WGW Sligo County, Ireland

Legends of Sligo

Queen Maeve's Tomb

This enormous cairn atop Knocknarea is 55 meters in diameter by 10 meters high. Folklore says it was built for the mythical Iron Age Queen Maeve, whose father, the high king of Ireland, gave her Connacht as a gift. Archaeologists believe it may really date back to 3000 BC, but who is to say that Queen Maeve was not tucked into an existing monument? It is considered bad luck to remove a stone from the cairn, and good luck to take one up the hill with you to deposit on it.

The Tain Bo Cuailnge, sometimes Anglicized as "The Cattle Raid of Cooley," is one of Ireland's oldest legends and concerns a war between Connacht and Ulster early in the last millennium. Though mostly about Ulster warrior Cuchulainn, who almost single-handedly defeated the invading army of Queen Maeve and King Ailill, our concern here is with Maeve, because that enormous cairn pictured above is her tomb. The cairn is on top of Knocknarea, the tall hill that overlooks Sligo town between it and the sea. The royal capital of Connacht in those days was in Roscommon, so why was Queen Maeve buried there, on the northern fringe of her kingdom? If you read the Tain you will find that she was not the nicest person, and perhaps her subjects did not want her spirit any closer than that.

The way the war came about was that Maeve and Ailill had an argument about who was the richer. To settle it, they had their accountants compare all their possessions--coin to coin, jewel to jewel, slave to slave, etc. It came down to the cattle. When their vast herds were counted and compared, it was found that that they were of equal quality and quantity, except that Ailill had a great bull which Maeve could not match.

Maeve soon learned of an even better bull in Ulster, but her efforts to borrow it failed. Determined to take it by force Maeve, supported (for some reason) by Ailill, gathered a great army and invaded Ulster. The Tain describes the many great battles and glorious deeds of this war. Suffice it to say that the Ulstermen drove the Connacht army out of their lands, but not before Maeve captured the great bull she sought. The Ulster bull was taken to Connacht where it fought Ailill's bull, killed it, then wandered home unimpeded to Ulster.

There may be a moral in there somewhere, but it escapes me. Next time I make the 45-minute climb from the car park up Knocknarea to view Maeve's tomb, perhaps it will come to me.

Paul Burns