The Story of Deirdre.
here was a man in Ireland once who was called Malcolm Harper. The
man was a right good man, and he had a goodly share of this world’s
goods. He had a wife, but no family. What did Malcolm hear but that
a soothsayer had come home to the place, and as the man was a right
good man, he wished that the soothsayer might come near them.
Whether it was that he was invited or that he came of himself, the
soothsayer came to the house of Malcolm.
“Are you doing any soothsaying?” says Malcolm.
“Yes, I am doing a little. Are you in need of soothsaying?”
“Well, I do not mind taking soothsaying from you, if you had
soothsaying for me, and you would be willing to do it.”
“Well, I will do soothsaying for you. What kind of soothsaying do
“Well, the soothsaying I wanted was that you would tell me my lot or
what will happen to me, if you can give me knowledge of it.”
“Well, I am going out, and when I return, I will tell you.”
And the soothsayer went forth out of the house and he was not long
outside when he returned.
“Well,” said the soothsayer, “I saw in my second sight that it is on
account of a daughter of yours that the greatest amount of blood
shall be shed that has ever been shed in Erin since time and race
began. And the three most famous heroes that ever were found will
lose their heads on her account.”
After a time a daughter was born to Malcolm, he did not allow a
living being to come to his house, only himself and the nurse. He
asked this woman, “Will you yourself bring up the child to keep her
in hiding far away where eye will not see a sight of her nor ear
hear a word about her?”
The woman said she would, so Malcolm got three men, and he took them
away to a large mountain, distant and far from reach, without the
knowledge or notice of any one. He caused there a hillock, round and
green, to be dug out of the middle, and the hole thus made to be
covered carefully over so that a little company could dwell there
together. This was done.
Deirdre and her foster-mother dwelt in the bothy mid the hills
without the knowledge or the suspicion of any living person about
them and without anything occurring, until Deirdre was sixteen years
of age. Deirdre grew like the white sapling, straight and trim as
the rash on the moss. She was the creature of fairest form, of
loveliest aspect, and of gentlest nature that existed between earth
and heaven in all Ireland—whatever colour of hue she had before,
there was nobody that looked into her face but she would blush fiery
red over it.
The woman that had charge of her, gave Deirdre every information and
skill of which she herself had knowledge and skill. There was not a
blade of grass growing from root, nor a bird singing in the wood,
nor a star shining from heaven but Deirdre had a name for it. But
one thing, she did not wish her to have either part or parley with
any single living man of the rest of the world. But on a gloomy
winter night, with black, scowling clouds, a hunter of game was
wearily travelling the hills, and what happened but that he missed
the trail of the hunt, and lost his course and companions. A
drowsiness came upon the man as he wearily wandered over the hills,
and he lay down by the side of the beautiful green knoll in which
Deirdre lived, and he slept. The man was faint from hunger and
wandering, and benumbed with cold, and a deep sleep fell upon him.
When he lay down beside the green hill where Deirdre was, a troubled
dream came to the man, and he thought that he enjoyed the warmth of
a fairy broch, the fairies being inside playing music. The hunter
shouted out in his dream, if there was any one in the broch, to let
him in for the Holy One’s sake. Deirdre heard the voice and said to
her foster-mother: “O foster-mother, what cry is that?” “It is
nothing at all, Deirdre—merely the birds of the air astray and
seeking each other. But let them go past to the bosky glade. There
is no shelter or house for them here.” “Oh, foster-mother, the bird
asked to get inside for the sake of the God of the Elements, and you
yourself tell me that anything that is asked in His name we ought to
do. If you will not allow the bird that is being benumbed with cold,
and done to death with hunger, to be let in, I do not think much of
your language or your faith. But since I give credence to your
language and to your faith, which you taught me, I will myself let
in the bird.” And Deirdre arose and drew the bolt from the leaf of
the door, and she let in the hunter. She placed a seat in the place
for sitting, food in the place for eating, and drink in the place
for drinking for the man who came to the house. “Oh, for this life
and raiment, you man that came in, keep restraint on your tongue!"
said the old woman. “It is not a great thing for you to keep your
mouth shut and your tongue quiet when you get a home and shelter of
a hearth on a gloomy winter’s night.”
“Well,” said the hunter, “I may do that—keep my mouth shut and my
tongue quiet, since I came to the house and received hospitality
from you; but by the hand of thy father and grandfather, and by your
own two hands, if some other of the people of the world saw this
beauteous creature you have here hid away, they would not long leave
her with you, I swear.”
