Deirdre of the Sorrows: Unveiling the tragic TALE and LEGEND

Explore the tragic tale of Deirdre of the Sorrows, an Irish legend that has stood the test of time.

Deirdre of the Sorrows: Unveiling the tragic TALE and LEGEND

Deirdre of the Sorrows is one of the most famous stories in Irish mythology and has continued to capture the imagination of audiences for centuries.

But who was Deirdre, and what is it about this story that has stood the test of time? In this article, we explore these questions and more.

Facts on this topic:

  • Deirdre of the Sorrows is part of the Ulster Cycle of Irish mythology and has provided an entry route into the cycle for many.
  • In 1972, the Irish Naval Service named their ship “The LÉ Deirdre” after Deirdre of the Sorrows.
  • At the turn of the 20th century, interest in Irish mythology grew, and Deirdre’s story captured the interest of poet W.B. Yeats, among others.
  • Irish playwright John Millington Synge began work on a three-act play on the tale in 1909. 
  • Unfortunately, Synge died before completing the script, but his fiance, Molly Allgood, finished it. Allgood went on to play Deirdre in what became a hugely successful play.

The Story of Deirdre

Part 1 – our tale begins

Our story begins in ancient Ireland during the reign of King Conchobar Mac Nessa of Ulster. 

The King’s Bard, Felimidh Mac Dall, is surprised when his wife falls pregnant, something the couple thought impossible. They throw a party to celebrate the unexpected event.

Cathbad, the chief druid of the King, attends the party. Felimidh asks the druid to touch his wife’s pregnant belly to bless the unborn child.

Part 2 – a prophecy is made

The druid does so, but to everyone’s surprise, he jumps back in horror, his face turning white. Cathbad then begins to make a prophecy. 

He says that the child would grow to become the most beautiful woman in Ireland. However, this beauty would be a curse, not a blessing. 

The druid tells the partygoers that lords and kings would go to war for the child, and sorrow and devastation would befall the whole of Ulster. As news of Cathbad’s prophecy spreads, many call for the child to be killed before she is even born. 

But King Conchobhar instead orders that the child be spared, and when she reaches the age of consent, she would be married to him instead. 

Until this time, the child, Deirdre, was to be sent into the forest to be cared for by a poetess named Leabharcham. 

She lives with Leabharcham in a deep forest, far away from men’s eyes. As Deirdre grows, she does indeed become as beautiful as the prophecy had predicted.

Part 3 – Deirdre’s exile

Deirdre enjoys living in the forest, away from the world. She loves the animals and the peacefulness. One winter day, she happens upon a raven devouring the corpse of a lamb.

Deirdre is horrified but transfixed by the sight and recounts it to Leabharcham later.

Deirdre vows that she will allow love into her heart only for a man who has hair as black as the raven’s feathers, skin as white as the snow, and cheeks as red as the blood of the lamb.

Part 4 – Deirdre falls in love

Soon after, she meets a handsome young warrior named Naoise Mac Uisneach in the forest, who fits the bill exactly. The two fall in love and decide to run away to Scotland together.

The couple lived happily there until Fergus mac Róich, a previous King of Ulster, visited them. Fergus tells the couple that the King has forgiven everything and invites them to return to their homeland.

Although Deirdre feels uneasy that everything is not going well, she consents to Naoise, who deeply misses his family and Ireland.

They return to Ulster, only to be attacked by King Conchobhar’s men. Fergus is detained, Naoise is murdered, and the King captures Deirdre.

Part 5 – A tragic end for Deirdre

Missing the love of her life and locked into a marriage with the King, Deirdre is full of sorrow. From the wedding day, she refuses to lift her gaze from the floor or the sides of her mouth into a smile.

One day, Deirdre and the King are travelling by chariot. Suddenly, Deirdre recognises the area they are riding through as the place where she first laid eyes on Naoise. 

Deirdre lifts her gaze and turns to the King for the first time in months. A wide smile erupts across her face.

Before the King can respond, Deirdre opens the door of the chariot and hauls herself out, bashing her head against the rocks of the road and killing herself instantly.

The story goes that Deirdre was buried beside Naoise, and in the weeks that followed, a strange sight was seen. 

An oak tree seemed to spout overnight from the graves and continued to grow until it shaded the whole area of their resting place, an eternal reminder of the love the two shared.

What does Deirdre of the Sorrow symbolise?

For many, the tale of Deirdre is bleak. But it has also become a significant and meaningful tale for Irish people.

Interest in the tale was rekindled at the beginning of the 20th century, particularly by poets like W.B. Yeats. Some attribute this interest to the political landscape of the time. 

It could be that Deirdre stood for the Irish people, captured and oppressed by the royal figure of an ancient King (perhaps signifying English rule and colonisation).

Others connect this story with another famous Irish tale of Oisin & Tír na nÓg. In both tales, the characters long to return home (perhaps a symbol of childhood). 

In both stories, however, the character’s lives end for trying to do so, possibly symbolising a difficult reality we all face. 

Although we may wish we could return to the days of childhood, this is not truly possible, and trying to live in the past can only lead to destruction.

Notable mentions

Irish legends: Deirdre is one of the most famous Irish legends, second perhaps to the Children of Lir, another tale of ancient Ireland that has withstood the test of time.

Leabharcham/Lavarcham: Some of the characters in this tale appear in other stories in the Ulster cycle. Leabharcham is charged with watching over Deirdre. In some versions of the tale, she is a close and loyal confidant to Deirdre.

Themes of destiny/fates: Prophecies are a crucial aspect in many Irish tales, and many storytellers include one to draw in the audience with themes of destiny and intrigue.

Sons of Uisneach: In some versions of the tale, three famed sons of Uisneach fight alongside Fergus against the King but are slaughtered in battle. Like Naoise, they are killed with a spear.

Your questions answered about Deirdre of the Sorrows

Who was beloved of Deirdre in the Irish legend?

Naoise mac Uisneach, a famous warrior, hunter, and singer.

What is the origin of the name Deirdre?

Rather fittingly for the character and her fate, Deirdre is a name of Irish origin, meaning “broken-hearted” or “sorrowful”.

What is Deirdre in Irish?

The name Deirdre in Irish is “Derdriu”.

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