To say that Queen Maeve of Connaught is a legendary figure in Irish mythology is a dramatic understatement. Maeve was a decisive and forceful leader who ruled over Connaught during the time of Cuchulainn, the greatest of all Irish warriors. Her beauty was famous. No High King could be crowned without first having the ceremony consummated in the royal bed, such was her fabulous domination!
Her husband Aillil was only granted the privilege of marrying Maeve because he was that most unique of beings: a man completely without jealousy. Maeve was an excellent warrior and general, and assembled one of the mightiest fighting forces in Irish mythology when her equal status with her husband was called into question. Maeve was one of the daughters of Eochaid Feidlech, the High King of Ireland. She was married to Conchobar Mac Nessa, the King of Ulster, as compensation for the slaying of Conchobar’s father, Fachtna Fathach.
The marriage was not a good one though and when Maeve left her husband her father then offered his other daughter, Maeve’s sister Eithne, in marriage to Conchobar. One of the most enduring stories about Maeve concerns the Cattle Raid of Cooley. One evening, Maeve and her husband Aillil began to tease each other about who held the higher status. Their teasing quickly grew earnest, as each vied to prove their superiority in the relationship. They were equal in birth, equal in status, and equal in power.
So to settle the matter they counted out all their belongings. The only difference between them was that Aillil had a magnificent white-horned bull, while Maeve had nothing that could compare to it!
Unable to bear a subordinate role in her own marriage, Maeve sent messengers to search all of Ireland for a bull that was just as splendid as that possessed by her husband. Eventually a magnificent creature was found: the Brown Bull of Cooley.
Maeve sent a delegation to the bull’s owner, Daire Mac Fiachna of Cooley, offering gold and lands if he would only agree to let her have the bull. Daire was initially inclined to grant her request, until he heard one of her messengers drunkenly boasting that if he would not sell it then Maeve would surely take the bull by force.
So began the famous Tain Bo Cuailnge, the ‘Cattle Raid of Cooley’, in which Maeve assembled a great army of her allies from all over Ireland to invade Ulster to steal the bull. Thanks to the Ulster exiles in her ranks Maeve knew all about ‘the Curse of Macha’, which would put the enemy Ulster warriors out of action for nine days and nine nights, giving her time to complete her mission.
But the curse did not affect the young warrior Cuchulainn, the only man who stood between Maeve and her invading army and the defenseless lands of Ulster.
Maeve decided to negotiate and through Fergus MacRoich agreed that Cuchulainn would fight in single combat against one of her champions every day, allowing the army to move while the fight was on, and stopping once the fight was over. She even offered her own daughter in marriage to the warrior who would be victorious! But Maeve had already made her plans. On the eve of the final confrontation between the two armies, the Brown Bull of Cooley was smuggled into Connaught by Maeve’s agents and so they retreated back to Connaught.
The magnificent bull was placed into a new pasture where the creature was immediately set upon by Aillil’s own white-horned bull, the original cause of the strife. Legend has it that Maeve is buried in a forty foot high stone cairn on the summit of Knocknarea in Sligo, buried upright, always defiantly facing her enemies to the north. Maeve was a strong and independent character, with a knowledge of magic and sorcery. She never shirked her duty, and knew well how to encourage and lead her followers. She was definitely the stronger partner in her marriage with Aillil and was always depicted as very beautiful, yet dressed for war!
She could be harsh, jealous, vicious, scheming and domineering. Always willing to go to great lengths to assert her rightful status.
The name Maeve has several forms including Maedbh, Medb and Medbh and is said to mean ‘she who intoxicates’, perhaps alluding to her role as a sovereignty Goddess. How appropriate!