Story Archaeology

Uncovering the layers of Irish Mythology through a regular podcast and related articles

Revisiting Mythical Women 2 – Revisiting Macha

Macha - a sculpture in bog yew by Davy Paton

Macha – a sculpture in bog yew by Davy Paton

In the second of our “revisits”, we look back at our discussions on Noinden Ulaid and the Dindshenchas stories of Emain Macha in Co. Armagh. This was the first discussion that we had about cóir, although we were then using the Egyptian term Ma’at, signifying natural order and justice.

Reviewing this episode really highlights how far we’ve come in developing our terminology and methodology! If you didn’t catch it the first time round, you can listen to the second half of the episode to hear that initial discussion, then skip back to our review notes at the beginning. Or just listen straight through to hear our notes first and the original discussion second – or try both and see which you prefer!


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by The Story Archaeologists

Music: “Tam Lin” by Gian Castello

More Stories of Macha – Revisited


edited by Edward Gwynn

translated by Isolde ÓBrolcháin Carmody

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Noínden Ulad – The Story of Macha

Edited by Vernam Hull, Celtica 8 (1968), pp 1-42. Translation by Isolde Carmody. Annotated terms are marked in bold, with the notes at the end of the text.

§1 Cid dia mboí in ces for Ultaib? Ni ansae

From what [cause] was the debility on the UlstermenNot hard.

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Navan Fort – Stories and Archaeology

Emain Macha, known as Navan Fort, is one of the main settings for the great heroic tragedies of the Táin Bó Cullainge, as well as many other stories of great feats and tragic losses. Here we find Conchobar mac Nessa, the legendary king of Ulster, the poison-tongued Bricriu, Cathbad the druid who foretells the fate of Deirdre of the Sorrows, and, (although he was not one of the Ulstermen), here are recounted the tales of Cú Chulainn. Read more »

The Mabinogion and the story of Rhiannon

Cover of The Mabinogion by Charlotte GuestOur podcast Macha – revisited refered to similarities between the tale of Rhiannon and Macha.  . You can read the full story of  Pwyll, son of Dyved and the story of Rhiannon  in a translation by Will Parker,  on his ecxcellent site

A brief  background  to these medieval Welsh texts

The stories, now known as the  Mabinogion were a collection of oral tales that were gathered together in textual form during  the 12th to 13th centuries.

The first full binlingual version was translated and compliled  by Charlotte Guest in 1849.  This  version  brought them to the notice of an english speaking readership although an English only edition was not published until 1879.

The main collection of stories are divided into four ‘branches’.

  • 1. Pwyll Prince of Dyfed. This includes the tale of Pwyll, his journey to Annwfn and his meeting and marriage with Rhiannon.It also  tells of the birth of Pryderi , his loss and recovery.
  • 2. Branwen, daughter of Llŷr. This second branch largely concerns Branwen’s  marriage to the King of Ireland.  there is a Bricriu like character, Efnisien, who manages a lot of unpleasant mischief.  Perhaps the most interesting aspect of this branch is the character of Bran, himself.  The journey of his oracular head, carried for many years before its eventual burial on the ‘White Hill’ of London is curious.
  •  3. Manawydan, son of Llŷr In this tale Manawydan, one of theseven survivorswho carried home the head of Bran, has lost Dyffed.Hehas joined up with Rhiannon, her son Prideri and his wife Cigfa. They travel together earning their living as saddle makers. This is a great tale involving ashape changing mouse andacurse dating nack to Rhiannon’s marriage to Pwyll.
  • 4Math, son of Mathonwy. This tale introduces Gwydion and Arianrhod and involves the birth, naming and arming of   Lleu Llaw Gyffes.

Other tales and romances in the Lady Charlotte Guests collection include,

  • The Dream of Macsen Weldig
  • Lludd and Llefelys
  • Culhwch and Olwen
  • The Dream of Rhonabwy
  • Hanes Taliesin (The Tale of Taliesin)
  • Owain, and the lady of the Fountain
  • Peredur, son of Efrawg
  •  Geraint and Enid

The richly interwoven tapestry of the Mabinogion tales are essential reading for their own sake. There are also undoubted   ressonances between the Welsh and the Irish stories. We frequently find ourselves referencing them,with great enthusiasm,  in the podcast episodes.

The Story Of Macha ~ revisited

Three and a half years on from our first examinationof Macha, I am still happy with my re-telling even though it id a touch fanciful.shownotesmachaNear Armagh is the green mound of mysterious Emain Macha. This is the story of its naming.

