This is the script originally written for the podcast, rather than a transcript, so there might be a couple of variations from what was actually spoken. If you notice any or have any questions, feel free to get in touch!
Welcome to Unreal, a podcast about Irish history, stories and tradition.
There once was born a cursed girl. She was beautiful, and strong-willed, and would do anything for the man she loved. But in her name, evil came to Ireland, bringing war and fighting that left hundreds dead in its wake. Her name was Deirdre, and stories told about her live on, as one of Ireland’s most sorrowful legends.
I’m Ruth Atkins and this is Unreal.
Deirdre of the Sorrows is one of Ireland’s best known legends, and the last of the three sorrows of storytelling that I have been covering. You can listen to my previous episodes on The Children of Lir and the Quest of the Sons of Tuireann if you want to hear the others.
I think I’ve shared before that the three tales were only grouped together as the Three Sorrows at quite a late date, probably some time in the or 18th Century. Because of this, they don’t have quite as much in common as you might expect, other than their tragic endings and Deirdre of the Sorrows stands out particularly as being quite different to the other two. Instead of telling of people from the Tuatha Dé Dannan or Tribe of the Gods as the other tales do, this story takes place among the Milesians, the ordinary people of Ulster who came afterward. And, while the Children of Lir and the Sons of Tuireann focus on families who met terrible fates, this tale is always, first and foremeost, Deirdre’s story – beginning with her birth, and ending with her death, and telling of the grief and destruction that her name and beauty wrought throughout Ulster.
Deirdre’s terrifying destiny was foretold even before she was born. Long ago in Ireland, the men of Ulster were in the house of King Conor’s storyteller, Feidlimid Mac Daill, and his wife was serving them drink and food. As she walked across the room, the infant in her womb began to scream – a long, loud scream that was heard throughout the whole house, so that each of the Ulster warriors rose in fright and stood side by side watching.
The woman was brought to the druid and seer Cathbad, who examined her.
“In your womb there cries out,
a woman of yellow hair with yellow curls,” he said.
“A woman for whom there will be many slaughters,
among the chariot fighters of Ulster
A woman, fair, tall and long-haired
Concerning whom champions will fight
Concerning whom high kings will ask.
Her name will be Deirdre, and concerning her there will be evil.”
When the child was born, it was indeed a girl, and the warriors were concerned about Cathbad’s prophecy.
“Let the girl be slain,” they called.
But King Conor wouldn’t allow it. “No,” he said. “I shall carry the girl off tomorrow, and she will be reared according to my will, and she will be my wife.”
“I shall nurse her in a silent place
A lonely rath within a lonely land
Where none shall ever gain a sight of her
Nor ever wish to see her”
The men of Ulster did not dare speak out against their king, and so it was done. Deirdre was hidden away, and raised in secret to become Conor’s wife. And though she grew to be the most beautiful woman in Ireland, no person ever laid eyes on her, except her foster parents, and an old woman called Leborcham.
Leborcham is a really fascinating character, although she only has quite a small role to play in the story. Even her name is interesting – Leborcham possibly comes from two Irish words, meaning “Crooked Book.” And it’s told in the story that even though all the rest of Ulster could not come to see Deirdre, Leborcham could not be kept away, because she was a female satirist. In Medieval Ireland, people believed that poetry held great power, and bards could use their skills to curse as well as praise. Satirical poems were sometimes recorded as causing blemishes and blisters on the people they targeted. Sometimes, they even led to their death. So, old and crooked though she may have been, Leborcham would nonetheless have been feared and respected by the people of Ulster as someone of great power and magic, and she could do and go where she wished.
The people of Ulster soon forgot about Deirdre and the prophecy that Cathbad had made. But prophecies do not fade, even when they are forgotten. And the terrible fate that was promised was growing, even as Deirdre grew, alone and seen by no one.
One winter morning, when Deirdre was grown, she stepped outside to see her foster father skinning a calf on the snowy ground. The calf’s scarlet blood dripped down onto the snow, and a black raven flew down from the trees to drink it.
Deirdre was mesmerised by the sight. Then she spoke to Leborcham, saying:
“The only man I could love would have these three colours, his hair as black as the raven, his cheeks red like the blood, and his body as white as the snow.”
“Yes, such a man my lovely child, there is,
And only one; go search from sea to sea.
And such another you shall never find
As Naoise, son of Usna”
“I shall not be well until I see him,” said Deirdre.
