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Welcome to Unreal, a podcast about Irish history, stories and tradition.
What does an Irish man seek in a wife? There are many tales in Ireland of women wooed for their beauty, gentle nature, and talents at womanly arts. But while these stories have gained in fame, a different desirable quality has become forgotten. For certain warriors and chieftains of early Ireland, it was just as important to learn how fast a woman could run before falling in love. One Tipperary mountain gets its name from the contest held to find the fastest woman, to marry the bravest warrior.
But, as it turns out, marrying the fastest woman in Ireland is exactly the opposite of what you should do for a quiet life. For when you marry a fast, strong woman against her will, you can bet that the running she will do will be far and long away from you. I’m Ruth Atkins and this is Unreal.
Slievenamon is a mountain in the south of County Tipperary. In Irish, it was often called by the longer name of Sliabh na mBan Fhionn na hEireann – the mountain of the fair women of Ireland. The mountain holds a special place in the gallant and exciting stories of the Fianna, Ireland’s band of noble warriors, led by the valiant Fionn Mac Cumhail. While the Fianna had exploits and escapades all around Ireland, a number of stories suggest that they were drawn to this southern mountainside, time and again, for some of their strangest adventures.
According to folklore, an extraordinary contest took place at Slievenamon long ago. In the contest, the beautiful women of Ireland competed fiercely with each other for the hand in marriage of Fionn Mac Cumhail, the fairest and most noble warrior in the land. But the way that they competed was not through the conventional methods of courtship, such as dancing or beauty or seduction. This bridal contest was something else entirely. It was a race, to see how fast these women could run.
It became known in Ireland that Fionn Mac Cumhaill, who had taken many mistresses in his time, was now in search of a new wife. As word got around, every fair lady in the land believed that she would soon be chosen to be Fionn’s bride. But when they looked around them, the women began to see all of their sisters and friends as rivals, and their jealousy began to boil over into hate. As woman turned against woman, soon there grew to be such hatred between the ladies, that it threatened to bring the whole country into turmoil and violence. Something had to be done, the Fianna pleaded to Fionn. And he agreed.
Fionn realized that if he was to publicly pick one woman to be his bride, he would make dangerous enemies of the others and their families. So he made an announcement. He told all the women of Ireland that he loved and admired them equally, and simply did not have the heart to choose between them. As he could not marry them all, Fionn continued, the only option was to leave the decision to the women’s own pretty feet. There would be a race, he said. And the woman to run the fastest, would win the hand of Fionn Mac Cumhaill.
Now, this story raises a question – Why?? Why on earth would being a fast runner make you a suitable wife? And why would such a story be told in folklore?
Well there are a couple of possible reasons, I think.
Several stories of the Fianna involve women transformed into fast-moving animals. Another tale set in Slievenamon tells how the Fianna came across the mountain when they were chasing a fawn, and it is revealed that the fawn is in fact a fairy maiden of the Otherworld, sent to entice them. Fionn’s first love was a deer-maiden called Sadbh, who was enchanted to take the shape of the animal for three years. Fionn came across her while hunting. His hounds refused to harm her. Perhaps the men of the Fianna developed a taste for women who had the speed and lightness of foot that these enchantments had placed on them. If you wanted to take a more pro-woman reading of the group, it would make sense that a strong fast warrior would need a strong fast bride, one who could keep up with their quests around the land.
However, female speed as an attractive trait could also have come into Irish folklore from how much pressure there was on young people to get married within a very short space of time. For a long time in Ireland, Shrove Tuesday, the day before Lent was said to be a particularly lucky day to marry. Because of this, all arrangements for the year’s upcoming marriages had to be made in the short space of time between Christmas and Ash Wednesday. The man’s family and friends would visit the woman’s parents to fix up the match between big and little Christmas, that is, in the 12 days between the 25th of December and the 6th January. Friends of the woman would visit the man’s farm and “walk the land” in this time as well. Arrangements would then have to move quickly, hurrying to be ready in time for Shrove Tuesday in early spring, for when Ash Wednesday brought Lent there could be no more weddings until Easter.
In Southwest Munster, Shrove Tuesday night brought a rather disturbing tradition against the bachelors and spinsters in the area. Those who had not managed to find love quickly enough were punished with tricks and abuse. Their chimneys were stuffed full of rubbish, their gates were taken off their hinges, their walls were plastered with mud and their cows set loose from their fields. The attackers would blow into bottles like trumpets, summoning the unmarried people to travel to Skellig off the coast of Kerry. As it was one of the furthest west places in Ireland, it was where Lent would begin the latest so they had the longest chance to marry. The lists of single people that the groups set out to terrorise were known as the Skellig Lists. So there was an awful lot of pressure on young men and women to marry with speed, and perhaps this somehow seeped into the folklore, making people imagine that women who were physically fast, might be fast in other areas of their life as well.
