In honour of women’s day, let’s trawl through the fascinating world of Irish myths and legends for the fearless women of lore. We start with the warrior Queen Medb of Connacht.
Ireland has a wealth of legend and folklore on offer to those interested in such topics. A country’s mythological base has vast reaching influence on the present-day culture and lifestyle of it’s people.
An aspect of Irish and, by extension, Celtic mythology is that the focus of many legends of import is fearless women. Beautiful and terrifying in equal measure, these warrior women and queens used their cunning and sex to overpower and rule kingdoms and heroes alike.
One such beguiling beauty that makes an appearance in many a battle lore is Queen Medb of Connacht. Also spelled as ‘Maedbh’ and often anglicised as Maeve, Queen Medb is known as the ultimate warrior queen from the Ulster cycle of Irish mythology.
Described as a fair-haired woman who was so beautiful that it robbed men of two-thirds of their valour upon seeing her, her personality was equally intimidating. Strong-willed, ambitious, and cunning, her husband in most of the stories is Ailill mac Máta, although she had several husbands before him who were also powerful figures.
Ruling from Cruachan (present-day Rathcroghan, Co Roscommon), she made an enemy of her former husband Conchobar mac Nessa, King of Ulster.
Medb and her husband Ailill had seven sons, all called Maine. They originally all had other names, but when Medb asked a druid which of her sons would kill her ex-husband and sworn enemy Conchobar of Ulster, he replied, “Maine”. She did not have a son called Maine, so she renamed all her sons as follows:
- Fedlimid became Maine Athramail (“like his father”)
- Cairbre became Maine Máthramail (“like his mother”)
- Eochaid became Maine Andoe (“the swift”)
- Fergus became Maine Taí (“the silent”)
- Cet became Maine Mórgor (“of great duty”)
- Sin became Maine Mílscothach (“honey-speech”)
- Dáire became Maine Móepirt (“beyond description”)
The druid’s prophecy was fulfilled when Maine Andoe went on to kill Conchobar.
The Cattle Raid of Cooley
Medb insisted that she be equal in wealth with her husband, and started the Cattle Raid of Cooley (Táin Bó Cúailnge) when she discovered that her husband Ailill was one powerful stud bull richer than her. She discovered that the only rival to Ailill’s bull, Finnbennach, was Donn Cúailnge, Ulster’s prize stud bull owned by Dáire mac Fiachna who had sworn allegiance to Conchobar.
She sent messengers to Dáire, offering wealth and land in return for the loan of the bull, and Dáire initially agreed. But when a drunken messenger declared that had he not agreed, the bull would have been taken by force anyway, Dáire withdrew his consent, and Medb prepared for war.
Due to a divine curse on all Ulstermen, the invasion was opposed only by the teenage Ulster hero Cúchulainn, who held up the army’s advance by demanding single combat at fords. Medb and Ailill offered their daughter Findabair in marriage to a series of heroes as payment for fighting Cúchulainn, but all were defeated.
Nevertheless, Medb secured the bull. However, after a final battle against Conchobar’s assembled army, she was forced to retreat. Donn Cúailnge was brought back to Cruachan, where it fought Ailill’s bull, Finnbennach, killing him, but dying of his wounds.
A warrior’s death – by a piece of cheese!
After the dissolution of their marriage, Medb’s ex-husband Conchobar went on to marry Medb’s sister, Clothru. In turn, Medb proceeded to kill her sister Clothru, in order to assume the sovereignty of Rathcroghan. Clothru’s son Furbaide sought revenge for his mother’s death and planned to kill her at a pool of water that she bathed in every morning. He practiced using a stone and a sling, and hitting an apple sitting on top of a stake.
When he eventually saw her at the pool he was eating a piece of cheese, and rather than stop and look for a stone he used the cheese and hit Medb on the crown of her head and killed her.
According to legend, Medb is buried in Miosgán Médhbh (Maeve’s lump of butter), a 40-foot (12 m) high stone cairn on the summit of Knocknarea (Cnoc na Ré in Irish) in County Sligo. Supposedly, she is buried upright facing her enemies in Ulster.
Her home in Rathcroghan, County Roscommon is also a potential burial site, with a long low slab named ‘Misgaun Medb‘ being given as the most likely location.
Learn more about Queen Medb
The Rathcroghan Visitor Centre in Rathcroghan (Cruachan Aí) is a community museum for guided tours of the archaeologically rich landscape.