Introduction: Deirdre of the Sorrows is one of the best known tragic heroines in Celtic mythology. Her story is told in the great collection of Irish myths, the Ulster Cycle.
The version presented here is the one adapted by the Irish folklorist, Joseph Jacobs, and published in his collection of Irish Fairy Stories in the 19th century.
It tells how Deirdre is the subject of a prophecy made before she was even born. It was said that she would the most beautiful woman in Ireland, but that her beauty would be the cause of terrible battles and great bloodshed.
There was a man in Ireland once who was called Malcolm Harper. The man was a right good man, and he had a goodly share of this world’s goods. He had a wife, but no family.
What did Malcolm hear but that a soothsayer had come home to the place, and as the man was a right good man, he wished that the soothsayer might come near them. Whether it was that he was invited or that he came of himself, the soothsayer came to the house of Malcolm.
“Are you doing any soothsaying?” says Malcolm.
“Yes, I am doing a little. Are you in need of soothsaying?”
“Well, I do not mind taking soothsaying from you, if you had soothsaying for me, and you would be willing to do it.”
“Well, I will do soothsaying for you. What kind of soothsaying do you want?”
“Well, the soothsaying I wanted was that you would tell me my lot or what will happen to me, if you can give me knowledge o it.”
“Well, I am going out, and when I return, I will tell you.”
And the soothsayer went forth out of the house and he was not long outside when he returned.
“Well,” said the soothsayer, “I saw in my second sight that it is on account of a daughter of yours that the greatest amount of blood shall be shed that has ever been shed in Erin since time and race began. And the three most famous heroes that ever were found will lose their heads on her account.”
After a time a daughter was born to Malcolm, he did not allow a living being to come to his house, only himself and the nurse. He asked this woman, “Will you yourself bring up the child to keep her in hiding far away where eye will not see a sight of her nor ear hear a word about her?”
The woman said she would, so Malcolm got three men, and he took them away to a large mountain, distant and far from reach, without the knowledge or notice of any one. He caused there a hillock, round and green, to be dug out of the middle, and the hole thus made to be covered carefully over so that a little company could dwell there together. This was done.
Deirdre and her foster-mother dwelt in the bothy mid the hills without the knowledge or the suspicion of any living person about them and without anything occurring, until Deirdre was sixteen years of age.
Deirdre grew like the white sapling, straight and trim as the rash on the moss. She was the creature of fairest form, of loveliest aspect, and of gentlest nature that existed between earth and heaven in all Ireland-whatever colour of hue she had before, there was nobody that looked into her face but she would blush fiery red over it.
The woman that had charge of her, gave Deirdre every information and skill of which she herself had knowledge and skill. There was not a blade of grass growing from root, nor a bird singing in the wood, nor a star shining from heaven but Deirdre had a name for it.
But one thing, she did not wish her to have either part or parley with any single living man of the rest of the world. But on a gloomy winter night, with black, scowling clouds, a hunter of game was wearily travelling the hills, and what happened but that he missed the trail of the hunt, and lost his course and companions.
A drowsiness came upon the man as he wearily wandered over the hills, and he lay down by the side of the beautiful green knoll in which Deirdre lived, and he slept.
The man was faint from hunger and wandering, and benumbed with cold, and a deep sleep fell upon him. When he lay down beside the green hill where Deirdre was, a troubled dream came to the man, and he thought that he enjoyed the warmth of a fairy broch, the fairies being inside playing music.
The hunter shouted out in his dream, if there was any one in the broch, to let him in for the Holy One’s sake.
Deirdre heard the voice and said to her foster-mother: “O foster-mother, what cry is that?” “It is nothing at all, Deirdre—merely the birds of the air astray and seeking each other. But let them go past to the bosky glade.
There is no shelter or house for them here.” “Oh, foster-mother, the bird asked to get inside for the sake of the God of the Elements, and you yourself tell me that anything that is asked in His name we ought to do.
If you will not allow the bird that is being benumbed with cold, and done to death with hunger, to be let in, I do not think much of your language or your faith.
But since I give credence to your language and to your faith, which you taught me, I will myself let in the bird.” And Deirdre arose and drew the bolt from the leaf of the door, and she let in the hunter.
She placed a seat in the place for sitting, food in the place for eating, and drink in the place for drinking for the man who came to the house.
“Oh, for this life and raiment, you man that came in, keep restraint on your tongue!” said the old woman. “It is not a great thing for you to keep your mouth shut and your tongue quiet when you get a home and shelter of a hearth on a gloomy winter’s night.”
