The sound of stones being clacked together; the feeling of mist curling between grassy knolls, the sheer slick of mud beneath a traveler’s boots, and the bite of cool mountain air with just a splash of the sea. If one were to listen closely, one might hear the whispers of battle-song and chanting on the wind – echoes of a past as mythical and enigmatic as one can possibly imagine.
There are few places wilder in the Heart of the Wild West than this mountain – a towering tribute to ages past and the legends of a warrior queen who held her own against countless men. If one were to believe the stories; atop that mountain sits a cairn, or burial chamber, of said warrior queen: Medb.
It’s befitting as one climbs the mountain to consider the origin of such a woman; such a name: Medb [Maeve when anglicized] supposedly comes from the early Celtic language “Medu”, or “intoxicating”. Thus she becomes “she who intoxicates” – and as a figure who had many lovers and whose mysticism survives beyond the grave, it’s fitting. But her name could also be derived from the ancient Celtic term for “ruler”; or “Medwa”. Either way feels fitting as she still seems to rule the area – and enchant travelers to venture up her mighty mountain to visit her final resting place at the top.
The wildness of the mountain and its mighty cairn of wishing-stones [we’ll get to those later] perpetuates Medb’s untamable spirit. Existing supposedly around the first millennium CE; her archaic imprint in Western Ireland is prominent. She was said to be fierce as she was fair and legends morph her into a sovereign goddess as much as she might’ve also been a queen. Whoever she was, her cairn remains, watchful and ominous in the West.
Wild Westies who’ve hiked Knocknarea on a Wild West Irish Tours adventure describe the experience as “magical”, “spectacular”, or even “transformative”. Adjacent to this is the fairy glen below, which some of you might remember from a couple of previous segments, here and here! It might be Medb’s impact or the ferocity of unbridled nature, but the hike up Knocknarea is unforgettable.
“There’s a great sense of ‘Presence’ on the mountain, in my opinion,” says Wild Westie Saoirse Charis-Graves. “I found even the trail up the mountain to be mystical in that it felt like there were energy signatures all along the way.” Such a thing can be felt in places such as Carrowmore and around fairy forts – even the most skeptical have been said to experience something out of the ordinary. It may be the telling of the tales regarding Medb and the fair folk, being surrounded by things and nature older than a visitor might be used to, or simply finding oneself more open in the Wild West of Ireland. Difficult to say – every person has a unique experience.
“And of course, there is also the occasional faery tree,” Saoirse adds. “Then, at the top, circumambulating the cairn and taking in the 360-degree panorama…one guide in particular helped me understand the people who had come before. One feels that, too: the history, the overlay of people from a long distant past.” Whether Medb is indeed atop Knocknarea; buried beneath 40 feet’s worth of stones, upright and facing her enemies as oft told or not, it seems unlikely that any visitor can dismiss the power felt atop the mountain.
Perhaps again, it’s the triumph of the hike or the age of the earth there, but the rawness and regality of Knocknarea is unparalleled. In fact, Wild Westie Tara Leigh Accavallo’s first mountain hike happened to be Knocknarea – an “exhilarating” experience, she says, adding, “there are no words that do justice to the views from along the way up and at the top.”
Wild Westie Steve Hogan has hiked the mountain twice already – “it is a tradition to carry a stone to the top and leave it on Maeve’s Cairn,” he notes – a tradition that comes with a notion that one can make a wish or prayer as they toss the stone atop the enormous cairn. In a way, there’s an energy in adding your own history to somebody else’s – be it the hundreds who laid stones there before, or the impact of a legend. “We did the climb right after visiting the Glen,” adds Steve, “and that along with being the only ones ascending Knocknarea that April afternoon made it quite a magical experience.” Wild Westie Debbie Walker-Spies had an interesting interpretation of her journey: “I climbed it in 2015 on a day so windy I imagined Maeve was trying to blow me off of her mountain. It was fabulous!”
Perhaps Medb does want to test travelers visiting her mountain – as she tested her enemies and men of olden days. The reward for completing the trial of the hike [which is actually quite accessible, like all things, weather permitting], however, is one of a breathtaking view and the purest form of history: up close, beautiful, and indeed, incredibly wild.
Whether you just enjoy the challenge of a hike, exploring the history of the Wild West of Ireland, or are a true believer of the mystic & mysterious, Knocknarea has something for everyone. The Heart of the Wild West and Wild West Irish Tours are delighted to bring visitors to the cairn and the glen; as well as countless other places to be explored in the future, either on your own journey or here in our words…
– Sam Fishkind.