Macha is another important deity of An Tuatha Dé Danann. She was a warrior goddess with strong links to the land especially the province of Ulster. Many places in Ulster were named after her e.g. Armagh is ‘Ard Mhacha’ in Irish which means ‘Height of Macha.’ Emain Macha, Ulster’s ancient capital, was also named in her honour. Its modern name is ‘Navan fort’ and ruins of the site are still visible today just outside Armagh city.
Macha is associated with sovereignty, prosperity, fertility, kingship, war and horses. She was known to fight side by side with her male counterparts such as Lugh and Nuada, to defend her country.
Macha appeared in several tales but the most famous involves Macha marrying Crunnius, a wealthy widower living on a farm in Ulster. It is not known why a powerful goddess like Macha went to live on an isolated farm. Perhaps she was in hiding or maybe she simply just wanted to settle down and have children.
The story goes that sometime after the death of Cruinnius’ first wife, Macha appears at his house. Without speaking, she begins keeping his house and acting as his wife. Soon they marry and she becomes pregnant. As long as they were together Crunnius’ wealth grew. Crunnius soon becomes aware of his new wife’s special abilities such as her strength and the speed at which she can run but she makes him promise not to tell anyone about her as it will lead to tragedy.
All was well until Crunnius was invited to attend a festival organised by the King of Ulster. During a chariot race, Crunnius boasts that his wife can run faster than the King’s horses. The King orders Crunnius to make good on his claim. Although she is heavily pregnant, Macha is brought to the gathering and forced to race the horses. She wins the race but then cries out in pain as she gives birth to twins at the finish line. The place where Macha gave birth would be called Emain Macha, or ‘Macha’s twins’ thereafter.
Some versions of the story say that Macha died after giving birth. Another version says that the twins died. Regardless, of the outcome, it was a truly horrific way to treat any woman, but the men of Ulster would soon come to regret their actions.
Macha cursed the men of Ulster to become as ‘weak in pain as a woman in childbirth’ at the time of their greatest need. This weakness would last for five days, and the curse would last for nine generations.
This curse carried through to the saga ‘an Táin Bó Cuailnge’ (Cattle Raid of Cooley), where the men of Ulster were unable to defend their borders against Queen Maeve of Connaught due to Macha’s curse. The only warrior exempt from Macha’s curse was Cuchulainn, who single handily fought Maeve’s army for five days until the curse lifted. It is thought that because Cuchulainn was ‘not yet bearded’, he was too young to be affected by the curse. It could also be because Cúchulainn was the son of Lugh, a former friend of Macha and leader of An Tuatha Dé Danann.
Interestingly, one of Cúchulainn’s chariot horses was a grey horse called ‘Liath Macha’ which means ‘grey of Macha’.
Macha was said to have been killed by Balor at the 2nd battle of Moytura. She is buried alongside Nuada beneath ‘Labby rock’ in south County Sligo.