“What men are these you refer to?” said Deirdre.
“Well, I will tell you, young woman,” said the hunter.
“They are Naois, son of Uisnech, and Allen and Arden his two
“What like are these men when seen, if we were to see them?” said
“Why, the aspect and form of the men when seen are these,” said the
hunter: “they have the colour of the raven on their hair, their skin
like swan on the wave in whiteness, and their cheeks as the blood of
the brindled red calf, and their speed and their leap are those of
the salmon of the torrent and the deer of the grey mountain side.
And Naois is head and shoulders over the rest of the people of
“However they are,” said the nurse, “be you off from here and take
another road. And, King of Light and Sun! in good sooth and
certainty, little are my thanks for yourself or for her that let you
The hunter went away, and went straight to the palace of King
Connachar. He sent word in to the king that he wished to speak to
him if he pleased. The king answered the message and came out to
speak to the man. “What is the reason of your journey?” said the
king to the hunter.
“I have only to tell you, O king,” said the hunter, “that I saw the
fairest creature that ever was born in Erin, and I came to tell you
“Who is this beauty and where is she to be seen, when she was not
seen before till you saw her, if you did see her?”
“Well, I did see her,” said the hunter. “But, if I did, no man else
can see her unless he get directions from me as to where she is
“And will you direct me to where she dwells? and the reward of your
directing me will be as good as the reward of your message,” said
“Well, I will direct you, O king, although it is likely that this
will not be what they want,” said the hunter.
Connachar, King of Ulster, sent for his nearest kinsmen, and he told
them of his intent. Though early rose the song of the birds mid the
rocky caves and the music of the birds in the grove, earlier than
that did Connachar, King of Ulster, arise, with his little troop of
dear friends, in the delightful twilight of the fresh and gentle
May; the dew was heavy on each bush and flower and stem, as they
went to bring Deirdre forth from the green knoll where she stayed.
Many a youth was there who had a lithe leaping and lissom step when
they started whose step was faint, failing, and faltering when they
reached the bothy on account of the length of the way and roughness
of the road.
“Yonder, now, down in the bottom of the glen is the bothy where the
woman dwells, but I will not go nearer than this to the old woman,"
said the hunter.
Connachar with his band of kinsfolk went down to the green knoll
where Deirdre dwelt and he knocked at the door of the bothy. The
nurse replied, “No less than a king’s command and a king’s army
could put me out of my bothy to-night. And I should be obliged to
you, were you to tell who it is that wants me to open my bothy
“It is I, Connachar, King of Ulster.” When the poor woman heard who
was at the door, she rose with haste and let in the king and all
that could get in of his retinue.
When the king saw the woman that was before him that he had been in
quest of, he thought he never saw in the course of the day nor in
the dream of night a creature so fair as Deirdre and he gave his
full heart’s weight of love to her. Deirdre was raised on the
topmost of the heroes’ shoulders and she and her foster-mother were
brought to the Court of King Connachar of Ulster.
With the love that Connachar had for her, he wanted to marry Deirdre
right off there and then, will she nill she marry him. But she said
to him, “I would be obliged to you if you will give me the respite
of a year and a day.” He said “I will grant you that, hard though it
is, if you will give me your unfailing promise that you will marry
me at the year’s end.” And she gave the promise. Connachar got for
her a woman-teacher and merry modest maidens fair that would lie
down and rise with her, that would play and speak with her. Deirdre
was clever in maidenly duties and wifely understanding, and
Connachar thought he never saw with bodily eye a creature that
pleased him more.
Deirdre and her women companions were one day out on the hillock
behind the house enjoying the scene, and drinking in the sun’s heat.
What did they see coming but three men a-journeying. Deirdre was
looking at the men that were coming, and wondering at them. When the
men neared them, Deirdre remembered the language of the huntsman,
and she said to herself that these were the three sons of Uisnech,
and that this was Naois, he having what was above the bend of the
two shoulders above the men of Erin all. The three brothers went
past without taking any notice of them, without even glancing at the
young girls on the hillock. What happened but that love for Naois
struck the heart of Deirdre, so that she could not but follow after
him. She girded up her raiment and went after the men that went past
the base of the knoll, leaving her women attendants there. Allen and
Arden had heard of the woman that Connachar, King of Ulster, had
with him, and they thought that, if Naois, their brother, saw her,
he would have her himself, more especially as she was not married to
the King. They perceived the woman coming, and called on one another
to hasten their step as they had a long distance to travel, and the
dusk of night was coming on. They did so. She cried: “Naois, son of
Uisnech, will you leave me?” “What piercing, shrill cry is that—the
most melodious my ear ever heard, and the shrillest that ever struck
my heart of all the cries I ever heard?” “It is anything else but
the wail of the wave-swans of Connachar,” said his brothers. “No!