In my mind I still hear the rhythmic drumming of many hooves, the thrumming of the autumn rain. The soughing of breathing beasts, wind in the pasture grass. Flashes of colour, the crimson and gold of my goods and my byres; the gleam of sudden sun on the red alder. But I remember the woman. I remember the sudden vision of her as she came to end my loneliness. I remember the step of her through the long grass, the standing of her in the early morning sun, a silhouette of youthful joy on the hill’s rim, and the poise and grace of her as she moved beneath my roof. She chose me, this beautiful stranger. She chose my house, my hearth and my bed, creating a time of order and prosperity for me. She became the heart of my life but remained a stranger. For even as she carried our child, she would answer no questions but bade me be content, to hold safe this gift between us. “Be still,” she told me. “For we have made together an echo of the Land of Promise, and for a while its magic thrives here. But it will last only as long as you do not speak of me.” And I was content; but I was proud also, and my pride was my downfall. It was time for the feast of Samhain, when all were summoned to the gathering place of Conchobar Mac Neasa. This was a great feast of celebration, but now I was loath to leave my hearth and the woman whose birthing was so near. Yet I would be honour-lost if I should not attend, so I travelled to the king’s feast with the words of the woman wrapping me close. “Say nothing of me and our lives together.” And I said nothing at the king’s board, though all the champions boasted of their deeds and their goods. I said nothing. But that was before the racing of the chariots. When it was time for the king’s horses to be shown before the assembly, I could see that every praise-word spoken had been well deserved. They were tall and glossy, the sun’s beams flashing fire-coal through their sleek coats. They brought to my mind the supple limbs of the woman, their clear eyes, her deep wisdom; their wild manes, the rich flowing of her hair. As I watched them put to their paces, saw them running, all i could see was the beauty of the woman; and in my pride I spoke of her with words of great praise. I told of her grace and her grooming, the speed of her running. I cried out that she could race the world’s wind, and would surely leave behind the king’s horses as leaves scattered by the wind. Conchobar heard me, and was angry at my boasting. So I was bound by the bonds of my words and the bonds of the king, until the woman could be brought before the assembly and matched against the great horses to the testing of my words. And she came, of course, my beautiful woman. She came, even though the time for her to give birth was very close. When she heard that my life was forfeit until she could prove my boast, she set herself to the testing. And she ran. She ran as the clouds race the hunter’s moon. She ran as wind on water, as  waves across sand. Her hair flowed flooding around her. She ran until the horses were left far behind in her wake. Once, she made circuit; carving the course of her running in the land and then, with a cry of triumph and loss, she fell.  Triumph and loss it was indeed for in gaining my freedom, I lost her forever. There, in that place, she gave birth to twins; one as dark as cloud-shadow, the other as fair as the moon on water. No-one aided her in her labour. No-one dared. We watched in awe as she rose, holding the babies high for us to see. She stood tall,  altered, mist-cloaked. Then she spoke. “By your own lore, you noindewell know that the words of a woman in childbirth cannot be unspoken. Now I say to you that I am Macha. I have moved amongst you, bringing prosperity and order, but you have used me ill. “For your lack of pity this day, I lay a noinden of weakness on you at the moment when you most have need of strength. Yet the name I have given to this place I will not take back. Even in defeat, Emain Macha will live on in the glory of the tellers of tales. Great will be the winning and the losing; but at the last, this land will still remember me.” As we watched, shadow covered her, and she was gone. But in the last of the twilight, I seemed to see the shape of a great mare, mane netting the new-lit stars. Then even the imagining was gone, and I was alone. So Emain Macha was named and flamed with her blessing as later it suffered her curse at the time of the great raid of the Bulls. But I, Crummchru, sit here in the ruins of memory, and I dream.  Perhaps the cheering of the warriors is no more than the carrion call of crows, but I am an old man, and the dreams of Macha are dreams of glory.

Origin stories – revisited

creationVirtually all cultures have creation stories…

There are two main types of creation myth: the cosmogenic, which is about the creation of the universe or the world; and those that concern the creation of human beings.  The stories of the creation of humans often comes in the same package as that of the creation of the world.

