Classic Love Story: Prophecy meets Free Will
This is one of the three great love stories in the Irish Myth tradition. King Conor MacNessa had taken the kingship from his foster father, Fergus Mac Rioch for a year but had shown such wisdom that it was decided he should stay on as king. Shortly after this decision, Conor and his Red Branch Warriors were at a feast in the house of Felimid the Harper. Felimid was in high spirits because his wife was about to give birth.
He asked Conor’s druid, Cathbad, to make a prophecy as to what was in store for the baby. He told them she would be the most beautiful woman who ever lived but she will cause trouble by splitting the Red Branch in two. At this the Red Branch demanded that the baby be killed. But Conor wished to preserve his reputation as a wise king said he would take care of her, in secret, and if she was so beautiful, he would marry her to avoid trouble.
Deirdre was then brought up in a hidden valley by an old nurse, Leabharcham, who was very protective of her. From time to time, Conor would visit but Deirdre did not have much affection for him. Who she did have love for is a man with hair as black as a raven, skin as white a snow, and cheeks as red as blood. She had seen the colours in nature and she knew what it meant for her.
Deirdre asked Leabharcham did she know anyone fitting this description. She told her about Naoise, a warrior of the Red Branch. She pestered her to let her see him. Initially Leabharcham refused, but eventually relented. She told the three Sons of Uisneach of the wonderful hunting in the valley in which they lived and indeed they came to hunt. Deirdre immediately fell in love with Naoise, and so did he with her. She asked him to run away with her. He refused because she had been pledged to Conor. But she put a geasa on him, so he had to run away with her.
They needed to go far away. And so they fled with the other Sons of Uisneach and went into service with the King of Scotland. When the King saw Deirdre he too fell in love with her and would put the three Sons of Uisneach in the front lines in every battle so they would be killed. When Deirdre realised what was going on, she persuaded Naoise to flee further to a remote island in the North. They lived there happily.
Meanwhile Fergus Mac Rioch kept raising the subject of the Sons of Uisneach with Conor who would fly into a rage at the matter. Eventually he persuaded Conor to have them back under a guarantee of protection. Fergus eventually found them and told them that Conor had been persuaded to forgive them and that they were welcome back. The three brothers were delighted, but Deirdre was very wary because of a dream she had had.
When they arrived back in Ulster, a local man invited Fergus to come to a feast. There was a geasa on him so he could not refuse. It meant leaving the returning party without his protection. Deirdre tried all she could to dissuade him. But Fergus had to go and gave them his son as protection.
The party arrived in Emain Macha and were sent to the Speckled House. Conor asked Leabharcham what Deirdre looked like now. She said she was now an old hag because of her time in the wilderness. This abated his jealousy. But he was still suspicious. And when he finally found out she was still beautiful his jealousy came flooding back. He sent his warriors to attack the Sons.
Conor’s men were getting nowhere so he asked the druid Cathbad for help. He agreed so long as Conor agreed not to kill the Sons of Uisneach. Conor agreed saying he only wanted Naoise to apologise. Cathbad sent a spell that put the Sons in a black and hungry sea – though they were on dry land. They became exhausted. Conor could not kill them but got Maigne Rough Hand to do it. Naoise had killed Maigne Rough Hand’s father. Maigne Rough Hand chopped off their heads, at the same time.
When Fergus returned from the feast and realised what had happened he burned Emain Macha to the ground. And then took half the Red Branch to Connacht to fight with Conor’s greatest enemy, Queen Maeve. The prophecy had come true.
Conor put Deirdre on a beautiful horse, courted her and surrounded her with beautiful things. But she was having none of it. Conor grew angry at all the rejection. He said who do you hate more than me? She said Maigne Rough Hand. II will give you him for a year and then maybe you will become kinder to me. On the way to Maigne Rough Hand’s country she was placed in a chariot between Conor and Maigne. But as they passed a place where cliffs hung over the road, Deirdre leaned out and dashed her head against the rocks. She was buried beside Naoise but Conor had stakes of wood driven in the ground to separate them. He couldn’t bear the idea of them touching. But the roots grew down and the branches grew out, and twined together.
The Connections and insights from Participants
Emma Mulgerns – Deirdre of the Sorrows
Karina Tynan – Deirdre’s Story
Oral myth telling is always heard in terms of what it is speaking to in modern life. Here are the thoughts from the breakout groups.
