Emain Macha, Stronghold of Ulster Kings or Site of Sacred Ritual?

The Visitor Centre at Emain Macha. www.aliisaacstoryteller.com

Last week, I told you the legends of Macha; today we look at the monuments in the Irish landscape she is said to have inspired. EMAIN MACHA, also known by the name of Navan Fort, is real and still standing today, and like the Hill of Tara, and Cruachan, is open to the general public to access, free of charge.

The Hill of Tara gets all the glory and the visitors, but much as I love it, I think this is a bit of a shame. There is as much a wealth of heritage, in terms of archaeology, history, and mythology at our other provincial ritual sites as there is at Tara, and they are well worth experiencing.

The early literature of Ireland has identified a number of ‘Royal Sites’: Tara, in Co. Meath as the seat of Ireland’s high kings; Dún Ailinne in Co. Kildare, which is associated with the kings of Leinster; Cruachain, Co. Roscommon, as the fort of Queen Medb, and Emain Macha, said to be the palace of King Conchobar of Ulster.

Approach to Emain Macha through a metal 'kissing gate'. www.aliisaacstoryteller.com

These sites are all depicted in the literature as the royal residences of pre-historic provincial kings and queens. What the medieval writers saw in the landscape was pretty much the same as what we see there today, and they would have noted that these sites all share similar characteristics. What else could they be but the remains of the palaces of mighty pagan kings?

The large mound at Emain Macha, known as Site B. www.aliisaacstoryteller.com

It wasn’t difficult, then, for scribes to connect the legends and local folklore of heroes and kings and battles which they must have heard being told of an evening around the fireplaces by gaelic storytellers, with these features in the landscape. In fact, the connections may already have existed in the oral tradition, but we have no way now of knowing this for certain.

What we do know is that medieval scribes created, or manipulated, these stories to suit their own political and religious allegiances at the time they were writing, so that often, these stories reflect what was really going on in medieval society, rather than the Iron Age which they claim to portray. This is particularly true of Emain Macha, but that’s a story for another post.

The large mound 2 at Emain Macha. www.aliisaacstoryteller.com

According to legend, Emain Macha was the court of King Conchobar mac Nessa. You may remember, Nessa the ‘un-Gentle, who married Fergus and tricked him out of the throne in favour of her son, Conchobar. Fergus then sought exile in Connacht with Queen Medb, and became her lover. Queen Medb went to war with Ulster over the Brown Bull of Cuilnge, and the men of Ulster were unable to defend against them due to the labour pangs with which Macha cursed them. Fortunately, Cuchulainn saved the day, but Conchobar went on to kill Naoise for eloping with his intended, the beautiful Deirdre. Got that? I love how all the stories are interconnected, and there are a host more that I didn’t even mention here.

When you go to Emain Macha, you will see that it stands atop a low rise, much like Tara, yet which gives way to panoramic views right across grassy rolling open light-filled countryside. You can see for miles. Our ancient ancestors certainly knew how to pick a site!

View from the top of the large mound at Emain Macha. www.aliisaacstoryteller.com

Less than 3km from the city of Armagh, and thus with St Patrick’s Church (you can see both from the site), it is surrounded by a huge ditch approximately 250m in diameter, and an external bank, thought to have been constructed in the third century BC.

There is something I find very interesting about this ditch; it becomes progressively shallower towards a certain point of the site, not because of infill or farming activity or attempts at destruction. It was built that way. Our guide suggested that the ditch may have been used as a processional way to approach the site.

A section of the ditch at Emain Macha. www.aliisaacstoryteller.com

A section of the ditch at Emain Macha. You can see here how shallow the ditch gets, and from this point one accesses the site to the right of the picture.

I was immediately struck with this idea, because I personally am naturally drawn to wind my way through the ditches around a site like this. I particularly noticed it at Tlachtga a couple of years ago, which has four ditches and banks surrounding the site. Processing through them creates particular effects which could be conducive to a ritual or shamanic experience, but again, that is a story for another post.

