There is a well-known body of Irish placename lore called the Dindshenchas, which can be found in several different Irish manuscripts. The best known Dindshenchas tales are perhaps the Metrical Dindshenchas, which were translated by Edward Gwynn, and these can be found online in four volumes. There are also prose versions, which Whitley Stokes translated in a further four volumes. The following Dinnshenchas tales are from the lesser-known Edinburgh manuscript, which is dated to the fifteenth century. The selection of tales I’ve chosen relate to several well-known gods of the Irish landscape and also offer slightly different versions of the Dinnshenchas, some of which can only be found in the Edinburgh manuscript.
The following tale explains the origins of Ard Macha – now Armagh. The three Macha’s are well-known, but this version is the only Dinnshenchas that mentions Macha’s vision of the Táin Bó Cualgne. Macha is, of course, somewhat related to that tale, since it is her curse that caused The Debility of the Ulstermen (mentioned in the third explanation below) that puts Conchobar’s army out of action for a while, forcing Cú Chulainn to defend Ulster from the onslaught of Medb’s army by himself.
Cú Chulainn himself rode a horse called the Grey of Macha, which may or may not go some way towards explaining why Cú Chulainn was immune to the labour pains; it is not something that is ever actually explained. The tale of the labour pains itself is thought to be a fairly late addition to the body of Irish myth (see for example Gantz’s Early Irish Myths and Sagas).
Ard Macha, whence is it ?
Not hard (to say). Macha, wife of Nemed,<sup>1</sup> son of Agnoman, died there, and it was the twelfth plain which was cleared by Nemed, and it was bestowed on his wife that her name might be over it, and ’tis she that saw in a dream, long before it came to pass, all the evil that was done in the Driving of the Kine of Cualnge. In her sleep there was shown to her all the evil that was suffered therein, and the hardships and the wicked quarrels: so that her heart broke in her. Whence Ard Macha, ” Macha’s Height.”
Macha, the very shrewd, beheld
Through a vision a–graces which we say not–
Descriptions of the times (?) of Cualgne–
Twas a deed of pride, not of boasting.
Or, Macha, daughter of Aed the Red,<sup>2</sup> son of Badurn: ’tis by her that Emain Macha was marked out, and there she was buried when Rechtaid Red-arm killed her. To lament her Oenach Macha, ” Macha’s Assembly,” was held. Whence Macha Magh.
Aliter. Macha, now, wife of Crunn,<sup>3</sup> son of Agnoman, came there to run against the horses of King Conor. For her husband had declared that his wife was swifter than the horses. Thus then was that woman pregnant: so she asked a respite till her womb had fallen, and this was not granted to her. So then she ran the race, and she was the swiftest. And when she reached the end of the green she brings forth a boy and a girl–Fír and Fíal were their names–and she said that the Ulaid would abide under debility of childbed whensoever need should befall them. So thence was the debility on the Ulaid for the space of five days and four nights (at a time) from the era of Conor to the reign of Mál, son of Rochraide (A.D. 107). And ’tis said that she was Grian Banchure, “the Sun of Womanfolk,” daughter of Midir of Brí Léith. And after this she died, and her tomb was raised on Ard Macha, and her lamentation was made, and her pillar-stone was planted. Whence is Ard Macha, “Macha’s Height.”
Whitley Stokes, ‘The Edinburgh Dinnshenchas‘, in Folklore IV, 1893, p481.
1 This Macha is mentioned in Lebor Gabála Érenn, ‘The Book of the Taking of Ireland.’
2 Also known as Macha Mong Ruad (‘Macha Red Mane’); she assumes the kingship of Ireland in place of her father, which resulted in her father’s cousins waging war.
3 This is the Macha who caused the debility (or ‘labour pains’) of the Ulstermen.