story Archaeology

Exploring stories in the landscape

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 Ulstermen? Not hard.

Boí aithech somae di Ultaib i mbennaib slíab et díthrub .i. Crunnchu mac Agnomain a ainm-sidi.

There was a wealthy tenant farmer of the Ulstermen on the peaks of mountains and wildernesses i.e.Crunnchu mac Agnomain was his name.

For-robairt indmus mór leis ina díthrubaid.

A great wealth grew on him in the wildernesses.

Maic imdai dano leis oca tairchiull-sidi.

Moreover, he had sons [childern] at his homestead.

Marb in banscál ro-boí ina farrad .i. máthair a chloinde.

The noblewoman that was in his company died i.e. the mother of his children.

Boí-sem ed cíana cen mnaí.

He was then grieving without a woman.

A mboí láa n-and fora dérgud ina thig a óenur co n-acae óc-mnaí cruthaig isa tech mór cuccai co febus delbae et errid et ecuisc.

One day, he was on his bed in the house by himself, when he saw a young, shapely woman coming into his great house, with wondrous form and dress and ornaments.

Desid in banscál i cathaír ocon ten et ataid tenid.

The noblewoman sat in a chair at the fire[place] and kindled a fire.

Ro bátar and co dered laí cen imacallaim dóib.

They were there to the end of the day without conversation between them.

Do-beir-si didiu losait cuice & críathar et fecaid for urgnam is’tig.

Indeed, she brought a kneading trough to him and a seive and set about preparing [food] in the house.

Ó thánic co dered laí, beird lestrai lee et bligid na bú cen athchomarc.

When it came to the end of the day, she takes vessels with her, and milks the cows without being requested to do so.


§2 Ó thánic is’tech, im-soí for desiul et téit ina cuile et do-airbir a muintir & desid i cathaír for láim Crunnchon.

When she went into the house, she turned to the right and she went into her pantry and she submitted to his household.  She sat in a chair beside Crunnchu.

Teit dano cách ina lepaid.

Then everyone goes to bed.

Anaid-si dar éssi cáich et tálgedar in tenid et soíd for desiul & téit foa brat cucai-sem et do-beir láim fora thoíb.

She stays after everyone and she settles the fire and she turns to the right.  She goes to him under his mantle [i.e. blanket] and she puts a hand on his side.

Ro bátar i n-óentaid combo torrach úad-som.

They were united so that she was pregnant from him.

Móide dano a indbus-som dia hóentaid-si.

From then on, his wealth was greater from his union with her.

 Maith a bláth-som et a escrim lée-si.

Good was his flowering and his ecoutrements with her.


§3 No bítis dano dúnada et óenaige móra menci la hUltu.

At that time, there used to be frequent great gatherings and fairs with the Ulstermen.

No tegtis Ulaid uili eter fer et mnaí do neuch dod-rochad don óenuch.

All the Ulstermen used to go; both men and women of those who were able to go to the óenech.

‘Ragat-sa,’ ar Crunnchu fria mnaí, ‘dond oénuch cuma cháich.’

“i will go to the fair like everybody else” said Crunnchu.

‘Ní regae,’ ol in ben, ‘nachat-roile báegal diar n-imrádad, air bid hí ar n-oenta co sin dianom imráde-sa isind oenuch.’

‘You will not go’, says the woman, ‘in order that danger of mentioning us might not follow you, because our partnership will be [only] until then if you speak of me at the fair.’ 

 ‘Nicon labér and etir,’ ol Crunnchu.

‘I will not speak there at all,’ says Crunnchu


§4 Do-llotar Ulaid dond óenuch. Do-lluid dano Crunnchu cuma cháich.

The Ulstermen went to the fair.  Crunnchu also went, like everyone else.

 Ba hán int óenach etir doíni et eochu ocus étaige.

The fair was splendid with people and horses and clothing.

 Agaitir graifne & tresa & díbraicthi et rémenn et tochmenn isind óenuch.

Racing of horses, feats of strength, archery, coursing and marching [were going on] at the fair

 Do-berar carpat ind ríg tráth nóna forsin láthir.

The chariot of the king was brought onto the site in the afternoon.

Do-berat eich ind ríg bóaid ind óenaich.

The king’s horses took the victory in the fair.

Do-tóet íarum áes ind admolta .i. do admolad ind ríg et na rígnae & na filed et na ndruad & in teglaig et int shlúaig & ind óenaich uili.

After that came the eulogists, -[lit. folk of great praise] i.e. to praise the king and the queens, the poets and the druids, the assembly and the crowd and the whole fair.

‘Ni táncatar a n-óenach ríam da ech amail na da gabair-se ind ríg, air ni fil isind Ére déde as lúaithiu.’

‘There never came to a fair before two horses like these two white horses of the king, because there is not in Ireland a pair which is as fast.’

‘Is lúaithiu mo ben-sa,’ ar Crunnchu, ‘indáte na da gabuir-sin.’

‘My wife is faster,’ says Crunnchu, ‘than are those two white horses.’

 ‘Aurgabaid in fer,’ ol in rí, co tí in ben frisin imarbáig.’

