The Story of Deirdre, by Joseph Jacobs
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 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 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
"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 dwelling."
"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 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 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 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
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
"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 to Alba.
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 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
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 yourself."
"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
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.
Source.—Celtic Magazine, xiii. pp. 69, seq. I have abridged
somewhat, made the sons of Fergus all faithful instead of two traitors,
and omitted an incident in the house of the wild men called here
"strangers." The original Gaelic was given in the Transactions of the
Inverness Gaelic Society for 1887, p. 241, seq., by Mr. Carmichael.
I have inserted Deirdre's "Lament" from the Book of Leinster.
Parallels.—This is one of the three most sorrowful Tales of Erin,
(the other two, Children of Lir and Children of Tureen, are given
in Dr. Joyce's Old Celtic Romances), and is a specimen of the old
heroic sagas of elopement, a list of which is given in the Book of
Leinster. The "outcast child" is a frequent episode in folk and
hero-tales: an instance occurs in my English Fairy Tales, No. xxxv.,
and Prof. Köhler gives many others in Archiv. f. Slav. Philologie, i.
288. Mr. Nutt adds tenth century Celtic parallels in Folk-Lore, vol.
ii. The wooing of hero by heroine is a characteristic Celtic touch. See
"Connla" here, and other examples given by Mr. Nutt in his notes to
MacInnes' Tales. The trees growing from the lovers' graves occurs in
the English ballad of Lord Lovel and has been studied in Mélusine.
Remarks.—The "Story of Deirdre" is a remarkable instance of the
tenacity of oral tradition among the Celts. It has been preserved in no
less than five versions (or six, including Macpherson's "Darthula")
ranging from the twelfth to the nineteenth century. The earliest is in
the twelfth century, Book of Leinster, to be dated about 1140 (edited
in facsimile under the auspices of the Royal Irish Academy, i. 147,
seq.). Then comes a fifteenth century version, edited and translated
by Dr. Stokes in Windisch's Irische Texte II., ii. 109, seq.,
"Death of the Sons of Uisnech." Keating in his History of Ireland
gave another version in the seventeenth century. The Dublin Gaelic
Society published an eighteenth century version in their Transactions
for 1808. And lastly we have the version before us, collected only a
few years ago, yet agreeing in all essential details with the version
of the Book of Leinster. Such a record is unique in the history of
oral tradition, outside Ireland, where, however, it is quite a
customary experience in the study of the Finn-saga. It is now
recognised that Macpherson had, or could have had, ample material for
his rechauffé of the Finn or "Fingal" saga. His "Darthula" is a
similar cobbling of our present story. I leave to Celtic specialists
the task of settling the exact relations of these various texts. I
content myself with pointing out the fact that in these latter days of
a seemingly prosaic century in these British Isles there has been
collected from the lips of the folk a heroic story like this of
"Deirdre," full of romantic incidents, told with tender feeling and
considerable literary skill. No other country in Europe, except perhaps
Russia, could provide a parallel to this living on of Romance among the
common folk. Surely it is a bounden duty of those who are in the
position to put on record any such utterances of the folk-imagination
of the Celts before it is too late.