yonder is a woman’s cry of distress,” said Naois, and he swore he
would not go further until he saw from whom the cry came, and Naois
turned back. Naois and Deirdre met, and Deirdre kissed Naois three
times, and a kiss each to his brothers. With the confusion that she
was in, Deirdre went into a crimson blaze of fire, and her colour
came and went as rapidly as the movement of the aspen by the stream
side. Naois thought he never saw a fairer creature, and Naois gave
Deirdre the love that he never gave to thing, to vision, or to
creature but to herself.
Then Naois placed Deirdre on the topmost height of his shoulder, and
told his brothers to keep up their pace, and they kept up their
pace. Naois thought that it would not be well for him to remain in
Erin on account of the way in which Connachar, King of Ulster, his
uncle’s son, had gone against him because of the woman, though he
had not married her; and he turned back to Alba, that is, Scotland.
He reached the side of Loch-Ness and made his habitation there. He
could kill the salmon of the torrent from out his own door, and the
deer of the grey gorge from out his window. Naois and Deirdre and
Allen and Arden dwelt in a tower, and they were happy so long a time
as they were there.
By this time the end of the period came at which Deirdre had to
marry Connachar, King of Ulster. Connachar made up his mind to take
Deirdre away by the sword whether she was married to Naois or not.
So he prepared a great and gleeful feast. He sent word far and wide
through Erin all to his kinspeople to come to the feast. Connachar
thought to himself that Naois would not come though he should bid
him; and the scheme that arose in his mind was to send for his
father’s brother, Ferchar Mac Ro, and to send him on an embassy to
Naois. He did so; and Connachar said to Ferchar, “Tell Naois, son of
Uisnech, that I am setting forth a great and gleeful feast to my
friends and kinspeople throughout the wide extent of Erin all, and
that I shall not have rest by day nor sleep by night if he and Allen
and Arden be not partakers of the feast.”
Ferchar Mac Ro and his three sons went on their journey, and reached
the tower where Naois was dwelling by the side of Loch Etive. The
sons of Uisnech gave a cordial kindly welcome to Ferchar Mac Ro and
his three sons, and asked of him the news of Erin. “The best news
that I have for you,” said the hardy hero, “is that Connachar, King
of Ulster, is setting forth a great sumptuous feast to his friends
and kinspeople throughout the wide extent of Erin all, and he has
vowed by the earth beneath him, by the high heaven above him, and by
the sun that wends to the west, that he will have no rest by day nor
sleep by night if the sons of Uisnech, the sons of his own father’s
brother, will not come back to the land of their home and the soil
of their nativity, and to the feast likewise, and he has sent us on
embassy to invite you.”
“We will go with you,” said Naois.
“We will,” said his brothers.
But Deirdre did not wish to go with Ferchar Mac Ro, and she tried
every prayer to turn Naois from going with him—she said:
“I saw a vision, Naois, and do you interpret it to me,” said
Deirdre—then she sang:
O Naois, son of Uisnech, hear
What was shown in a dream to me.
There came three white doves out of the South
Flying over the sea,
And drops of honey were in their mouth
From the hive of the honey-bee.
O Naois, son of Uisnech, hear,
What was shown in a dream to me.
I saw three grey hawks out of the south
Come flying over the sea,
And the red red drops they bare in their mouth
They were dearer than life to me.
It is nought but the fear of woman’s heart,
And a dream of the night, Deirdre.
“The day that Connachar sent the invitation to his feast will be
unlucky for us if we don’t go, O Deirdre.”
“You will go there,” said Ferchar Mac Ro; “and if Connachar show
kindness to you, show ye kindness to him; and if he will display
wrath towards you display ye wrath towards him, and I and my three
sons will be with you.”
“We will,” said Daring Drop. “We will,” said Hardy Holly. “We will,"
said Fiallan the Fair.
“I have three sons, and they are three heroes, and in any harm or
danger that may befall you, they will be with you, and I myself will
be along with them.” And Ferchar Mac Ro gave his vow and his word in
presence of his arms that, in any harm or danger that came in the
way of the sons of Uisnech, he and his three sons would not leave
head on live body in Erin, despite sword or helmet, spear or shield,
blade or mail, be they ever so good.
