B) Irish Sovereigns

1) Mythological accounts

Irish mythology illustrates that each province of Ireland, ruled by different peoples, was represented and presided over by a distinctive goddess: Medb Lethderg of the Laighin reigned over Leinster, Medb Cruachan of the Connachta protected Connacht, Macha of the Ulaid was the patroness of Ulster and Mór Muman of the Érainn ruled over Munster. In the various accounts which relate their adventures they are described as acceding to the throne or coupling with kings, which is evocative of their aspect of sovereignty. The figures of Medb Lethderg and Medb Cruachan and their legends will be studied and in detail in Chapter 5.

Medb Lethderg (‘Half-Red’) presided over the province of Laighin (Leinster), which got its appelation from the name of the sept* of the Laighin, whose name derives from the Celtic lagini, ‘lance-men’, or leiquni, ‘casters’.1285 The Laighin was an alliance of several tribes, probably originating from Britanny and Britain, who gradually settled in present-day Leinster and parts of Connacht, from the end of the Bronze Age. The Laighin included among them branches of the Brigantes, arriving from Britain in or around the 1st c. AD, of the Gaileoin (‘javelin-jumpers’, from gaiso-lingi),1286 of the Bairrche (Celtic Barreki) and of the Domhnainn (Celtic Dumnoni). They merged with the Érainn people and seized Teamhair (Tara) from them around the 2nd c. AD, but lost it to the Connachta two centuries later.1287 Medb Lethderg presided over the celebrated royal site of Teamhair, the remains of which - a complex of forty monuments - were excavated on the hill overhanging the River Boyne between Navan and Dunshauglhin in Co. Meath (fig. 4).1288 The accounts insist on the impressive number of husbands she had and her role of sovereign. The Book of Leinster indeed indicates that she successively granted sovereignty to Cú Corb, Feidlimid Rechtaid, Art, and Cormarc Mac Airt by marrying them.1289

As for Medh Cruachan (‘Red-Skinned’), she is most certainly an emanation of Medb Lethderg and is also an emblematic figure of sovereignty.1290 An early 10th-century AD text, entitled Cath Boinde [‘The Battle of the Boyne’], recounts that she inherited the throne of Cruachain from her father and that she successively married five husbands: Conchobhar of Ulster, Fidech mac Féice, Tindi mac Con, Eochaid Dála and Ailill mac Máta.1291 The sept* of the Connachta, whose name signifies ‘Descendants of Conn’, took control of Teamhair (Tara) from the Laighin people in or about 400 AD.1292 They then destroyed Eamhain Mhacha, the royal centre of the Ulaid and settled in various parts of Ulster. A branch of the powerful Connachta took possession of the south-west province, originally called Ól nÉacmacht, which was from that time on called after them. In view of this information, it is clear that the cult of Medb, which was originally attached to Teamhair (Tara) and the Laighin, was adopted by the Connachta when they seized Teamhair. They brought her cult to Ulster, where groups of them settled after fighting the Ulaid. At this time, her worship was associated with that of the mythical Ulster king Fergus (‘Virility’) mac Róich (‘Son of Great Stallion’), who abandoned and fought against his own people for the love of Queen Medb in an abstruse 7th-century text entitled Conailla Medb Míchuru [‘Medb enjoined Evil Contracts’] and in the later epic story Táin Bó Cuailnge [‘The Cattle Raid of Cooley’].1293 When the Connachta settled in the south-west, probably around 600 AD, Medb was attached to Cruachain, their great fortress. The archaeological site of this fortress is at Rath Chrúachain (Rathcroghan), an impressive Iron Age mound belonging to a complex of around forty-nine monuments, situated to the north-west of the village of Tulsk, in the north of Co. Roscommon (fig. 4).1294 In Táin Bó Cuailnge [‘The Cattle Raid of Cooley’], Cruachain is the stronghold of Queen Medb and her husband Ailill. The legend recounts the raid launched by Medb on the Ulstermen to obtain the great bull of Cooley and echoes the war which occurred between the Connachta and the Ulaid. Medb Cruachan is therefore regarded as the tutelary goddess of the Connachta, who presided over their territory: the province of Connacht.

As regards the goddess Macha, she is associated with the sacral centre of the Ulaid in Ulster which bears her name: Eamhain Mhacha. It corresponds to the huge Late Bronze Age - Iron Age hill-fort, known today as ‘Navan Fort’, excavated five kilometres to the west of Armagh, in Co. Armagh (fig. 4).1295 According to Ó hÓgáin, the hill fort, initially called in prehistoric Ireland by the Celtic name *Isomnion, became known as Eamhain Mhacha, on account of the sacredness of the land surrounding the hill fort - the ‘plain’, macha in Irish, was deified as a goddess.1296 Macha being several times equated with the Mórrígain, whose character is very ancient, one can suppose that Macha supplanted the Mórrígain in her role of land-goddess of sovereignty in Ulster.1297 A later legend relates that Macha was the daughter of Aed Rúad, who, with Cimbáeth and Díthorba, successively ruled over Ireland for seven years each.1298 After the death of Aed, Macha Mong Rúad (‘Red-Haired’), fought for the queenship, which she eventually obtained. She then defeated the five sons of Díthorba, who claimed the throne after their father’s death, and married her rival Cimbáeth so as to command his soldiers. To secure her place as Queen, she tricked the sons of Díthorba by turning herself into a leper and bringing them one by one into a forest where she tied them up instead of coupling with them. Reduced to servility, they erected the famous fortress (ráth) Eamhain Mhacha in her honour, which became the capital of the Ulaid (from Celtic *Ulati).

