TRAVEL March 2002

An Ireland of Legend

Following in the mythic footsteps of Queen Maeve
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She was impetuous, brave, and determined to have her way. He was an iconoclast, a misanthrope, and a force of nature. He had killed hundreds of men, but she challenged him anyway. She was Maeve, the Queen of Connacht. He was Cúchulainn, the Hound of Ulster. Together they are the stars of the myth-epic Táin Bó Cuailnge, whose title translates as The Cattle Raid of Cooley. Although the Táin is often referred to as Ireland's Aeneid, Virgil's prose is tame by comparison with that of the anonymous twelfth-century Christian monks who set down on vellum the tales that, some evidence suggests, bards had told since the late Iron Age, around 300 B.C.

As a once and future war correspondent and as a female, I have always admired warrior queens. And nearly every year of my life I have gone to Ireland, the country of my ancestors. My most recent journey there was made in pursuit of Maeve. She is a myth, for no one has been able to prove that she truly lived. And yet the story follows a real trail, amid real ring forts, villages, rivers, and mountains. The route of the military campaign described in the Táin can today be traced by car. It runs for 365 miles, from the plains of Ireland's western midlands to the eastern borderlands with Ulster. Travelers who like to stray from the beaten track will be glad to know that hardly anyone except scholars and Maeve mavens makes a Táin pilgrimage today. The route is nonetheless replete with all sorts of sensual pleasures and evocative historical sites.

As I prepared to follow in Maeve's footsteps, last summer, I realized that I lacked just one thing: a map. I had some scrawled black lines from the frontispiece of The Táin, the Irish poet Thomas Kinsella's 1969 translation of the epic. It's a beautiful translation but not an atlas; the black lines signifying Maeve's route wriggle over ancient Irish place-names. I tried to use the book's pronunciation guide to convert Irish-language consonants from, say, bs to English vs ("Medb" to "Maeve," for instance—I studied Irish as a callow lass), but soon took the book to another Irish poet, John O'Donohue. He's a native Irish-speaker and a resident of the Connemara Gaeltacht, a district where Irish is nearly everyone's first language. O'Donohue pored over the map. Pointing to a glossary I'd somehow missed, he said, "Cruachan Aí is Rathcroghan. I'd start there."

I took O'Donohue's advice, and set out in the company of my boyfriend, Will O'Leary. Rathcroghan is where the Táin begins. Today it is little more than a crossroads on the N5 in County Roscommon, deep in the interior of Ireland. But this hamlet, whose remoteness is also its charm, contains three grassy mounds that rise from the fields like gifts from the gods, each of them the remains of an Iron Age ring barrow. The name Cruachan Aí means "Plain of the Mounds," and on those mounds nowadays in the summertime cattle munch grass, as they have done for many hundreds of years. The largest of the mounds is called Rath Croghan; nearby, a conversation took place that provoked the war fever propelling the Táin's cattle raid.

One night as Maeve and her husband, King Ailill, lay in bed, he taunted her that it was well for her that she had married a wealthy man. "True enough," Maeve replied. And then, on her hackles, she added, "What put that in your mind?" Immediately Maeve commanded that all her worldly goods be arrayed for comparison with Ailill's. It was done, and the monarchs proved even in all measures save for one bull—a white bull that had left Maeve's herd, "refusing to follow the rump of a woman," and defected to Ailill's. Maeve demanded that Ulster's king lend her the Brown Bull of Cooley, Donn Cuailnge. But her demand went unmet, whereupon Maeve vowed to take the bull by force. She and Ailill—an amazingly compliant cuckold who, taunting aside, never resisted any of Maeve's lusty demands, in love or war—mobilized all the armies of Connacht against Ulster. Only one gladiator, fighting alone, defended Ulster: Cúchulainn. He was from a clan different from the men of Ulster, who'd been cursed by the goddess Macha with a sickness that came over them whenever war was at hand.

The Táin trail, commencing in County Roscommon, moves more or less straight east through Counties Longford, Westmeath, and Meath; turns northward to Dundalk and the Cooley Peninsula, which juts into the Irish Sea; and then circles back. Along it are 369 places that were named for events in the Táin and that still carry those names today. After accosting various locals for information about the Táin, I was given my first hot tip: there is now a smartly designed research center called Cruachan Aí in the town of Tulsk, on the N5, not far from the mounds of Rathcroghan. Opened in 1999, the center, with its curves and angles and undulating walls, strives to be to Tulsk what Frank Gehry's Guggenheim Museum is to Bilbao; like the Guggenheim, on a smaller scale, Cruachan Aí is intended to draw tourists to a depressed area. I loved a poetic inscription on the wall: "We call mythologies those poems of pure thought and fancy, cadenced not in words but in living imagery, mirrors of the mind of nascent nations."

Will and I climbed Rath Croghan on a day whipped by wind and rain, and I tried to imagine the intimate conversation between Maeve and Ailill that had led to the legend's war. Even in the drizzle we could see five counties from the summit, and there I felt like the Queen of the World, the equal of any hero or heroine. Will, a photojournalist, obligingly took my picture. The photo shows a tiny figure on a wide hill. Looking at it, one can imagine armies spread out beneath.

Maeve and Ailill and their armies camped along the Táin route, but there is no need for the modern camp follower to do as they did and bed down in the fields. West of Tulsk, in Castlerea, is the seat of the High Kings of Connacht, whose family name is O'Connor. For centuries the male line was unbroken—and then in 1966 the last surviving son defected to the priesthood. The family's castle has been in ruins since Cromwell destroyed it, but a version of its name survives with Pyers O'Conor-Nash, a nephew who dwells not far from the castle site in a marvelous Victorian Italianate mansion called Clonalis House, set amid 700 acres of woods. O'Conor-Nash, an affable, silver-haired man of fifty, manages Clonalis as a guesthouse, and he graciously invited us to join him by the fire in the library, some of whose volumes date back to the sixteenth century. Over Black Bush Irish whiskey he shared the 1,500-year family saga of battles, some internecine, and lands lost and regained. In the morning, under the gaze of our host's progenitors from the eighteenth century onward, who looked down stolidly from their oil paintings, we ate a mighty repast.