“Well,” said the hunter, “I may do that—keep my mouth shut and my tongue quiet, since I came to the house and received hospitality from you; but by the hand of thy father and grandfather, and by your own two hands, if some other of the people of the world saw this beauteous creature you have here hid away, they would not long leave her with you, I swear.”
“What men are these you refer to?” said Deirdre.
“Well, I will tell you, young woman, said the hunter.
“They are Naois, son of Uisnech, and Allen and Arden his two brothers.”
“What like are these men when seen, if we were to see them?” said Deirdre.
“Why, the aspect and form of the men when seen are these,” said the hunter: “they have the colour of the raven on their hair, their skin like swan on the wave in whiteness, and their cheeks as the blood of the brindled red calf, and their speed and their leap are those of the salmon of the torrent and the deer of the grey mountain side.
And Naois is head and shoulders over the rest of the people of Erin.”
“However they are,” said the nurse, “be you off from here and take another road. And, King of Light and Sun! in good sooth and certainty, little are my thanks for yourself or for her that let you in!”
The hunter went away, and went straight to’ the palace of King Connachar. He sent word in to the king that he wished to speak to him if he pleased. The king answered the message and came out to speak to the man.
“What is the reason of your journey? ” said the king to the hunter.
“I have only to tell you, O king,” said the hunter, “that I saw the fairest creature that ever was born in Erin, and I came to tell you of it.”
“Who is this beauty and where is she to be seen, when she was not seen before till you saw her, if you did see her?”
“Well, I did see her,” said the hunter.”
But, if I did, no man else can see her unless he get directions from me as to where she is dwelling.”
“And will you direct me to where she dwells? and the reward of your directing me will be as good as the reward of your message,” said the king.
“Well, I will direct you, O king, although it is likely that this will not be what they want,” said the hunter.
Connachar, King of Ulster, sent for his nearest kinsmen, and he told them of his intent. Though early rose the song of the birds mid the rocky caves and the music of the birds in the grove, earlier than that did Connachar, King of Ulster, arise, with his little troop of dear friends, in the delightful twilight of the fresh and gentle May; the dew was heavy on each bush and flower and stem, as they went to bring Deirdre forth from the green knoll where she stayed.
Many a youth was there who had a lithe leaping and lissom step when they started whose step was faint, failing, and faltering when they reached the bothy on account of the length of the way and roughness of the road.
“Yonder, now, down in the bottom of the glen is the bothy where the woman dwells, but I will not go nearer than this to the old woman,” said the hunter.
Connachar with his band of kinsfolk went down to the green knoll where Deirdre dwelt and he knocked at the door of the bothy. The nurse replied, “No less than a king’s command and a king’s army could put me out of my bothy tonight.
And I should be obliged to you, were you to tell who it is that wants me to open my bothy door.” “It is I, Connachar, King of Ulster.”
When the poor woman heard who was at the door, she rose with haste and let in the king and all that could get in of his retinue.
When the king saw the woman that was before him that he had been in quest of, he thought he never saw in the course of the day nor in the dream of night a creature so fair as Deirdre and he gave his full heart’s weight of love to her. Deirdre was raised on the topmost of the heroes’ shoulders and she and her foster-mother were brought to the Court of King Connachar of Ulster.
With the love that Connachar had for her, he wanted to marry Deirdre right off there and then, will she nill she marry him. But she said to him, “I would be obliged to you if you will give me the respite of a year and a day.”
He said “I will grant you that, hard though it is, if you will give me your unfailing promise that you will marry me at the year’s end.” And she gave the promise.
Connachar got for her a woman-teacher and merry modest maidens fair that would lie down and rise with her, that would play and speak with her. Deirdre was clever in maidenly duties and wifely understanding, and Connachar thought he never saw with bodily eye a creature that pleased him more.
Deirdre and her women companions were one day out on the hillock behind the house enjoying the scene, and drinking in the sun’s heat.
What did they see coming but three men a-journeying. Deirdre was looking at the men that were coming, and wondering at them. When the men neared them, Deirdre remembered the language of the huntsman, and she said to herself that these were the three sons of Uisnech, and that this was Naois, he having what was above the bend of the two shoulders above the men of Erin all.
The three brothers went past without taking any notice of them, without even glancing at the young girls on the hillock. What happened but that love for Naois struck the heart of Deirdre, so that she could not but follow after him.
She girded up her raiment and went after the men that went past the base of the knoll, leaving her women attendants there.
Allen and Arden had heard of the woman that Connachar, King of Ulster, had with him, and they thought that, if Naois, their brother, saw her, he would have her himself, more especially as she was not married to the King.
