Macha , tutelary goddess, gave her name to one of the most important of all Irish royal sites, Emain Macha (‘the twins of Macha’) in Co. Armagh, now known as Navan Fort. While Emain Macha was a prehistoric site of great religious significance, it was remembered by the early medieval Irish as the royal capital of the pagan Ulstermen, ruled over by Conchobar (qv) son of Ness and protected by the greatest of all heroes, Cú-Chulainn (qv). It is the locale for many of the sagas of the Ulster cycle. The Irish believed that the naming of a place carried a symbolic charge, and so it proves with Emain Macha.
The tale of the treatment of Macha foreshadows the downfall of the Ulster heroes. This short saga, ‘Noínden Ulad’ (‘Debility of the Ulstermen’), has been dated to the ninth century and was integrated into the narrative complex surrounding the epic ‘Táin Bó Cuailnge’. The tale describes how the widower Cruinniuc, living in the wilderness, is visited by a beautiful otherworldly woman who decides to become his sexual and domestic partner. This brings great fortune, and a confident Cruinniuc attends a fair, presided over by the king. The latter's horses win the chariot race, causing Cruinniuc to boast that his wife can run even faster. The upshot is that the woman, heavily pregnant, is forced to compete against the horses. Otherwise, Cruinniuc will die. Macha names herself and warns the Ulstermen that their mistreatment of her will not go unpunished. Sure enough she is victorious, but gives birth to twins, a boy and a girl, at the end of the race, the event that marks the place as Emain Macha. As she cries out in childbirth, Macha curses every man within earshot to suffer labour pains for five days and four nights or five nights and four days. This debility lasts for nine generations and undermines the glory of all the Ulster heroes, except Cú Chulainn.
This narrative may appear odd but is, in fact, full of significance. Macha, like many an otherworldly woman, is a dispenser of sovereignty. Sovereignty, however, depends on the perfect balance of male and female. Men possess it, but women represent it. In this case, the suggestion is that the sovereignty of the Ulstermen is somehow flawed for, with the exception of Cú Chulainn and his descendants, their masculinity is questioned. They suffer the pains of labour; yet they give birth to nothing.