Articles Tagged with: Ulster Cycle

The Pillow Talk of Maeve and Aillil

One morning Queen Maeve of Cruachan Ai was lying in bed with her husband and consort, Aillil, and he began to tease her.

“Isn’t it true what they say,” Aillil said, “That it’s luck the woman who marries a wealthy man.”

“True enough,” said Maeve, “But I don’t see what that has to do with us – I was wealthy long before I met you.”

“Ah, but your wealth was a woman’s wealth,” Aillil said, “And any warrior could have come and taken it from you.”

The humour went out of Maeve’s voice, then. “Are you forgetting,” said she, “That I am a warrior also, and a leader of warriors. I was well able to defend my kingdom before I married you.”

But Aillil protested that her status had been greatly increased by marrying him: he was, after all, the son of the King of Leinster. Maeve grew angry. She was the daughter of the High King of All Ireland! Moreover, Connaught was traditionally ruled by a Queen, and not a King, and so she held a greater status in Connaught as Queen than Aillil did as her consort. She had wealth in abundance, was famed for her generosity, courted by kings and the sons of kings, and it was Aillil that should be grateful to have married her!

Now Aillil’s pride was up, and he insisted that he was the higher ranking of the two, that he was wealthier than she was.

Maeve pointed out that he had pursued her, and she had only agreed to marry him because he was as generous as she (she could not be with a man less generous than she was), as brave as she (she could not be married to a man who hid behind her), and had promised to be without jealousy (for Queen Maeve never had a lover without another one waiting outside the door).

Their argument turned bitter, and the two of them decided that the only way to settle the matter was to make a tally of all of their possessions, count them all up and see which one of them had the most wealth.

So they counted. First they counted gold and silver and bronze, ornaments and rings and precious stones, bracelets and bangles. All was piled up before them, and for every gem of Maeve’s, there was an equal one of Aillil’s. Then they had their clothes counted up: linens and silks and wools, and for every fine cloak of Aillil’s, Maeve had its equal.

They counted up the men who owed them loyalty. They counted up the serfs who worked for them, they counted up the grain in the storehouses, and at last they began to count up their livestock. Pigs and sheep and dogs were counted, and there was no single creature owned by Maeve that Aillil had not the equal of. And so at last they turned to the greatest source of their wealth; their cattle.

And there, at last, they found a difference.

In all things they were equal, every cow and calf, except for one great white-horned bull in Aillil’s herd. Fionnbanach, the white-horned bull of Cruachan Ai, was a magnificent creature, no one had seen the like of him before. And Aillil took great delight in pointing out to Maeve that Fionnbanach had been born to a cow in her herds, but had run away to join Aillil’s herd when he learned that he was owned by a woman. And Maeve had generously given him to Aillil.

Now if Aillil considered the matter settled to his advantage, then he did not know his wife. Maeve consulted with her herald, Mac Roth, to know if there was any bull as good as the White-Horned Bull of Cruachan Ai in all of Ireland. Mac Roth was able to tell her that there was a bull even more magnificent in Ulster, in Cooley, owned by a man named Daire. He was called Donn Cualigne, the Brown Bull of Cooley.

So Maeve bade Mac Roth go with messengers to the house of Daire in Cooley. “Ask him for the loan of his bull for a year,” Maeve said, “And as a fee for the loan, I will give him fifty heifers. And if there is any objection to him sending his magnificent bull away, let him come with his bull, and I will give him the equal of his lands in Cooley on the plains of Ai, and a chariot, and my own close friendship.”

Mac Roth set out on his journey, taking nine men with him on the road, and when he relayed Maeve’s message to Daire, Daire was only too delighted to agree. The friendship of Maeve and the fabulous price she had offered was more than generous. So he offered the messengers of Connaught a great feast to celebrate.

After Daire and his wife had gone to bed, the men of Connaught stayed up drinking, and some of them grew careless with their words, boasting about the might of their Queen, until one said “It’s a good thing Daire is giving us this bull by choice; if he did not, Queen Maeve would surely take it by force!”