They perceived the woman coming, and called on one another to hasten their step as they had a long distance to travel, and the dusk of night was coming on. They did so. She cried “Naois, son of Uisnech, will you leave me?”
“What piercing, shrill cry is that-the most melodious my ear ever heard, and the shrillest that ever struck my heart of all the cries I ever heard?” “It is anything else but the wail of the wave-swans of Connachar,” said his brothers.
“No! yonder is a woman’s cry of distress,” said Naois, and he swore he would not go further until he saw from whom the cry came, and Naois turned back. Naois and Deirdre met, and Deirdre kissed Naois three times, and a kiss each to his brothers.
With the confusion that she was in, Deirdre went into a crimson blaze of fire, and her colour came and went as rapidly as the movement of the aspen by the stream side. Naois thought he never saw a fairer creature, and Naois gave Deirdre the love that he never gave to thing, to vision, or to creature but to herself.
Then Naois placed Deirdre on the topmost height of his shoulder, and told his brothers to keep up their pace, and they kept up their pace.
Naois thought that it would not be well for him to remain in Erin on account of the way in which Connachar, King of Ulster, his uncle’s son, had gone against him because of the woman, though he had not married her; and he turned back to Alba, that is, Scotland. He reached the side of Loch-Ness and made his habitation there.
He could kill the salmon of the torrent from out his own door, and the deer of the grey gorge from out his window. Naois and Deirdre and Allen and Arden dwelt in a tower, and they were happy so long a time as they were there.
By this time the end of the period came at which Deirdre had to marry Connachar, King of Ulster. Connachar made up his mind to take Deirdre away by the sword whether she was married to Naois or not.
So he prepared a great and gleeful feast. He sent word far and wide through Erin all to his kinspeople to come to the feast. Connachar thought to himself that Naois would not come though he should bid him; and the scheme that arose in his mind was to send for his father’s brother, Ferchar Mac Ro, and to send him on an embassy to Naois. He did so; and Connachar said to Ferchar,
“Tell Naois, son of Uisnech, that I am setting forth a great and gleeful feast to my friends and kinspeople throughout the wide extent of Erin all, and that I shall not have rest by day nor sleep by night if he and Allen and Arden be not partakers of the feast.”
Ferchar Mac Ro and his three sons went on their journey, and reached the tower where Naois was dwelling by the side of Loch Etive. The sons of Uisnech gave a cordial kindly welcome to Ferchar Mac Ro and his three sons, and asked of him the news of Erin.
“The best news that I have for you,” said the hardy hero, “is that Connachar, King of Ulster, is setting forth a great sumptuous feast to his friends and kinspeople throughout the wide extent of Erin all, and he has vowed by the earth beneath him, by the high heaven above him, and by the sun that wends to the west, that he will have no rest by day nor sleep by night if the sons of Uisnech, the sons of his own father’s brother, will not come back to the land of their home and the Soil of their nativity, and to the feast likewise, and he has sent us on embassy to invite you.”
“We will go with you,” said Naois.
“We will,” said his brothers.
But Deirdre did not wish to go with Ferchar Mac Ro, and she tried every prayer to turn Naois from going with him-she said:
“I saw a vision, Naois, and do you interpret it to me,” said Deirdre—then she sang:
O Naois, son of Uisnech, hear
What was shown in a dream to me.
There came three white doves out of the South
Flying over the sea,
And drops of honey were in their mouth
From the hive of the honey-bee.
O Naois, son of Uisnech, hear,
What was shown in a dream to me.
I saw three grey hawks out of the south
Come flying over the sea,
And the red red drops they bare in their mouth
They were dearer than life to me.
It is nought but the fear of woman’s heart,
And a dream of the night, Deirdre.
“The day that Connachar sent the invitation to his feast will be unlucky for us if we don’t go, O Deirdre.”
“You will go there,” said Ferchar Mac Ro; “and if Connachar show kindness to you, show ye kindness to him; and if he will display wrath towards you display ye wrath towards him, and I and my three sons will be with you.”
“We will,” said Daring Drop. “We will,” said Hardy Holly. “We will,” said Fiallan the Fair.
“I have three sons, and they are three heroes, and in any harm or danger that may befall you, they will be with you, and I myself will be along with them.”
And Ferchar Mac Ro gave his vow and his word in presence of his arms that, in any harm or danger that came in the way of the sons of Uisnech, he and his three sons would not leave head on live body in Erin, despite sword or helmet, spear or shield, blade or mail, be they ever so good.
Deirdre was unwilling to leave Alba, but she went with Naois. Deirdre wept tears in showers and she sang:
Dear is the land, the land over there,
Alba full of woods and lakes;
Bitter to my heart is leaving thee,
But I go away with Naois.