Archaeological work carried out at Emain Macha in the 1970s revealed a long history of activity but no evidence of habitation. This indicates that the site could not have been the location of a royal palace as the ancient literature describes.

Two mounds remain today; a large one approximately 50m in diameter and 6m high, to the west of the site, encircled with beautiful very ancient trees, and a smaller one which is barely visible. This has echoes of the layout of Tara, with its Mound of Hostages and the conjoined figure-of-eight structures of the Forradh and Tech Cormaic.

The base of the large mound at Emain Macha. www.aliisaacstoryteller.comThe view from Emain Macha. www.aliisaacstoryteller.com

In fact, the excavations at Emain Macha uncovered a similar figure-of-eight structure beneath the existing large mound which was rebuilt in situ nine times over a period of about 350 years.

But here’s the most intriguing aspect of the site; in 94BC, the existing structure was demolished, and a new one created, a circular temple of timber posts 40m in diameter with a double row of posts at the perimeter which were boarded with planks to create a wall. We know the date, because at its centre was a huge central oak post so massive, that it was embedded 5m into the ground to hold it upright, and this was dated by dendochronology, which is a very accurate dating technique.

Emain Macha, www.aliisaacstoryteller.com

A model of one interpretation of the final timber structure, showing how it was constructed with radial posts and planking to outer perimeter. Note the thatched roof; archaeology found no evidence of a roof structure at the site, and believe it would have been open to the sky. To the right, you can see a portion of the roof removed and a layer of white stones, showing how the site was put beyond use.

Soon after it was built, the interior of the structure was filled with stones and boulders to a depth of 2m, and then the whole thing was set alight. The earthen mound we see today was then laid over the top of the remains, and the most interesting thing about this is that analysis of the soil has revealed that it was carried in from locations right across the province. The site was then abandoned.

Interestingly, archaeology has shown that the same sequence of events were carried out at the same time at the other so-called ‘Royal Sites’ – Tara, Dún Alinne, and Cruachain.

What the sites were used for, why they were burned and abandoned, how it was coordinated across the provinces, why all the sites were built in such similar fashion and then decommissioned the same way, why soil was carried in from all corners of Ulster can only be guessed at. It does suggest a ritual or religious purpose though.

Whilst the archaeology has proven that these sites were not utilised as places of habitation, and therefore contradicts the old stories of royal residences, it does not diminish them to me in any way. In fact, it just adds greater depth and layers of meaning, intrigue, and enjoyment.

The Visitor Centre at Emain Macha. www.aliisaacstoryteller.com

The Visitor Centre at Emain Macha… built underground to be as unobtrusive as possible, and looking a bit like a hobbit-house. You don’t have to go here to access the site, but it has a lovely coffee shop and gift shop, and has audiovisual presentations and can provide you with a guide to the site. There is also a nice little walk around the visitor centre to the site, which is really nice if you have young children with you.

Beautiful artwork hung inside the Visitor Centre at Emain Macha. www.aliisaacstoryteller.com

A series of beautiful artwork depicting scenes and characters from the legends of the Ulster Cycle hung inside the Visitor Centre at Emain Macha.

How to get there.

Cooney, G. and Grogan, E. 1991 An archaeological solution to the ‘Irish’ problem? Emania, 33-45.
Lynn,C.J. 2003 Navan Fort, Archaeology and Myth. Wordwell, Bray.
Mallory, J.P. 1987 The Literary Topography of Emain Macha, Emania 2, 12-18.
Waterman,D.M. 1997 Excavations at Navan Fort 1961-71, HM Stationary Office, Belfast.

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24 Comments on “Emain Macha, Stronghold of Ulster Kings or Site of Sacred Ritual?

  1. Pingback: Processional Pathways of Ancient Ireland | aliisaacstoryteller

  2. Are there megalithic structures associated with Emain Macha similar to those at Tlachta?
    The burning of the site suggests a purification ritual.


