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Tales from the Other Side: Ulster is CANCELLED

Updated: Sep 5, 2021

Welcome to ‘Tales from the Other Side’ where we look at folklore, mythology and magic.

The ‘Táin Bó Cuailnge’ describes a violent and bloody battle between the kingdoms of Connaught and Ulster following Queen Maebh’s pursuit of the legendary stud bull Donn Cuailnge. As with every great tale there are other legends that precede the main story, here we look at the curse cast upon the men of Ulster which Queen Maebh used to her advantage.

There was a widower in Ulster by the name of Cruinniuc. He was a simple farmer and a good man who loved his children dearly but following the death of his wife, he was left heartbroken and struggled to take care of them. Their home was in disarray as Cruinniuc toiled for long hours in the fields to try and support his family. One evening, after a long day working, Cruinniuc returned home and was surprised to discover that the house had been cleaned from top to bottom. His children had been fed, washed and put to bed and there was a roaring fire in the hearth. A woman sat by the fire preparing dinner and it was clear that this breath-taking woman was no ordinary woman, but one of the folk from the other side. Weary of causing offense Cruinniuc asked the woman’s name and she responded with ‘my name is Macha and I have come to be your wife. All I ask is that you love and cherish me and never speak to anyone of me and I will love you and cherish you and take care of your home and family’. The marriage was a happy one. Macha was a wonderful cook, she kept the house beautiful and when the pair went out hunting she could run faster and swifter than any creature Cruinniuc had ever seen. They were delighted to discover that Macha was expecting twins and Cruinniuc felt his luck was finally changing.

One day Conchobar, the King of Ulster, called all his people to attend a great feast. Cruinniuc was excited to show off his beautiful wife but Macha declined the invitation as she was heavily pregnant and she reminded her husband that he should not speak of her to anyone.

The King’s feast was a great one and there was an abundance of food and drink for all. As more drink was consumed the men began to boast about their wives. One man claimed his wife was the best cook in Ulster. Cruinniuc remembered his wife’s warning and swallowed his response with a glass of wine. Another man claimed that his wife was the most beautiful in the Kingdom. Cruinniuc again stayed quiet and gulped down another drink. However, when the King began to boast that his new horses were the fastest creatures in all the land Cruinniuc couldn’t help but scoff saying ‘my wife is so swift she could easily beat those horses in a race!’ His tongue loosened with drink, Cruinniuc didn’t realise he had said this aloud until he saw the King’s face. Conchobar was furious and demanded that his messengers brought Macha to him to prove the farmer’s claim.

When Macha was brought before Conchobar, he announced they were to have a race and if Macha won, her husband’s life would be spared. She pleaded with the King to allow her to run the race once her children had been born but in his anger he refused. Macha then turned to the warriors who had gathered to watch the race. She reminded them that each one of them was born of a woman and begged them to intervene but nobody stepped forward to help her.

Despite his confidence, Conchobar could see that Macha was no ordinary woman and he took off his armour and stripped back the grand decorations of his chariot to make it as light as possible for his horses. They went outside to begin the race and all the men flooded out to watch in the hope that their King would put the boastful farmer in his place.

The King’s horses rode as fast as the wind, in perfect unison – it almost felt as if he were flying but they were no match for this woman of the other world. As Macha ran she began to feel the pains of labour and screamed as her feet pounded the ground. She crossed the finish line ahead of Conchobar’s horses in agony and collapsed to the grass where her twins were born, still and dead.

In heartbreak and rage, Macha cried out a curse upon the men of Ulster. The men had abandoned her in her time of need so she decreed that any warrior, who was able to grow whiskers upon his chin would be struck down and suffer a woman’s pain of labour for nine days and nine nights when Ulster faced their greatest peril and this curse would last for nine generations. She gathered her babies and disappeared to the other world, never to be seen again.

The warriors of Ulster felt troubled at the curse but it was never discussed or spoken of. That is, until some of Ulster’s warriors grew tired of Conchobar and his many betrayals against them and they chose to leave the Kingdom to form an alliance with Connaught. The leader of this group was Fergus mac Róich, who became Maebh’s lover and revealed to her the secret of the curse upon the Ulstermen. With this knowledge combined with Ferugs’ knowledge of the land Maebh set about bringing her armies together to launch an attack on the land of her former husband to claim the bull she so desired.

Whilst Macha’s curse was strong, it affected only the men who were able to grow beards. This meant that only one man remained fit to defend Ulster. The seventeen year old, demigod Cú Chulainn.


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