A servant overheard this, and reported to Daire, who was furious at the insult. In the morning, when the messengers asked Daire to show them to the bull, he told them to get out, and go back to their Queen empty-handed. It was only the law of hospitality that kept him from taking revenge on them for their insolence! He told them that if their Queen thought she could take his bull by force, she was welcome to try. He put his faith in his King, Connor Mac Nessa, and Warriors of the Red Branch to protect him from her.

When Maeve heard this, she sent messengers out to her six sons (all named Maine), to her loyal friends throughout Ireland, and Aillil send messengers too to all those in Ireland who owed friendship to him, and the great host of the men of Ireland assembled on the plain of Cruachan Ai, and prepared to invade Ulster and take the Donn Cualigne by force.

The Curse of Macha

There was once a man of Ulster named Crunden. He was a farmer, and a good man, but he had had a terrible misfortune. His wife had died, leaving him with three young children and no way to take care of them. His house was in disarray, and every day he had to get up and leave his young children to go and work in the fields, knowing that this was no way for them to be raised, but having no other option.

One day, when he came home from a long day at work, Crunden opened the door, expecting to see the usual shambles. To his astonishment, the house was neat as a pin, the children all clean and quiet, and a beautiful woman sat by the fire, cooking the dinner. The woman told him her name was Macha, and she had decided to be his wife. Not one to argue with this great fortune, Crunden settled in to married life.

Macha was a perfect wife to him, keeping the house clean and the children happy, and taking perfect care of Crunden. He knew she was a woman of the otherworld by the way she moved: she could run so swiftly that her feet barely touched the ground, but she never made any fuss over this, only going about her business as a wife and mother.

One day, the king of Ulster summoned all his people together for a feast, to celebrate his purchase of a fine new team of chariot-horses. Crunden was excited to go, but Macha took him aside and warned him not to speak of her, not to boast about her, or he would bring disaster down upon them. Crunden promised he would not, and away to the king’s feast he went.

The new horses were beautiful, grey and swift and perfectly matched, and the feast was a great one, showing King Connor’s great generosity. Crunden ate and drank, along with all the other people at the feast, but he remembered Macha’s warning, and when the other men began boasting about the beauty of their wives, he kept his mouth shut. When the other men started boasting about the cooking of their wives, Crunden bit his tongue. But when the king boasted that no creature in Ireland was faster than his new horses, Crunden could not keep quiet any longer and bragged aloud that his wife was so swift, she would beat the king’s horses in a race.

Stung by this, King Connor ordered his men to seize the boastful farmer. He demanded that Crunden send for his wife, and if she did not come to prove the truth of his statement, Crunden would pay for his lie with his life.

Men were sent to Crunden’s house, but when Macha opened the door, they could see that she was heavily pregnant. Nonetheless, they told her what her husband had said, and that if she did not make good his boast, he would pay for it with his life. Macha agreed to go with them, with a bad grace.

When she came before the king, Macha begged him to consider her condition, and postpone the race until after she had given birth and had time to recover. But the king had been brooding on the insult Crunden had given him, and he refused her plea. Then Macha turned to all the warriors of Ulster, the Craobh Rua, or Red Branch, assembled there, and asked them to intercede, to protect her. She reminded them that each one of them was born of a woman, and that it was not right for them to put her in this position. But none of them stepped forward for her, none would plead with the king. They had been drinking at the feast, they were eager to see this race, and see their king put the boastful farmer in his place.

Something about Macha must have given King Connor pause, because before the race, he had his charioteer strip back all the decorations on his chariot, all the cushions and cloths that made the ride easier, till the king’s chariot was barely a plank of wood with wheels, as light as it could possibly be. He then stripped off his armour and heavy cloak till he stood in his lightest linen tunic, and dismissed his sister Deichtre, who was his charioteer, and took the reins of the chariot himself. Macha waited.

The race was held on the grass outside of the king’s fort, where there were no stones or uneven ground to trip the horses or foul the wheels. All the men of Ulster gathered there to watch, as the king and Macha raced.

The king raced his matched horses, and they ran as swift as the wind, moving in perfect unison, pulling him so fast he felt he was flying. But if the king raced as fast as the wind, Macha ran faster. She outpaced the wind itself. Her feet seemed barely to touch the ground. But as she ran, the birth pains came on Macha, and she began to scream.

