King Conchobar MacNessa, the King of Ulster, smiled as he entered the hall where the feast was ready for him. With him were his noblemen and warriors, Cathbad his chief druid, plus many other warriors and bards who were visiting the king. The feast was given by Feidlimid MacDall; the king’s most gifted bard and storyteller whose skills were so great that he could charm the birds out of the trees with his tales and verses. His wife was a beautiful woman, and although she was heavily pregnant she saw to it that the servants poured wine from silver jugs into the goblets of their guests and made sure that everyone has whatever they wanted, especially King Conchobar. Feidlimid smiled to himself; he was the only bard in the land that was important enough to hold a feast for the king, and soon his hall would ring with the laughter of his own child. But that was not meant to be.
As the evening wore on the sound of merriment in the hall was suddenly broken by a terrible, piercing scream. Everyone who heard it felt an icy cold shiver pass down their spine, because this scream seemed to herald a great sadness that would engulf their land. All eyes looked at Feidlimid’s wife who stood motionless in the middle of the room. The scream had come from her, and the women in the hall rushed over to her side, thinking that her time had come to bring this new life into the world. A second scream, more awful than the first, rent the air in the hall. The women recoiled in horror, for that terrible scream had not come from the lips of the trembling woman, but from the unborn child that she carried in her womb. All now were silent, frozen in horror as the source of that terrible scream became apparent. The king turned to Cathbad, his chief druid, and said,
‘What can this mean? What awful thing does this herald?’
‘My king,’ said Cathbad, ‘I foretell that this scream, from a child yet unborn, will spell danger for Ulster. I see that the unborn child will be the cause of great sadness to this land. She will be a beautiful girl; more beautiful than any now in Ireland, and her beauty will be the cause of great strife. Warrior will kill warrior, oaths will be broken and three of the noblest sons of Ulster will be exiled because of her. War will be the result of her beauty and this kingdom will be torn to pieces. I will give her a name; she will be called Deirdre, but later in her life she will be known as Deirdre of the Sorrows.’
A terrible silence descended on the company as the druids words faded away on the air. A terrible war was to come; the end of the kingdom. Death stood watching the king and his followers from the shadows, and if his bony face still possessed lips, you would swear that they would have curled up into a smile.
A short time later Feidlimid’s wife had the baby girl whose arrival had been so publically and terrifyingly announced. The Red Branch warriors, King Conchobar’s most loyal bodyguards, counselled the king that this baby girl should be destroyed in order to save Ulster from the fate predicted by Cathbad the druid. But the king had given it a lot of thought and he had other plans.
‘I have given this much thought, and I see a way that this oncoming storm can be weathered. I will have this child sent away to be fostered on my behalf. She will be kept away from the eyes of men, and when she reaches marriageable age she will be my wife. In this way the druid’s prophesy cannot come to pass.’
The Red Branch warriors were not happy at this proposal, but they could see that King Conchobar had made up his mind on the matter and it was useless to try to argue with him.
Deirdre was given to a nurse called Levarcham who would raise her, and they were sent to a castle that lay far away in the middle of a forest on the slppes of Slieve Gullion. Here Deirdre grew up in isolation, with just her nurse and some servants to look after her. King Conchobar used to visit, and his eyes grew wide as he watched the beautiful little girl grow up to become the most beautiful young woman in the whole of Ireland. Her flaxen hair, grey/green eyes and rose-red lips set his blood boiling with lust and he started to plan their wedding. Deirdre had no idea what was going on or who this old man was who came to visit, and why he looked at her in that way. He was kind enough to her, but his grey hair and beard and his wrinkled face could never set her pulse racing with passion.
One winter’s day Deirdre stood on the castle’s battlements with Levarcham her nurse by her side, and she saw that a servant had killed a calf which lay on the ground before the castle. Suddenly, a raven with blue/black feathers landed on the snow where the calf had been killed and started to peck at the blood that stained the snow that blanketed the land. Deidre sighed as she watched the hungry bird, and said to Levarcham,
‘Oh, dear Levarcham! How I wish there were men in the world who had hair as black as that raven, skin as smooth and white as the snow and cheeks and lips as red as that blood.’
