One night Fedlimid, harper to King Conchubar MacNeasa had a feast. At the end of the evening his unborn child screamed from inside his wife’s belly. The poet Cathbad was called upon to make a prophesy. The prophesy foretold: Because of her great beauty the child Deirdre will bring sorrow and bloodshed to Ulster. So Deirdre was banished to grow up in isolation with no one for company but her kindly nurse Lavarcham. The story of Deirdre and the Sons of Usnach also explains why Fergus Mac Róich; once King of Ulster rode into battle with Queen Meadhbh of Connacht against Ulster in the epic tale,The Táin Bó Cúailnge.
Deirdre And The Sons of Usnach
I screamed from inside my mother’s womb when she was up against her time and it was the beginning of an avalanche; one pebble of prophesy to hinder the free flow of a life.
But if my mother had not trusted another, to know. If she had listened, to her self: she would never have allowed a Druid to be prophetic about her unborn child. Instead, she might have said,
“My baby is crying because I am not. I have no time to cry because I am busy serving my husband’s guests at this late hour, so up against my time that the truth has to be shouted out by her and she, who knows nothing but how to be the equal of herself has erupted at a time when it feels right to erupt.”
Or she might have said,
“It was a noise that you don’t understand is all, you all being men wouldn’t know about it.”
But, what she did say was,
“No woman knows what sleeps inside in her womb.”
My mother stated the obvious and she was right. No one can know as chance is forever on the road and the truest word that can be spoken is, no one knows what a little baby will become nor what story will be occupied when she is up on her feet finding herself between the trees, the wolf and the bear.
So, my life began with Cathbad the Druid purporting to know everything under the stars, providing them all with a prophesy about me because I had screamed from my tired mother’s womb. Exactly what I would bring to the world was said before I ever burst a membrane. I go over it again and again, always thinking of things she might have said like,
“Go back to your drinking Druid. The only thing that is happening here is there’s a baby about to be born and do none of you have a home to go to?”
It was a big feast. How you’d know was King Conchubar and Cathbad were there. My father Fedlimid was the happy host back in the days when women were hailed for being great little workers or for being very beautiful, never both. My mother was obviously in the great little worker category which was I imagine, somewhat less of a burden, as great beauty only has them hopping as long as it lasts and all the attention it gets can keep a woman thinking, it’s going to be different, much better, for her.
The rest is well documented in myth, history and in the mind of every human who has a child or is a child. It doesn’t matter whether you are a girl or a boy because prophesy or where you find yourself will play a part just as much as the fight against it. At least that is what I have told myself and the stories help.
My own personal once upon a time, began with an image presenting itself in the snow. So, keep it because it is one to behold; suffice to say, good enough to last in your mind forever. Black crow, dead, white snow, blood, and a forest greenly, starkly echoing and a young woman exiled from everything and everyone but her loyal nurse because of that night afore mentioned; when the prophecy was made, the night I screamed from her belly apparently clear enough for Cathbad to say that I would bring terrible things into the world because I would be so beautiful. Timelessly fair with golden hair and comely thighs that a man might die for. My breasts, shapely as the hills and my skin, fair and unblemished. So lock her up like a rose on a winters day. He said I would bring great trouble to Ulster. There’d be blood and much weeping. Oh yes and I will die alone in the end.
So they built a house way away under a mountain in a little glade with a green roof surrounded by apple trees and I suppose it is safe to say I had love there. Not the love of my mother but the love of Levarcham my kindly nurse who taught me all the ways of the natural world. I knew the sound of every bird, I could tell you from the rustle of the leaves who from the animal kingdom was there. I knew the name of every star and when the moon shone I knew she was telling me about myself as a girl, as a reed grows bending with the laws of the days wind.
Lavarcham was charged with me and her orders were to keep me from their world so I wouldn’t destroy it on them. It was the old, prevention is better than the cure belief. Then of course, one night, a lost hunter tripped into our isolation. The stars were veiled by a mischievous mist. He had bumped his head, was delirious with pain and hunger, fell into a lovely soothing dream where in it, he found his way to a warm fire, hot milk and a woman of the Sidhe rubbing his back. Then, he moaned out of the dream and I heard him. I said to Levarcham,
“Nothing dear girl but the night is a queer one” and I heard him again and she denied the sound of him again and I heard him again and this time I read her fear and I said,
“How can you go against all that you teach me Lavarcham? Sure even if it is but a mouse in trouble don’t we always try to help? Do not show me other than you teach me for I know someone or something is out there.”