The most spectacular part of the trail is a bit farther along: the Cooley Peninsula and its medieval walled town of Carlingford. Slieve Foy, Slieve Gullion, and the other mountains of the peninsula look as if they're challenging the sky to a duel. Carlingford Lough, across which lies Northern Ireland, is a natural fjord from the Ice Age. The Táin is in its way a founding myth, and a sustaining one. Harold O'Sullivan, a Dundalk historian who walked this route with Thomas Kinsella thirty years ago, is convinced that those who wrote the story down in Old Irish were from this very area, so intimately did they know the territory. Here, too, at last, the local tourism board has kicked in with "Táin trail maps" and has posted hiking trails. About half the place-names in the Táin are in County Louth. For instance, the scene of the "great carnage," a decisive battle in which Cúchulainn slew 130 kings, was the hill of "Focherd," now Faughart, above Murtheimne Plain near what is now Dundalk. Here Cúchulainn exulted, "On whole hosts I wage war to crush their chief hero and Medb and Ailill also."

The Táin trail offers up a lot of wonderful supporting material to investigate. Stories that form a kind of prequel to the myth itself explain that Cúchulainn got his fighting name, the Hound of Ulster, at a spot near Emain Macha, after he killed the king's guard dog and offered himself in its place. Emain Macha, which is in Northern Ireland, near Armagh, about forty-five minutes by car from the Cooley Peninsula, has a fabulous, dramatic circular fort. Will and I walked it with the Queens University archaeologist Jim Mallory, a rugged American who hails from California, and with him Emain Macha came alive for us. The fort was once topped by a ceremonial wooden structure, which around 100 B.C. was burned. Mallory is particularly interested in the medieval armaments described in the Táin, but he can quote from all parts of the story, and, standing six feet seven inches tall, he has the look of a Táin protagonist.

Emain Macha has fostered another research center, Navan at Emain Macha. An impressive repository of artifacts, interactive videos, and research materials, the center has also functioned as an interfaith gathering site for Catholic and Protestant school groups. Navan is housed in a circular, womblike building, covered with grass and earth so that visitors appear to be entering a mound. Its interiors are made of redwood and copper and stone. Alas, on the June day I arrived in Emain Macha, it was announced that the center was temporarily closing at week's end, because of a lack of funds and other government support. Plans are afoot to reopen the center this month, but the tribe of curators, artists, and scholars who worked there and hosted the site's thousands of visitors annually have already scattered.

It was Navan's director of education, Anne Hart, who told me about a remarkable place to take refuge in these parts: Castle Leslie, in Glaslough, County Monaghan, half an hour's drive from Navan. I will forever be thankful for the tip. The Leslie family—how to say it?—are proud eccentrics who dwell in a magnificent Victorian pile of a lakeside castle on a 300-year-old estate. They are as warm as they are informal and fond of oddities. Upon arriving at Castle Leslie, in the evening, we asked to meet Sir John, the eighty-five-year-old fourth baronet, and were told that, regrettably, this was not possible. He was out nightclubbing. But, we were promised, he would show us around the estate in the morning. At about 4:00 A.M. I heard someone with a patrician accent bidding someone else good-night, and then a car driving away. Some hours later, once we were up, the tall, elegant Sir John came in from feeding his peacocks, changed into an impeccable evening jacket and cravat, and proceeded to give us a tour of the house.

The house has galleries, secret passageways, ghosts, and some extraordinary family keepsakes, such as the red shroud of the last Catholic martyr executed at the Tower of London, in 1716. When we arrived at the shroud on the house tour, Sir John turned and held out his hands with a flourish, exclaiming, "It's cuhvuhed in blood!" He concluded the tour with a turn on a Bechstein piano that Paderewski once played. By the way, Castle Leslie serves superb, innovative cuisine based on locally grown and raised ingredients. The chef, Noel McNeel, trained at Chez Panisse—and it shows.

Maeve and Cúchulainn, of course, were never so spoiled. But continuing along the Táin trail is much easier after forays into the more recent and elegant periods of history that the likes of Clonalis House and Castle Leslie represent. Next summer, however, I will be camping along Maeve's war route. One John Gilroy, an Irish documentary filmmaker, is getting up a faux army to re-enact half the Táin exploits. Though Maeve and her troops—and the White Bull of Connacht, who on her behalf fought the Brown Bull of Cooley—were ultimately defeated, when Gilroy invited me to take the role of the queen, I could not resist. Perhaps we will win on this attempt. See you in the mists of time.

The Web sites for the Republic of Ireland, www.Ireland.Travel.ie, and the Northern Ireland Tourist Board, www.DiscoverNorthernIreland.com, contain general information about the Táin trail area.

Clonalis House is open April 15 through September 30. The rate for a double room with bath and breakfast is about $66; call or fax 011-353-907-20014 or e-mail clonalis@iol.ie for more information or reservations. Take dinner at the hotel, because apart from pub food, no other decent dinner is available in the area.

Castle Leslie is open year-round. Rates for a double room for two nights with bath, breakfast, and one evening meal start at about $164 per person; call 011-353-47-88109, fax 011-353-47-88256, or e-mail info@castleleslie.com.

In Carlingford, Harry Jordan's Townhouse & Restaurant, also open year-round, is a charming small hotel with great food, on the lough with a view from each room. The rate for a double with bath is about $80; call 011-353-42-937-3223.

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