Deirdre of the Sorrows *warning: rape and suicide triggers*
When I was a little girl, we had a beautiful book of Irish myths and legends called “The Names Upon the Harp,” by Marie Heaney and illustrated by P. J. Lynch. It was not, because of its violent and slightly explicit content, really a children’s book, but its breathtaking watercolors and quaint prose were absolutely captivating. One thing that I noticed, though, was that there were practically no principle female characters in all these stories, and that the women who did exist were distinguished by being a)some male hero’s mother; b)”the most lovely woman in Ireland;” or c)angelic singers. I was very aware of my own femaleness, so I latched on to the one story in the book that had a female main character whose name was actually in the title: Deirdre of the Sorrows.
Below, in the bolded and italicized text, is Wikipedia’s synopsis and history of the tale. I wish I could post the story I read, because I faintly disapprove of Wiki’s telling, but it was truly the best I could do from the Internet:
Deirdre was the daughter of the royal storyteller Fedlimid mac Daill. Before she was born, Cathbad the chief druid at the court of Conchobar mac Nessa, king of Ulster, prophesied that Fedlimid’s daughter would grow up to be very beautiful, but that kings and lords would go to war over her, much blood would be shed because of her, and Ulster’s three greatest warriors would be forced into exile for her sake. Hearing this, many urged Fedlimid to kill the baby at birth, but Conchobar, aroused by the description of her future beauty, decided to keep the child for himself. He took Deirdre away from her family and had her brought up in seclusion by Leabharcham, an old woman, and planned to marry her when she was old enough. Deirdre grew up, and one day after seeing a black raven dying in teh snow, told Leabharcham that she would love a man with hair the color of the raven, skin as white as snow, and lips as red as blood. Leabharcham told her she knew of such a man– Naoise, a handsome young warrior, hunter and singer at Conchobar’s court. With the collusion of Leabharcham, Deirdre met Naoise. At first the young man wanted nothing to do with her, because it was known that she was destined for the king. But Deirdre shamed him into eloping with her [In the version I originally read, she grabs him by the ears and puts a geis, a magical binding spell, on him. This was accompanied by a striking watercolor of the young redheaded woman reaching up to grab Naoise's head with a look of spellbinding desperation and decisiveness on her face.]. Accompanied by his fiercely loyal brothers Ardan and Ainnle, the sons of Uisnech, they fled to Scotland. For a while, they lived a happy life there, hunting and fishing and living in beautiful places; one place associated with them is Loch Etive. But the furious, humiliated Conchobar tracked them down.
He sent Fergus mac Róich to them with an invitation to return and Fergus’s own promise of safe conduct home, but on the way back to Emain Macha Fergus was waylaid by the king’s plan, forced by his personal geis (an obligation) to accept an invitation to a feast. Fergus sent Deirdre and the sons of Uisnech on to Emain Macha with his son to protect them. After they had arrived, Conchobar sent Leabharcham to spy on Deirdre, to see if she had lost her beauty. Leabharcham, trying to protect Deirdre, told the king that Deirdre had lost all her beauty. Mistrustful, Conchobar then sent another spy, Gelbann, who managed to catch a glimpse of Deirdre but was seen by Naoise, who threw a gold chess piece at him and put out his eye. The spy managed to get back to Conchobar, and told him that Deirdre was as beautiful as ever. Conchobar called his warriors to attack the Red Branch house where Deirdre and the sons of Uisnech were lodging. Naoise and his brothers fought valiantly, aided by a few Red Branch warriors, before Conchobar evoked their oath of loyalty to him and had Deirdre dragged to his side. At this point, Éogan mac Durthacht threw a spear, killing Naoise, and his brothers were killed shortly after. There are other versions of the death of Naoise. Fergus and his men arrived after the battle. Fergus was outraged by this betrayal of his word, and went into exile in Connacht. He later fought against Ulster for Ailill and Medb in the war known as the Táin Bó Cúailnge (the Cattle Raid of Cooley), the Irish Iliad.
After the death of Naoise, Conchobar took Deirdre as his wife. After a year, angered by Deirdre’s continuing coldness, Conchobar asked her whom in the world she hated the most, besides himself. She answered “Éogan mac Durthacht,” the man who’d murdered Naoise. Conchobar said that he would give her to Éogan. As she was being taken to Éogan, Conchobar taunted her, saying she looked like a ewe between two rams. At this, Deirdre threw herself from the chariot, dashing her head to pieces against a rock. In some versions of the story, she died of grief.
