Ancient Irish royalty was nothing like the Disney version. The kings and queens of Irish history and myth were fierce and fearless warriors. They did not spend their time attending lavish balls. They led their troops into battle to gain more wealth and power, and to avenge various wrongs. Maeve became famous as a queen, when she started what became Ireland’s most famous saga – the Cattle Raid of Cooley. But she didn’t marry into her title. Maeve was born a princess.
Her father Eochaid Feidlech was the king of Connaught, the western province of Ireland. Maeve was born in what is now County Roscomon. Her father married her off to Conchobar Mac Nessa, the king of Ulster over her objections. That marriage was short-lived. When Eochaid Feidlech became the high king of Ireland and took up the throne at Tara sometime around 80 BC, he made Maeve the queen of Connaght. And she became master of her own fate then, never again to do anyone else’s bidding. But her father then gave Maeve’s sister Eithne to Conchobar Mac Nessa, which enraged Maeve so much that she killed her sister. Eithne was pregnant at the time, and her baby son survived.
In Love and War
Maeve took many lovers and married repeatedly, which was all very normal and socially acceptable in ancient Ireland. They had different types of marriages, including trial marriage where a couple would marry for a set amount of time, usually a year. At the end of the marriage period, they could decide to go their own way or re-marry.
In addition to being fierce and ruthless, Maeve was astonishingly beautiful. Her soldiers fought hard on the battlefield to gain her favour, and she took several of her generals as lovers. But she was not sitting back at the castle. She was right in the thick of things, negotiating with her enemies and allies and leading her troops into battle. The name Maeve is derived from the word ‘mead’, a drink similar to beer. It means ‘intoxicating’, and she did seem to intoxicate men. (Maeve is also spelled Medb or Meabh.)
The Cattle Raid of Cooley
The love of Maeve’s life was Ailill Mac Mata, her third husband. They ruled Connaught together, and were generally very happy. But one day, they started to brag to each other about their wealth. They realized that Ailill had one more bull than Maeve, and this tormented her. She became obsessed with finding a bull to outdo her husband’s best bull. And she settled upon a brown bull owned by her ex-husband, the king of Ulster.
Conchobar had no interest in parting with the prize animal for any amount of riches. Given their history, Maeve’s power to intoxicate was not strong enough to sway him. She felt she had one choice only, so she turned to the legendary warrior Cu Chulainn. She would take the bull by force. Thus began the famous Tain Bo Cuailnge, the Cattle Raid of Cooley.
Maeve got her bull in the end. But her story does not end happily. Her nephew Furbaide grew up determined to avenge the death of his mother Eithne. He killed Maeve with a slingshot. Her burial cairn in Knocknarea is now a famous site. She was buried wearing her battle armour, standing up and facing her enemies in Ulster.