one created, a circular temple of timber posts 40m in diameter with a double row of posts at the perimeter which were boarded with planks to create a wall. We know the date, because at its centre was a huge central oak post so massive, that it was embedded 5m into the ground to hold it upright, and this was dated by dendochronology, which is a very accurate dating technique.
A model of one interpretation of the final timber structure, showing how it was constructed with radial posts and planking to outer perimeter. Note the thatched roof; archaeology found no evidence of a roof structure at the site, and believe it would have been open to the sky. To the right, you can see a portion of the roof removed and a layer of white stones, showing how the site was put beyond use.
Soon after it was built, the interior of the structure was filled with stones and boulders to a depth of 2m, and then the whole thing was set alight. The earthen mound we see today was then laid over the top of the remains, and the most interesting thing about this is that analysis of the soil has revealed that it was carried in from locations right across the province. The site was then abandoned.
Interestingly, archaeology has shown that the same sequence of events were carried out at the same time at the other so-called ‘Royal Sites’ – Tara, Dún Alinne, and Cruachain.
What the sites were used for, why they were burned and abandoned, how it was coordinated across the provinces, why all the sites were built in such similar fashion and then decommissioned the same way, why soil was carried in from all corners of Ulster can only be guessed at. It does suggest a ritual or religious purpose though.
Whilst the archaeology has proven that these sites were not utilised as places of habitation, and therefore contradicts the old stories of royal residences, it does not diminish them to me in any way. In fact, it just adds greater depth and layers of meaning, intrigue, and enjoyment.
The Visitor Centre at Emain Macha… built underground to be as unobtrusive as possible, and looking a bit like a hobbit-house. You don’t have to go here to access the site, but it has a lovely coffee shop and gift shop, and has audiovisual presentations and can provide you with a guide to the site. There is also a nice little walk around the visitor centre to the site, which is really nice if you have young children with you.
How to get there.
Refs. Cooney, G. and Grogan, E. 1991 An archaeological solution to the ‘Irish’ problem? Emania, 33-45. Lynn,C.J. 2003 Navan Fort, Archaeology and Myth. Wordwell, Bray. Mallory, J.P. 1987 The Literary Topography of Emain Macha, Emania 2, 12-18. Waterman,D.M. 1997 Excavations at Navan Fort 1961-71, HM Stationary Office, Belfast.
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