Deirdre was unwilling to leave Alba, but she went with Naois.
Deirdre wept tears in showers and she sang:
Dear is the land, the land over there,
Alba full of woods and lakes;
Bitter to my heart is leaving thee,
But I go away with Naois.
Ferchar Mac Ro did not stop till he got the sons of Uisnech away
with him, despite the suspicion of Deirdre.
The coracle was put to sea,
The sail was hoisted to it;
And the second morrow they arrived
On the white shores of Erin.
As soon as the sons of Uisnech landed in Erin, Ferchar Mac Ro sent
word to Connachar, king of Ulster, that the men whom he wanted were
come, and let him now show kindness to them. “Well,” said Connachar,
"I did not expect that the sons of Uisnech would come, though I sent
for them, and I am not quite ready to receive them. But there is a
house down yonder where I keep strangers, and let them go down to it
today, and my house will be ready before them tomorrow.”
But he that was up in the palace felt it long that he was not
getting word as to how matters were going on for those down in the
house of the strangers. “Go you, Gelban Grednach, son of Lochlin’s
King, go you down and bring me information as to whether her former
hue and complexion are on Deirdre. If they be, I will take her out
with edge of blade and point of sword, and if not, let Naois, son of
Uisnech, have her for himself,” said Connachar.
Gelban, the cheering and charming son of Lochlin’s King, went down
to the place of the strangers, where the sons of Uisnech and Deirdre
were staying. He looked in through the bicker-hole on the door-leaf.
Now she that he gazed upon used to go into a crimson blaze of
blushes when any one looked at her. Naois looked at Deirdre and knew
that some one was looking at her from the back of the door-leaf. He
seized one of the dice on the table before him and fired it through
the bicker-hole, and knocked the eye out of Gelban Grednach the
Cheerful and Charming, right through the back of his head. Gelban
returned back to the palace of King Connachar.
“You were cheerful, charming, going away, but you are cheerless,
charmless, returning. What has happened to you, Gelban? But have you
seen her, and are Deirdre’s hue and complexion as before?” said
“Well, I have seen Deirdre, and I saw her also truly, and while I
was looking at her through the bicker-hole on the door, Naois, son
of Uisnech, knocked out my eye with one of the dice in his hand. But
of a truth and verity, although he put out even my eye, it were my
desire still to remain looking at her with the other eye, were it
not for the hurry you told me to be in,” said Gelban.
“That is true,” said Connachar; “let three hundred bravo heroes go
down to the abode of the strangers, and let them bring hither to me
Deirdre, and kill the rest.”
Connachar ordered three hundred active heroes to go down to the
abode of the strangers and to take Deirdre up with them and kill the
rest. “The pursuit is coming,” said Deirdre.
“Yes, but I will myself go out and stop the pursuit,” said Naois.
“It is not you, but we that will go,” said Daring Drop, and Hardy
Holly, and Fiallan the Fair; “it is to us that our father entrusted
your defence from harm and danger when he himself left for home."
And the gallant youths, full noble, full manly, full handsome, with
beauteous brown locks, went forth girt with battle arms fit for
fierce fight and clothed with combat dress for fierce contest fit,
which was burnished, bright, brilliant, bladed, blazing, on which
were many pictures of beasts and birds and creeping things, lions
and lithe-limbed tigers, brown eagle and harrying hawk and adder
fierce; and the young heroes laid low three-thirds of the company.
Connachar came out in haste and cried with wrath: “Who is there on
the floor of fight, slaughtering my men?”
“We, the three sons of Ferchar Mac Ro.”
“Well,” said the king, “I will give a free bridge to your
grandfather, a free bridge to your father, and a free bridge each to
you three brothers, if you come over to my side tonight.”
“Well, Connachar, we will not accept that offer from you nor thank
you for it. Greater by far do we prefer to go home to our father and
tell the deeds of heroism we have done, than accept anything on
these terms from you. Naois, son of Uisnech, and Allen and Arden are
as nearly related to yourself as they are to us, though you are so
keen to shed their blood, and you would shed our blood also,
Connachar.” And the noble, manly, handsome youths with beauteous,
brown locks returned inside. “We are now,” said they, “going home to
tell our father that you are now safe from the hands of the king."
