Deirdre of the Sorrows

"People will not look forward to posterity who never look backward to their ancestors". Light a candle for your departed loved ones today.

Today, November 1st is All Soul’s Day. 

Historically, the Celtic nations believed that the dead were the repositories of wisdom and lore and that one of the reasons they return is to speak to their descendants.  It’s from these visits by a beloved ancestor that the more fortunate among us are given two special gifts: the ability to remember old days and old ways, and a deeper understanding of how we are forever linked by blood to the past – and to the future.

November 1st later became a Christian Holiday knows as All Saints’s Day or All Hallows’ Day.  Hallow means “holy” and this was the day to honor all the holy, or saints, especially those who had no day of their own. We honor this day.

But, you will see we still like to tell preChristiantime stories.  In the one below, told for hundreds of years, the boundaries between mortals and the souls of the deal cease to exist…and this one haunted families for generations.

                                     Deirdre of the Sorrows

Tankards clanked and voices cheered as the toast was made to the expected arrival of a child. McDowell, the greatest Baird in King Conor Mac Nessa’s court, and his beautiful wife were due to have a child.

But suddenly a bloodcurdling scream split the air; there was confusion; had the woman gone into labor? No, the scream seemed to have come from the unborn child in her womb.

Cathbad, the chief druid, stepped forward with a frown on his face and everyone fell silent. 'This is an ill omen,' he said. 'The child will bring sorrow and bloodshed to this land. She will be a rare beauty, but her beauty will cause great strife, and she will die young and bereft. I name her Deirdre, Deirdre of the Sorrows.'

Immediately cries went up from the throng: 'Kill the child now!', but King Conor Mac Nessa stood firm. He raised his hand and proclaimed that he would raise the child. He would hide it away in secret where no man’s eye could see her and so no harm could be done.

 And so weeks later when this babe slipped into the world her mother had only a few hours in which to pour the love of a lifetime and then she was swept away by the king.

Deirdre was raised by a nurse in the remote glen of Slieve Gullion; there the king knew no visitors would pass by. So Deirdre was brought up learning from an old nurse about herbs and their qualities, weaving and spinning. Twice a year the king would send an envoy, Levarcham, who would come and bring supplies and a gift from the king. After each visit the king would enquire about the health of the child, and especially of her growing beauty.

Apple trees grew outside the cottage, and after 14 years of flowering the king made a visit to Deirdre himself. He brought her a string of amber beads and a roll of orange silk. Deirdre did not know anything of the outside world, but these gifts made her begin to wonder.

She had grown to be a wondrous beauty, and the nurse worried at the hungry way the widowed king now looked at her. It came as no surprise when the king visited again and proclaimed that he intended to make Deirdre his bride.

Thus he reasoned he would prevent any harmful prediction coming true, and also he would be saved from his pool of deep loneliness in which he now lived. He left to make plans for their wedding, and thus a chain of love was woven by the king from which Deirdre would never break free.

Levarcham felt sorry for Deirdre, betrothed to this withered old man in his twilight years, a young woman who knew nothing of the outside world, let alone of the love that is possible between a man and a woman.

Late one night as Deirdre sat by the peat fire spinning her saffron wool the two women listened to the wild gale blowing outside. Suddenly a cry pierced the night. 'What can that be?' asked Deirdre. The nurse feared it might be a passing traveler but said, 'It’s nothing, perhaps just a goose caught in the storm.' But the sound came again, insisting on being heard; then came a loud banging at the door. 'Go to the kitchen,' demanded the nurse, 'and I will see who this is.'


Deirdre did as she was bid, and the nurse opened the door to see the great Naisi, warrior of the Red Branch, one of the sons of Usna, standing soaked at the door. 'Please,' he said, 'I seek shelter from this night. By the moon and the stars let me in!' 'That I cannot,' said the old woman, 'By order of the king, please leave.' But Naisi begged and the old woman could not refuse such a fine handsome face, a man who was a great servant to the king.

 As she led him to the fire, Deirdre appeared with a tray of warm wine and bannocks. Her eyes met Naisi’s in the fire’s glow and the old nurse saw two hearts melt into one. A love was sparked between them that would never be extinguished. The nurse’s heart sank, as she knew no good would come of this meeting, but at the same time it gave her joy to see the light in both their eyes.

In the following weeks Naisi was a regular secret visitor, and at last Deirdre told him about the plans the king had for marriage. 'Please take me away with you, Naisi, I cannot marry a man who I do not love, my heart belongs to you, and the king is old enough to be my father.'

