Deirdre

The Exile of the Sons of Uisliu and the Death of Deirdre

Feidhlimidh mac Daill was entertaining Conchobhor, king of Ulster, and his men at his house. They were all drunk. Feidhlimidh, who was the king's storyteller, was urging his wife to make sure that no-one's cup remained unfilled. She rushed about, and was on her feet all night, even though she was heavily pregnant and her time nearly upon her. She ran back Deirdreand forth from the fire, handing round cuts of meat and replenishing drinks as the noise of drunken revelry increased. She stayed up, looking after them, until they had all fallen into their beds, dead drunk. When they were all asleep, she passed through the quiet house and as she did the child in her womb gave such a shriek that the men got up from where they lay with each other, and stumbled back into the hall, and there they stood, staring at each other, bleary-eyed. Then Sencha, Conchobhor's chief adviser, spoke:

"Everyone, be still. Feidhlimidh, bring the woman here so that we can find out what made this scream." And so Feidhlimidh went to her and said:

"What is this clamour in your womb? Do you know you have hurt everyone's ears. I'm scared of what you are carrying inside you." He was roaring at her in rage.

She ran over to Cathbhadh, who was a druid and prophet and seer. She said to him: "Cathbhadh, you have a gentle face; you are kind and dignified. You understand patience, toil, and study. What am I to say to a husband who is confused and overwrought by Deirdrethis strange event? I have a certain amount of magic, that I can use for others, but like many another such I am at a loss when it comes to my own case. What am I carrying? What has screamed inside me?"

"A child with yellow hair cried out from your womb", said Cathbhadh. Already her head is covered in thick, matted curls. Her eyes are a cold clear blue. And her checks have the purple tinge of the foxglove hidden in their whiteness. Her teeth are like snow and her lips bright crimson. She is a woman who will cause slaughter and murder all over Ulster and beyond. Champions will fight over her; kings will ask other kings if they have seen her; queens will envy her slim and flawless body."

Then Cathbhadh put his hand on the woman's swollen stom ach, and the child inside kicked so hard he felt its tiny foot.

"All I'm saying", he went on, "is true. The child you are carrying is a girl. Her name will be Deirdre, and she will bring sorrow and misfortune with her." And there, in front of them all, the woman began to give birth and the baby was born. As she was emerging into the world the druid Cathbhadh made this prophesy:

"Deirdre, girl, you will bring sorrow to many. Slaughter will follow your actions and shadow all you do. You will bring suf fering to Ulster. Your beauty will arouse jealousy and posses siveness. You will cause a whole family of brothers to be exiled. And a great wrong will be done at Emhain Macha,Deirdre picture3 which will originate with you, because of your determination to do what you want. You will commit the vilest of acts against the majesty of the king of Ulster himself., You are misfortune itself to all who see you now."

The men of Ulster were all still crowded around the woman holding the bloody child in her arms. They were frightened when they heard Cathbhadh's solemn words. First one, then another, then all together shouted: "Kill her. Kill her. Kill her." But Conchobhor himself, shouting above the noise and roar ing, said: "No".

When the shouting subsided he went on, speaking more quietly, but in an authoritative and firm even tone: "Tomorrow I will take her from here. I will foster her in a quiet place. I will outline the most careful instructions for her nurse and foster-father and she will be brought up a quiet, careful, steady, and judicious woman. And then when she arrives at a marriageable age I'll take her as my own wife, so that I will personally counteract any trace of evil she may still retain even after such a careful education and fosterage." No-one, not even Cathbhadh the druid, had the nerve to speak out against the king when he had so clearly determined on this course of action, although they all had the deepest misgivings.

The king returned to Emhain Macha. He carried the baby in his arms as he was driven in a chariot, and he looked down at her startling blue eyes, open to the sky, and at her red lips. He called to his chamber at the palace a wise woman, Lebhorcham, and put her in charge of the girl's upbringing. Lebhorcham was respected for her knowledge and for her skill as a healer, but she was also feared because of her magical powers. No-one dared cross her for fear of being cursed by her. Conchobhor assigned to her an isolated house and enclosure in the woods some way from Emhain Macha. Conchobhor also provided Deirdre with foster-parents, but apart from these three no-one else was allowed to go into the hidden fort in the forest. There, as the years went by, Deirdre grew up to be the loveliest woman in Ireland.

Read the second part of this tale.

From A Little Book of Irish Myths.