Navan Fort / Emain Macha
Navan Fort / Emain Macha / Eamhain Mhacha, located on a low hill in the townland of Navan, approximately 2.6 km / 1.6 miles west of modern Armagh City, was one of the major power centres of pre-Christian Ireland. The traditional capital of the Ulaid, the people who gave their name to the province of Ulster, it is also a significant site in Irish mythology, particularly the Ulster Cycle, featuring in tales such as Táin Bó Flidhais. Sadly, “the Emain Macha of myth and legend is a far grander and more mysterious place than archeological excavation supports.”
Airial View (Photo – www.juleswatson.com, website of the author of entertaining well-researched historical novels such as the Dalriada Trilogy).
The site comprises a circular enclosure 250m / 820ft in diameter, surrounded by a bank and ditch, constructed c.100 BC. Unusually, the ditch is inside the bank, suggesting it was not built for defensive purposes, but may have been designed to prevent people from leaving. Although called a “fort”, it is considered more likely to have been a ritual or ceremonial site.
Inside the enclosure, off-centre to the north-west, is an earthen mound 40m / 130ft in diameter and 6m / 20ft high, while to the south-east, also slightly off-centre, are the ploughed-down remains of a late prehistoric ceremonial or burial monument, a ring-barrow about 30m / 100ft in diameter.
Archaeological digs have revealed that the 40m mound dates to 95 BC. A circular structure consisting of four concentric rings of posts around a central oak trunk was built, its entrance facing west (contemporary dwellings invariably faced east towards the sunrise). The floor of the building was covered with stones arranged in radial segments, and the whole edifice was deliberately burnt down before being covered in a mound of earth and turf. It is thought that this may have been used a ceremonial structure for religious rituals and / or royal inaugurations.
Excavations and geophysical surveys have revealed the remains of figure-of-eight shaped wooden structures underneath both the mound and the ring barrow, each with a central hearth. Artifacts indicate these were inhabited in the late Bronze Age and early Iron Age (approximately 600 to at least 250 BC). Perhaps the most unusual item found in these layers was the skull of a Barbary Macaque, aka Gibraltar Ape, a nearly tailless monkey peculiar to Northwestern Africa and the famous Rock at the southern tip of the Iberian Peninsula.
An earlier Bronze Age circular ditch, 5m / 16ft wide and 1m / 3ft deep, was found surrounding the mound. Flint tools and fragments of pottery show activity at the site in the Neolithic (ca. 4000 to 2500 BC).
According to Irish mythology, Emain Macha was founded by the goddess Macha in the C5th or C7th BC, and in the tales of the Ulster Cycle was the seat of king Conchobar mac Nessa and the Knights / Warriors of the Red Branch, said to have had three houses here: the Cróeb Ruad (“Dull Red Branch”, whence derives the nearby townland of Creeveroe) where the king sat; the Cróeb Derg (“Bright Red Branch”), where trophies of battle were kept, and the Téte Brecc (“Speckled Hoard”) where the warriors’ weapons were stored.
Famous mythological names associated with Emain Macha include: Conchobar’s champion warrior Cú Chulainn (“the Hound of Ulster”); his beautiful and strong-willed bride Emer; his foster-brothers and close friends Ferdiad and Conall Cernach (“Conall the Victorious”); another warrior called Lóegaire; the chief druid Cathbad; the poet Amergin; the wise woman Leabharcham; an earlier king known as Nuadh of the Silver Hand; another great warrior and king called Fergus mac Róich; the most beautiful woman in Ireland, Deirdre of the Sorrows, and her brave lover Naoise. A good website on the subject can be viewed here.
The name Emain Macha is variously explained as “Macha’s neck-brooch” (Macha supposedly marked out the boundaries of the site with her brooch), and “Macha’s twins” (Macha is said to have given birth to twins after being forced to compete in a chariot-race).
The site does not appear to have been inhabited after the C2nd AD, although Annals of the Four Masters record that it was not finally abandoned until burned in 331 AD by the Three Collas, fresh from defeating Fergus Foga, king of Ulster, in the Battle of Achadh Leithdheirg.
The Navan Centre, opened after the site was acquired by Armagh City & District Council in 2005, is some distance from the ancient site. It comprises a partial reproduction of what Emain Macha is believed to have looked like in its heyday, with attractive exhibits of artefacts, interactive / audio-visual displays, and “Living History Interpretation”, i.e. child-friendly “Celtic Characters” in period costume answering questions and demonstrating ancient techniques of cooking, weaving etc. Guided tours of the real Emain Macha are also provided.
Emain Macha is one of a small number of sites identified as a prehistoric provincial capital in early sources. The others include Tara, Co. Meath (Meath, the ‘middle’ province), Dún Ailinne / Knockaulin, Co. Kildare (Leinster) and Cruachan, Co. Roscommon (Connacht). While some of the rich lore associated with these places may be medieval literary invention, archaeological excavations of these sites reveal very similar Iron Age ceremonial structures.
Unsurprisingly, these sites have over the years inspired zany speculation and seriously bizarre movements (e.g. the British Israelites, who caused a great deal of damage at Tara in a manic search for The Lost Ark of the Covenant). A representative website can be viewed here.
Haughey’s Fort, 1km to the west of Navan Fort, is an earlier Bronze Age hill fort.
The King’s Stables is the odd name given to an artificial pool also dating to the Bronze Age.
Loughnashade is a natural lake which has produced Iron Age artefacts.