But Naisi replied. 'I am a warrior of the king, I have pledged my loyalty to him.' 'But I have not pledged myself to him,' said Deirdre, no-one has asked me what I would wish to do. Naisi could not argue with Deridre for long and at last he agreed that he would make plans to run away with her.

He made a sign - a red piece of cloth tied at the silver birch tree - and then she knew she could leave with him. That night she rode away on a horse with him and his two brothers to a new life. Deirdre was full of hopes, dreams and joy as for the first time she left Slieve Gullion.

They sailed away to a new land, a land with a jagged coastline and high purple hills, the land of Alba. Here they settled in Glen Etive, and for the first time Deirdre’s heart found its home with Naisi. They lived a simple life, fishing, hunting, and Deirdre loved to wander on the heathery hills and look far out to sea. But each of them knew this life could not last, for the sons of Usna missed Erin. (Ireland)

Meanwhile anger consumed King Conor as he searched for his love and three greatest warriors all over Ireland. With time this betrayal poisoned his whole being and he swore he would not rest until he had married Deirdre and punished Naisi.

 He brooded until he hatched a plan; he pretended to forgive the sons of Usna and sent an envoy, Fergus McCroy, to Scotland to search for them, and then give them the good news. Fergus McCroy believed the king to be genuine, and the sons of Usna were delighted to see their kinsmen. They accepted the offer of a peaceful return to Erin. Deirdre was reluctant. 'We are happy here, are we not?' 'No,' said Naisi, 'I am not a son of Alba, I come from Erin and I belong to its soil.'

So wearily Deirdre climbed the purple slopes one last time and with bleary eyes she picked a sprig of heather and put it in her pocket, as she left the place that she had felt was home.

As they sailed to Ireland a storm brewed and she again begged Naisi to change his mind. She felt sure the king could not be trusted; however, she was filled with gladness as they approached the shores of Erin and saw kinsfolk lined up waiting to greet them. Naisi’s face was aglow as he held her close to him. She swore that she would say no more of the fears that she held in her heart.

They were welcomed and led to their quarters at Emain Macha, but Deirdre felt uneasy as the king was not among the welcoming party. His hatred was so strong, he could not yet face Naisi, but he was curious about Deirdre, whether she could still be as beautiful, so he sent Levarcham to visit Deirdre and to see how she looked.

When Levarcham saw the two young people together and obviously in love she decided to lie to the king, hoping that he might leave them alone. So after seeing Deirdre she told the king that she had lost her beauty after all the years of hard living. 'She looks like any ordinary crofter’s wife,' she reported.

At this news the king relaxed, but as the night wore on he again became troubled and sent a servant to spy on Deirdre. The servant climbed up to peek in through a window and there he saw Deirdre and Naisi playing chess by the fire. He gasped 'Huh' as he looked upon Deirdre and saw her beauty. Naisi immediately saw him and threw a chessman at the man’s eye, knocking it from its socket. The servant then ran back to the king but said he would gladly risk losing another eye to see Deirdre once more, so rare and fine was her beauty. This news sealed their fate.

The next morning the king spread rumors of Naisi’s plans for treason against the king. A mob gathered outside Naisi and Deirdre’s quarters, and a shout went to 'Come out, you reivers!' Then Naisi and his brothers could smell smoke; the building was on fire. Naisi said, 'Let us fight rather than die from this reek', so they stepped outside with their swords held high and they battled against their former comrades.

Try as they might they were outnumbered and overpowered by the strength of their foes. All three of the sons of Usna were quickly captured and at last one reluctant man stepped forward to kill them. Naisi handed the man his sword and all three heads of the sons of Usna were cut off with one blow.

As the three fell to the ground Deirdre gave a shriek of grief, just like the night before she was born, as the blood flowed upon the earth, just as foreseen by Cathbad.

King Conor immediately asked Deirdre to marry him but she refused. She first asked to bury Naisi and his brothers. She wrapped their bodies in white linen, and inside a fold of the fabric she placed the sprig of heather from Glen Etive. The three men were placed in a deep grave and as they lay there Deirdre stepped forward and cried, 'Move over, make room for me, sons of Usna, the days would be too long without you,' and at that she fell into the grave behind Nais, dying of a broken heart.

But King Conor’s anger did not die and he refused to let Deirdre and Naisi be buried together. He had Deirdre placed in a grave all alone, and Naisi some distance away.

But over time a yew tree grew out of each of the graves and it stretched across and entwined the branches as if the two were holding hands. And in the summer the red berries adorned the yew tree, and people said, 'Look, it is the wedding of Deirdre and Naisi.' And so the branches of the trees grew and entwined and were together forever. 

They still grow there to this day…

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