He was in dire need, nearly starved and frozen for the want of everything we could give him. So we warmed him up and as fate would have it, he gave me back something of myself. I had never seen a man in my living memory and I never knew what a man might say at the sight of me and what he said was that I was a living dream to him in fairness and generosity and beauty. That I was to summer what his masters were to winter, that I was the colour that ended long winter nights and I remembered it again, coming in strong to the front of my mind, the dead black as night crow on the white snow and the rose blood spilling and I knew he was talking about the night for my day.
The hunter told me then of his masters, Naoise, son of Usnach and his brothers Ainnle and Ardan; champions all, and I asked him how they were and what they looked like and he told me about them. Naoise who had hair as black as a raven, skin as white as snow and cheeks the colour of the rose. He told me the speed of their feet, made them seem like they could fly. They could jump as high as any horse, swim like a salmon in the deep of the river and stay warm on the coldest of nights and the cows give milk in abundance at sound of their singing.
Imagine the unrest that stirred in me as the hunter went away. In Levarcham too as she had him promise to tell nothing about us to anyone and swear on every apple tree that kept us hidden from the chance passer by, as if his promise would strengthen their protection the way spells do.
He did try to keep his promise, but when the idea began to grow in his head that King Conchubar hadn’t a wife yet and there was this beautiful maiden living in the woods who would suit him and sure wouldn’t a King reward a humble hunter for information like that.
The King knew about me all along of course but since he was reminded I was called out of my earthy paradise to his castle and I, but a girl, not fully shaped like a woman nor ready for the likes of him at all. But I was smart enough so I asked his besotted old head for a bit of time to develop. I was desperately trying to give myself what my beginnings did not, which was a bit of space for a story of my own making.
He agreed and gave me a year and a day and put me into the care of women. This time to be taught away from the birds of the mountain and the animals of the forest. This time I had to learn about the ways of the court and oh dear, all I wanted to learn was how to find that man described to me by the hunter, because every crow that cawed reminded me of his shining black hair, his snow white skin, his rosy cheeks and time was ticking on and a whole other gruesome kind of night was coming for me if I did not find him.
And the day came as days do. I was out walking with some other young girls whose ladylike behaviours were to be rubbing off on me when I saw three young men fitting the description in my mind. There was nothing for it. I fell back from the crowd, lift my cumbersome skirt and ran in their direction. I was like someone in a spell. It was as if they were singing me to them. Later I heard that Ainnle and Ardan heard me calling and tried to distract Naoise from the noises I was making, lying to him three times when he asked where was my voice coming from, that it was only the sound of a duck or a goose or a swan, the cheek. They knew in their hearts that once we laid eyes upon each other that that would be that.
It wasn’t long before I kissed him and I know a girl’s blush should come before her first kiss but for me it was the other way. I kissed him first, then I blushed and he blushed and I said,
“Will you come with me Naoise for truth, because though you know I’m being groomed to be the wife of a King that I do not love him. I love you and you love me and we should be together or you will be disloyal to yourself.”
“I will” he said,
And a whole new time came into this story.
Our only option was exile. King Conchubar had the power to order his knights to do his chasing for him. But, within the knighthood there lived another class of power. The honesty of belonging to a tribe and there were warriors like Cúchulainn and Conall Cearnach who would never go against the great sons of Usnach even under a Kings command and not for fear, but friendship. There was great loyalty on the ground among the heroes because you didn’t get to be like those men by mere inheritance. It had to be worked for. Honesty and intuition had to be honed and belief in the laws of land and the laws of love and somehow becoming a King can cause a stiffness in a man that puts himself above it all and I suppose he was stuck then in being a King.
He ordered and ordered for our discomfort. He had armies follow us. He had druids make spells. The most terrifying of those was a spell placed upon a forest where we were hiding one night. The trees became menacing and tentacled grabbing at us as we hacked our way through it. The night was grey and a fog was down and the wolves howled near and far and snakes rubbed against my ankles so that they can’t have been snakes or I would have been dead.
I remember the next morning so well. We had come through the forest to the high brow of a hill under the morning sun. Naoise and I were resting from the horrors of the night when he covered me with his love and filled me up with his child and there was never a better morning in all my life.
A baby coming was the deciding factor for us to sail to Alban (Scotland) and we lived there as outlaws in the hills for a while. We had two children, a boy called Gaiar and a girl Aebgreine who went into the care of Manannan son of the sea who brought them to the isle of the Apple Trees to be taught by poets like little seeds in the earth with their souls watered and fed while we were left to circle this human story.