    • Hi Lawrence. Tlachtga is quite unusual and rare in that it has four sets of embankments and ditches, there are only a handful of such sites in Ireland. But like Emain Macha and the other prehistoric sites it had a huge circular ditch encircling the top of the hill. The remains of a baby were found buried at the bottom of this ditch, just like at Tara, but experts can’t say if it died from natural causes or was a sacrifice. There is evidence of burning at the site, too, which could indicate it was put out of action, like the other ‘royal sites’, or that huge fires were lit to celebrate Samhain, as the stories tell us. There was a lot of archaeological investigation begun a few years ago, and analysis is still ongoing. Interestingly, the ditches were hollowed out of the bedrock, like at Tara, but they are much shallower. From my own experience, they are still deep enough even now to provide sensory deprivation until you reach a certain spot… a ritual processional way, perhaps? 😊


  3. Pingback: The Sovereignty Goddess of Ireland | aliisaacstoryteller

  4. I love the mystery around all these sites and why they were built and abandoned. But I also find it frustrating. I so much want to understand more about this ancient culture and separate the legends from the reality, which seem so entangled. I wonder if we’ll ever know the answers. Great post, Ali.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I know how you feel, Diana… I used to be the same. Not so much anymore. Archaeology has taught us so much. Now there are new techniques like Lidar (I think thats what its called) se archaeologists dont even have to dig things up anymore to get an idea of what’s beneath the ground. Who knows what new technologies will develop in the future, or what they’ll reveal? It’s all very exciting! Thanks for dropping by.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Very nice. Well, there is Shakespeare’s Hamlet to reconcile math and poetry. When Hamlet attempts composition of a sonnet to Ophelia, he stops and says, “I’m bad at these numbers,” referring to the writing of verses. But the craft of versifying indeed involved metric feet, such as iambic pentameter, which was 5 feet of 2-syllable words with the 2nd syllable stressed. Hence, “ba-DUM, ba-DUM, ba-DUM, ba-DUM, ba-DUM…” for 14 lines, and also with a tricky rhyme scheme, etc. All very musical, yet mathematical, as music is, too. I guess, to synthesize, then, poetry and music BOTH come down to arithmetic… with an effect of aesthetic pleasure, yes?… Really enjoyed your discussion above, which prolly has a mathematical basis. Gottfried Wilhelm Von Leibniz, German rationalist philosopher a few decades behind Descartes, on aesthetics, said music in particular is subconscious mathematics. And researchers today yet assert that listening to music and playing an instrument improve mathematical ability. Frankly, I don’t buy it, being a math dummy (oh, in the States we don’t pluralize “math”). It depends on where one’s “bucket” for whatever capacity is located in the cerebral cortex. I learned Spanish in quite an emotive place in my brain. So that going there again puts me in a less rational state of mind…

    Okay, your move! 😀

    PS. How did your study of _The Wasteland_ end up? Did my input help, or had you been already informed?


    • Oh your input certainly helped, thank you. I wrote an essay on how the form reflects the content, and visa versa, and got 75% for it, which seems to be the highest anyone can get, as I’ve never heard of a student in my year who got a higher result, only one person in first year Geography. 😊 So, thank you very much. I am reading The Secret History by Donna Tartt at the moment, have you read it? Its all about a group of ancient Greek students… that’s what they’re studying, not a reflection on their age, haha! Anyway, they all have interesting discussions on their studies, and that’s what I thought uni would be like, but disappointingly, it’s not. So I quite enjoy these discussions on the blog. 😁

