Deirdre, An Ancient Irish Tale

This is a retelling of the ancient Irish story of Deirdre, The Princess of Sorrows. I’ve hewed to the tale in places and departed in others. To read a wonderful translation, look for Thomas Kinsella’s The Tain.

I was named after Deirdre. In the late seventies, I was lucky enough to spend a semester in Dublin participating in a program run by Kinsella. Also I studied Old Irish at UMass and looked at some of the text in the original.


In the early dark, her fetal feet fluttered hard, making her mother burp with contentment. Or was it indigestion?

Two weeks before birth and already Deirdre was kicking up a ruckus!

The local Druid stopped by and Druids never just stop by. “There is no reason I can name,” he said, “which is not the same as having no reason.”

News of this one and that one followed, he was a genealogist after all in addition to bard and soothsayer. Clearly, he dilly-dallied, waiting for a sign.

Deirdre’s Mother glanced out the window at the early February sky where royal-grey clouds scudded. You could almost taste the rain coming.

In spite of her mistrust, she felt the need to pull watercress from the spring ’round back in his honor. Its peppery brightness would be good with the sweet potatoes already roasting in the fire. And that’s how he got his sign. The unborn spoke.

Imagine now: the swollen ankle of a pregnant woman stepping over the threshold to run around back for some bitter greens and the unborn Deirdre screaming. Deirdre screaming at the precise moment her mother was neither fully inside nor fully outside. Who knew wombs carried sound like that?!

The Druid raised an eyebrow, just the one. He might have clucked his tongue, too. “We all know what that means.” Deirdre’s mother didn’t in fact have any idea what that meant. She was frozen with uncertainty. Should she step out or step back in?  Fear or something else prickled her scalp.

“I shall return,” the Druid said, nudging past.

She stepped out. “Don’t they all say that?”  The tension had tamped down her respect. The grass was alive waiting for the rain, she and the clouds so full.

And then the little one came.

Deirdre’s tiny head emerged plastered with dark hair and not an hour past, he showed up. Druids know things. He issued the King’s claim over the baby. Little did they know what carnage would ensue.

Alone again later, Deirdre’s mother whispered to her, “‘Tis nothing to make promises. The King wants you and well I’d like to be Queen of the Sidhe!”

But there was action behind the claim. Soon King Conchobor bundled mother and daughter off to a small hut far from any village or crossroads. Deirdre’s mother missed her watercress and how the light shone in the basin of water by the spring.

She watched her daughter blossom into a dark beauty. “The King thought he could hide this?” she scowled. With hair the color of a raven’s wing, lips as red as blood on new fallen snow, and skin as pearly as a winter moon, Deirdre’s beauty was inescapable.

There weren’t just cattle roaming about, mind. There was the cow herder, too. Noisu traveled up and down the valley with the herd. He was no clod of dirt to look upon himself. He had warm brown eyes, beautiful hands, and skin bronzed by the sun. The work made him more than sturdy.

And, he wasn’t blind.

Deirdre’s mother was no fool, so she did not forbid his coming ’round or Deirdre’s stepping out, lest it energized the pair. Besides there was only silence from the King.

Noisu heard things in the treetops and in the gurgle of meandering cricks and in the cows’ gentle lowing. He knew when the King’s army was coming and why. In the haste of passion, he told Deirdre to pack a kerchief with her things and led her off. Into the woods they ran. They ate nuts and berries and the occasional salmon. On beds of moss, they tore at each other’s backs, rising up after with leaves in their hair. They outwitted the soldiers for many a season.

Deirdre’s mother prayed for the pair.

Even the best trackers couldn’t hunt them down. Until one day they did. Talk about sorrow! Did I mention that she is called, Deirdre of the Sorrows?

As men came to the lovers’ aid, an army was formed. Battles ensued. But never mind that. As with so many things, only the final moments mattered.

When the King’s men finally caught up with the pair the first thing they did was slit Noisu’s throat while Deirdre watched. The soldiers were economical, pleased to achieve their slaying and torture in one violent act. Afterwards they wrenched a sobbing Deirdre off the ground and hoisted her into a chariot, Noisu’s blood spattered all over her tunic.

“The King’s been waiting for you,” the driver crowed and leered and then leered some more and snorted.

Deirdre would play the card of Death. The King might have the stronger army but he couldn’t keep her alive now could they? She wriggled herself toward the edge of the chariot and before the driver knew what was happening, launched herself out. She was instantly dead, head dashed upon the rocks. Later the crows would eat her brains and pick out her eyes.

The King would not be pleased.

Deirdre’s mother knew the exact moment of her daughter’s death, as mothers sometimes do. She was sitting by the fire and knitting and wishing that the night could hold her down in something other than a cold embrace.

9 thoughts on “Deirdre, An Ancient Irish Tale

  1. maggros

    Thank you so much for sharing this! I love this ancient grizzly Irish poetry and prose. Though it turns my stomach I cheer for “Deirdre”! I started to try to track down the ancient tales that mention Queen Maeve (did she really exist or is she mythical?) – fascinating. Please send me good books on Queen Maeve and those horrible battles – if you can? – that have been translated from Old Irish to English of course πŸ™‚ The tales I’ve read snippets of are so violent the humans seem barely out of primitive life, and yet their language and culture so rich, so spiritual! Wait – this does persist, like in Afghani tribes?? I feel some core of those experiences are embedded in our psyche – not just the Irish, surely, but every ancient culture that has sent genes forth to us. Yet I so easily abstract it. in my own head .. is that healthy, to abstract it? Am I kidding myself?

    1. deemallon

      Whatever the differences between then and now, I do feel a common humanity in general (as it sounds like you do) and a certain specific ethnic affinity (The Tain includes a lot of scatological detail and humor : need I say more?!)

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