‘Seize the man,’ says the king, ‘until the woman comes to the contest.’


§5 Aur-gaibther-som et tíagar ón ríg cosin mnaí.

He is seized and a messenger is sent from the king to the woman.

Feraid-si faílti frisna techta & ro-imchomairc cid immos-racht.

She bestows welcome on the visitors.  She enquires what has brought them.

‘Táncamar co ndigis-siu do fhúaclucud do athig tige ro-hergabad lasin ríg, air at-rubart robsa lúaithi-siu oldáte da gabair ind rig.’

“We have come in order that you might go to free your man of the house, who has been captured for he has said (it); that you are faster than the two white horses of the king.’

 ‘Olc ón imurgu,’ ol sisi, ‘air nirbo comadas in rád hí-sin.

‘This is bad indeed,’ she said, ‘for that statement was not appropriate.’

‘Is turbaid ém dam-sa,’ ol sisi, ‘a nní-sin, ol atú álacht co n-idnaib.’

‘It is surely an exemption for me,’ she said, ‘this thing: because I am pregnant and in [labour] pain.’

‘Cid turbaid,’ ol na techta, ‘mairfither-som acht mani rís-siu.’

‘Though that is an exemption,’ say the messengers, ‘he will be killed unless you arrive there’.

‘Bid écin dano,’ ol sisi.

“it will be necessary, so”, she says.


§6 Luid-si leu-som íarum dochum ind óenaich.

She went with them then to the fair.

Do-táet cách dano dia déscin-sin.

Everybody comes then to look at her.

‘Nochon fhíu taidbred ón,’ ol si, ‘mo chrotha-sa.’

“It is not fitting that people should be gazing,” she says, “at my appearance”.

‘Cid dianom-tucad?’ ol sisi.

“What is it for which i have been brought?” says she.

‘Do chomlúas fri da gabair ind ríg,’ ol cách.

“[Because of] your equal speed against the two white horses of the king,” says everyone.

‘Is turbaid ón,’ ol sisi, ‘ar atú-sa co n-idnaib,’

“it is an exemption for me,’ she says, ‘because I am in labour”

‘Gabid dano claidbiu don atheuch,’ ol in rí.

“Then take swords to the tenant farmer,” says the king.

‘Anaid frium biucán trá,’ ol sisi, ‘corom asaither.’

“Wait for me a little while,” she says, “until I might be delivered [of my child].”

Nathó,’ ol in rí.

No,’ says the king.

‘Mebal dúib ém cen esemul mbec dam.

“Shame on you indeed for not granting me something small.

Ór nach tabraid-si, do-bér-sa mebal bas mó forib-si dara ési.

Since you have not granted it, I will give shame afterwards that will be greater because of that.

Telcid trá,’ ol sisi, ‘na heochu frim thóeb.’

‘Release, then,’ she says, ‘the horses beside me.’


§7 Di-gníther ón et ba sisi boí urtharsna ara cinn i cinn na láithre.

That was done, and she was first across at the head of the track, in front of the horses.

La sodain at-racht a screit n-esi ar tíachra in galair.

Immediately she let a scream out of her because of the agony of the labour.

Ro glé día dí fo cét-óir, ocus berid mac & ingin i n-óentairbirt.

She cleared it away from herself at once, and she bore a son and a daughter in one birth.

Amail ro-colatar in slúag uile a screit inna banscáile, fos-ceird fóo combo inann nert dóib uli & in banscál boí isin galur.

When the host heard her scream – that of the noblewoman – it throws them under themselves [i.e. overcomes them], so that their strength was no more than that of the noblewoman who was in labour .

‘Bid aithis trá dúib ond úair-se ind enechruice fo-rrurmid-si form-sa.

“The insult which you have brought on me will be a shaming for you from this time on.

In tan bas ansam dúib, nicon bía acht nert mná séolae lib do neuch thaircella a cóiced-sa; et ind eret bís ben i séolai is sí eret no mbiaidi-si .i. co cenn cóic lá et cethéora n-aidche, et biaid forib dano co nnómad n-ó .i. co haimsir nónbair.’

In times when it is most difficult for you, you will not have but the strength of a woman in childbirth for any one who protects this province. The length of time that a woman is in labour; that is the length of time that you will be. (i.e. to the end of 5 days and 4 nights). And it will be on you moreover until nine generations (i.e. the time of nine).

[NOTE: The specifics of the time period are in the form of glosses.  This may be an attempt by the author to link the “Noinden” of the title to “nói” > “nine”.]


§8 Ba fír són dano. Forda-rulil ó aimsir Crunnchon co haimsir Fergusa maic Domnaill.

That was true then.  It followed [the Ulstermen] from the time of Crunnchu to the time of Fergus mac Domnail.

Ni bíid trá in ces-sa for mnáib & macaib & for Coin Culainn, ar nirbo do Ultaib dó, nach for cach óen frisin crích anechtair.

However, this debility does not befall women or children, or Cu Chullainn, because he is not of the Ulstermen; nor for anyone from outside the border [of Ulster].


§9 Is do shin trá ro boí in ces for Ultaib.