Levarcham looked at the beautiful young girl, and her heart sank at the though of her soon having to be held in the embrace of the aged king; a withered old man in his twilight years. She knew that she should say nothing, but she couldn’t stop the words from coming.
‘Oh, Deirdre, my beloved girl. There is such a man in Ulster who has hair as black as that raven, skin as smooth and white as the snow and cheeks and lips as red as that blood. His name is Naoise, the bravest warrior in all of Ulster. He and his two brothers are known as the Sons of Usna, and they are the finest flowers of all the men in Ireland.’
As soon as Deirdre heard about Naoise she begged and pleaded with Levarcham to take her to see him. At first the old nurse refused, but in her heart she knew that it was wrong to give this beautiful young maiden to that old, dried up man, and so she eventually agreed. She took Deirdre in secret to the castle where Naoise lived, and there she saw him. He was even more beautiful to Deirdre than she had ever dreamed, and her pulse started to race at the sight of him. She saw him stride from the castle and she quickly followed him along the road until she managed to slip past him unseen. She stepped out onto the road in front of Naoise and walked by him. He stared at her in wonderment; she was so beautiful. He thought that this had to be the Deirdre that he had heard talk of, as no other woman could be more beautiful than she was.
As Deirdre passed he said, ‘Fair is the heifer that passes me.’
‘Heifers grow large where there are no bulls,’ she replied.
‘But you have the best bull in the land,’ said Naoise, ‘the king himself!’
‘I would rather have a young bull like you!’
Naoise knew that he was in danger, as this girl was betrothed to the king that he was duty bound to serve. He stepped back, remembering the druid’s prophesy that foretold death and ruin for Ulster, but Deirdre stepped forward and, grabbing him by the ears said,
‘Ears of sorrow and shame shall these be unless you go off with me.’
Deirdre’s words were a spell, as she was much more than just a pretty face; she was also gifted with magic and the second sight. Naoise knew that he was doomed to run away with her and that he would fulfil the druid’s terrible prophesy.
Naoise, along with his brothers Ardán and Ainnle, planned how they could carry Deirdre out of Ulster without getting caught. One night they took Deirdre and hid her in a group of fifty men, fifty women and fifty cattle and by that means they escaped from Ulster. It was some time before King Conchobar found out that Naoise and Deirdre had eloped and when he did his anger was terrible to behold. He set off with an army after the Sons of Usna and chased them the length and breadth of Ireland. Seeing that there would be no peace for them in Ireland they took a boat and sailed for Scotland, which was called Alba in those far off days.
It turned out that Deirdre’s beauty was as great a danger to them in Scotland as it was in Ireland, for the Scottish king saw her and burned with desire for her. He had greeted the Sons of Usna as honoured guests, knowing of their exploits in Ireland and the recent war with King Conchobar. But the more he saw Deirdre the more he wanted her for his wife. He started to give tasks to Naoise and his brothers to perform that became more and more dangerous until they understood that he was trying to get them killed. They took Deirdre and fled from the court of the Scottish king, making their home in a glen that provided both shelter and food for them. They build a fortress there that was easy to defend and they settled down to enjoy a life without trouble. But it would not last.
Back in Ireland King Conchobar brooded over his lost prize, and the hatred that burned through his veins turned cold and bitter. His whole life was consumed by the desire for revenge on Naoise and his brothers and on that ungrateful girl who had humiliated him in front of his entire kingdom. Cold anger is much more deadly than hot anger, and so the poison grew within him. His warriors and noblemen had started to grumble about the loss of such fine men as the Sons of Usna, and that the king should come to terms with them. His evil, twisted mind started to turn over a plan that would bring him the revenge that he so desired, and so one day he called a meeting. He addressed his most trusted men and said that he saw now how Ulster was suffering from the loss of such fine warriors as Naoise and his brothers, and that despite the wrongs that had been done to him at the hands of Naoise he was prepared to forgive him and have him back to stay in Ulster. There was much rejoicing among the men when they heard that and it was agreed that the most honourable nobleman in all of Ulster, Fergus MacRoich of the Red Branch, would be sent to fetch the sons of Usna back home. King Conchobar had no intention of forgiving Naoise, but now the trap was set.