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How long can a story last?- revisited

The river ShannonDefining the longevity of information passed orally from group to group, and from generation to generation, is hard to quantify. Stories change and grow. Their sources become lost in the mists of time, and yet they continue to have significance. Back in 1998, “The Year of The French”, commemorating the bicentennial of the political events in Ireland in 1798, I was advised to have a talk with a local family. “They have the story of the 98,” I was told. It seemed that family members could describe the coming of the French soldiers. It was their story, and the description had been passed on through the generations. There is something similar in my family, although the memory is now so tattered as to be no more than a ghostly remnant. My grandmother told me that her grandmother told her… and so on… that she had seen Charles ÍI walking his spaniels. There is not much more to this story; so, although curious, it is not exactly historically earth-shattering.

newgrange_passage_tomb_rocks (1)Discoveries at Newgrange

In the late 1960’s, when Professor Michael O’Kelly was excavating and restoring the Newgrange complex, (originally built in around 3250BCE), he came across a curious rectangular slit above the door. It was half-closed by a square block of crystallized quartz, apparently designed to work as a shutter. There were scratches on the quartz: clearly it had often been slid to and fro, providing a narrow entrance to the tomb above the main door, which was itself firmly sealed with a 5-ton slab of stone. But what was the slit for? It was too small and too far from the ground to be an entrance for people. Professor O’Kelly remembered a local tradition which said that the sun always shone into the tomb at Midsummer. Perhaps the ‘roofbox’, as it came to be known, was designed to admit the summer sun to the tomb without the entrance stone having to be moved. “But it was quite obvious to us that it couldn’t happen at Midsummer because of the position of the sun,” says O’Kelly. “So if the sun was to shine in at all, the only possibility would be in Midwinter.” Now every year a worldwide lottery is held to select the privileged few who witness the truth of this ancient tradition, if the weather permits. So some elements of the story may have lasted in the area for around 5000 years. Read about the excavation of Newgrange here: aboriginal-rock-art_photo-by-peter-nijenhuisThere is one country where the longevity of story is taken into account and generally, accepted. This is, of course, Australia with its rich store of Indigenous stories.  Since the Sinann episode was first published in 2012, I have continued to explore the themes to be found in these stories and the parallels with Irish texts. My research trip to the Northern Territories lead to our series three podcast episode, Dindshenchas and Dreamtime Let me be clear, I am making no claims for any historical connection, whatsoever, between Irish and Australian Aboriginal heritage. The similarities lie in their function as Dindshenchas tales, (The lore of prominent places). The Metrical Dindshenchas, as Isolde commented in our most recent podcast episode Sinann Revisited, is a most precious resource, an anthology of gathered folklore and transmitted beliefs collected at an early date. The near equivalent to this resource among Australian Indigenous stories would be the rock art library of ‘picture’ texts that have helped to keep this Dindshenchas, style knowledge alive over many centuries, maybe even many millennium. This topic was discussed fully in Dindshenchas and Dreamtime but, I have continued to research anthologies of orally collected Aboriginal tales with specific focus on possible longevity of stories.   I found several significant stories. For example, I came upon a Dreaming story of the creation of the Narran Lakes in New South Wales, referencing the presence of crocodiles. These creatures are now longer found in this State of Australia and have been absent for 15,000 years, since the last ice age. I also found Dreaming tales belonging to Aboriginal tribes from region of the Great Barrier Reef coast. These tell how their ancestors lived on the coastal plains near the edge of the continental shelf. Yet this same area was covered by the last sea rise, more than 15,000 years ago when the Great Barrier Reef was formed. I searched the Queensland Central library, last year and approached the Anthropological department of Queensland University on a hunt for more evidence. However, I may have been searching in the wrong places. Recently, I found a reference to a paper presented by Nick Reid Associate Professor, School of Behavioural, Cognitive and Social Sciences at University of New England and Patrick Nunn Assistant Director, Sustainability Research Centre; Professor of Geography at University of the Sunshine Coast. They give several excellent examples of stories that, they believe, show evidence of extreme antiquity.

Stories … from the Narrangga people of Yorke Peninsula recall the time when there was no Spencer Gulf, only “marshy country reaching into the interior” lying just above the ocean surface and dotted with “freshwater lagoons” where birds and other animals flocked. One day the sea came in, perhaps through the breaching of a natural barrier, and the area has since been submerged. If these stories refer to flooding across the outermost lip of Spencer Gulf, which today lies around 50 metres below present sea level, then they may have originated 12,000 years ago. Even if they refer to inundation of the central part of the Gulf, they are likely to be more than 9,000 years old.