It happened one day that Naoise and his brothers, the sons of Usna, were nearby. The sons of Usna were famous warriors, known for their swiftness, bravery and the sweetness of their singing.
As Naoise stood away from his brothers, Deirdre crept out from her fort, and walked past so that he would see her.
“Beautiful is the heifer that goes past us,” Naoise said to himself.
Deirdre turned. “There must be heifers, in a place where there are no bulls,” she answered suggestively.
“But you have the bull of the province,” countered Naoise. “Conor, the king of Ulster.”
“Ah,” said Deirdre, “but if I had a choice, I would choose a young bull like thee.”
Now, Naoise may have been tempted, for Deirdre was beautiful, but he did not show it. He knew of the prophecy of Cathbad, and he did not want to go against the king.
“Are you refusing me?” said Deirdre. Then she rushed toward him, and caught hold of the ears on either side of his head. “Here are the ears of cowardice and disgrace,” she said, “if you will not take me.” Deirdre was appealing to Naoise’s sense of chivalry and honour here, knowing that a warrior could not lightly take a charge of disgrace.
Naoise cried out, and his brothers came running to help him. Naoise told them what had happened.
“Evil will come of this,” the sons of Usna said, “but you will not be in disgrace as long as we live. We will take you and Deirdre out of Ireland, for there is now not a king in this land who would give us welcome.”
What is really surprising in these earlier versions of the story is how bold Deirdre is about getting what she wants. In a lot of the more modern versions of the tale, storytellers make Deirdre more passive and shy, a fittingly pure romantic heroine, and show her and Naoise’s love growing naturally together. But in this version, Deirdre shows herself to be more than a match for these noble warriors – clever and shrewd, and willing to do anything to get the fate and the hero she wants.
She’s actually so forward that you almost wonder whether Naoise is truly a willing lover. This is actually quite common in elopement stories from medieval Ireland and further afield. In the famous Pursuit of Diarmuid and Gráinne, and the story of Cano Meic Gartnáin and his lover Credd, the married female lover gives a sleeping potion to all the people at court, so that she can entice the male hero to set aside his loyalties to his leader, and take her for himself. These tales, like Deirdre’s tend to end tragically, and perhaps it is a warning to men of the dangers of women, reminding them not to follow the whims of a woman who knows her own heart, and is willing to do anything to get what she wants.
There is even a tale that shows what happens to a man who tries to refuse such a woman.
Ronan was king over Leinster, and his first wife Ethne bore him a handsome son, whose name was Mael-Fothartaigh. When Ethne died, Ronan decided to marry again, to a fair young maiden from the north. “Truly you are too old for a girl-wife,” his son Mael-Fothartaigh told him. “Will you not marry an older woman? That would fit you better than a little skittish thing of a girl.” But Ronan would not be deterred. He brought the maiden down to his home in Leinster. But the girl and her father had a plan for a much greater catch.
‘Where is your son, Ronan?’ his new wife asked; ‘I am told you have a good son.’
‘I have indeed,’ said Ronan, ‘the best son in Leinster.’
‘Then let him be summoned to me,” she said.
Through some fairly elaborate trickery, the young bride tried her best to seduce her new husband’s son. But Mael-Fothartaig would not yield. ‘If I were thrust into a fiery pit that would make ashes and dust of me three times, I would never meet with the wife of Ronan.’ He said. ‘I will leave this place.’
So Mael-Fothartaigh fled to Scotland. But while he was gone the men of Leinster rose up against his father, and Mael-Fothartaig was forced to return home to help him. His grateful father Ronan could talk of little else but what a wonderful son he had in Mael-Fothartaig.
‘You have made us deaf with talking about your son,’ said his wife. ‘And he is not so good as you think. He has tried to seduce me three times since the morning, and I shall not be alive withstanding him much longer.’
At first Ronan refused to believe her. But eventually she convinced him of Mael Fothartaig’s betrayal. There was a warrior by Ronan’s side, Aedan son of Fiachna Lara. ‘O Aedan,’ said Ronan, ‘a spear into Mael-Fothartaig!’ And when Mael-Fothartaig had turned his back to them by the fire, Aedan thrust the spear into him.
With his dying breath, Mael-Fothartaig told his father the truth of what had happened. ‘Your wife she has been soliciting me since she came into this land,’ he said. ‘It was not three times today that I had her brought to me, but three times today that she came to me herself, and I turned her away.’