      Liked by 1 person

      • 75 percent is a solid C grade. 80 would’ve been a B-, 90 an A-. They should give an “E” for effort! You are abundantly welcome. Glad I could help. BTW, my Xian delusions (remember I have schizo) are dying down quite a lot, such that I can now enjoy listening to music that used to trigger me (King Crimson, e.g.). My favorite bass player, no longer with us, still is John Wetton, best known for fronting Asia in the ’80s. There’s a compilation of four King Crimson gigs from 1973-74 titled _The Great Deceiver_. John’s technical ability on his old Fender really soars throughout. In his living years, I actually joined his guestbook on the web and met some cool people, one of whom, from Rosyth, Fife, Scotland, became a faithful email pal for six years. We never met in person, but got to know each other very well. I guess we sort of spent each other, then let each other go. She wasn’t spiritual at all, and for some reason I grew weary of her insistence on logical positivism. It wasn’t her fault at all. Dunno, but that “deeper world than this” was “tugging at (my) hand” (Sting, “Love Is the Seventh Wave”). Goodness, I joined the neighborhood Lutheran church and sort of lost my sanity. But, as in a Shax comedy, with the characters plunged into the chaos of Arden Forest, I am emerging from the Green World restored whole and sane…
        Sorry to hear your uni experience didn’t involve more discussion of abstract stuff. What did characterize it, then? Was it like a factory for cranking out go-getters in their discipline, people who gotta run and jump, get ahead in the rat race, marry and reproduce, put their kids through college, retire, and leave a sizeable estate for their posterity?
        I loved my college years. Would’ve stayed forever if I could’ve.

        Liked by 1 person

        • Well for us, 70 to 80% is an A-, so I guess I can’t complain. 😉 Above 80 is an A and above 90 is an A+. I’ll just keep trying for that A. But any A grade is a First Class. I just need to keep it going. I remember King Crimson but I’m not really familiar with their music. Personally, I stay well away from religion… that stuff really does mess with your head! 😂 I’m so glad to hear that everything is so good with you right now. Great news! I’m loving college too, but I just think that its not suited to everyone. Trouble is, there’s not much else for school leavers, so they all get funnelled through uni. I think we need more apprenticeships and training for trades. Not everyone is academically minded, and shouldn’t be forced through it.

          Liked by 1 person

          • Of course, the grading scale I know was valid — 30 years ago 😮 We toss around the notion of the “dumbing down of America,” but it’s more or less true here and abroad, too. I saw the phasing out of the “old” English major, which was much harder than the “new” one. No gripes from me, however. I got a great education here in Oregon, an hour’s drive from the Pacific Ocean. I’m sure the places we live all have their own beauty. I’ve never seen the Atlantic, but my brother’s been all over the US and Canada — and always returns to the NW. We’re kind of the last natural frontier out here. (I’m digressing again; sorry!) Some urbane people move out West and hate it for the redneck folk who live here. And it’s true that a scant 10 miles from my city exist farmland and bucolic people with little education. I played in a rock band with such folks 35 miles south of here. It was the most fun in a musical group I’d ever had. Music was our common language, so that was comforting. They actually caught me smiling in one snapshot taken at a gig… We have trade schools here, and community colleges (Lane Community College even has a flight school, I think). Lane is super for many people who can’t afford the Uni’s tuition. I confess I had no clue what I wanted to do with a degree. My nebulous goal was to be a professional musician, and frankly I think that’s what I still want to do. Thanks for reading, and I appreciate the time you took to reply 🙂

            Liked by 1 person

            • That’s been said a lot about the dumbing down of education. Im not sure if its quite as simple as that… my sons, who are 14 and 16, are learning things at school I never did, and stuff I can’t even understand. On the other hand, spelling, grammar and basic essay writing techniques are lacking. As far as uni is concerned, certainly in English, I feel they’re going to broad, trying to teach us too much whilst not covering anything in depth, and I don’t like that. But that’s the way it is. Btw, in terms of what you want to do with your life, I say don’t waste it, follow your dreams! That’s what I’ve tried to teach my boys. At least you can say you’ve tried, and you’ll never have regrets, and had fun trying. No one achieves anything by not trying. Go for it, Rob! 😊

              Liked by 1 person

            • Geddy Lee of Rush wrote a song called “Best I Can:”

              Got my sights on the stars
              Won’t get that far
              But I’ll try anyway

              …Making millions my dream
              Well, I do that a lot
              I’ll just give it a try
              Won’t let good times pass me by
              They’re all I’ve got!

              You can tell me that I’ve got no class
              Look around, you’ll see who’s laughing last
              Don’t give me speeches ‘cos they’re oh so dull
              Leave me alone, let me rock and roll

              And Joseph Campbell: “Follow your bliss.”

