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    Irish Folklore, Myth & Legend: Queen Maeve

    By Eimear Quinn
    More by Eimear

    Folklore of Ireland

    Within the world of folklore lies a bold genre – mythology. In Ireland, there is a vast collection of charming and fantastical tales ready to take you off to another land.

    We have grand characters such as the mighty Finn McCool and the heroic giant Cuchulain. We also have epic stories that span thousands of years, like Oisin in the legend of Tír na Nog.

    This next part in our folklore series will explore an alluring character from the wild and wonderful world of Irish mythology: the legendary warrior Queen Maeve.

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    Who is Queen Maeve? 

    Queen Maeve was a warrior of great strength, resilience, and at times, ruthlessness. With a name said to mean “intoxicating,” it is certain that she wielded enormous power and sway during her reign.

    A daughter of the High King of Ireland, she was placed on the throne by her father and married to King Conchobar of Ulster. As was often the case amongst the arranged marriages of royalty, the marriage was not one of harmony. The unhappy union led to Maeve taking her sister’s life out of jealousy and to skirmishes between the High King and Ulster.

    In the Ulster Cycle of Irish mythology, there are dozens of stories about Maeve’s exploits as Queen of Connacht, one of the four traditional regions of Ireland. Located in the West of Ireland, Connacht has some of the most dramatic landscapes, coastlines and weather.

    Maeve is infamous for her pillow talk with her husband Aillil, where they debated which of them held the most wealth. The consequence of this conversation was laid out in the Cattle Raid of Cooley.

    The Pillow Talk of Maeve & Aillil

    A discussion arose one morning between Maeve and Aillil, as to who was the richest between them.

    “It’s luck the woman who marries a wealthy man,” Aillil remarked.

    In response, Maeve responds, “Are you forgetting” said she, “That I am a warrior also, and a leader of warriors. I was well able to defend my kingdom before I married you.”

    They matched each other in every way, from linens, silks and wool to precious stones and ornaments. Even in their very nature, they were both equal in their generosity and wit.

    The only thing in which they differed was that Aillil was in possession of a prize bull – Finnbennach. A bull with only one rival in the whole country. Determined to match or even surpass her husband in wealth and power, Maeve wanted this bull for her own.

    Why is Maeve important in Irish folklore? 

    During her reign, Queen Maeve’s power meant that a man could not become king unless she bestowed him with the honour.

    For this reason, enthusiasts suppose that Maeve was fashioned as an allegory, representing the land and Mother Earth. As evidence, folklorists point to the fact that a man could not take a throne without first honouring the land. Lore says she represents the Morrígan – the Goddess of war and fate.

    Queen Maeve is representative of equality between the sexes. A woman who can rule, seduce, conquer, and seek revenge. A real all-rounder!

    There is no consensus on whether she really existed. If she did, it is thought she would have lived from the year 50BC to 50AD and ruled for 60 years. So, she can either be viewed through a historical lens or as a mystical Goddess that inhabits the world of legend for which Ireland is famous.

    Knocknarea Hill

    Huge stone cairn atop Knocknarea Hill

    One of the most well-known features associated with Maeve is Knocknarea hill in Co. Sligo. It is her place of burial after reaching her demise at the hands of Furbaide, revenge for his mother’s death.

    There is a large cairn atop Knocknarea, standing 10m high and 55m wide. Legend has it that inside, Maeve was buried, standing upright in full armour, spear in hand, facing her enemies in Ulster.

    Knocknarea’s cairn, which has been dated to the Neolithic period (centuries older than Queen Maeve’s supposed era), has never been excavated by archaeologists – such is the fear of her wrath. You can climb the mountain, but do not climb the cairn!

    There is the option to do a linear out-an-back walk up Knocknarea, as well as a lovely loop combining the hill with the surf village of Strandhill and its windswept coastline. Learn about hiking Knocknarea and other similar hikes in our article about Ireland’s best small hills here.

    Rathcroghan & Owenagat Cave

    Rathcroagan, also known as Cruachan, was the Royal Seat of Queen Maeve, and another alleged burial spot of hers.

    Located in Tulsk, Co. Roscommon, it is part of a large complex of fascinating archaeological sites, and one of the ancient royal seats of Ireland. Within the site, one of the most fascinating elements is Owenagat, or the Cave of the Cats. Some also call this place the Gateway to Hell, Christianised from its former title, the gateway to the otherworld, as folklorists call it.

    Owenagat is a small cave, about 30 meters long. The cave itself is natural but the entrance is gained through a man-made souterrain. The dark cave, with its narrow opening, is a generally creepy place and is appropriately associated with Halloween. Legends say Rathcrogan is the birthplace of Halloween – learn more about the Irish origins of Halloween here.

    On the lintel over the entrance to the cave, there is an Ogham inscription (ancient Irish writing) – “Fraech son of Medb”. This offers a whole new slant as a potential burial place for one of her sons. There are a number of local legends loosely associated with Maeve and Rathcrogan.

    Of note as well that as of 2022, Rathcrogan, along with the other ancient royal seats of Ireland, has been admitted to UNESCO’s tentative list for potential future membership.

    Rath Maeve – Hill of Tara

    A monument site in Co. Meath, this henge or rath took its name from the legend that Maeve was married to nine successive Kings of Tara.

    It dates to the early Bronze Age and is part of an enormous archaeological complex in Ireland’s Ancient East, the Hill of Tara.

    The Hill of Tara is a must-see for lovers of ancient history as it dates from the Neolithic period to the Iron Age. The Hill of Tara houses numerous important sites here, and the location features heavily in Irish mythology. And just an hour outside Dublin, the Hill of Tara is a perfect day trip.

    Read more about the Hill of Tara in our Ancient Ireland series.

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    Sawel Mountain

    Located in the Co. Tyrone, the highest peak in the Sperrin Mountains, Sawel Mountain, is supposed to translate to “in the likeness of Queen Maeve’s vulva.” This slightly surprising name refers metaphorically to the large hollow on the side of the mountain.

    Regardless of the peak’s unusual name, the Sperrins are a lovely little-known hiking option for anyone looking for rugged Irish hills.

    A moderately challenging route and very much off the beaten path, hiking Sawel Mountain is certainly worth a stop and a perfect day trip if the city of Derry is your base.

    Folklore of Ireland

    Queen Maeve is just one of the many fascinating characters within the bounds of Irish folklore. Interested in more folklore? Have a look at our Folklore of Ireland page below to learn about everything from a formidable pirate queen to the Hag of Beara or the fairies of Ireland. Or browse a few of our related reading articles.

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    Visit Ireland

    Meet the Author: Eimear Quinn

    Originally from Northern Ireland, Eimear is particularly interested in gardening from a Permaculture perspective, exploring the Irish landscape, understanding the rich and wonderful world of Irish mythology, legend and folklore, and preserving Irish language, tradition and music.

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