In anguish and rage at his wife’s trickery and the death of his son, Ronan rose up, and he ordered his wife’s family to be killed. His warriors killed her father, mother and brother, and brought their heads back and threw them on the woman’s chest. Then the young woman arose and threw herself on to her knife, so that it came out through her back.
The story of how Ronan slew his son is definitely told in a less tragic way than Deirdre of the Sorrows or other Irish elopement tales – although it ends in death and destruction, it’s much more light-hearted, and actually reads a bit like a comedy in places.
And perhaps there’s some humour to be found in the early tales of Deirdre too – in how cleverly she bested one of the greatest warriors in Ireland with her words alone. It makes it a much more complicated story though, raising questions of of propriety and consent that we still grapple with today. And so it makes sense that later versions of the story have gone for a simpler, more romantic depiction of their love – that Naoise was so bewitched by Deirdre’s beauty that he could never have done anything but fall in love with her.
“He forgot himself, forgot the world,
Forgot the king whose heavy-handed wrath
No man had ever known to cease
But Naoise now forgot it and forgot
Himself and death and life, and answered her”
Together with the sons of Usna, Naoise and Deirdre fled. They journeyed throughout Ireland, evading King Conor’s forces, and finally they made their abroad and took shelter with the King of Scotland. The sons of Usna joined the Scottish king’s army, and hid Deirdre in a house in the castle grounds.
But early one morning, the steward of the King of Scotland spied Naoise and Deirdre asleep, and hurried back to tell the king what he had seen.
‘I have not found,’ he said, ‘a woman equal to you until today. But Naoise son of Usna has a woman worthy of the king of the Western World. We should kill him, and his wife should share your bed,’ the steward said.
‘No, I will not kill him,’ the king said, ‘but you shall go to her every day to woo her secretly for me.’
The steward did so, going to Deirdre each day and singing the praises of the king of Scotland, hoping to entice her to leave Naoise for him. But it did no good. Deirdre was fiercely loyal to Naoise, and every night she told him what the steward had said to her, and made sure there were no secrets between them.
Soon the king of Scotland grew angry at being refused, sending the sons of Usna into ever more dangerous quests and battles. But they were so strong and brave that they always survived. So at last, the king assembled his army, and prepared to ambush Naoise and his brothers, and take Deirdre by force. But Deirdre heard of this too, and she warned them.
‘Leave now,’ she said. ‘For you do not leave tonight, tomorrow he will have you slain!’ So they fled again, to an island of the sea.
Now while all this was happening, King Conor and his followers were still brooding in anger over Deirdre and Naoise’s betrayal.
In some later versions of the story told in the 19th Century, Conor sends Leborcham to spy on Deirdre, and tell him if she was still as beautiful as she had been in youth. Leborcham goes dutifully, but she loves Deirdre and Naoise, and so she tells Conor that Deirdre’s beauty had faded, and that she was no longer worthy to be a king’s bride. But Conor is suspicious, and sends another messenger who reports the truth: that Deirdre is as beautiful as ever.
‘Tis pity, O Conor!” said the men of Ulster, “that the sons of Usna should die in the land of foes, for the sake of an evil woman. It is better that they should die here, under your watch.’
‘Let them come to us then,’ said Conor. He called on Naoise and the sons of Usna, and invited them back to Ireland, even telling them they could bring fellow warriors with them for security. The man Naoise brought with him was Fergus mac Róich, a mighty warrior.
In the earliest version of the story, the sons of Usna return because of Conor’s invitation. But some later tales say they decide to go because they hear a voice from Ireland calling out to them from across the waves. And in some versions of the story, Deirdre dreams that the trip will end badly, and begs Naoise not to go.
“Oh Naoise go not forward, for I see
A cloud upon the sky, a cloud of blood;
It streaks the heavens with a tinge of red
It casts an ice-cold shadow over me”
He ignores her warning and leaves her, going with Fergus and his brothers, and trusting in Conor, not knowing that the king had further trickery up his sleeve.
Now Naoise and the sons of Usna were sworn not to eat in Ireland until they had eaten at King Conor’s table. So Conor set up a trap to separate them from Fergus. He had the Ulster men invite Fergus to a feast, and because Fergus could not honourably refuse, he had to leave Naoise and his brothers, sending his son Fiach with them in his place.
