Queen Maebh atop Knocknarea, overlooking Sligo town

There is something about Sligo that makes the veil between myth and reality, legend and history, that bit thinner than in many other places. It could be the exceptionally rich archaeological and mythological heritage, with sites reaching back over 5,000 years and a huge quantity of stone circles, dolmens and other stone age structures still standing, largely untouched, in private gardens and farmers’ fields. Or it could be how the ancient stories are still very present in day to day conversation, with Diarmuid and Gráinne’s cave a standard landmark on the Gleniffe Horseshoe in Belbulben, and Queen Maebh’s tomb visible from all over the county, sitting atop Knocknarea mountain.  Legend has it that her cairn (tomb) is so tall because Maebh is buried standing up, in her battle dress, facing her enemies in the North.

Maebh is such a visual reference point in sligo, a powerful one as she is both the symbol of the female aspect of nature (names such as Mother Nature, Earth Mother and Great Mother are all attributed to Maebh in various myths) and of female strength and power as the warrior queen of more recent myth. It is no co-incidence that her name translates as “she who intoxicates” and the tales of Queen Maebh’s conquests are many.  Some older Myths call the cairn “Measgáin Maebh; Maebh’s lump of butter”, or tell of the whole mountain being Maebh making the mountain a symbol of mother earth and the feminine. Indeed an early translation of Knock na Rea is Hill of the Moon, corresponding with Brigit (or Brí) the bright faced one, who was also associated with the Moon and wells.

The cairn has been visually dated to approximately 5,000BC, and as the Queen Maebh of the Ulster Cycle of Irish Mythology is dated around 300BC and 300 AD it’s likely that there are many Maebh’s

My favourite Maebh story is that of the Táin Bó Cúailnge “The Brown Bull of Cooley” where Meabh discovers that there is only one possession – The White Bull Finnbennac – that makes her and her husband Ailill unequal.  She sends her warriors to take the Brown Bull from Daire, casing a huge war along the way loosing many famous warriors. In the end the battle comes down to the two bulls fighting each other, and although the Brown Bull is victorious he dies soon after, leaving Meabh and Ailill equal once again. Read the whole tale here>