Located in county Roscommon, Rathcroghan is part of a complex of 240 archaeological sites from the Neolithic period (4,000BC) through to the late Medieval period (1600AD). It is remembered as one of the great ceremonial gathering places in Ireland. These ceremonies took place at key points during the year, the changing of the seasons. It was time for judgements to be passed, for kings to be inaugurated, for feasts and festivities.
History of Rathcroghan in Ireland
The landscape lies on an elevated limestone plateau, resulting in clear and fertile land. Early farming communities settled here. They held close links with their ancestors and built these monuments to develop a stronger relationship with the land. At a time when societies were moving away from nomadic life, and towards farming and ritual monument construction, Rathcrogan was a place of great importance.
In the late Medieval period, it is recorded as one of the main burial places in Ireland. There are 28 identifiable burial sites still visible on the land today. The mounds are built to be visible from a far distance. Ruling classes treated their dead with great care. They placed the remains of their ancestors in these locations as a sign of power and authority over the region.
On the tour, we climbed to the top of Rathcrogen Mound, believed to be a site where royal kings were inaugurated. It was where they would have bled cattle or performed rituals for a good harvest.
It was a powerful place, and after listening to our knowledgeable and enthusiastic tour guide, Mike share some amazing facts, we all took a moment to lie in the grass and absorb the energy. I was very emotional. A sense of sadness and beauty lay deep under the surface. My paternal ancestors immigrated from the county of Roscommon, and while I have no proof (yet) that they were connected to this place, but it felt significant.
Queen Maeve and the Cattle Raid of Cooley
In early tales, Rathcroghan was the home of the Connacht, the ruling dynasty in the territory from the fifth century, and included the palace of the infamous Iron Age Warrior Queen, Maeve (Medb). It is a main site in the Ulster Cycle of Tales, particularly the national epic, Táin Bó Cúailnge, the Cattle Raid of Cooley.
Maeve embodies all aspects from royal and sacred to mythological and divine. Her name stems from the same origins as the word “mead,” an alcoholic honey drink. Her name can be translated into “she who intoxicates.” Her father was the high king of Ireland, and she was one of his six daughters.
She was known for having many husbands and partners. Her first husband was Conchobar mac Nessa, and she left him against his will. After the failure of that marriage, her father bestowed her the title of Queen, and the authority to bestow kingship.
Her next three husbands were all kings of Connacht. One of these was Alill, and one night after making love, they got into a heated argument over who was wealthier. The next day they laid out all of their riches and found that they were completely even, except for one thing. Alill had a great white horned bull that was very unique.
Not to be outdone, Maeve sends her messenger to find an equal or greater bull in Ireland, and he locates a great brown bull that is enormous in size. It belongs to Daire mac Fiachna in the province of Ulster, the territory of Cuailnge. She sends her messengers to offer Daire some land, a grand chariot, and a night with her, in exchange for his great brown bull. He is so excited by the offer, he throws her messengers a feast.
But then they start boasting about how the offer was just a formality. Their queen is so powerful, she would have just taken the bull by force. Word gets back to Daire, and he refuses the offer and sends them packing. So naturally Queen Maeve raids Ulster, and a heated battle ensues.
They come to a deadlock at the ford, and in an effort to bring things to an end, Maeve and the man agree to send one warrior each to fight. Daire and the county of Ulster send their greatest champion, Cú Chulainn, who posses a magic spear and is not affected by the curse that disables the other warriors of Ulster. Maeve sends Ferdiad, who is Cú Chulainn’s best friend, and he needs a bit of convincing to fight.
During the battle, Maeve breaks the terms of her deal and attempts to attack from behind. Cú Chulainn defeats Ferdiad, and the tides start to turn against Maeve. She has her secret agents smuggle the bull out and deliver it to her home in Connacht.
The bull is put in the pasture with Alill’s great white bull, and they fight for a day and a night, ultimately killing one another. There are many more layers to this story! I hope this inspires you to learn more about Rathcroghan and Queen Maeve, one of the most legendary figures in Irish mythology.
I grabbed a copy of Rathcroghan The Guidebook, co authored by my tour guide; all of the proceeds support the visitors center (you can order one online here). If you ever plan to visit Rathcroghan, have some lunch at the Tain Cafe and check out the gift shop. I also highly recommend walking on the mounds barefoot and laying in the grass (no ticks in Ireland). Be sure to take the tour! Ask to go inside of Owenganat Cave, which will be the subject of the next blog!
Source: Curley, Daniel, and Mike McCarthy. Rathcroghan: The Guidebook. Tulsk Action Group CLG, 2018.