They reached Conor’s fort in the meadows of Emain Macha, standing on the high ground while the women of the fort watched from the ramparts. Then King Conor’s ally, Eogan son of Durthacht came forward with his warriors to greet them. He thrust his spear forward, and though young Fiacha threw himself over Naoise, the spear pierced them both, and they fell to the ground. Then a great battle began and the sons of Usna were slaughtered in the meadow, with no man escaping alive.
Though Naoise and his brothers were dead, the fighting in the story did not end there. Fergus, when he heard what had happened rushed to Emain Macha, and with his warriors slew the Ulster men and women, and set the fort on fire. Then Fergus left in exile, to join Queen Maeve of Connaught. This actually sets up the beginning of another very famous Irish legend call the Táin Bó Cuailnge, or the Cattle Raid of Cooley.
When all this had been done, King Conor ordered that Deirdre be brought to him. She was brought to his side, with her hands bound behind her back, and placed under his power.
Again, the more romantic later stories paint a simpler picture of Deirdre, saying that she died of a broken heart when she heard of her lover’s death. But in the early version, she dies later, and very much on her own terms. For one year, Deirdre lived on in Conor’s household, and during that time she never smiled, and rarely ate or slept, keeping her head bowed. But when music played, she would lift her voice and sing of her grief for Naoise.
“For this it is, no more I sleep;
No more my nails with pink I stain:
No joy can break the watch I keep;
For Usna’s sons come not again.”
I see his cheeks, with meadow’s blush they glow;
Black as a beetle, runs his eyebrows’ line;
His lips are red; and, white as noble snow
I see his teeth, like pearls they seem to shine.
Break not, O king, my heart to-day in me;
For soon, though young, I come my grave unto:
My grief is stronger than the strength of sea;
Thou, Conor, knowest well my word is true.”
King Conor soon grew tired of Deirdre’s melancholy, and sought to punish her.
“What person do you hate the most?” he asked her.
“You,” she answered, “And Eoghan mac Durthacht, who slew my Naoise.”
“Then I will give you to Eoghan for a year,” said Conor.
The following day they went together in the chariot to the assembly at Macha – Deirdre and these two men that she hated most in the world. She looked from one to the other, and Conor laughed.
“Ha, Deirdre,” he said. “You are looking at us like a ewe between two rams!”
This teasing was the final straw. There was a great rock of stone in front of them, and Deirdre threw herself from the chariot. Her head struck the stone and shattered her skull, and so she died.
Into the grave where Naoise lay and slept.
There at his side the child of Félim fell
The fair-haired daughter of a hundred smiles.
Men piled their grave and reared their stone on high
And wrote their names in Ogham
These were the deaths for which the child unborn
Had cause to curse King Conor, this the blood
That swelled into a sea and overflowed
The pleasant plains of Ulster. Twas for this
Emania fell with all her palaces,
It was for this the fair Red Branch was hewn
From off the tree of Ulster, fruit and leaves.
… Thus far the fate of Usna’s sons – thus far.”
There are many different ways that you can tell a story, and more than one way to bring a heroine to life. You can describe her purity and goodness. You can speak of her cleverness and determination, to live by her own wishes rather than trace the path set out for her by others. You can tell of the strength of her love, her fierce loyalty to the man she prized above all others. Deirdre was all of these things, and depending on which story you hear, different qualities will take centre stage. And perhaps this is why her story has captured so many people’s hearts and imaginations, living on through the centuries right up until this day. Her story, and her character, becomes what you want it to be, perhaps revealing more about the people who tell the story than it does about Deirdre herself. One thing is certain though. Maiden or temptress, stubborn, headstrong or loyal – her death is always a tragedy, bringing forth a sorrow, that echoes through the ages.
Thanks for listening to this episode of Unreal. You can find links to the sources, script and music from today’s episode on my website Unrealpodcast.com. And a quick note that I appeared on another podcast, Let’s Talk About the Arts, recently, reading a piece of fiction I wrote for the magazine Sonder – the story was inspired by folk tales. If you’d like to hear it, you can find a link to the episode on my website or in the shownotes too, and do consider picking up a copy of Sonder Magazine as well. If you enjoyed the show and would like to support it, please consider reviewing and subscribing wherever you get your podcast, liking the show on social media, or telling a friend.
I’ll be back soon with another story, and until then go néirí an bóthar leat.