The article, describing their findings is well worth reading. Read about the Dreaming stories here:

 Memories of Sinann

So, could a story retain elements of a cataclysmic event in Ireland that informed the story of Sinann? After the end of the last Ice Age, the Mesolithic landscape was very different, both in landmass and climate.   The middle stone-age hunter-gatherers lived mainly on the shorelines and “machas”, the fertile coastal plains. The close-forested inland areas must have seemed dangerous, “otherworldly” places; a rich source of gifts of food, but mysterious and risky. Settlement in the West of Ireland is better documented in the Neolithic period, (See information on the wonderful Céide fields in Mayo), but Mesolithic settlement right across the west is apparent both on the coast and along rivers and lake areas. The warmer weather of the post Ice Age centuries lead to climatic turbulence, much like we may be facing today. There were several known major Tsunamis, caused by melting ice, which changed the land masses of the world. One such was the Storegga Slide tsunami around 8000BCE that flooded the Doggerland, turning Britain into an Island although the land-bridge did make occasional brief reappearances thereafter. There was another possible Tsunami that was caused by the abrupt melting of lake Agassiz in Canada at a roughly similar date. It has been given as the cause of the creation of the Black Sea, and could have impacted on the west of Ireland; although some experts doubt that this Tsunami would have crossed the Atlantic.  Read about the tsunami Read more about Ireland at the end of the Ice age Download a very interesting research paper on “Extreme wave events in Ireland:” 14 680 BP–2012 L. O’Brien, J. M. Dudley, and F. Dias

 Could Sinann remember ancient climate change?

If the conclusions drawn by professors Reid and Nunn are to be accepted, then it is not impossible that the story of Sinann may not echo a similar memory.  The authors of the paper feel that such memories may have survived in indigenous Australian stories owing to Australia’s isolation into comparatively modern times. They also comment, Aboriginal storytelling is characterised by a conservative and explicit approach to “the law”, value given to preserving information, and kin-based systems for tracking knowledge accuracy.

Almost the same paragraph could have been written describing the process of collating and preserving early Irish story.   They suggest that Australian Aboriginal stories are, possibly, unique in their longevity It could be that certain Irish stories might alter this conclusion.

Revisiting Sinann’s Other Poems

From the Metrical Dindshenchas, Volume 4, edited by Edward Gwynn

translated by Isolde ÓBrolcháin Carmody

pp 36 – 43: Poems 11 & 12

Note: It may seem hard to believe, but in our podcast episode, Revisiting Sinann, we didn’t jump up and down shouting about the link between Sinann and Mongán! We compared her poetic quest to Mongán’s, but didn’t pick up on her name as given in the Áth Líac Find poems – Sinann (or Sideng) ingen Mongáin - daughter of Mongán. This gives even more strength to the idea of the main Sinann story as an “origin story” for Imbas.

IÓBC, 2015

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The Shannon Pot

The Shannon is the longest river in Ireland and the UK with a length of 280km. The river flows from its source in the Cuilcagh Mountains to its estuary below Limerick. This important river and its tributaries drain some 15,500 sq km or about one fifth of the island of Ireland.

The traditional source of the river is a large spring called the Shannon Pot, about 16m in diameter and has been explored by divers to a depth of over 9m. The spring flows throughout the year and is fed by streams that disappear into limestone rock higher up in the catchment area.

Water tracer experiments have shown that other streams sink below ground and flow underground to join the Shannon Pot and have some claim to being the ultimate source of the River Shannon, the farthest of these being the Pigeon Pots in County Fermanagh.

Information from

The Shannon Pot is a beautiful place. It is isolated, hill-ringed and tranquil. It is fringed with trees - not hazel, unfortunately - but mostly the ubiquitous blackthorn. The pool itself is circular, ripples on even the stillest day and is very cold and very deep.  I have several times been into the water, even in February, and can personally confirm its icy freshness.

The Shannon Pot

The site has great “presence”. This is partly because of its natural location, but also because of its shape. It feels like a place of great significance. Indeed, it is likely that it was a “votive pool”, somewhat like Lochnashade, (the “King’s Stables”), the pool near to Navan Fort where the wonderful bronze trumpets were found. From the earliest, times gifts honouring the power of the waters have been found in rivers, lakes, pools, springs and wells. The Shannon Pot, set in a landscape of pre-historic sites, is certainly of importance. Read more »