My young American friend, Justin, was passing through for a couple of days and we decided to visit Navan Fort as an interesting historic site not too far away from where we live. Navan Fort is a large circular earthwork on the summit of a drumlin just outside Armagh. It is thought to be the site of a pagan sanctuary. The impressive earthwork encloses two monuments on the hilltop, a ring barrow (Iron Age burial site) and a large mound.
In the Ulster Cycle of early Irish mythological tales, Emain was portrayed as the headquarters and sacred place of a military dynasty, the Red Branch Knights, ruled by Conchobar mac Nessa who was advised by the druid Cathbad and championed by CuChulainn, the Hound of Ulster.
Emain 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), Knockaulin, Co Kildare (Leinster) and Cruachan, Co Roscommon (Connacht). While some of the lore associated with these places may be medieval literary invention, archaeological excavations have revealed ceremonial structures of Iron Age date in these monuments which are very similar to each other.
The visitors’ centre at Navan Fort included a multi-media exhibition that we found very complex and which was not at all child-friendly. The explanation was given at a level most suitable for someone pursuing post-graduate research into Irish mythology.
A more engaging explanation was made by some actors who depicted life in the Iron Age, including a demonstration of their fighting strategy as well as their cooking skills. They claimed that all visitors were welcome, but were particularly suspicious of anyone from Connacht. Justin is from Philadelphia (they had never heard of it) and another family were from Minnesota (also unheard of), although a woman who came from Newry was recognisable as coming from the Gap of the North.
Clearly Navan Fort is an important archaeological site, reminding us of our pagan past, and how that for many centuries we were a community of warring tribes with a well-developed religious and spiritual life. The deliberate burning of the pagan sanctuary at Navan still remains something of a mystery. I came away thinking that in one sense not much has changed in Ulster in two centuries, and wishing that the Gospel brought by St Patrick had resulted in a deeper and more profound transformation of this island.