And the youths all fresh and tall and lithe and beautiful, went home
to their father to tell that the sons of Uisnech were safe. This
happened at the parting of the day and night in the morning twilight
time, and Naois said they must go away, leave that house, and return
Naois and Deirdre, Allan and Arden started to return to Alba. Word
came to the king that the company he was in pursuit of were gone.
The king then sent for Duanan Gacha Druid, the best magician he had,
and he spoke to him as follows:—"Much wealth have I expended on
you, Duanan Gacha Druid, to give schooling and learning and magic
mystery to you, if these people get away from me today without care,
without consideration or regard for me, without chance of overtaking
them, and without power to stop them.”
“Well, I will stop them,” said the magician, “until the company you
send in pursuit return.” And the magician placed a wood before them
through which no man could go, but the sons of Uisnech marched
through the wood without halt or hesitation, and Deirdre held on to
“What is the good of that? that will not do yet,” said Connachar.
"They are off without bending of their feet or stopping of their
step, without heed or respect to me, and I am without power to keep
up to them or opportunity to turn them back this night.”
“I will try another plan on them,” said the druid; and he placed
before them a grey sea instead of a green plain. The three heroes
stripped and tied their clothes behind their heads, and Naois placed
Deirdre on the top of his shoulder.
They stretched their sides to the stream,
And sea and land were to them the same,
The rough grey ocean was the same
As meadow-land green and plain.
“Though that be good, O Duanan, it will not make the heroes return,"
said Connachar; “they are gone without regard for me, and without
honour to me, and without power on my part to pursue them or to
force them to return this night.”
“We shall try another method on them, since yon one did not stop
them,” said the druid. And the druid froze the grey ridged sea into
hard rocky knobs, the sharpness of sword being on the one edge and
the poison power of adders on the other. Then Arden cried that he
was getting tired, and nearly giving over. “Come you, Arden, and sit
on my right shoulder,” said Naois. Arden came and sat, on Naois’s
shoulder. Arden was long in this posture when he died; but though he
was dead Naois would not let him go. Allen then cried out that he
was getting faint and nigh-well giving up. When Naois heard his
prayer, he gave forth the piercing sigh of death, and asked Allen to
lay hold of him and he would bring him to land.
Allen was not long when the weakness of death came on him and his
hold failed. Naois looked around, and when he saw his two well-
beloved brothers dead, he cared not whether he lived or died, and he
gave forth the bitter sigh of death, and his heart burst.
“They are gone,” said Duanan Gacha Druid to the king, “and I have
done what you desired me. The sons of Uisnech are dead and they will
trouble you no more; and you have your wife hale and whole to
“Blessings for that upon you and may the good results accrue to me,
Duanan. I count it no loss what I spent in the schooling and
teaching of you. Now dry up the flood, and let me see if I can
behold Deirdre,” said Connachar. And Duanan Gacha Druid dried up the
flood from the plain and the three sons of Uisnech were lying
together dead, without breath of life, side by side on the green
meadow plain and Deirdre bending above showering down her tears.
Then Deirdre said this lament: “Fair one, loved one, flower of
beauty; beloved upright and strong; beloved noble and modest
warrior. Fair one, blue-eyed, beloved of thy wife; lovely to me at
the trysting-place came thy clear voice through the woods of
Ireland. I cannot eat or smile henceforth. Break not to-day, my
heart: soon enough shall I lie within my grave. Strong are the waves
of sorrow, but stronger is sorrow’s self, Connachar.”
The people then gathered round the heroes’ bodies and asked
Connachar what was to be done with the bodies. The order that he
gave was that they should dig a pit and put the three brothers in it
side by side.
Deirdre kept sitting on the brink of the grave, constantly asking
the gravediggers to dig the pit wide and free. When the bodies of
the brothers were put in the grave, Deirdre said:—
Come over hither, Naois, my love,
Let Arden close to Allen lie;
If the dead had any sense to feel,
Ye would have made a place for Deirdre.
The men did as she told them. She jumped into the grave and lay down
by Naois, and she was dead by his side.
The king ordered the body to be raised from out the grave and to be
buried on the other side of the loch. It was done as the king bade,
and the pit closed. Thereupon a fir shoot grew out of the grave of
Deirdre and a fir shoot from the grave of Naois, and the two shoots
united in a knot above the loch. The king ordered the shoots to be
cut down, and this was done twice, until, at the third time, the
wife whom the king had married caused him to stop this work of evil
and his vengeance on the remains of the dead.
Jacobs, Joseph. Celtic Fairy Tales. Illustrated by John D. Batten.
London: David Nutt, 1892. 65-82.