All the people watching felt suddenly that this was not the great sport and entertainment they had thought it was.

Screaming in agony, Macha ran the course, and crossed the finish line with her belly protruding in front of the noses of Connor’s horses. Then, having won the race, she collapsed onto the grass, and in a rush of blood, her twins were born, still and dead. She gathered them into her arms, and put a curse on all the warriors of Ulster.

For failing to use their strength to defend her in her time of need, Macha declared that their strength would become useless to them. Whenever they needed it most, their strength would desert them, and for nine days and nine nights, they would endure the pains 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 come under the curse.

With that, Macha gathered her dead twins, leaped over the heads of those watching, and ran off, never to be seen again. And from that day forth, the fort of the King of Ulster was known as Emain Macha; the Twins of Macha.

The Birth of Cuchulainn

Nessa had been a gentle woman in her youth, but when raiders attacked her home and killed her family, she became a vengeful warrior, and set out on a quest for revenge against them. In time, she came to the court of Ulster, where Fergus Mac Roich met her, and fell in love with her. He courted Nessa, and asked her to marry him, but Nessa named a great and unusual bride price: that she allow her son Connor, who was only a youth, to be King of Ulster for a year.

Fergus asked his people about this, and they told him it would be fine: they would all know that Connor wasn’t really their king, and he would step aside at the end of the year. For the whole year, Nessa advised Connor on what judgments to make, and at the end of the year, when Fergus came to take back his throne, the people of Ulster protested. This young man was a better king, they said. And besides, Fergus had valued the crown little to give it away to an untried youth for a year!

Connor grew into a wise young man, and great king of Ulster. Nessa’s daughter, Deichtre was no less remarkable than her brother; she was courageous, skilled and daring. She drove her brother’s chariot into battle when he fought, leading the charge against the enemies of Ulster.

But the sister of a king must make a good marriage, and so it was decided, with Deichtre’s agreement, that she would marry Sulatim Mac Roigh of Muirtheimhne. However, without telling anyone, Deichtre made plans to have one last great adventure before she settled down.

On the morning of her wedding to Sulatim, all the warriors and noble people of Ulster were gathered in Emain Macha for the festivities. Deichtre was in her own rooms, with fifty hand-maidens primping and beautifying her in preparation for the ceremony. But when Sulatim came to fetch his bride, Deichtre and the fifty hand-maidens had disappeared without a trace!

The people of Ulster searched high and low, but they could find no trace of where Deichtre had gone.

She had gone to the Otherworld, to live there for a time, and had taken her hand-maidens with her for company and to tend to her needs. She explored the wonders of the Otherworld with open eyes and without fear. One day, she was sitting on the balcony of her house, and drinking a cup of wine, when a mayfly flew into the cup. She swallowed it down without noticing. Then a beautiful, shining man appeared before her. He told her his name was Lugh of the Long Arm, and that because of the fly she had swallowed, she was going to bear him a son, and he asked her if she’d like to spend the rest of her sojourn in the Otherworld with him. Fair as he was, Deichtre agreed.

Back in Ulster, Connor Mac Nessa and all the warriors of the Red Branch searched for the missing women for a year, but to no avail. At the end of the year, there was another feast in Emain Macha, and a huge flock of birds descended outside, and began eating up everything, until not even a blade of grass was left. Fearing that these birds would eat up all the food in Ulster and cause a famine, King Connor and nine men of the Red Branch got into their chariots to pursue the strange birds. The birds were extremely beautiful, and flew in pairs, linked together by a silver chain.

No matter how fast the men of Ulster went, the birds always stayed just ahead of them, leading them on and on all over Ireland and then into a strange country that none of them recognized. Night began to fall, and they stopped. Fergus Mac Roigh went to see if he could find a place for them to shelter for the night, and though he searched high and low, all he found was a small, mean hut. The man of the house offered to shelter Fergus and his companions, so he went back to Connor with the good news. Not all of the Ulstermen were happy with this accommodation, though. Bricriu of the Bitter Tongue immediately started to complain, saying that a hut like the one Fergus described was no fit place for a king to stay the night. Fergus, offended, told Bricriu that he was welcome to find a better place for them, if he could.