Connection 1 – Objectification of Deirdre
In the story it is the ‘most beautiful woman’ who is objectified, and finds herself at the end of the story in a desperate situation and totally deprived of agency. So much so that the only agency she can express is the choice to kill herself. It is the abuse of power by Conor and the threat of the year with the hated Maigne Rough Hand that drives her to this place.
Connection 2 – Publication of the Mother and Baby Homes Report
The storytelling took place a few days after the Mother and Baby Homes Report was published.
This was the scandal of how women who became pregnant, sometimes due to rape and incest, were put in Homes run by the Church and authorised by the State. Some 9,000 babies perished, in inferior health conditions, and the mothers were effectively isolated, stigmatised and treated as if they were a disgrace and had sinned.
Discussion pointed out the similar treatment of objectification of women, and the resulting desperation and deprivation of agency.
Connection 3 – The Division of the Red Branch
The consequence of the story was the falling apart of the Red Branch as it split into two parts with one half defecting to their worst enemy, Queen Maeve of Connacht. This outcome was of enormous significance to Ulster and the Red Branch. But, the participants reflected, was as a result of the men’s actions, their misdeeds and was brought on entirely by themselves.
Connection 4 – Great Sympathy for Deirdre
There was real sympathy for Deirdre. And anger that she was unable to live out her own story and succumbed to being the pawn of powerful men. She emerged as the figure with whom the participants had a powerful affinity.
Connection 5 – Leadership and the Bond of Brotherhood
The bond that developed in warrior bonds was acknowledged as a powerful glue and one that grew in the context of enduring hardship, challenge and training together as Red Branch Knights. Such was these bonds that it needed an ‘outsider’ who was the only one who could carry out the killings of the three Sons of Uisneach. These bonds were particularly noticeable with the killing of the three brothers. None of them wished to live in a world without the other two so insisted on being slain together. These loyalties were seen as relevant to sport and business.
Connection 6 – The Demise of the Upstanding Values
It was observed that the values and qualities of leadership, particularly in the case of Conor MacNessa, of wisdom, integrity, honesty, loyalty, benevolence, discernment and selflessness gave way as the story progressed to the vices of lust, greed and self-serving action. Conor’s journey from greatness is an important narrative trajectory in this story and this causes his and Ulster’s world to fall apart. The King becomes decidedly un-kingly.
This was seen as a dark descent. One group drew parallels to the current political situation in the US, the assault of the Trump mob on the Capital and how it is the result of festering emotional wounds that have never healed.
Connection 7 – Red Branch and Maeve
It was observed that one half of the Red Branch, under Fergus Mac Rioch then swore allegiance to a powerful female queen – Maeve of Connacht. And this then, in turn was a critical factor in the Civil War that was the Tain…. The story soon to unfold.
Connection 8 – Jealousy, Anger ….. and Cruelty
One participant mentioned the latent visceral anger and vindictiveness of Conor asking and giving Deirdre to the man she hated most – Maigne Rough Hand – the 45th US President often seems vindictively cruel!
Connection 9 – Geasa and Honour
One of the themes discussed was the way the women in this story (Deirdre) and from last immersion’s story, Gráinne in Diarmuid and Gráinne used geasa to pull the warrior figures, Naoise and Diarmuid, from their brotherhood with its duties, loyalty and oaths.
Connection 10 Goddess Culture meets Warrior Culture
It was observed that it can be said that here we have two mythologies interacting: the goddess culture meets the warrior culture and it is the goddess culture that is consistently ignored. But then the warrior culture is hardly successful either.
Connection 11 – Beautiful Symbol
One comment was that maybe in the end the natural world of the Goddess does prevail in the intertwining of the roots of the tree, and the branches of the tree where the two lovers are buried.
Conor MacNessa’s wooden stakes and the deaths failed to separate the lovers.
Connection 12 – Prophecies
The group spoke about the presence of prophecies in myths and how the people the prophecies condemned acted in ways which end up ensuring the prophecies unfold, believing them so much that they become self-fulfilling. Hinting at the power of the mind – “you become that which you most hate” – when it is focused on preventing an experience rather than creating an alternative.
Geographic range of the story was noted with a full spread of peoples and their network of relationships: Connacht, Ulster, Scotland, Norway.