And as fate would have it, the same thing was destined to happen in Alban (Scotland). The King there was told about a woman of great beauty who was myself and that I, believe it or not, should in all things be by his side. At this time Naoise and his brothers were already well in with the King. He had been delighted with their help in matters of war while they had wisely kept me hidden so as not to tempt him but didn’t someone see me and report back just like before and a man came to me with a King’s message and I wouldn’t go to him because I was in love and because of it the King sent Naoise, Ainnle and Ardan to the front of every battle hoping they would be killed so then he would have me all to himself.
All the chasing started up again until we found a place where we could have peace. In the glens of Loch Eitche (Etive) whose water flows all the way to the sea. No one bothered us there under the mountains where the salmon were plenty and deer generously gave their lives for us to have food and warmth. We lived for a while thanking the laws of nature and it was possible to believe in that beautiful land, with music on the wind that there was no one in the world that could ever wish to harm another or to scheme on behalf of only one because if you live that way, there is only the day and the night and the feel of the wind and the sting of ice and sleet and the heat of the sun and all are telling the truth. And when we lay down at night and loved each other there was the loosing of the joy of all the world inside me for he and I and the world were in harmony.
But we were not forgotten. King Conchubar was clever I’ll give him that; pretending to be grieving the lost sons of Usnach for the sake of a mere woman; becoming all self reproaching, saying
“What was I thinking, making the loss of a woman bigger than the loss of three of the best defenders of this realm and the realm of my people. My people, who live without a worry for their own safety while I, their King suffers a yearning for the old days of having the sons of Usnach here to depend upon.”
He made his lament seem innocent while he was setting the fools up to feel for him and think him a great sacrificer, noble in his tragedy and public in his pardon for those who had taken his bride. He also knew there were only three in the world that Naoise, Ainnle and Ardan would answer to if they were called home because there was a geis (a vow mixed up with a taboo) on them that made them answerable in conscience only to the great warriors Cuchulain, Conall Cearnach and Fergus Mac Roich.
So Conchubar went about testing the two youngest heroes with a request to bring them back. First the great Cú, then Conall and they in turn refused because he asked them in such a way that he was also asking them albeit in a round about way if they would slay them for him.
“If, now mind it’s only if it ever came to it, sure the question is but a test of your loyalty which is a necessary thing for a King to do when he gives Knights like yourselves the status you have.”
So the two were put in a place where they showed that not only were they faithful to Naoise and his brothers but if it came to it they would kill anyone who raised a hand to them and they did not say a King was safe from that threat. So Conchubar asked Fergus instead but this time he had his question redesigned and much less vulnerable to refusal so that Fergus’ answer was the one he wanted which said,
“No man except for yourself good King because I trust the honesty between us will get in the way of my task of providing safe passage for the sons of Usnach to come home.”
Fergus was sent to tell us that we were forgiven, that Conchubar was swayed no more by the rebuff of a woman to suffer the loss of such great knights. Fergus set out in trust only bringing with him his sons, Fair-Haired Iollan and Rough- Red Buinne and their shield bearer, Cuileann and of course the shield as shields often play big parts in stories.
We were hard to find. We had our ways about us since we had come upon so many who had wanted to steal me so we didn’t sleep where we ate and we didn’t play where we slept. I heard him first and decided to say nothing. Naoise and I were playing a game of chess and there was a shout. Ah and I knew it was he and I tried so hard to distract Naoise. Three times Fergus shouted and three times I said it was nothing but it was the Irish in his call that marked him out.
I was happy there in the glens of Etive where the mountains had a different colour for my every day and the fish jumped up to be caught and the call of the deer came twice because of the woman between the mountains who used to sing my song back to me. Then because of the call of an Irish voice my wisdom was to pale in the eyes of my beloved. I had a dream: There was a raven and the raven dropped into my hand three drops of golden honey and somewhere at the back of the dream there were lovely sincere smiles all around me until the honey landed on my palm and turned to blood and the smiles turned to sickly grimaces and I was woken out of the peace in my heart because I knew how easy it is for a dishonest man to fool an honest one. An honest man’s truth lives foremost in his mind. Trickery will not be what he is expecting. You could be in danger of calling an honest man a fool because of it and Fergus was honest and the sons of Usnach were honest and they trusted each other. So, what I had to say fell upon deaf ears when Fergus told them they were forgiven and King Conchubar wanted them back, their exile was at an end.
“You’ll be happier at home in your own country. I have sworn to take you home in safety. You are missed by your King” said Fergus and I said,
“What then is it I am dreaming at night, I have seen him as a raven with the honey dripping from his lips like the sweet greedy drooler that I ran from. The honey will turn into blood I tell you. I have seen you three in a grave and I never dreamed such a thing before your visit Fergus Mac Roich.”
