Deirdrê - Tragic Heroine In Ancient Irish Mythology

Deirdre painting

Deirdrê is the tragic heroine in Irish pre-Christian legend, whose story is told in the ancient Irish mythology of the Ulster Cycle. Deirdre was born in the reign of Conchobar mac Nessa King of Ulster. She was the daughter of Fedlimid mac Daill who was bard to the royal court. Her beauty was foretold at her birth by Cathbad the chief druid. He also gave a warning that her beauty would result in Kings going to war over her and sorrow would follow. Conchobar ignores this warning as he intends to marry her when she comes of age. He seeks to possess this woman of such great beauty and sends Deirdrê to be brought up in seclusion by the wise old woman Leabharcham, away from the gaze and desires of other men. Leabharcham fulfils her duty of raising and educating Deirdrê, until her return to the court of King Conchobar.

Destiny cannot be denied however, as the prophecy of Cathbad the chief druid is already taking shape. Leabharcham, for all the care she has taken, has also told Deirdrê about the handsome young warrior Naoise. He was the nephew of King Conchobar mac Nessa. When they met Deirdrê fell in love with Naoise. Although he knew that she was destined to marry the King the couple eventually eloped. Along with Naoise's two brothers, Ardan and Ainnle, the couple are pursued across Ireland by Conchobar and eventually have to flee to Scotland. But even in Scotland there are Chiefs who seek to take Deirdrê for their own and she and Naoise must move from place to place. King Conchobar still remains determined and angry in his quest. He tracks them down and sends Fergus mac Róich to meet them promising a guarantee of safe passage home. This was a guarantee that Fergus believed to be promised in honour, but Conchobar had other ideas. On the journey to the King’s royal seat at Emain Macha, Fergus was ordered to separate from those he was escorting home and join King Conchabar. Directing his own son to protect them, Fergus sent Naoise, Deirdrê, Ardan and Ainnle on to Emain Macha.

Lament of Deirdre

Upon their arrival Conchabar had ordered Leabharcham to go and see if Deirdrê had kept her beauty. In an effort to protect Deirdrê, Leabharcham told Conchobar that she had lost her looks. The suspicious King sent someone else to see if this was true and he was able to report to Conchobar that she was still beautiful. Conchobar ordered his forces to attack the place where they were staying and it ended with Naoise and his brothers being killed. When Fergus arrived he was appalled at what had happened, with his own son dead and his word of honour having been betrayed. He declared war on Conchobar and he burns Emain Macha and slaughters the maidens of Ulster, before going into exile with Queen Medb and her husband King Ailill mac Máta in Connacht.

Deirdrê is forced to marry Conchobar. He did all he could to make Deirdrê love him but her hatred toward him continued. After a year his anger at her cold response and rejection of him boiled over. He asked her if she hated anyone more than him, to which she said only Éogan mac Durthacht, the warrior that had killed her beloved Naoise. In an act of revenge Conchobar then said he would give her to Éogan. As she was being taken to Éogan, Deirdrê threw herself from the chariot, committing suicide by smashing her head against a rock. So it is that the prophesy of Cathbad the chief druid at the birth of Deirdrê comes to pass.


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