Ferchar Mac Ro did not stop till he got the sons of Uisnech away with him, despite the suspicion of Deirdre.
The coracle was put to sea,
The sail was hoisted to it;
And the second morrow they arrived
On the white shores of Erin.
As soon as the sons of Uisnech landed in Erin, Ferchar Mac Ro sent word to Connachar, king of Ulster, that the men whom he wanted were come, and let him now show kindness to them.
“Well,” said Connachar, “I did not expect that the sons of Uisnech would come, though I sent for them, and I am not quite ready to receive them. But there is a house down yonder where I keep strangers, and let them go down to it to-day, and my house will be ready before them to-morrow.”
But he that was up in the palace felt it long that he was not getting word as to how matters were going on for those down in the house of the strangers.
“Go you, Gelban Grednach, son of Lochlin’s King, go you down and bring me information as to whether her former hue and complexion are on Deirdre.
If they be, I will take her out with edge of blade and point of sword, and if not, let Naois, son of Uisnech, have her for himself,” said Connachar.
Gelban, the cheering and charming son of Lochlin’s King, went down to the place of the strangers, where the sons of Uisnech and Deirdre were staying.
He looked in through the bicker-hole on the door-leaf. Now she that he gazed upon used to go into a crimson blaze of blushes when any one looked at her. Naois looked at Deirdre and knew that some one was looking at her from the back of the door-leaf.
He seized one of the dice on the table before him and fired it through the bicker-hole, and knocked the eye out of Gelban Grednach the Cheerful and Charming, right through the back of his head.
Gelban returned back to the palace of King Connachar.
“You were cheerful, charming, going away, but you are cheerless, charmless, returning. What has happened to you, Gelban? But have you seen her, and are Deirdre’s hue and complexion as before?” said Connachar.
“Well, I have seen Deirdre, and I saw her also truly, and while I was looking at her through the bicker-hole on the door, Naois, son of Uisnech, knocked out my eye with one of the dice in his hand.
But of a truth and verity, although he put out even my eye, it were my desire still to remain looking at her with the other eye, were it not for the hurry you told me to be in,” said Gelban.
“That is true,” said Connachar; “let three hundred brave heroes go down to the abode of the strangers, and let them bring hither to me Deirdre, and kill the rest.”
Connachar ordered three hundred active heroes to go down to the abode of the strangers and to take Deirdre up with them and kill the rest. “The pursuit is coming,” said Deirdre.
Yes, but I will myself go out and stop the pursuit,” said Naois.
“It is not you, but we that will go,” said Daring Drop, and Hardy Holly, and Fiallan the Fair; “it is to us that our father entrusted your defence from harm and danger when he himself left for home.”
And the gallant youths, full noble, full manly, full handsome, with beauteous brown locks, went forth girt with battle arms fit for fierce fight and clothed with combat dress for fierce contest fit, which was burnished, bright, brilliant, bladed, blazing, on which were many pictures of beasts and birds and creeping things, lions and lithe-limbed tigers, brown eagle and harrying hawk and adder fierce; and the young heroes laid low three-thirds of the company.
Connachar came out in haste and cried with wrath: “Who is there on the floor of fight, slaughtering my men?”
“We, the three sons of Ferchar Mac Ro.”
“Well,” said the king, “I will give a free bridge to your grandfather, a free bridge to your father, and a free bridge each to you three brothers, if you come over to my side tonight.”
“Well, Connachar, we will not accept that offer from you nor thank you for it. Greater by far do we prefer to go home to our father and tell the deeds of heroism we have done, than accept anything on these terms from you.
Naois, son of Uisnech, and Allen and Arden are as nearly related to yourself as they are to us, though you are so keen to shed their blood, and you would shed our blood also, Connachar.” And the noble, manly, handsome youths with beauteous, brown locks returned inside.
“We are now,” said they, “going home to tell our father that you are now safe from the hands of the king.” And the youths all fresh and tall and lithe and beautiful, went home to their father to tell that the sons of Uisnech were safe. This happened at the parting of the day and night in the morning twilight time, and Naois said they must go away, leave that house, and return to Alba.
Naois and Deirdre, Allan and Arden started to return to Alba. Word came to the king that the company he was in pursuit of were gone.
The king then sent for Duanan Gacha Druid, the best magician he had, and he spoke to him as follows:—”Much wealth have I expended on you, Duanan Gacha Druid, to give schooling and learning and magic mystery to you, if these people get away from me to-day without care, without consideration or regard for me, without chance of overtaking them, and without power to stop them.”
