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Ancient Celtic Centers — Emain Macha and Navan Fort

Ancient Celtic Centers — Emain Macha and Navan Fort

In this post, Christian author Mark Fisher continues looking at ancient Celtic centers of culture and power, centering today on Emain Macha, the seat of the kings of Ulster.

Navan Fort, Northern Ireland

Navan Fort Roundhouse

If you ever travel to Northern Ireland, be sure to stop at Navan Fort near Armagh for a day or an afternoon. Here you will find a museum giving a detailed audio history of the site; a replica of an ancient roundhouse, with actors and actresses dressed in period costumes and serving as guides; and the archaeological site of Emain Macha, seat of the ancient Ulster kings. I found it fascinating. My wife, not so much.

Emain Macha, Home of the Kings of Ulster

With a bit of imagination and borrowing from the archaeological and historical record, let us now visit the Emain Macha of 1,600 years ago, shortly after St. Patrick’s arrival. Let us imagine what might have been…

For three days we’ve traveled from our tuath on the eastern shore, plagued by near-constant rain. Only moments ago, our cousin Airril mac Dubh met us in the forest. Now we burst out of the trees into sunlight. Above us lies the hilltop center of Emain Macha. Great earthen ramparts surround the nearly 800 foot long hill. We follow Airril up the ramp. At the top, we admire the commanding view of the hills around. Sheep and cows from a few nearby roundhouses dot the countryside.

The Druid Temple

Model of the Druid Temple

On the hillock itself sit two great structures. The first is an enormous, round building at least 120 feet in diameter. Upright planks surround the bottom, above which a cone of thatch rises to a great height. In this land of Ériu, it is the largest building we have ever set eyes upon.

“The druid temple,” whispers Airril. “And today, the druid Cormag will make a sacrifice to Danu.”

“Have you heard of the Roman traveler named Pádhraig?” I asked. “He brings news of a new God in the world. One whose Son he sacrificed once and for all, a sacrifice to end all sacrifices. I heard him speak over at Strangford Loch.”

“Nay. But best not talk of such around Cormag. Sure and certain, he’d take a dim view of it.”

On our left and right are smaller roundhouses, a few vegetable gardens, and a horse stall. Women are just now dropping heated stones into a pit, wrapping beef, turnips, and onions in wet leaves, and laying them on top of the stones. Soon, they’ll fill the pit and wait. Perhaps later we’re in for a feast?

The Palace

Airril brings us to the next building, another round structure as wide, but not as high as, the temple. Built of sturdy oak pillars, faced with pine between, and topped with thatch, it can only be the palace of Forga mac Dallán, King of the Ulaid.

“Do you ken he’s got a Barbary Ape inside?” asks Airril. “Chained to pole it is.”

“What kind of creature is that?”

“The king traded gold and silver for it from a distant land. But ’tis like the parody of a man. As if the druids had cast a spell on someone and ended up with . . . that.” Airril stopped at the open doorway, apparently lost in thought. “The king’s gone hunting, so I’ll take you in now for a look. But think, my cousin. Here lived the legendary Conchobar mac Nessa, King of Ulster, and his wife, Queen Medbh. Conchobar was the child of Queen Ness and the druid Cathbad.”

The Tale of Conchobar and Deirdre of the Sorrows

“Aye,” we respond, remembering well the sad tale. “And when the druids tell King Conchobar of the baby Deirdre and how beautiful she would one day become, he steals her and raises her from a child for his wife. But when she comes of age, she runs off to Pictland of the Scots with Naoise, her lover. But Conchobar brings her back, kills her lover, and marries her. Distraught, Deirdre commits suicide.”

“You ken well the tale of Deirdre of the Sorrows. Happened right here at Emain Macha.”

We  shudder. How many tales of sorrow and woe haven’t we heard from our past. And at the center of every one stands a druid. We nod to Airril all the same. Soon, we must tell him what we heard from the Roman Pádhraig—the story of Jesu, the Son of the One True God.

For certain it is that when my countrymen hear of Him, the druids’ days will surely be numbered. I follow Airril into the palace.

Mark is the author of The Bonfires of Beltane, a novel of Christian historical fiction set in AD 432 at the time of St. Patrick. (Follow the link above to learn more about his book.)

Sources for this post, with apologies, are from Pagan Celtic Ireland, by Barry Raftery, St. Patrick of Ireland, by Philip Freeman, and Wikipedia.