So Bricriu set off through the strange country alone. High and low he searched, but he could find no house or dwelling of any kind, and at last, he gave up and went to the place that Fergus had described. There he saw, not a small mean hut, but a magnificent palace with seven pillars holding up the roof of golden thatch, and warm firelight spilling out the sides of the doorframe. The door was opened by a tall, radiantly handsome young man, and the woman beside him greeted Bricriu by name and made him welcome. He wanted to know how she knew him, and the woman of the house asked him was there anyone missing from Emain Macha.

“There might be,” said Bricriu, beginning to figure out what was going on.

“And would you know them if you saw them again?” the woman asked.

“I might do,” Bricriu replied, “though a year can change a person.”

Then Deichtre, for it was indeed she, told Bricriu her name, and sent him off with a purple cloak to bring her brother to her.

Bricriu lost no time in going back to Connor and the others, and describing all the sights he had seen, but he decided it would be much more amusing not to tell Connor that his sister was found. They made their way to the house, and on the way, Fergus reminded Connor that this wasn’t his land, and that the man of the house should offer him a sign of fealty, since he was a King. Connor should ask that the woman of the house sleep with him that night, this being an old custom. Bricriu, seeing an opportunity for some mischief, said that that was an excellent idea.

When they arrived at the beautiful hall, the strange man welcomed them in, but he informed Connor that his wife had been taken by the pains of childbirth, and would not be available tonight. But there were fifty handmaidens to serve the warriors of Ulster. They feasted late into the night, and each of them had the best of food and drink, and the most comfortable of beds to sleep on. But in the morning, when they woke, the great hall had vanished, and they were all sleeping on the cold hillside.

Then Connor saw that there was a woman sleeping beside him, wrapped in his cloak. His sister, Deichtre. And in her arms was a newborn baby. She told him about her time in the Otherworld. “But,” she said, “I wanted my son to be raised an Ulsterman, and so I sent the plague of birds to lure you and the other men here to find us and bring us back home.”

There followed a great debate over who was going to have the honour of fostering and raising this child, whose father was of the Otherworld. Fergus made a case for himself; he was the former King of Ulster, he was a great warrior, he would teach the child all he knew.

The steward, Sencha, argued that he should raise the child, because he was the wisest man in Ulster, first in debates, measured in his responses. He would be able to teach the boy so much.

Blai the distributer, and a young warrior called Amergin also made their case for why they should be allowed to foster this remarkable child: Blai because of his great generosity, and Amergin because of his impeccable reputation.

A fight threatened to break out among the great men of Ulster, and so the matter was brought before a judge named Morann, who declared that Deichtre would raise her own son in Muirtheimhne with her husband, Sulatim Mac Roigh, until he was of a sensible age. And thereafter, he would be brought to Emain Macha where all of the wisest, strongest and most generous and honourable men would have a hand in raising him.


Aife was the mother of Connla, Cú Chulainn’s only son. She was a deadly warrior queen and the archenemy of Scathach, who trained Cú Chulainn in the arts of war.

Stories of Aife:
Afraid that her star pupil would be hurt, Scathach gave Cú Chulainn a sleeping potion before going into battle against Aife. On any other man, that potion would have lasted twenty-four hours, but on Cú Chulainn it only lasted one, so he went into battle against Aife’s army without her knowing.

Aife’s three champions, Ciri, Biri and Blaicne, the sons of Eis Enchenn the bird-headed, challenged Scathach’s two sons to a fight. Scathach was worried about the outcome as they were two against three, but Cú Chulainn joined the fight, and Aife’s three soldiers were killed.

Aife then challenged Scathach to single combat, a type of battle that meant that either both women could fight one-on-one, or they could nominate a champion. Cú Chulainn insisted on fighting as Scathach’s champion, but before the fight, he asked Scathach what Aife held most dear in the world. Scathach told him: her two horses, her chariots and her charioteer. Cú Chulainn met and fought with Aife, and she was deadly in battle leaving him only the stump of his swords.

