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Ancient Celtic Centers — Cruachain of Connacht

Ancient Celtic Centers — Cruachain of Connacht

In this post, Christian author Mark Fisher continues his series on ancient Celtic centers with Cruachain, the ancient seat of the kings of Connacht in northwest Ireland. We’ll also look at the mythological Cath Bóinde, the tale of Medb, the warrior queen.

Artist’s Conception of Rathcrogan

Today, the plain of Rathcroghan holds an astounding 240 archaeological sites and monuments. They range in age from 4,000 BC to AD 400. Including burial mounds, ringforts, and a cave, they testify to a site of huge importance to Connacht’s Celtic history.

Thirty feet high and 94 yards in diameter, the Rathcroghan mound was probably the location of the palace of the ancient kings.  Surveying shows that the fort was built on top of two concentric stone rings from an earlier time. Mythology describes the Cruachain palace as a great round building with wooden pillars supporting a second story. Inside was a maze of rooms paneled in red yew. The royal hall and bedroom occupied the house’s center.

The Cave of Oweynagat, Gateway to the Otherworld?

Oweynegat, Entrance to the Otherworld?

Also interesting is the nearby cave of Oweynagat that the Celts believed was a gateway to the Otherworld. In the distant past, its entrance lay inside an earthen mound. Later on, a 60-yard underground passageway was built to the cave opening. Celtic mythology says that on Samhain eve, Otherworld creatures emerged from Oweynagat to ravage the countryside. The Ellen Trechen, a three-headed monster, once laid waste the surrounding region until the poet and hero, Amergin of Ulster killed it. Later from the cave also came small red birds and herds of pigs with powers to wither everything they touched. The pigs were hunted down by the mythical figures Ailill and Medb.

The Cath Bóinde — The Tale of Medb, the Warrior Queen

Of the history of Cruachain and what went on there, we know little. But the mythological tale of  The Cath Bóinde does tell us much about Medb (Maeve), whose exploits centered around Cruachain as Connacht’s ancient capital.

Medb’s father, Eochaid Feidlich, was reputedly the High King of Ireland. When Eochaid married her to Conchobar mac Nessa, king of Ulster, she became unhappy with the marriage. After bearing him a son, Medb left him. Her father then gave her sister, Eithne, to Conchobar. But after Medb’s sister became pregnant, Medb murdered her.

Her father then dethroned Tinni mac Conri, the king of Connacht, and installed Medb in his place in the palace of Cruachain. But Medb and Tinni soon became lovers, and she gave back to Tinni some of his power.

Meanwhile, the kings and queens of Ireland’s provinces gathered at Tara. There Medb’s first husband Conchobar raped her. This resulted in a war between Connacht and Ulster. As the Connacht army retreated, Eochaid Dala (a different Eochaid) excelled in battle and saved it from destruction. This Eochaid then became Medb’s next husband and king of Connacht. She claimed her qualifications for a husband were “an absence of meanness, jealousy, and fear.” But Eochaid wasn’t enough, and Medb’s promiscuous ways quickly returned. She soon took Ailill mac Máta, her chief bodyguard, as her next lover. When Eochaid discovered the liaison, he challenged Ailill to single combat, but Eochaid lost. The result? Ailill married Medb and became the king of Connacht with Medb as his queen.

Sordid affairs, indeed.

Next week, we’ll learn more about Cruachain by looking at the Tale of the Táin, where Queen Medb challenges Ailill to compare her wealth with his, leading to the great cattle raid on Ulster.

Mark is the author of The Bonfires of Beltane, a novel of Christian historical fiction set in ancient, Celtic Ireland at the time of St. Patrick. To learn more about his book, click on the link.

Sources for this post were various Wikipedia articles.