Fergus, with his sons Illann the Fair and Buinne the Ruthless Red, set off for Scotland and travelled to the glen where the Sons of Usna were living. When they met, Fergus made the king’s offer to them; to return to Ulster and be honoured as they once had been. Deirdre, who had the second sight, warned them that King Conchobar could not be trusted and that death awaited them if they returned, but the Sons of Usna were tired of living in exile from the land that they loved, and they trusted Fergus, a man renowned for his honesty. They packed their things and returned to Ulster with Fergus and his sons.
Now Conchobar’s trap began to tighten around the necks of the Sons of Usna, for he had bribed some of his less trustworthy noblemen to help him to destroy Naoise and his brothers. In those days it was the custom that whenever a nobleman rode through another chieftain’s lands that he had to accept the offer of hospitality or bring dishonour on himself. Fergus rode fast to avoid such offers, but one of the noblemen in Conchobar’s pay managed to stop him on his road and offered him a feast. Fergus was reluctant to delay his journey, but his honour was at stake if he refused. King Conchobar had set his traps well, for he had set the condition that the first food that the Sons of Usna ate when back in Ulster had to come from his own table. Fearing a trick, Naoise refused to attend the feast but told Fergus that they would ride on without him. Fergus sent his two sons to accompany the Sons of Usna, promising them that he would soon join them.
As they rode on the final part of their journey Deirdre became more and more worried. She told Naoise that she had had a dream the previous night where three birds flew towards them with honey dripping from their beaks, but when the honey dropped onto the Sons of Usna it turned to blood. This, she interpreted, represented treachery by King Conchobar, and that the honey dripping from the birds’ beaks were his honeyed words that would end in bloodshed. As they got nearer to Emain Macha, the king’s castle, Deirdre was upset to see a halo of blood surrounding Naoise’s head. Despite all the omens Naoise still refused to believe that the king would bring dishonour on himself by breaking an oath or be foolish enough to put lies into the mouth of such an honourable man as Fergus MacRoich.
When they arrived at Emain Macha the Sons of Usna were greeted by their former Red Branch comrades and were given good quarters for the night. King Conchobar did not put in an appearance, but remained in his throne room drinking. His hatred of Naoise was a strong as ever, but he knew that he had to be careful of how he acted until his trap could be sprung. As he drank he thought of Deirdre and of her great beauty. But was she still as beautiful as she had been before her enforced exile? King Conchobar called Levarcham, the old nurse who had raised Deirdre, and told her to go and see her former charge and to come back and tell her if she was still as beautiful as she was. Levarcham wept as she embraced Deirdre, who was every bit as beautiful as she ever was, and the two talked for a short time before the old nurse had to return to the king. The old nurse knew what evil was in the king’s mind and she thought that she’d try to delay his plans by lying to him about Deirdre.
‘Well?’ demanded the king, ‘how does she look?’
‘Oh, your majesty,’ said the old nurse, ‘her looks have faded with worry and hardship. All those nights sleeping outdoors, smoky campfires, hunger and a thousand hardships have taken their toll on her face and form. Why, she’s nothing special to look at any more!’
The king was happy with this report; maybe Naoise could be forgiven after all, if Deirdre had lost her beauty. But as he sat there drinking and brooding over events he grew more and more suspicious until he called a servant to him and ordered him to spy on Deirdre and to bring back news of how she looked. Trendhorn, the king’s spy, was of Norse blood, and he headed for the house where Deirdre and the Sons of Usna were staying. He climbed up onto the roof and looked down through a skylight at where Deirdre sat next to Naoise, who was playing chess. Deirdre saw his face at the window and screamed, pointing up at him. Naoise picked up a silver chess piece and threw it at Trendhorn with such force that it put out one of his eyes.
He returned to the king with the blood streaming down his cheek and said to Conchobar, ‘Your majesty, Deirdre is still so very beautiful that I think it was worth losing an eye just to see her for a moment.’
King Conchobar was furious when he heard this and his desire for revenge grew stronger than ever.