“Oh look,” Cú Chulainn cried when he was sorely pressed, “Aife’s charioteer, her two horses and her chariot are falling over the cliff!”

Aife looked around, distracted, and Cú Chulainn took his chance, seizing her and holding her down by her two breasts. Now in a position of power, Cú Chulainn bargained with Aife for hostages for Scathach’s army, a promise never to attack her again, and for her to bear him a son. These she granted him, and Cú Chulainn left Aife with a child and with a gold thumb-ring which he was to wear when he was old enough to come to his father. He named their son Connla before he left her.

Aife was the equal in prowess to Cú Chulainn, one of the greatest warriors of Irish myth. Where he won most victories against famous warriors with ease, Cú Chulainn had to resort to trickery to get the better of Aife, which shows just how formidable she was.


Maeve (Medb) was one of the daughters of the king of Tara, who killed her pregnant sister. Maeve then married Aillil and took over the territory of Connacht, which would have belonged to her sister had she lived. She was most famous for her role as the queen of Connacht during the Battle for the Brown Bull of Cooley, but she also has many mystical qualities, which mark her out as one of the many Celtic goddesses. She was the goddess of sovereignty and territory, as can be seen from her independent and territorial character. She refused to let any king rule at Tara who had not first mated with her, and she was generally depicted as extremely promiscuous. Her name has strong links to the word ‘mead’ and her constant seducing of different men is related to the intoxicating effects of this drink.

Stories of Maeve:
One evening, Maeve and Aillil began to tease each other about which of them had the higher status. Their teasing quickly grew earnest, as each vied to prove their superiority in the relationship. They were equal in birth, equal in status, and equal in power. To settle the matter, they counted out all their belongings, and the only difference between them was that Aillil had a magnificent white-horned bull, and Maeve had nothing that could compare to it. Unable to bear a subordinate role in her own marriage, Maeve sent messengers to search all of Ireland for a bull as splendid as Aillil’s. There was only one: the Brown Bull of Cooley. Maeve sent messengers to the bull’s owner, Dara of Cooley, offering gold and lands if he would agree to let her have the bull. He was initially inclined to grant her request, until he heard one of her messengers drunkenly boasting that if he would not sell it, Maeve would surely take it by force. Dara resented being dictated to, and refused to part with the bull.

So began the famous Táin Bó Cuailnge, the “Cattle Raid of Cooley”, in which Maeve assembled a great army of her allies from all over Ireland to invade Ulster and take the bull. Thanks to the Ulster exiles in her ranks, Maeve knew all about the curse of Macha, which would put the Ulster warriors out of action for nine days and nine nights. During that time, only the young warrior Cú Chulainn stood between the invading army and the defenseless province. His skill as a warrior was so great that the army were in terrible trouble.

Maeve negotiated with Cú Chulainn, through Fergus MacRoich, to fight in single combat against one of her champions every day, allowing the army to move while the fight was on, and stopping once the fight was over. He made such short work of her champions that she send a small band of raiders north to Cooley to steal the bull. She persuaded her greatest warrior, Ferdia, to fight against Cú Chulainn, who was his foster brother, and this led to the death of the last champion of Connacht. Her followers were then heard to repent that they had ever been guided by such a vengeful woman. On the eve of the final confrontation between the two armies, the Brown Bull of Cooley was smuggled into Connacht where it bellowed on entering new pastures and was heard and set upon by Aillil’s White-Horned Bull. The two animals gored each other to death, symbolizing the wasteful conflict between Connacht and Ulster. Maeve re-invaded Ulster in later years, taking vengeance on Cú Chulainn for the devastation he had wreaked on her army and killing him. Maeve was ultimately killed herself by the son of her murdered sister, and it was thought that she was killed by a sling shot bearing a piece of cheese!

Maeve was a strong and independent character, with a knowledge of magic and sorcery. She never shirked her part of the work, and knew well how to encourage and lead her followers. She was definitely the stronger partner in her marriage with Aillil. She was always depicted as beautiful but was often seen dressed for war, leading the charge in her own chariot. At times she was depicted as laughable, but she was a strong woman who was not to be crossed. She could be harsh and domineering, and was willing to go to great lengths to assert her rightful status.

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