Deirdre

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

News came to Ulster of their plight and the attempt against them by the Scots. Some of his men decided to speak to Conchobhor about them. They sat in conclave, and after much argument, one said to the king:

"Take pity on the sons of Uisliu", he said. "They are in enemy territory, and will continue to be attacked, and all of this through the wilfulness and evil of one bad woman. You must be kingly and show leniency. Forgive them. Send for them and let them come home before they are killed by Deirdrethe Scots."

Conchobhor thought, then said:

"Let them come back to Ulster. As a token of our goodwill we will send to them, as pledges of our sincerity, Fergus, Dubhthach and Cormac."

Fergus was an old and respected warrior, who had given up the kingship in favour of Conchobhor; Dubhthach was one of the most trusted of all the king's advisers; and Cormac was Conchobhor's own son.

So they went and carried the king's message to the sons of Uisliu on Islay, explaining they were sent as an earnest of the king's sincerity, not just as emissaries. The sons of Uisliu were overcome with joy and relief when they heard the offer and glad ly accepted. They and Deirdre sailed from Islay, Fergus and the others with them. However, as soon as they reached the Antrim coast, the first of Conchobhor's traps lay waiting for them. He had arranged that the local king offer Fergus an invitation to an ale-feast. Because of an old oath he had sworn, vowing never toDeirdre refuse hospitality, Fergus was compelled to accept, not just for himself but for his retinue as well. The sons of Uisliu had, on their side, sworn they would not eat or drink until they had first sat at Conchobhor's table, so they went on, leaving Fergus, Dubhthach, and Cormac behind.

Fiachu, Fergus's son, went with them however, as they jour neyed on to Emhain Macha. As they made there way southwards it so happened that an old enemy of Conchobhor, Eoghan mac Durthacht, had arrived at Emhain Macha to make peace. Conchobhor saw his chance and accepted his enemy's submis sions on condition that Eoghan kill the three sons of Uisliu, telling him that they were on their way.

By the time they arrived at the fairgreen in the middle of Emhain Macha Conchobhor had retreated to a secluded house around which he posted many soldiers as sentries and guards. He was terrified lest the sons of Uisliu get to him. In the strange silence the sons of Uisliu stood on the green before Conchobhor's palace. All the women had fled their houses and were sitting up on the earthen rampart around the enclosure. Eoghan mac Durthacht walked across the grass towards the four men, the three brothers and Fiachu. Deirdre stood beside them. Eoghan gave no signal of attack until he stood directly in front of Naoise, then he thrust his huge lance into him breaking his spinal column as he did so.

Fiachu, too late, threw himself at Naoise when he saw Eoghan raising his spear, and caught him in his two arms. They went down together, the spear entering Fiachu as well and killing them both. Then Eoghan's men hacked Ardan and Ainnle to pieces, scattering their limbs all over the green. Deirdre was seized, and her two hands tied behind her back. She was brought over to the house where Conchobhor was waiting until the slaughter Deirdrewas over, and she stood in front of him, head down, not saying a word.

The news reached Fergus, Dubhthach, and Cormac on the northern seacoast, and they rode to Emhain Macha to take immediate revenge for the betrayal and trickery of Conchobhor. They came straight into the king's palace and began killing: first Mane, Conchobhor's son, Fiachra his grandson, then many other relations and fosterlings. Conchobhor now went into a mad battle rage and the slaughter went on all day and all night. Dubhthach, one by one, dragged the women of Emhain Macha out from their hiding places, and killed them. Fergus, eventual ly, when those who were not dead had fled the enclosure, set fire to the whole place and burnt it to the ground.Dubhthach and Cormac then left Ulster, vowing to remain its enemies forever, and went to join with Medbh, queen of Connacht, and Ailill, her husband. Three thousand men of Ulster went with them to join Medhbh's army.

Deirdre lived with Conchobhor for a year, and during that time she did not smile, she barely ate, hardly ever slept, and always sat with her face in her hands over her knees. Sometimes Conchobhor would try to cheer her by having musicians play to her, but all it did was to remind her of Naoise, and then she would sing, in a voice full of sorrow:

While I washed you, Naoise,
before the fire, I would drink
the hazel mead you made
and watch the meat darken on the spit.

You would prepare the stones
for cooking in the forest, and the food
was sweet if baked in honey
with herbs of lavender and sorrel.

I long for the deep melody
of Naoise's voice that held
the shock of the sea wave,
the sorrow of the dark wood.

I hardly sleep anymore;
I do not colour my fingernails
with red paint; there's no joy
in my life now Naoise's gone.

Sometimes Conchobhor would try to talk her out of her sadness, and she would reply:

"You love me but it is as nothing to me now that a small mound of black stones covers that white body. My sorrow is stronger than the sea."

One day Conchobhor asked her who she hated most of all in the world: "You", she replied, "and Eoghan mac Durthacht."

"Then", he said, "you've spent a year with me. You can now spend a year with him."

And so he brought her to Eoghan. The following day all three went to the fair at Emhain Macha. Eoghan was handling the traces of the chariot, she was behind him, and Conchobhor stood behind her. She had sworn to herself that she would never look on these two men together. Conchobhor noticed her agi tation.

"Well", he said, "the way you look between Eoghan and myself is like a sheep between two rams."

The chariot was coming up to a big boulder with a large out crop on it. She leaned out and smashed her head against it, shattering the skull into a mass of fragments, and died instantly.

From A Little Book of Irish Myths