The next morning the Sons of Usna went out into a great courtyard that was surrounded by earth ramparts where all of the king’s warriors were gathered. Women of noble birth as well as peasants stood along the ramparts watching the events as they unfolded before them. Naoise looked hopefully for any sign of Fergus’s return from the feast, but he was nowhere to be seen. King Conchobar, wearing a small golden crown on his head, came out and stared at his enemies who stood before him, but then instead of welcoming them he read the ancient oaths of loyalty to the king that the Red Branch warriors had all taken. He then ordered them to seize Deirdre and to attack the Sons of Usna. Deirdre was roughly grabbed by warriors who bound her hands before her with rope and dragged her away to witness what was to come. The sons of Fergus MacRoich fought hard alongside the Sons of Usna, which caused some confusion in the ranks of the Red Branch. Eogan, the leader of the king’s army, called for a halt to the fighting while they decided what to do. King Conchobar sent messengers to the sons of Fergus to offer them land if they would stop fighting for the Sons of Usna. Illann the Fair refused to sell his honour for the sake of some land, but his brother, Buinne the Ruthless Red, accepted the gift of land and left the field of battle. It was said that from that very night the land that he was given turned from being rich fertile earth to poor, sour, barren soil, and that he never benefitted from it or his loss of honour.
The attack was again launched against Illann and the Sons of Usna, and many warriors fell at their hands, but there were just too many for them to overcome. Eogan struck Naoise in the back with his spear, and the crack of his spine as it broke could be heard by all who had gathered there. At the sight of that Deirdre screamed, a piercing, unearthly scream that reminded those who were present of the scream that she had let out from inside her mother’s womb. As Naoise lay on the ground dying he saw his brothers being overpowered and disarmed and then butchered like pigs and their heads struck off. Illann died too, proud and honourable to the end.
As Naoise breathed his last breath the sound of hooves could be heard coming over the hill; Fergus and his men had arrived just too late. When he saw the bodies of his son and his friends lying there on the ground in front of the castle he screamed with rage and grief. He had been tricked by the king, his honour besmirched by a king who possessed none. An oath-breaker is not worthy of the title of king, and he had made Fergus his mortal enemy. He rode into Conchobar’s warriors, hacking on either side of him. Fergus and his men killed a great many warriors before he was forced to flee from the overwhelming numbers. Among the dead that Fergus had killed was King Conchobar’s son. Fergus and his men rode to Connacht where they were made welcome by King Ailill and Queen Madb, who were mortal enemies of King Conchobar. From here Fergus led attacks against King Conchobar of Ulster, whose kingdom was torn apart by fighting; his reputation in tatters. It was said that Cathbad the druid laid a curse on King Conchobar, saying that his kin would never again rule in Emain Macha, and so it came to pass.
King Conchobar still had his prize; Deirdre was his prisoner. But despite this he never enjoyed her company; no lovemaking or laughter from the beautiful daughter of the bard. Instead she sat there, day after day, for a year and a day, with her head bent forward and her tears dripping into her lap. And so the druid’s prophesy came true, as she was now known as Deirdre of the Sorrows. One day King Conchobar said to her,
‘What do you hate most in the world?’
Without looking up she replied:
‘I hate you, and that animal Eogan who killed my beloved Naoise.’
The king was furious, and said, ‘If you hate me and Eogan so much, then I will send you to him for a year. We will pass you between us like a ewe between two rams!’
The king ordered a chariot to be sent to take Deirdre to Eogan, and she was brought out and placed beside the charioteer. As they passed through the gateway and along the side of the ramparts of Emain Macha Deirdre let out a terrible scream; just like the one that she screamed from inside her mother’s womb, and she flung herself from the chariot. Her head struck a rock, and she died instantly. Then the ground opened up and claimed her poor, broken body. It closed softly over her once more and left not a trace of where she had been. A great yew tree grew from the grave of Deirdre and it spread its branches far over the land until it reached the branches of another tree which grew over the grave of Naoise, which lay outside the ramparts of Email Macha. It is said that the branches of the two trees mingled together in a tender embrace, and so they remain to this very day.
© Tom Muir