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M a c h a

The Pangs of Ulster

The field was full of people, with their horses and chariots, and banners flying over the crowd. Everyone was dressed in their brightest clothes - blue, orange, red, and green. There were competitions and games of all kinds: horse-racing, throwing the dice, spear-casting, parades, displays, cavalcades. In the middle of the afternoon, which was the high point of the fair, the king's chariot and horses were brought before the crowd. The king challenged any riders to race against his team but his equipage beat all comers. The bards and poets recited their praise poems to the king, gravely intoning their descriptions of his valour and prowess, and extolling the achievements of his team of horses. Crunnchu was listening to all of this and he grew restless, knowing that his wife was better than anyone or anything in the field that day. Eventually, he could restrain himself no longer and blurted out: "My wife, Macha, can run faster than the king's horses."

"Seize him and throw him into the dungeon", he said "and fetch his woman to see if she is as good as he says."

Everyone laughed. But the king remained grim and determined. Messengers were sent. When they got to Crunnchu's isolated farm, Macha knew that trouble lay ahead.

"We've come", a messenger said, "to give you the opportunity of releasing your husband, who has been locked up for boasting that you were faster on your feet than the king's team of racing horses."

"This is terrible", she said. "I am pregnant and going into labour even now. That was a stupid thing for him to say."

"True," said the messenger, "but he will die unless you race."

"What will be will be," she said.

The Pangs of Ulster When she got to the fair, they all stared.

"It is wrong for you all to be looking at a woman in my condition. I should not be here. I cannot race in the throes of my birth-pangs."

"Well", said the king turning to a group of laughing men behind him, "who will go to give the farmer a good hacking? You either race or he dies."

"Just wait, even for a little while, until I bring forth what is inside me," said Macha.
"No, now, you race this moment", said the king.

"You and your kind will regret this forever", she said. "Your shame will last for nine generations. Alright, bring the horses and set them here beside me."

And so it was done. The horses were brought up and the race begun. She ran so fast that by the time she reached the end of the course she had cleared enough space to allow her to cross over in front of the galloping horses. Then she collapsed and screamed out in pain as she writhed on the ground. A girl and a boy were born there in the field, and these were the two that gave Emhain Macha its name, the Twins of Macha. As the woman howled in agony all energy left the men standing looking on, in silence and shame. She spoke:

"What you have done is your own disgrace. When things go hard for Ulster you will all be as weak as a woman when her time has come. And you will continue that way for as long as a woman spends in labour: five days and four nights. And this curse will last for nine generations."

And so it was. So that when Medhbh of Connacht attacked Ulster seeking to carry off the bull of Cooley, all the men were laid low by this debility; all that is except Cu Chulainn, the defender of the north, for he was British, and therefore not one of the men of Ulster.

[This retelling is based on Noínden Ulad, preserved in The Yellow Book of Lecan, held in Trinity College, Dublin, and in other manuscripts.]

From A Little Book of Irish Myths

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