Deirdre and the Exile of the Sons of Uisnech Cúchulainn is now the most famous character from early Irish literature - but there are others to match him. His equivalent, in terms of fame, is Deirdre.
While still in the womb Deirdre’s beauty - and the conflict it will bring - are foretold. Her father, Fedlimid mac Daill, was the storyteller for Conchodar, the King of Ulster who ruled from ‘Emain Macha’ – or Navan Fort as we know it now.
Despite demands from his Druids that Deirdre be killed, Conchobar decides that he will raise the child and marry her when she comes of age.
She is kept apart from most human contact on Conchobar’s orders. But - in the usual way of these things - Deirdre, on seeing a raven drinking cow’s blood from the snow, proclaims that she will fall in love with a man with those colours: “hair like a raven’s, cheeks like blood and body like snow”, a description which fits Naoise, a son of Uisnech.
Inevitably, Deirdre and Naoise meet and fall in love. The other sons of Uisnech, honour bound to their brother Naoise, flee with the couple into exile from Ulster - Conchobar’s wrath at their heels.
Pursued relentlessly by Conchobar, the fugitives escape to ‘Alba’ (Scotland) where they seek the protection of the king.
Deirdre is kept out of sight for fear of the provocation her beauty offers, but the king’s steward sees her and reports to his master that a woman worthy of him has at last been found. On the king’s orders, his steward woos her in secret, but Deirdre undermines this by keeping Naoise informed.
The King of Alba then attempts to despatch the sons of Uisnech by sending them into danger - but his efforts are thwarted by their courage and skill in battle. Eventually, tiring of the indirect approach, the men of Alba prepare to attack - but Deirdre warns the sons of Uisnech and they flee to an isolated island. When this news reaches Ulster, there is an outcry that the brave sons of Uisnech should eventually die in exile from home - because of a woman.
Conchobar is now apparently persuaded to be lenient. He sends his warrior, Fergus Mac Roich, to safely escort Deirdre, Naoise and the son’s of Uisnech back to his court. But … Conchobar has arranged for Fergus to be delayed with invitations to many feasts - knowing that the sons of Uisnech, who have sworn not to eat until they reach Conchobar’s house - will travel on without Fergus’s protection. Conchobar then commands Eoghan, the son of a minor king, to ambush Naoise and his brothers. When they arrive at Emain Macha - unescorted as planned by Conchobar - they are attacked and killed by Eoghan and his men.
Deirdre has been spared. She spends the next year with the hated Conchobar, but constantly protests that the delights of the court - its food, music and comfort - are nothing compared to the joy she had with Naoise as they travelled in the wilderness. When Conchobar tires of this he gives her to Naoise’s murderer, Eoghan Different versions of the story have slightly different endings, but in each of them Deirdre contrives to take her own life - whether by dashing her head against a great rock or by falling from a chariot into the sea.
The elements of this narrative - love, honour, power, beauty and betrayal - are common to many other stories, but they are combined here with an elegant simplicity that has caused the story to be told and retold over centuries. The tale of Diarmuid and Gráinne – star-crossed lovers who elope to escape Finn MacCool – follows Deirdre’s story and parallels it in many ways. Diarmuid and Gráinne then probably provide the source for other great stories of ‘love attempting to overcome power but being betrayed’ - such as Tristran and Isolde, from the legends of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table.
Later Irish writers have returned to Diarmuid and Gráinne and Deirdre and Naoise - but it’s Deirdre who most fascinates. In such stories the woman is often unimportant, exceptfor her beauty, and so lacks a full character. Yet even as an unborn child Deirdre speaks from the womb, and she asserts her own desires and opinions by choosing Naoise - or by being the only one of the exiles to foresee Conchobar’s treachery. Her death, though sometimes conventionally attributed to grief for Naoise, can also be seen as a way of escaping dishonour - more usually the choice of male heroes.
In the nineteenth century Sir Samuel Ferguson retells the story in poetry - George Russell, W.B. Yeats and J.M. Synge all write plays based on Deirdre, and Lady Gregory and James Stephens capture her in prose.
And so Deirdre is immortalised in Irish Literature – notorious even before birth, revered after death.