Deirdre, An Ancient Irish Tale

This is a retelling of the ancient Irish story of Deirdre. I’ve hewed to the tale in places and departed in others. To read the real thing, refer to the wonderful translation by Thomas Kinsella, in “The Tain”. I was named after her.


In the early dark, her 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. (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 — he was a genealogist, after all, as well as bard and soothsayer. Clearly, he dilly-dallied, waiting for a sign.

She glanced out. Early February and already the hills greened up. Clouds made grey royal and scudded. You could almost taste the rain coming.

In spite of his obfuscation, she wanted to pull watercress from the spring ’round back in his honor. He’d get the drift. And its peppery brightness would be good with the sweet potatoes already roasting in the fire.

Here’s how he got his sign.

Imagine now: the swollen ankle of a woman with child stepping over the threshold to run around back for some bitter greens.

And then, 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. Should she step all the way 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 grass was alive with 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 made the King’s claim.

Little did they know of the carnage that would ensue.

“‘Tis nothing to make promises,” her mother whispered later. “The King wants you! Well, ha! I’d like to be Queen of the Sidhe!”

King Conchobor bundled them 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!! 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, nor Deirdre’s stepping out.

Besides there was only silence from the King.

Noisu heard things in the treetops and by the meandering cricks and in the cows’ gentle lowing. He knew when the King’s army was coming and why.

So into the woods they ran, eating nuts and berries and outwitting the soldiers for many a season.They tore at each other’s backs on beds of moss and ate the occasional roasted salmon.

Deirdre’s mother prayed for the pair.

Even the best trackers couldn’t hunt them down.

Until one day they did.

Talk about sorrow!

Men came to the lovers’ aid and battles ensued. But never mind that. As with so many things, only the final moments mattered.

First, they slit Noisu’s throat. They slit Noisu’s throat right in front of Deirdre. The soldiers were all about economy, pleased to get their slaying and their torture in one fell swoop.

Then, they wrenched a sobbing Deirdre off the ground, her lover’s blood spattered on her tunic, and pinned her in the chariot.

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

Deirdre wouldn’t have it.  After all, two can play the card of Death. She wriggled herself free and before the charioteer could do a thing about it, launched herself out and dashed her head upon the rocks, leaving brains splattered for the crows to eat later.

The King would not be pleased.

Deirdre’s mother sat by the fire many a night after that, having known the exact moment Deirdre died.  She’d be knitting or not knitting and wishing that the night could hold her down in something other than a cold embrace.

8 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 🙂 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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