The bridal race for Fionn Mac Cumhaill’s hand was no easy task to organize. The Fianna had to find the perfect location for testing the speed of the hopeful women. They settled at last on a pretty mountain in Tipperary – unnamed at the time, of course – and the party of hopefuls and warriors made their way there. Fionn stood at the top of the mountain, surveying the women who were about to run up to him.
Though Fionn had professed in public to adoring each of the waiting women equally, the truth was that he had a soft spot for one of them– a young maiden named Grainne, daughter of the High King of Ireland at this time Cormac. Fionn decided to whisper some private words of advice to Grainne, to help her with her speed. Grainne nodded. She understood.
The race began, and a flurry of ladies began pelting their way up the mountain to where Fionn Mc Cumhail stood at the top, beckoning. At first, it appeared as though Grainne was falling behind, as the others leaned their full strength and speed into the steep ascent. However, soon the other women had spent their energy. One by one, the running women began to overheat and run out of breath, collapsing in the heather on the mountainside. Where they lay, they watched the figure of Grainne, making a steady speed to the top of the mountain. A couple of ladies tried to outstrip her with the last of their energy, but to no avail. The race was in the hands of Grania, and Grania was in the hands of Fionn Mac Cumhaill.
There was just one problem. Fionn had a warrior within his clan, younger than him and more fitting to Grainne’s liking. He was gallant and strong, as all Fionn’s warriors were, and he was known for his swiftness – the fastest footman in the Fianna. His name was Diarmaid, son of Duibhne.
The moment she saw him, Grainne fell hopelessly in love with Diarmuid, and she instantly knew that she could not stay with Fionn Mac Cumhaill. As Fionn and the others celebrated around her, Grainne began to plot her escape.
At the wedding feast, Grainne called her serving maid and asked her to bring her her golden cup. She filled it with wine, and passed it around to the Fionn and the whole company, except for Diarmuid. When all had drunk the wine, they fell into a deep, sound sleep, and Diarmuid and Grainne were alone.
Grainne rose, and, turning to Diarmuid, she spoke to him.
Will you take my love, Diarmuid, son of Duibhne, and will you bring me away out of this house tonight?
At first Diarmuid refused. He would not meddle with a woman promised to Fionn, he proclaimed. But eventually Grainne convinced him, and together they fled. They were chased by the Fianna throughout the country in tales now known as the Toraiocht or The Pursuit of Dhiarmaida agus Grainne. Grainne and Diarmaid’s proven speed now came very much in use. With Fionn and his warriors and hounds never far behind them, only the couple’s speed and cleverness allowed them to escape for as long as they did. I’ll likely dedicate a full episode to them at some point. The places where they slept are now known as leaba Diarmuid agus Grainne, or the beds of Diarmuid and Grainne, and sleeping in these spots is often said to be a powerful cure for infertility.
The stories behind places like the Leaba Diarmuid agus Grainne, and Slievenamon itself, belong to a tradition known as dinseanchas, or the lore of place names. These tales tell of how particular areas came to be called by the names we give them today. The oral stories were likely used as mnemonics for remembering place names long ago. They were recorded in early Irish manuscripts, and have continued to be embellished in both literature and oral storytelling over the centuries. The Rooting place names in stories and myth is not unique to Ireland of course, but Ireland is certainly full of fabulously rich explanations for why areas came to be called by their current names. Giant’s Causeway which I discussed in a previous episode is a particularly famous example, but these tales can be found everywhere you turn in Ireland, a potent reminder of how often we have turned to storytelling to explain the world around us.
Navan Fort, in County Armagh, is Emhain Macha in Irish, and it takes its name from another Irish heroine known for her incredible speed. Her name was Macha, the daughter of Aed Ruad, one of the Tuatha Dé Dannan.
There are two different tales about how Macha gave her name to Emhain Macha, and they are both worth telling. The first is yet another story featuring the desirability of a speedy female partner. Macha was married to a man called Cruinniuc, in Ulster. When Macha was pregnant, the King of Ulster held a large assembly, and Cruinniuc wanted to attend. Macha was reluctant to let her husband leave her while she was with child, in case anything should happen to him. She finally agreed, but first, she warned him not to speak about her while he was at the assembly.
“I will not speak” agreed Cruinniuc.
At the assembly, there was a race, and the King of Ulster’s horses and chariot sped to victory, far ahead of the other animals. His fawning followers began to heap praise upon the king. “Never has there been anything faster than those two horses” they said.