“Well, I will stop them,” said the magician, “until the company you send in pursuit return.” And the magician placed a wood before them through which no man could go, but the sons of Uisnech marched through the wood without halt or hesitation, and Deirdre held on to Naois’s hand.
“What is the good of that? that will not do yet,” said Connachar. “They are off without bending of their feet or stopping of their step, without heed or respect to me, and I am without power to keep up to them or opportunity to turn them back this night.”
“I will try another plan on them,” said the druid; and he placed before them a grey sea instead of a green plain. The three heroes stripped and tied their clothes behind their heads, and Naois placed Deirdre on the top of his shoulder.
They stretched their sides to the stream,
And sea and land were to them the same,
The rough grey ocean was the same
As meadow-land green and plain.
“Though that be good, O Duanan, it will not make the heroes return,” said Connachar; “they are gone without regard for me, and without honour to me, and without power on my part to pursue them or to force them to return this night.”
“We shall try another method on them, since yon one did not stop them,” said the druid. And the druid froze the grey ridged sea into hard rocky knobs, the sharpness of sword being on the one edge and the poison power of adders on the other.
Then Arden cried that he was getting tired, and nearly giving over. “Come you, Arden, and sit on my right shoulder,” said Naois. Arden came and sat on Naois’s shoulder. Arden was long in this posture when he died; but though he was dead Naois would not let him go.
Allen then cried out that he was getting faint and nigh-well giving up. When Naois heard his prayer, he gave forth the piercing sigh of death, and asked Allen to lay hold of him and he would bring him to land.
Allen was not long when the weakness of death came on him and his hold failed. Naois looked round, and when he saw his two well-beloved brothers dead, he cared not whether he lived or died, and he gave forth the bitter sigh of death and his heart burst.
“They are gone,” said Duanan Gacha Druid to the king, “and I have done what you desired me. The sons of Uisnech are dead and they will trouble you no more; and you have your wife hale and whole to yourself.”
“Blessings for that upon you and may the good results accrue to me, Duanan. I count it no loss what I spent in the schooling and teaching of you. Now dry up the flood, and let me see if I can behold Deirdre,” said Connachar. And Duanan Gacha Druid dried up the flood from the plain and the three sons of Uisnech were lying together dead, without breath of life, side by side on the green meadow plain and Deirdre bending above showering down her tears.
Then Deirdre said this lament: “Fair one, loved one, flower of beauty; beloved upright and strong; beloved noble and modest warrior. Fair one, blue-eyed, beloved of thy wife; lovely to me at the trysting-place came thy clear voice through the woods of Ireland.
I cannot eat or smile henceforth. Break not today, my heart: soon enough shall I lie within my grave. Strong are the waves of sorrow, but stronger is sorrow’s self, Connachar.”
The people then gathered round the heroes’ bodies and asked Connachar what was to be done with the bodies.The order that he gave was that they should dig a pit and put the three brothers in it side by side.
Deirdre kept sitting on the brink of the grave, constantly asking the gravediggers to dig the pit wide and free. When the bodies of the brothers were put in the grave, Deirdre said:—
Come over hither, Naois, my love,
Let Arden close to Allen lie;
If the dead had any sense to feel.
Ye would have made a place for Deirdre.
The men did as she told them. She jumped into the grave and lay down by Naois, and she was dead by his side.
The king ordered the body to be raised from out the grave and to be buried on the other side of the loch. It was done as the king bade, and the pit closed. Thereupon a fir shoot grew out of the grave of Deirdre and a fir shoot from the grave of Naois. and the two shoots united in a knot above the loch. The king ordered the shoots to be cut down, and this was done twice, until, at the third time, the wife whom the king had married caused him to stop this work of evil and his vengeance on the remains of the dead.
The prophesy that Deirdre’s beauty would lead to wars and bloodshed frightens Dierdre’s father and so he sends her away to a mountain to live away from men. However, when she is grown she is discovered and attracts the attention of the Connachar, the High King of Ireland, who wants to marry her. Instead, she elopes with the dashing young warrior, Naoise.
They escape to Scotland and live happily there until Conchobar tricks them into returning to Ireland to be his guests at a great feast.
When Connachar discovers that Deirdre is still as beautiful as ever, he determines to have her for himself and orders that Naoise and his brothers should be killed.
Naoise and his men prove too strong, however, and they manage to escape… until a druid sorcerer casts spells turning the green fields in strong seas. The brothers are drowned and the then sorcerer breaks the spell so that Deirdre can be spared.
Deirdre still refuses to yield to Connachar and falls dead into Naoise’s grave after dying from her grief and suffering.