The story Deirdre of the Sorrows is recorded in the Ulster Cycle of Irish mythology. It’s a tale of beauty, lust, and death dating back to ancient Ireland.
During the reign of King Conchobhar Mac Nessa of Ulster, a baby girl was born to Felimidh Mac Dall, a chieftain and bard of the Ulaidh. The newborn girl was named Deirdre.
Deirdre of the Sorrows Prophecy
The child was beautiful and the druid, Cathbad, made a prophecy. As the infant grew, her beauty would increase until she was the most beautiful woman in all of Ireland. However, the child would, because of her beauty, bring sorrow and war upon the country.
When news of the child’s birth and the prophecy reached Conchobhar’s capital Emain Macha, his royal guards, the Red Branch Knights, decided that in order to spare Ireland the misery they would take the child Deirdre and kill her.
King Conchobhar, however, ordered that the child should be placed in the care of the poetess Leabharcham so that when she reached the age of consent, he, himself would marry her and have as his wife Ireland’s greatest beauty.
As Deirdre grew the words of prophecy were fulfilled and her beauty increased.
Deirdre falls in love
One day, in the midst of winter she witnessed ravens feeding off the corpse of a lamb. Horrified at the sight she promised that she would allow love into her heart only for a man whose hair was as black as a raven’s wing and whose lips would be as red as the lamb’s blood.
As she neared the age of maidenhood, she was walking on the ramparts of Emain Macha when she saw a young man approaching. He had night-black hair and lips as red as a lamb’s blood and he was the most handsome of men.
Deirdre immediately knew this was the love of her heart. “Who is he?” She asked Leabharcham. “That is Naoise the eldest son of Usna the husband of Ebhla the daughter of Cathbad who foretold of your beauty” answered the poetess, “why do you ask?” Deirdre smiled and whispered, “This is my love, can you help me to meet him?” The poetess agreed and arranged a meeting between the young pair.
When Naoise saw Deirdre he immediately fell deeply in love with her. Both knew that if King Conchobhar was to discover their love then he would have them killed so Naoise confided in his two younger brothers Ainlé and Ardán. They planned an escape out of Emain Macha and fled northwards to Antrim and crossed the sea to Alba (Scotland). Eventually, they found safety in Glen Etive where they settled down to an enjoyable life.
Deirdre angers the King
Back in Ireland, Conchobhar’s anger and jealousy grew fiercer by the day. His spies had discovered where Deirdre and the sons of Usna had settled. However, it was in the kingdom of a Caledonian king so there was very little that he could do.
Conchobhar came up with a plan, he would trick an honest warrior to bring the little band home to Ireland and then he would have his revenge on them. He looked at all his knights, each of them noted for their loyalty, bravery, and honesty.
Out of all the knights, he saw warrior Fergus Mac Roth also possessed the purest of heart. He called upon Fergus and made him leave for Alba and to tell Deirdre and Naoise that he forgave them and wished them only happiness. He also needed Ainlé and Ardán back with his knights because they were too valuable to lose.
Deirdre returns to Ireland
Fergus and his two sons rode north to the Antrim coast and from there crossed over to the shores of Argyle, eventually making their way to Glen Etive.
The sons of Usna were delighted to see Fergus for they knew him to an honorable man and he relayed the king’s message to them. Now the sons of Usna were at the time feeling the pains of homesickness and were only too glad to hear of King Conchobhar’s forgiveness but Deirdre still felt mistrust. It was only the honest reputation of Fergus that swayed her to return to Ulster.
On the night of their return to Emain Macha, they were greeted and feasted by the Red Branch Knights and informed that in the morning they would meet the king. Deidre was still worried but the sons of Usna and Fergus Mac Roth reassured her saying the king would dishonor himself if he went back on his promise.
In the morning all the palace guards, warriors, and people gathered with the returned exiles in the forecourt. Fergus was not present as he had been sent on an errand by the King, although his sons were with the exiles. King Conchobhar appeared on the balcony and ordered the knights to seize Deirdre and kill the others.
Deirdre’s sorrow on the death of her lover
The sons of Usna and the sons of Fergus rushed to defend Deirdre but the knights were too many and too strong. The king called the sons of Fergus to surrender and he would spare them. One, Buinne, did but the other; Illán Fionn refused to dishonor himself and fought on. A knight, Eoghain Mac Durthacht managed to slam a spear into Naoise’s spine and Deirdre seeing her beloved fall dead to the ground collapsed in sorrow and despair. Soon Naoise’s brothers and Illán Fionn also fell and Conchobhar felt triumphant. However, the druid Cathbad, angered by the King’s treachery called on him a terrible curse. Fergus Mac Roth returned to the palace and saw the butchery. He swore an oath of vengeance. Turning his back on the king and upon his own son Buinne, rode west to Connacht to serve Conchobhar’s mortal enemy Queen Meabh.
The death of Deirdre
Conchobhar then had Deirdre taken to his quarters but she in deep hatred refused ever to speak to him. After a year he grew tired of her sullen silence, his lust for her turned cold and so he had her bound hand and feet, thrown into a chariot. She was, as a reward, to the man she hated most after himself, the warrior Eoghan Mac Durthact who had slain her beloved Naoise. On the way to Eoghan, she managed to throw herself from the chariot and smashed her brains out upon a rock. Her broken body was placed into the ground near where Naoise lay in death. Soon a tree grew out of each grave and grew in a close embrace.
The tale of Deirdre of the Sorrows from Irish mythology remains popular and has been told by many authors and playwrights. The Irish Naval Service named their ship after Deirdre of the Sorrows. The LÉ Deirdre was launched in 1972.
Last updated May 23, 2020.