Now, Cruinniuc had promised his wife that he wouldn’t speak, but on hearing this he simply couldn’t contain himself, and he raised his voice high above the crowd.
“My wife Macha is faster than those two horses,” he said.
A silence followed. The people turned to hear what the king had to say.
“Arrest that man” the king said, “And bring his wife to me!”
The King’s messengers went to Macha’s home. They told her they were bringing her to race against the king’s horses, because of her husband’s boasts.
She explained to them that she was heavily pregnant, and could not race, but they would not accept this, telling her that Cruinniuc would be killed if she did not come with them.
When Macha arrived at the assembly, a huge crowd of Ulster men gathered to watch her race. At the starting line, she pleaded with the king again. By this point, her labour pains had started and she was in terrible pain. She begged them to postpone the race, just until she had given birth. “Help me” she said to the crowd, “for you were all born of a mother. Wait until I have delivered.” But again the king and his people refused.
“Then,” Macha answered, “If you refuse me this mercy, I will see to it that the greatest misfortune will fall on you and your men.”
Macha took her place beside the horses, and the race began. She quickly far outstripped them, and made it right to the finish line, but there at the end the throes of childbirth overtook her, and she collapsed and gave birth to twins. As she gave birth, Macha let out such a piercing cry that all who heard it fell into weakness and pain. For nine generations after, it’s said, the men of Ulster became as weak as women in childbirth, unable to hunt, or to fight, or to defend themselves, until Cuchulainn, who came from elsewhere, joined their forces. And so the place of the assembly became known as Emhain Mhacha, or The Twins of Macha, for centuries to come.
There is a different, possibly even more ferocious story of how Emhain Macha got its name. In this tale, Macha is not famous for her speed, but for her strength. At the time, it’s said, three kings ruled over Ireland in a joint sovereignty. Every seven years, they would switch places, and one of the others would be the king. They were each to take three turns, making it 63 years in total. One of the men was Macha’s father Aodh Rua, and it came to pass that he died suddenly by drowning, before his term was complete. Macha demanded at her father’s death, that she should inherit her his turn as ruler, and become queen. But the other two men refused to surrender their kingship to a woman. A great battle was held, but Macha showed her superior strength, and emerged victorious. She still had to deal with one of the rival king’s five sons, however. She banished them to Connaught, but she knew that it would not be long before they returned to claim their turn as king.
Macha quickly came up with a clever plan to outsmart and defeat the five enemy brothers. She rubbed rye dough and red mud from the bog over her skin, and disguised herself in leper’s rags, until she was unrecognisable. She then travelled to Connaught and there she found the banished sons seated around a fire, cooking a wild boar. Despite her leper disguise, Macha was still beautiful, and the men invited her to sit down by the fire with them, and gave her food. One of them said to the others – “Beautiful is the hag’s eye – let us lie with her!”
He took hold of Macha and carried her into the wood. When they were out of earshot however, Macha turned on the man. Now showing her true strength, she soon overpowered him, tied him up, and left him alone in the wood, returning to the campfire by herself.
The other men asked her what had become of their brother. “He was ashamed” she replied, “He did not want to come back to you after he had lain with a lepress.”
“It’s no shame” said the men, “for we are about to do the same.”
Each of the men in turn carried Macha into the woods, and each of them in turn were overpowered by her and tied up with their brothers deep within the forest. When Macha had bound all of the men, she brought them together with her to her stronghold. Though her followers called out for them to be killed, Macha had a better plan in mind.
They shall be slaves, she said, and shall dig a rath around me, so that this place may forever be a mighty fortress.
Then she marked out the boundaries of her stronghold, using the gold brooch that she wore close to her neck. The place, thereafter, became known as The Neck Brooch of Macha, or Emhain Mhacha, as it’s called today.
When you see an Irish place name, you should always ask what the story behind it is. Chances are, you’ll find several tales you’ve never heard before. Our folklore stays with us, sewn into the ways we look at the land. And when you meet an Irish woman, take care not to mistreat her, for with the speed and strength of Macha and Grainne, you won’t have much chance of escape!
Thanks for listening to this episode of Unreal. You can find links to sources and further reading on Unrealpodcast.com. If you enjoyed this episode, please consider subscribing leaving a rating or review on iTunes, and you can keep up to date at Unreal Pod on twitter or facebook. The theme song is The Butterfly by Sláinte, and you can find links to the music from today’s episode on my website. I’ll be back in two weeks time for the final episode of this season of Unreal, where I’ll be talking about one of Ireland’s strangest Christmas traditions – the Hunting of the Wren. Until then, go néirí an bóthar leat.