There are at least five plays based on Deirdre’s story: George William Russell‘s Deirdre (1902), William Butler Yeats‘ Deirdre (1907), J.M. Synge‘s Deirdre of the Sorrows (1910), John Coulter’s (playwright) Deirdre of the Sorrows: An Ancient and Noble Tale Retold by John Coulter for Music By Healey Willian (1944), and Vincent Woods‘ A Cry from Heaven (2005). There are also three books: Deirdre (1923) by James Stephens, The Celts (1988) by Elona Malterre, and “The Swan Maiden” by Jules Watson.
And so I gravitated toward Deirdre. She had agency; she had a godawful situation but she took charge of her own life. It’s a very stark tale, and I gravitate, aesthetically, toward starkness of a kind; years later I would render the illustration at the top of this post. Deirdre’s desperation spoke to me; she was a multi-dimensional character and she was also very timeless.
This is another example of a woman punished for her beauty, inside and out; a woman shunted into captivity and forced marriage to a tyrant for daring to be herself. I find it funny that the Wikipedia version focuses so much on the back-and-forth between Connor and the other warriors in the story- what always stood out most to me was the year Deirdre spent “married” (read: repeatedly raped) to Connor mac Nessa. The article devotes no more that one sentence to that year; in “The Names Upon the Harp,” it is sparsely but effectively described with an illustration of Deirdre weeping in a dark stone corner, her hand half-raised over her face as if she is shielding herself from the viewer’s gaze- or, rather from Connor’s. But the book described her as screaming at Connor whenever he approached her, fighting back and chanting songs and poems about her lost lover:
But Deirdre breaks, in a way, when she is “given” away to another hated man who will abuse and rape her. And when her captor taunts her with a crude sexual jibe, she kills herself.
This, of course, is what haunts me about my heroine. It has always felt gratuitous, and vaguely obscene (think of Edgar Allan Poe’s famous misogynistic observation, “The death of a beautiful woman is unquestionably the most poetical topic in the world”). Surely such an energetic and self-determining woman would have stuck it out and found a way to escape, I thought. I worried that it was another cautionary tale to warn women away from sexiness and ability and spunk: the virtuous woman kills herself rather than be violated. I had had quite enough of stories like Little Red Riding Hood or that of Lucretia, in which a Roman woman, after being brutally raped, commits suicide, and is then lauded down the centuries (up ’till the present day) for her “virtue” and family values (her suicide is seen as a triumph rather than a tragedy).
But the story of Deirdre is not told, in Ireland or in this country, as a sickly moralizing caution. It is told as a tragedy- the story of one woman who went through hell at the hands of violent and powerful men. But it is very much her own story- she is clever and strong and brave, and that shines through beautifully. Deirdre’s story, like all the best stories, is the story of both an individual and of thousands more. Because the truth is that women have been and are raped and forced into marriage and punished for self-expression, and for the people fortunate enough to have not experienced that world to hide from that horror is to deny the billions of individual people (disguised as poems, as Ani Difranco would say) a voice. Deirdre’s narrative is one woman’s voice that says, “This is my life; this is what was done to me. And this is how I lived. Here were my joys and my sorrows, here are the people I loved and the people I hated. Here is my birth and my death. I lived and died and my life was more that it may appear to you.”
In Eileen Favorite’s novel, “The Heroines,” a young girl reads the story of Deirdre and describes it thusly: “The final paragraph tore through my like shrapnel… I sat stunned. She’d killed herself. Just like Madame Bovary and Anna Karenina. I couldn’t stand it, especially when I recalled her courage… I pulled a notebook out of my bag and started to write. In my story, Deirdre lived, went on to become a great woman warrior. She had a dozen children who became great leaders of Ulster. But then I stopped and tore up the sheet. The original ending had a story. Her suicide was different than Madame Bovary’s. It was a kamikaze move to save herself from falling into enemy hands.”
I have listened to too many friends tell me that after their assault, they feel worthless. They want to kill themselves. This is unspeakable. Because every one of those friends is a brilliant and lovely person who make the world better with their lives every single day. Deirdre was different: she knew her life had meaning. She loved herself.
What legends have spoken to you?