It is from that, therefore, that the debility came upon the Ulstermen.





by Isolde Carmody



This is a tricky word to translate fully.  The first part, ban-, clearly indicates a female.  But the -scál part is more elusive.  While there are examples of ferscál (the male equivalent), I have only come across this use in references.  I’ve found banscáil used repeatedly in the mythological sagas and poems I’ve studied.

Often, the word scáil on its own is translated as “phantom” or “giant”.  This is probably due to association with stories of giants and monsters associated with places like Áth na Scál (Annascaul, Co. Kerry, where Antarctic adventurer Tom Creen had his pub).  But in terms of how the word is used throughout the language, it has been glossed as “hero”, “giant” or even just fer – “man”.  However, using scáil, with or without a gender prefix, to refer to an ordinary human being seems to be reserved for Bérla na bhFilid – the language of the poets.

So my interpretation is that scáil has a root meaning of “spirit” or “being”, and if the poets use that to describe a real human, they’re essentially calling their patron a superhero.



This tale is sometimes referred to as Cess Noinden Ulaid, and the results of Macha’s curse is referred to as cess n-ulaid in other tales.  Cess has sometimes been taken to mean “griefor “sadness”, but this is due to its use in phrases such as cess bróin [brón = “sadness”] .  But there is an argument [cf. O’Broin, Éigse 10] to say that the root of cess is in “hibernation”.  So the cess of cess bróin is not the sadness itself, but the lethargy and inactivity it causes.

Although the cess of the Ulstermen is often discussed in terms of the Ulstermen being “as weak as women in childbirth”, the term cess itself is not particularly associated with the pangs of labour.


Crunnchu mac Agnomain:

Crunnchu’s name may come from crannach, “trees, grove, wooded place”.  This may be related to Nemed, “sacred place”, sometimes translated as “grove”, who is Macha’s husband in the Lebor Gabála, The Book of Invasions. (see More Stories of Macha).

This identification of Crunnchu with Nemed is further strengthened by the “Mac Agnomain” part of the name, which is repeatedly given as Nemed’s surname in the Lebor Gabála.

I cannot find a reliable analysis for the meaning of “Agnomain”.  Any suggestions welcome!



This word seems originally or specifically to refer to a “white horse”, but is also used more generally to mean “horse” or even just “beast”, “creature”.  In Modern Irish, gadhair can be used to refer to a dog, a horse, a cow, a calf, a goat or a kid.

There are a number of place-names, particularly those with large stone monuments, referred to as gabhair or gadhair, and retaining the sense of “white horse”.  An archaeologist friend assures me there are a number of these down the West coast of Ireland.



Speakers of Modern Irish will be aware of the peculiarity that we don’t have words for “yes” or “no”.  We have to use a positive or negative form of the verb rather than being able to give a general positive or negative response.  Surprisingly, we used to have such words: thó for “yes” and nathó for “no” (cf ydw and nac’ydw in Modern Welsh).  It’s a mystery as to how we lost these useful words…



There has been much academic discussion about the precise meaning of this word, going back around a thousand years.  More recent scholarship has put forward several propositions, but none has been decided upon.  Thurneysen proposed that it might mean “nine days”, on the model of dédenus, “two days”; but surely then we would have noíndenus rather than noínden.  The other main theory relates it to noíden, “infant”.  The difficulty with this is that noíden is not used of new-born babies; cland is used for new-borns.

The root of the word remains unclear.  It is consistently used in the name of this tale, and may have something to do with either “nine” or “babies”: we just don’t know!



The root meaning of this word is “one-ness” or “agreement”.  It is usually translated as “fair” or “assembly”.  These events were crucial to the functioning of early Irish society.  You can read an in-depth article on óenachs here.



This word has the root meaning “hindrance, interference, msfortune, trouble”.  However, in a legal situation, it has the specific meaning of:

Temporary exemption from fulfilment of legal obligations or from infliction of penalties (most commonly athgabail ‘distraint’) on grounds of certain external contingencies recognised by law; the grounds of this exemption; the period of the exemption. [cf. eDIL; Letter T, Column 383, line 45 ff]

Athgabáil, “distraint”, is the principal form of sueing for breach of contract, so we can imagine, in a contemporary context, exemption from legal proceedings brought against one.  The most common reasons for this torbad are given as illness or being on a journey.  The exemption is for a set time-period, to enable someone to return from a journey or recover from an illness.  In the context of this story, a proper torbad should have been granted to Macha to allow her time to deliver her babies.  The king breaches accepted legal practice by denying this delay.



This is the Old Irish name for the province of Ulster (northern province of Ireland) and for the group who inhabited that region.  They have long been a distinctive group in literature and history.

While it is tricky to analyse the original meaning of any demonym (name of a tribe or group of people), there is one curious possibility for the Ulaid.  The word ul or ulcha means “a beard”, and several stories note that Cú Chulainn was exempt from the cess because he was too young to have grown a beard.  This may, however, be a retrospective or synthetic play of the similarity of ul and Ulaid, which may have distinct roots.  However, it’s nice to imagine the Ulstermen distinguishing themselves from other peoples by growing long beards…


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