There are many different accounts of the story of Deirdre of the Sorrows but in all versions, the essential element of the story remains the same. They tell of Deirdre being cursed even before birth with an astonishing beauty destined to lead kings to war over her.
The King of Ulster, Conchobar, saved her from an early death but locked her away in a tower with her nursemaid Leabharcham to keep her out of the sight of other men until she was old enough to become his queen.
One day Deirdre spied a handsome young hunter called Naoise who she greatly preferred and following a spirited and flirtatious exchange persuaded him much against his better judgement to rescue her.
Pursued by King Conchobar’s followers Deirdre and Naoise, and his brothers Ardan, Ainnle and their clan, fled through much of Ireland but finally in a bid for freedom, crossed the sea to Scotland.
There, Glen Etive in Argyll became their home for several years. King Conchobar’s spies eventually tracked them down and persuaded the brothers that they should accept his deceitful guarantees of safety and return to Ireland. Deirdre was convinced it was a trap but was ultimately obliged to leave.
Once in Ireland the trap was sprung and Naoise and his brothers were killed and Deirdre captured for King Conchobar against her will. She was punished by the King who insisted on sharing her with Fergus of Ulster, the man who killed Naoise. The endings of the story differ but the most authoritative accounts tell of Deirdre committing suicide both as an escape and as a final act of defiance.
The Deirdre story was initially passed down through the ages by means of oral history -that is stories not written but remembered faithfully by the simplicity of the story’s elements.
The story’s truth is stregthened and certified significantly by the existence to this day of the numerous place names recording all the principal characters around the shores and hinterland of Loch Etive.
As Dr. Eugene O’Curry, a former Irish professor of history and archaeology wrote in the mid 19th century: “There is no reason to doubt that the story of Deirdre and Naoise is a true one. Almost all the historical characters introduced into it are so well known in Gaelic history that to doubt the authenticity of its leading facts would be to throw doubt on the truthfulness of all our most prized chronicles and historical documents.”
The story is found first in the Book of Leinster compiled around 1150 A.D. The connection in ancient times linking Ireland and the West of Scotland is well documented culminating much later in history with the establisment of the Kingdom of Dál Riada, spanning the north-east of Ireland and the south west of Scotland with its centre at Dunadd in Argyll.
Naoise and his brothers were known to have travelled to an early military school on the Isle of Skye. Deirdre must have known of their training and was believed to have given the brothers the title of The Three Falcons of The Cuillin Hills.
Deirdre of the Sorrows is a tragic story of cursed beauty men woud die for. The universality of Deirdre’s tale and the mythic elements in it are what still cause the story to resonate.
Deirdre was unaccountably cursed even before her birth. In the early 9th century account of the story there is the telling of her shrieking from inside the womb as the revelling Ulster warriors “raised ther howls of drunkennes”, during the night she was born.
The story speaks deeply to the efeccts of violence, showing so strongly that it can be felt even in the womb. The child sensed the world into which she was being born. A world that projected its ugliness over her undoubted beauty, thus making her the source of the evil, the cause of 16 years of violent conflict. The consequences of lust, greed and the unrestrained projected power of man over woman.
Even in Scotland where the lovers appeared to live in harmony in Glen Etive, the fixation on Deirdre’s beauty pursued them. No wonder Deirdre is so often depicted as a wild bird who must not be caged or as a girl who is more content to wander the hills than to be bound to any court or to any man.
The power of the story relates to social issues we are still chalenged by today. Deirdre of the Sorrows illuminates much of the world we still live in centuries later, where women are still marginalised, still fighting to be heard, still seeking full legislative representation and desperate for the end of misogyny and the mistreatment and abuse of children and young people many of whom in ther hopelessness are forced to leave their country.
Deirdre of the Sorrows has lessons for us all.