Finally, the goddess Mór Muman (‘the Great Nurtress’) is believed to have been the patroness of Munster. The province, originally Mumu and later Mumhain, is called after her. From her epithet Mór (‘great’), which particularizes the earliest land-goddesses (for instance the Mórrígain), one can infer that her cult is quite ancient and must have emanated with the Érainn people inhabiting the region. She was later given another name, Mugha or Mughain, signifying ‘female servant’, which actually had nothing to do with her. This confusion must correspond to the time when the power of the Érainn was eclipsed by the Eóganacht (‘people of Eόgan’), who controlled the south of Ireland from the 5th c. AD to the 12th c.1299 The eponymous ancestor of this sept*, Eógan, was a derivative of Celtic *Ivo-genos, meaning ‘by the yew conceived’. The Eóganacht adopted and developed her cult by associating her with some of their historical kings.

A 10th-century text features Mór Muman as an early 7th-century historical Queen who married two great kings of the tribe of the Eóganacht ruling over Munster. Here is an example of the recurring pattern of the territorial goddess marrying the reigning king.1300 The legend, entitled Mór Muman Ocus Aided Cuanach Meic Ailchine [‘Mór of Munster and the Tragic Fate of Cuanu Son of Cailchin’], relates that Mór Muman was the daughter of Aed Bennáin, King of Loch Léin (Lake Killarney) - the stronghold of a branch of the Eóganacht.1301 After being asked in marriage by several kings, Mór Muman started hearing voices warning her of her future woes. Turning mad, she decided to leave the fortress of her father and wandered for two years around Ireland. When she arrived at Caiseal (Cashel, Co. Tipperary) - one of the original strongholds of the Eóganacht sept*, situated on a huge rock, and set up by the mythical Conall Corc after he had seen a yew tree appear there -1302 she had become an ugly woman dressed in rags. She yet managed to lie with the king of Munster, Fíngein mac Áeda. She took the Queen’s place and bore Fíngein a son, called Sechnasach. After the death of Fíngein, Mór Muman went to Cathal mac Finnguine, the king of Glendamain (north-east Cork), where her sister Ruithchern was held in captivity, and they together mourned for Fingen. In this text, Cathal mac Finnguine, who ruled over Munster from 721 to 742 AD, is confused with his great-grand father, Cathal mac Aodha, the actual successor of Fíngein mac Áeda when Fíngein died in 619 AD.1303 Mór Muman then entrusted her sister to the care of Lonán mac Findech, who decided to bring her back to her people, the sons of Aed Bennáin. On their way, they were attacked by Cuanu mac Cailchin, King of Fer Maige Féne at Loch Liathmhuine (a place situated in the parish of Kilgullane, Barony of Fermoy, Co. Cork),1304 and Ruithchern was abducted. When Lonán returned to Loch Léin without Ruithchern, the sons of Aed Bennáin proclaimed war upon the sons of Cathal for not being capable of protecting her. In the course of the battle, Lonán mac Findech, seeking revenge for his wife, beheaded Cuanu mac Cailchin.


Ó hÓgáin, 2006, pp. 305-306 ; Mackillop, 2004, pp. 146, 246-247, 291.


Delamarre, 2003, p. 174: gaiso- ‘javelin’ & p. 203: ling- ‘to jump’.


Ó hÓgáin, 1999, pp. 163-165.


Raftery, 2006, pp. 63-68 ; Kruta, 2000, pp. 833-834.


Ó Máille, 1928, pp. 137-138 refers to the Book of Leinster (LL) 380 a 53.


Ó hÓgáin, 2006, p. 340 ; Mackillop, 2004, p. 327.


Ó Máille, 1928, p. 131 ; O’Neill, 1905, pp. 178-179, 182-185.


Ó hÓgáin, 2006, pp. 118-119 ; Ó hÓgáin, 1999, pp. 165-171 ; Mackillop, 2004, p. 102. For information about the king Conn Céadchathach (earlier Cond Cétchathach), i.e. ‘wise leader of the hundred battles’, see Ó hÓgáin, 2006, pp. 115-118.


Carney, 1971, pp. 73-80 ; Henry, 1997, pp. 56-64 ; Ó hÓgáin, 2006, pp. 217- 219, 340.


Raftery, 2006, pp. 68-70 ; Kruta, 2000, p. 790.


Raftery, 2006, pp. 73-78 ; Kruta, 2000, pp. 748-750 ; Ó hÓgáin, 1999, pp. 171-177.


Ó hÓgáin, 2006, pp. 325-327.


Ó hÓgáin, 2006, p. 325.


Best, Bergin and O’Brien, 1954, pp. 79-85 ; Dumézil, 1954, pp. 9-11 gives a French translation of the text.


Ó hÓgáin, 2006, pp. 202-204 ; Mackillop, 2004, p. 189.


Mac Cana, 1955-1956, pp. 78-85 ; Olmsted, 1994, p. 162.


O’Nolan, 1912, pp. 261-282 ; The two texts published by Mac Eoin, 1978, pp. 63-82, which also recount the story of Mór Muman and her sister Suithchern, with variants in the king names, is not studied here, because the texts, dating from the 14th - 15th c., are too late to be taken into account.


Ó hÓgáin, 2006, pp. 202-203


Ó hÓgáin, 2006, pp. 67-68 ; Mackillop, 2004, p. 81.


O’Nolan, 1912, p. 274.