Bigger-Picture

Windows on the world

Essays


The Curse of Macha

 

On the island of Ireland, over the course of the last few months, the future has eclipsed the past. For most people, of whatever creed or political persuasion, a lasting peace of common sense is more important than the pain and sorrow of history. People on the outside will never fully appreciate the courage shown by all who have embraced a peaceful solution, for there are many who will always be scarred. Yet somehow we have to provide our children with the opportunity to have better memories than ours.

Of course, we can always learn from the past, but if the immediate past is still too painful we could go further back, to a distant past where we do not feel personally involved; back in the mists of time where memory merges with myth; back to the time of Emain Macha, daughter of the Ulster prince Red Hugh. Ulster has always been a proud province, and in the centuries before Christ sometimes found itself at war with the provinces of Erin, but in this story Ulster was enjoying a time of peace. Journey back, then, in your imagination, to the time of Emain Macha, who gave her name to Ard Macha, now known as Armagh. Many stories are told of Macha, and all mention her supernatural powers. This tale tells of the curse she laid on the people of Ulster.

There was once a farmer named Crundchu, who lived and farmed in the gentle hills of Ulster. His wife died after bearing four sons, but one day he came home to find a strange and beautiful young woman busying herself about the house. Her name was Macha. She swept the floor, prepared the dinner, milked the cows, and at night she lay down at Crundchu's side. From that day on she lived with him as his wife, and they came to love each other.

The Blessing

As always, in legend, when a blessing is bestowed there is a condition. We must not abuse the power of privilege, for in legend (if not always in real life) such abuse is followed by the loss of the power, or the privilege, or the blessing. Macha insisted that Crundchu should not speak of her, for she could live with him only for so long as her supernatural powers remained secret.

They lived in happiness in the hills, and the farm prospered. One day a great fair was proclaimed, to be honoured by the presence of the King of Ulster. There was to be feasting and tournaments, and Crundchu, like all Ulster men, was eager to go. Macha was with child, and she did not accompany her husband, but as he left she reminded him that he must not speak of her to strangers. The fair was a great success, and men drank and fought, and there was music and merry-making. At the horse-racing, however, the king's horses won prize after prize, and as the people marveled at the speed of these wonderful beasts Crundchu thoughtlessly said "I have a wife at home who can run faster than these horses".

The Race

The king overheard, and had Crundchu send for his wife. She was brought before the king and the crowds and the king told her to prepare for the race. "I am with child and close to my hour" she told him, but the king was in a rage and wanted the race. Macha turned to the people. "Help me," she cried, "for a mother has borne every one of you!" But they were flushed with excitement and drink and wanted to see the sport. "Run! Run! Run!" they chanted, and money changed hands at the prospect of this unusual race. She fell to her knees before the king, but he said harshly: "Kill the husband," and Macha was forced to run to save the life of the man she loved.

The Curse

"Because you showed a pregnant woman no pity, you will have to pay a price" she told the people of Ulster, and then she was running like the wind, with the horses in pursuit; but as they approached the finishing line where the king looked down she staggered and gave a great cry. The horses overtook her and she sank to the ground, giving birth to twins. As Macha cried out, the spectators also cried out, for they too felt the birth pangs, and they also laid on the ground, weak and helpless. And Macha prophesised "From this hour the shame you have wrought on this mother will fall upon each man of Ulster. In the hours of your greatest need you shall be weak and helpless as women in childbirth."

And so in recent years we have seen some of the men of Northern Ireland face their greatest challenge with weakness, hiding behind guns and bombs, using strong words and weak thoughts. Did they still suffer the Curse of Macha? If so, they have now shown, the Men and Women and Children of Ulster, that the curse has been lifted. In 1998 the people of Ireland have had the courage to face their destiny, to look for peaceful solutions for the future. And in showing the courage of Macha, they have surely laid to rest the curse of the past.

Harvey Tordoff
June 1998