Updated: Sep 5, 2021
Welcome to ‘Tales from the Other Side’ where we look at folklore, mythology and magic.
County Sligo in the west of Ireland is well known for its dramatic landscape and natural beauty which famously inspired much of the works of the poet WB Yeats. One particular point of interest is the mountain Knocknarea which has various passage tombs and burial mounds at the summit. The most prominent of these is a large cairn that is over 55 meters long and around 12 meters high. The tomb has never been excavated and is covered in stones that have been added over the years as a mark of respect to the person buried inside which indicates it is someone of great importance. But who is buried here and why?
In ancient Ireland the land was divided up into kingdoms and smaller folkdoms which were ruled over by Kings and Queens. Stories of these rulers date back as far as 1500 BC and they often depict brave warriors, cunning leaders and fierce battles. One of the most fearless and renowned warriors was Queen Maebh of Connaught.
Maebh was one of three daughters and three sons of Eochaid Feidlech, who was the King of Connaught before he went on to become the High King of Ireland. In these days it was typical for marriages to be put together as a means of establishing political alliances, trade or peace between neighbouring provinces. A marriage was arranged between Maebh and Conchobar mac Nessa, the King of Ulster but the match was a poor one and resulted in an ongoing bitter rivalry between the two. Conchobar then married Maebh’s sister who was reigning as the Queen of Connaught. In an act of jealous rage Maebh killed her sister, who was pregnant at the time, and claimed the throne of Connaught for herself. The child, a boy called Furbaide, survived the ordeal and was returned to his father in Ulster.
Maebh was known for her exceptional beauty (the name Maebh is thought to come from the old Irish word for ‘mead’ or ‘intoxicating’). She had an array of lovers, many of whom were members of her armies. Her warriors fought bravely and fiercely in the hope they would be rewarded with Queen Maebh’s ‘willing thighs’. Maebh also had several husbands and she always demanded three things from her partners; that they be as brave as her, they be as generous as her and that they be without jealousy. The most well-known of her husbands was Ailill who had previously been chief of her bodyguards. They had eight children together – seven sons and one daughter. All of their sons were called Maine. They had originally been given other names but Maebh consulted a Druid to ask which of her sons would kill Conchobar. When the Druid told her it would be a son called ‘Maine’ she promptly renamed them all to ensure the prophecy would come true.
Fedlimid became Maine Athramail ("like his father")
Cairbre became Maine Máthramail ("like his mother")
Eochaid became Maine Andoe ("the swift")
Fergus became Maine Taí ("the silent")
Cet became Maine Mórgor ("of great duty")
Sin became Maine Mílscothach ("honey-speech")
Dáire became Maine Móepirt ("beyond description")
Whilst one of her sons was successful in killing someone named Conchobar it was not Maebh’s former husband, as she had hoped.
Much of the folklore surrounding Maebh comes from the oral tradition but she is also known for appearing in some of the earliest examples of written Irish. She is one of the central characters in ‘The Táin’ an epic in early Irish literature thought to have been written in 1 AD. Also known as ‘The Cattle Raid of Cooley’ this story shows the lengths that Maebh was prepared to go to get her way and assert her status. ‘The Táin’ details Maebh going to war against Ulster in order to steal a stud bull named Donn Cuailnge which sees Maebh coming up against the legendary demigod Cú Chulainn in a tale which is regarded as Ireland’s national epic.
Maebh held a long reign over Connaught and in her later years she retreated to live on an island in Loch Ree, County Roscommon where she spent much time bathing in the mystical waters. What Maebh didn’t realise is that she had been observed by her nephew Furbaide, who sought revenge for his mother’s death all those years ago. Furbaide measured the distance between the shore and the pool his Aunt bathed in with a rope and he practised every day until he could hit an apple on top of a stake from that distance. The next time he saw Maebh bathing, Furbaide loaded his sling shot with a piece of hardened cheese and slung it at her head, killing her instantly.
The Queen who ruled like a King, to this day Maebh is recognised as a powerful symbol of leadership, sexuality and courage.
According to legend, Maebh was buried at the top of Knocknarea Mountain in full battle dress, stood upright and facing north so that even in death she could keep watch over her enemies in Ulster. It is tradition to add a stone to the cairn as a mark of respect to the legendary Queen and it is said bad luck will befall anyone who removes a stone. In 1987 Sean Gillen, a postmaster’s clerk in Sligo received a package from America. A tourist had taken a stone from the cairn as a momento but after her embarrassment at hearing the legend she packed it in a shoe box posted it back with three dollars and a note saying “Please hire a boy to return the rock to Queen Maeve’s atop the hill. Thank you”. Knocknarea has been recognised as a National Monument and is protected for its historical importance as well as its mythological importance and links to Connaught’s mighty Queen.
Visit the mountain