The Story of Deirdre

From the summation of Wendy Lo, Celtic Fairy Tales collected by Joseph Jacobs, and several folk stories.

Long ago, the King of Ulster was holding his court. In the course of feasting and music, a loud, unearthly cry was heard that stilled everyone in the room. The King's soothsayer divined the source of the cry as the unborn child in the womb of one of the women at court. The soothsayer told the King: "This woman will bear a daughter, and she will be the fairest girl that the land has ever seen-- and on account of this beauty, the greatest amount of blood ever been shed in Erin since time and race began will be shed for her. And the three most famous heroes that ever were found will lose their heads on her account."

The king, King Conchobar, thought on the prophecy for a moment and thought that having the fairest girl in the land would be no poor thing. He then sighed and said that if the girl was to be so much trouble, he would bear the price of the trouble alone. So he sent the girl and her mother to the woods to live in a cottage, alone where hopefully she could do little harm and perhaps avoid the prophecy. He also announced to all in his kingdom that he would marry the girl when she came of age.

So the woman raised Deirdre, who grew like a sapling. The woman taught Deirdre all that she knew, from sewing to the herbs of the forest. But the one thing she did not teach her of was men. The woman did learn, though, from her confinement with Deirdre, that the young pretty thing had also the gift of prophecy, through the means of dreams, not unlike the soothsayer who warned the king of her fate.

One night, Deirdre dreamed of chasing after three handsome men whom she saw in a clearing near her home. Her eyes met those of the youngest, and she fell in love and chased after them. Before she reached them, the three men faded to the shadow of another man, whom she could not see clearly, but who bore a crown on his brow.

It came to pass one fateful day that three hunters came near to the far-off place in which they lived. The noises they made and their presence piqued great curiosity in the young, and now beautiful maiden, who took an interest and watched them. One took aim and shot a black crow to the snow-covered ground. While she watched he turned around, and his hair was as dark as the wing of the raven. He crouched beside the kill and his skin was the color of snow, and when he colored when the other men jested that he had shot a scavenger and nothing for their dinner, his face reddened to the color of the crow's blood. Deirdre was fascinated by the beautiful creature she saw, then realized that these men were the men from her dreams, and she fell immediately in love with Naoise, the youngest with the raven hair. She stepped out, a beautiful creature with golden red hair, and she captured his heart as surely as he had her own. She kissed him three times, and then gave a kiss to each of his brothers.

The three were mindful of the King and his oath to marry the girl. To prevent this, so that Naoise might marry her, they decided to take her to Scotland. It was unfortunate as they escaped that the king saw her, and was enraptured by her beauty. He gave pursuit, but they eluded him safely and made their lives by the side of a fair lake. Naoise and Deirdre, and Naoise's brothers, Ainnle and Ardan, dwelled here happily in a tower for a long time, after her marriage to Naoise.

At the end of a year, though he knew her married, the King decided to use the sword to acquire what love and planning could not. So he planned a gleeful feast, and sent his kinsman -- his father's brother, Fergus mac Roich -- to Scotland to invite Naoise to the feast. There the emissary arrived with his three sons, and pronounced that the King would not rest soundly until the heroes of Ireland were returned to the homeland, and that he hoped the feast would lure them back to their rightful place in their rightful lands. The brothers immediately agreed to return, but Deirdre had dreamed the night before of three white doves with honey in their mouths, and then of three gray hawks, the color of the sea, with blood in their mouths. She begged Naoise not to go, but he dismissed her dreams as silliness and not portents of the future.

So the emissary and his sons, the three heroes, and Deirdre, arrived in Ireland again. They were sent to a guest house, for the main hall was not yet ready for the feast, and the King asked Gelban Grednach, son of Locklin's King, to go to the house where they waited and observe Deirdre's beauty. If it had faded, the King said he would leave her to Naoise, but if it had not, then by sword he would have her. Gelban spied on Deirdre and the three brothers, and was awed by her beauty. Naoise discovered the spy, and took the die from his game with his brothers and threw it so hard as to knock out Gelban's eye through the keyhole. Gelban took himself away to the King and pronounced that he would have remained to look more at the young beauty, had he not been in such a hurry to escape the heroes.

So the three brothers knew that treachery was coming upon them, now, and they prepared. The three sons of the emissary, who had sworn they would guard the heroes with their lives whilst they were in Ireland, were true to their word. And when the King arrived with his men, the six of them cut them down, though King Connachar offered them much to get them to betray their oaths.

So the three heroes and Deirdre left to return to Scotland. The King, obsessed, contacted Duannan Gacah Druid, the best magician he had. He reminded the magician of the money spent in educating him, and of the debt owed. And then he set the mage upon his enemies, so that he could have Deirdre for himself.

The first thing the magician did was set before the fleeing four a wood in which no man would go. But the heroes took hold of Deirdre, and protecting her, proceeded without falter. The King was angry that it did not stop them. So the next thing that the magician did was to create a gray sea before them. So the men of Deirdre's party took off their clothes, and Naoise set Deirdre upon his shoulder, and they began to swim. And the King was angry that this, too did not stop them. So Duannan said, "Let us see if this will," and changed the sea so the waves were razor sharp, or had the poison of the adder.

Ardan cried that he was getting tired, so Naoise said to him to come and sit upon his other shoulder. It was there that Ardan died, though Naoise would not let him go long after he was dead. Then Ainnle cried that he, too, was almost done, so Naoise said to him to hold on to him, and he would see them through. But then Ainnle was not long in death. When Naoise realized both brothers were dead, he sighed, and gave up life himself. Thus the magician said to the King, "They are gone now, and you may have Deirdre to yourself." And then the magician made the sea vanish, and the three bodies and Deirdre were on dry land.

She lamented for her lover, for his brothers, for their dreams. The people nearby came to her cries and gathered round the heroes' bodies. The King ordered the three be put into one grave, and Deirdre persuaded the diggers to make it comfortable and wide for the three brothers, so they had plenty of room, and would never be apart. So the brothers were put to the ground, and Deirdre taken by the King to his castle.

There, she sat in her rooms and saw no one, sitting silently, dreaming silent dreams, until the day of her wedding. On the night before, she dreamed of Naoise; they danced, and his brothers were there. Flowers abounded. Then she woke in her bed, a smile on her face.

On that day, she donned the veil, beauteous gems, and a lovely gown, then was escorted to sit beside her husband-to-be in a war chariot, pulled to show her off, as spoils of war, to all they rode by as they rode together to their wedding. The whole of the time, the King was rude, and described to her what he had waited this long time to do. She asked of the driver to go faster, that it might be done with more quickly, and the King agreed, so the driver raced the horses as fast as they could go. Then the lovely Deirdre gave the King her final look, a harsh one, and put her head out of the chariot, such that the nearest standing stone killed her instantly at the speed at which they rode.

While the King stood dumbfounded, the local people took up her ruined body and laid her in the earth, beside the heroes they had buried. When the King recovered his wits, he ordered her body removed and laid across the meadow from her lover. Thereupon a fir shoot grew out of the grave of Deirdre, and another from the grave of Naoise, and the two shoots united in a knot. The King ordered it cut down twice, until, at the third time, the wife whom the king had eventually married caused him to stop this work of evil, and end his vengeance on the remains of the dead.