              Liked by 1 person

  6. It’s odd that no one lived in any of these places, isn’t it. All that effort and no one stayed there. And you’re right. They did chose beautiful spots for their structures. Hope the course has been good this year. Is it one more year before you start that PhD?!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Geoff. I’m not sure that it is odd. Look at how magnificent and elaborate or churches and cathedrals are, but no one lives in them. Habitation needs to be practical and easy to maintain. But religious structures, they are physical evidence to devotion to God. They are the place on earth where God dwells, and have to be suitable for him/ her. I’m sure they lived in temporary structures outside of the main enclosures when religious events were called. The course has been great overall this year. But that last semester was really intense, but maybe that was just me. One more year and then I’m done. My friends are trying to persuade me to do a masters after, which would only be a year, but I could only do it if the uni gave me a scholarship, I couldn’t afford to fund myself though it, as I have the last two years, and this coming year. Also, Conor has taken time out from work to mind Carys, I couldn’t expect him to do another year. And what would be the point, but to feed my own pride? No, I’m grateful for what I’ve had, and I’m making the most of it. 😀

      Liked by 2 people

      • You’re right, re churches etc of course; I was just wondering how they afforded the man power for a structure that was just for the celebration but then that’s happened with henges and so on, hasn’t it. Put it down to a slow start to the day!? I need to engage my brain first. Glad you’ve enjoyed yourself and look forward to seeing the fruits of all this learning growing across the web…. and the bookshelves..!!

        Liked by 1 person

        • Ah thanks Geoff… you say the nicest things! As for Emain Macha and manpower, well I guess we can read from the soil analysis that it was a massive communal undertaking from people who lived all around the province, and perhaps therefore not built by a workforce of slaves, but that is making a lot of assumptions. It’s what I like to think, anyway. 😄


  7. Around the year 2000 I bought a book, _Great Stone Circles_ by a certain Burl. The question came up again as to the purpose of these structures. His opinion was that they were used to calculate something mathematical or astronomical. Maybe for marking their calendar? But Burl doubted that Druids used them for pagan rites. It was just his opinion, and I don’t know enough about the subject to have a say myself. But these remains are indeed fascinating to ponder… Perhaps Burl was giving the Druids, etc, the benefit of the doubt re: reputed religious rites that offend contemporary people?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Rob, well it certainly makes you think. I suspect the Druids were not just religious figures but keepers of knowledge in general. In Ireland we had the storytellers, the poets who divided into different branches, the Brehons who dealt with law, the fílí who kept the clan’s history, for example. And who’s to say that in monitoring the skies with their stone circles they weren’t also worshipping the stars at the same time? At Loughcrew, as you enter the main cairn at the top of the hill, cairn T, on either side there are orthostats with countless tiny cupmarks on them. When the mound was ‘discovered’ in the 1700s, a mass of tiny little white chalk balls were found on the floor near these stones. The connection was not then made, and the chalk balls disappeared. Now it is thought these balls represented stars, and could be moved around the cupmarks as they were tracked, a star map, monitoring the celestial bodies. Yet the remains of burials were also found in the cairns, and burials are always made with ceremony and ritual. But why the two together in the one place? Death and stars? Or rebirth and other dimensions, maybe? Its hard for us to make the connection. Incidentally, the stones inside the chambers are covered with carved symbols which look like flowers, but could represent stars, planets or the sun. In one chamber, at the equinoxes, the dawn sunlight tracks one of these symbols right across the stone. Its amazing. But what does it mean? I have no problem with opinion. One day, one of these opinions will hit on something close to tbe truth. 😊

      Liked by 2 people

    • Oh and I’d just like to make a connection between poetry and mathematics. You I’m sure will be aware of it. Poetry is not seen as a science, but how much mathematics is involved in creating some poetic forms? So if maths and poetry can be combined, and still be aesthetically pleasing while being numerically correct, why not astronomy and religion, or ritual? That’s as far as my limited brain can stretch, I’m afraid, but you might be able to expand on that. 😉

      Liked by 1 person

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