Against the backdrop of women’s struggle for equality in the workplace, comes the story of a woman whose struggle for equality in her marriage spawned a major war. And not just any war, but the one memorialized in Ireland’s greatest epic, “The Cattle Raid of Cooley” or the Tain Bo.
Maeve was Queen of Connaught (in the west of Ireland) in the years prior to 500 AD. In those days, powerful women were common in Ireland—women were the goddesses of war, they were judges and poets, and queens who ruled in their own right. And their equal rights were protected by law—Brehon Law.
Even in this context, Maeve stood out.
Maeve was married to Ailill, and theirs was a happy marriage and an excellent match. As the story goes, they were discussing this one afternoon in bed (another way in which they were excellently matched) and Maeve said that they were the one equal to the other. She said, “In our house there is an absence of meanness, jealousy and fear because we are equal in all things, right down to the cattle we own.” At that Ailill was quiet and was quiet for so long that Maeve asked him what he was thinking, as women do. And the answer got him in trouble, as it generally does happen with men when they answer that question.
Ailill said, “We are not so even Maeve,” and Maeve being Maeve sprang from her bed and immediately ordered an accounting of all of their possessions. They started with their lands and their castles, they weighed out the bolts of fine cloth and counted the pendants and rings and broaches—and they were even. So Maeve sent for the cups and the mead barrels. She had counted the number of their armies and their linens. And they were even. But Ailill shook his head and said, “Still not.” So Maeve ordered a counting of their chicken and hens, their sheep and their bulls.
Now there was one bull— Finnbhennach—that had belonged to Maeve. But being, well bull-headed, Finnbhennach had refused to be owned by a woman and so Maeve had sent him to her husband’s yards. But Finnbhennach was a bull without equal. No matter how many Maeve counted, there were none that were the same—leaving Maeve less equal than her husband. Ailill said, “Let it go Maeve,” but Maeve was not a woman to let it go and she sent her messenger, Fergus Mac Roth, out across Ireland to find a bull equal to her husband’s. It didn’t take Fergus long to find one—the Brown Bull of Cuailnge, belonging to Donn Cuailnge in Ulster.
Maeve sent Fergus to Donn to ask for the loan of the Brown Bull for one year. In return she promised him many gifts of wealth as well as her own friendly thighs. Donn preferred not to ask Ailill how he felt about this but said yes anyway.
That night the men who had accompanied Fergus got into their cups and bragged that they would have taken the Brown Bull even if Donn Cuailnge had not agreed to Maeve’s thighs. A messenger of Donn overheard this and told him, so that in the morning Donn Cuailnge sent for Fergus and withdrew his loan.
Fergus went back to Connaught, thinking Maeve would have his head for this. Instead she said, “The man was right—I would have taken the Bull by force if he had not agreed to it and now I will do so anyway,” and she ordered her men to prepare for battle.
Maeve knew that in going against the Men of Ulster, she would have her hands full. Ulster is in the North of Ireland and was famous for its fighting men. But there was an interesting curse that had been put on the fighting men of Ulster by a goddess named Macha. Macha had been ordered by a king of Ulster to compete in a foot race when she was nine months pregnant with twins. This being an Irish woman, Macha naturally won and after crossing the finish line, she gave birth and then leveled a curse on all the men of Ulster that they would suffer childbirth pangs in the hour of their greatest need.
Maeve knew of this curse and counted on it. And so when she led her armies across Connaught and into Ulster, the curse of Macha came down upon the Men of Ulster. At the hour of their greatest need, they suffered the labor pains of Macha, at home in their beds.
Maeve, knowing the curse would keep them men in their beds, advanced all the way into the heart of Ulster, where she set up camp for the night.
But the legendary hero Cuchulainn was not originally from Ulster and so he was still standing. Maeve said to her husband that she would go out to fight this Cuchulainn herself, that she herself was the equal of any man. So she went out and called for Cuchulainn. But while she was waiting for him, her period came upon her and she left the field, leaving Cuchulainn the victor (so the story goes).
Maeve returned to her home in Connaught, where she eventually died and was buried at Knocknarea, which means “Royal Hill,” while Cuchulainn got the fame and notoriety when the story of the battle was told, even though she was the moving force behind it. The story of the Cattle Raid was told and retold for centuries, until it was finally written down in the 11th century.
Now there are some who say that Maeve, like Cuchulainn, was a folk tale and there are some who say she is half-history, half-tale, as so much is in Ireland. So, which is she? I don’t know for sure, but I will tell you this—to this day, Maeve’s tomb has never been excavated. She is rumored to have been buried standing up and facing Ulster, ready to do battle when awoken.
So far, there’ve been no takers.