And Naoise said
“Leave your dreams behind you here Deirdre with the fairy woman in the hills. We are going home and I said to my love,
“I see you all at the mercy of Conchubar for no man forgets least of all a King when he loses in love. I see Fergus eating food he cannot swallow and I see his sons and you and your brothers all dead in Ireland and the wolves are howling and I am crying, I am crying, I am crying wont you listen, listen to me I am crying all of your tears.”
But, a man will follow a path made by another man because he hopes that path will have less falling on it than if there were no path at all. The sons of Usnach followed Fergus’ path and brought their bravery and friendship with them thinking that was enough as my dreams turned into blood.
Conchubar sent word that we were to stop at the fort of Borach on our way back. Borach had been ordered by the King to invite Fergus Mac Roich to a feast knowing that Fergus carried a geis (a vow mixed up with a taboo) making him bound to accept food that was made in his honour. The rest of us were not invited and I warned them again.
“Can we not stay out on the sea under a fog like ghost ships on the horizon until Fergus is finished at Borach’s.”
“Whisht woman aren’t we Knights of the Red Branch called home. We have no fear and all is well sure aren’t we safe with the sons of the great Fergus Mac Roich who will bring us home under the Promise the King made to their noble father.”
But I had seen Fergus redden with anger at this development and I said again.
“Can we not stay out on the sea under a fog like ghost ships on the horizon and they smarted as if I was asking them to be cowards and I said it a third time and it became a song that became a wish that we could be with Manannan and our children sooner instead of later.
But the journey’s end held hope still. We knew it would be a good sign if Conchubar invited us to his castle but instead he bid us come to the house of the Red Branch. This meant we would be held at arms length and there was time for Conchubar to see if I was worth all the treachery he was about to do upon his own champions. Levarcham tried her best to hide me from him by saying I was an old hag but the King had other spies who said my beauty was unsurpassed and wouldn’t it only be right for him to have such a painting by his side. It was cruel after that; cruel the way it unfolded when the King’s men surrounded the sons of Usnach.
Then out came Rough-Red Buinnne son of Fergus Mac Roich and true to the champion he was, ran rings around the Red Branch killing and defending us until Conchubar managed to bribe him with a whole mountain to call his own.
Then came Fair-Haired Iollan with a fierce frenzy on him to make up for his brother’s failings and then the King sent out his own, son Fiacra the Fair into single combat with Iollan.
Fair-Haired Iollan got the better of the kings son putting him under his shield till the shield called out and all who heard it who were loyal to Ulster came running.
Conall Cearnach was first there with his loyalty to put his sword through Fair Iollan’s back not knowing he was killing his comrade. Having sworn allegiance to the shield of Ulster he was tricked into killing a friend that he loved. Then Conall Cearnach stuck the King’s son with the very same sword that had killed his friend and roared a lament louder than any shield and he said to the sons of Usnach,
“Be brave my friends there is no more time for treaty, only for killing and revenge.”
I said to my love,
“Rise up and take your sword, it is over. Go now and die with honour for nothing will do now but the swing of a sword.”
But there was a last lie told when Conchubar asked the Druid Cathbad to place enchantments upon us. Lying to the Druid he said,
“I will do them no harm. I swear it. My intention is to treat with them before they kill us all.”
Cathbad fell for the King’s words and cast up a terrible spell to make the sea come all about us so that Naoise had to put me on his shoulders to keep me from drowning.
And the great sons of Usnach were seized and imprisoned and the only treating that was left was how they wished to die. They asked to die together, beheaded with the one sword at the one time so no brother witnessed the death of another.
I saw them all die and so I was dead too though I still walked the earth. I was with old Lavarcham for a while but not for long as the King wanted his prize. The fool King thought I would have pity on him. I told him to kill me and that he was a vile suitor for a woman and he had lost all the good men he would ever have and all the loyalty he would ever receive. I taunted him with the departure of Fergus to Connaught where he had been welcomed in by the great Queen Meadhbh. I had nothing to lose but my life when I said those things but the fool still thought I would come round to wanting the jewels of a Queen.
I had already been a Queen. He had nothing to entice me. He asked me then, was there any man that I hated more than him and I said I hated in equal measure, the executioner who offered himself to do the killing of the sons of Usnach. So Conchubar sent me to be the executioner’s wife for a year to rid me of my memories in preparation to be his wife. But I was like the mountain given to Rough-Red Buinne that never yielded a blade of grass after its tainted getting. I would never be with another man and to make sure of that I traded my wedding ring for a sharp knife and I thrust it deep into my broken heart.
Painting by Kathy Tynan: