The Story Of Deirdre
: Celtic Folk And Fairy Tales
There 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 you
"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
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 laid 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." "O 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 brothers."
"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 Erin."
"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 in!"
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
Only the birds of the air calling one to the other.--
There is no home for them here. Let them go by to the thicket.]
"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 of
"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 the
"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
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 door." "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 isn't 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 to all 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
"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 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
to-day, and my house will be ready before them to-morrow."
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 Naios, 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 brave 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 to-night."
"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 to Alba.
Naois and Deirdre, Allen 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 spake to him as follows: "Much wealth have I expended on you,
Duanan Gacha Druid, to give schooling and learning and magic mystery
to you, I'll hold you to account if these people get away from me
to-day 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 Naois's
"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
honor 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 not 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 well-nigh 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.