English Literature for Boys and Girls
by Henrietta Elizabeth Marshall
Chapter 3: One Of The Sorrows Of Story-Telling
The Tain gives us vivid pictures of people and things, but it is not full of beauty and of tender imagination like many of the Gaelic stories. Among the most beautiful and best known of these are perhaps the Three Sorrows of Story-Telling. These three stories are called: The Tragedy of the Children of Lir; The Tragedy of the Children of Tuireann; and Deirdre and the Sons of Usnach. Of the three the last is perhaps the most interesting, because the story happened partly in Scotland and partly in Ireland, and it is found both in old Irish and in old Scottish manuscripts.
The story is told in many old books, and in many ways both in prose and in verse. The oldest and shortest version is in the Book of Leinster, the same book in which is found The Tain.
The tale goes that one day King Conor and his nobles feasted at the house of Felim, his chief story-teller. And while they feasted a daughter was born to Felim the story-teller. Then Cathbad the Druid, who was also at the feast, became exceeding sad. He foretold that great sorrow and evil should come upon the land because of this child, and so he called her Deirdre, which means trouble or alarm.
When the nobles heard that, they wished to slay the new-born babe. But Conor spoke.
"Let it not be so done," he said. "It were an ill thing to shed the blood of an innocent child. I myself shall care for her. She shall be housed in a safe place so that none may come nigh to her, and when she is grown she shall be my one true wife."
So it was done as King Conor said. Deirdre was placed in a safe and lonely castle, where she was seen of none save her tutor and her nurse, Lavarcam. There, as the years passed, she grew tall and fair as a slender lily, and more beautiful than the sunshine.
Now when fourteen years had passed, it happened one snowy day that Deirdre's tutor killed a calf to provide food for their little company. And as the calf's blood was spilled upon the snow, a raven came to drink of it. When Deirdre saw that, she sighed and said, "Would that I had a husband whose hair was as the color of the raven, his cheeks as blood, and his skin as snow."
"There is such a one," said Lavarcam, "he is Naisi the son of Usnach."
After that here was no rest for Deirdre until she had seen Naisi. And when they met they loved each other so that Naisi took her and fled with her to Scotland far from Conor the King. For they knew that when the King learned that fair Deirdre had been stolen from him, he would be exceeding wrathful.
There, in Scotland, Deirdre and Naisi lived for many years happily. With them were Ainle and Ardan, Naisi's two brothers, who also loved their sister Deirdre well.
But Conor never forgot his anger at the escape of Deirdre. He longed still to have her as his Queen, and at last he sent a messenger to lure the fair lady and the three brave brothers back to Ireland.
"Naisi and Deirdre were seated together one day, and between them Conor's chess board, they playing upon it.
"Naisi heard a cry and said, 'I hear the call of a man of Erin.'
"'That was not the call of a man of Erin,' says Deirdre, 'but the call of a man of Alba.'
"Deirdre knew the first cry of Fergus, but she concealed it. Fergus uttered the second cry.
"'That is the cry of a man of Erin,' says Naisi.
"'It is not indeed,' says Deirdre, 'and let us play on.'
"Fergus sent forth the third cry, and the sons of Usnach knew it was Fergus that sent for the cry. And Naisi ordered Ardan to go to meet Fergus. Then Deirdre declared she knew the first call sent forth by Fergus.
"'Why didst thou conceal it, then, my Queen?' says Naisi.
"'A vision I saw last night,' says Deirdre, 'namely that three birds came unto us having three sups of honey in their beaks, and that they left them with us, and that they took three sups of our blood with them.'
"'What determination hast thou of that, O Princess?' says Naisi.
"'It is,' says Deirdre, 'that Fergus comes unto us with a message of peace from Conor, for more sweet is not honey than the message of peace of the false man.'
"'Let that be,' says Naisi. 'Fergus is long in the port; and go, Ardan, to meet him and bring him with thee.'"
And when Fergus came there were kindly greetings between the friends who had been long parted. Then Fergus told the three brothers that Conor had forgiven them, and that he longed to see them back again in the land of Erin.
So although the heart of Deirdre was sad and heavy with foreboding of evil, they set sail for the land of Erin. But Deirdre looked behind her as the shore faded from sight and sang a mournful song: -
"O eastern land I leave, I loved you well,
Home of my heart, I love and loved you well,
I ne'er had left you had not Naisi left."
And so they fared on their journey and came at last to Conor's palace. And the story tells how the boding sorrow that Deirdre felt fulfilled itself, and how they were betrayed, and how the brothers fought and died, and how Deirdre mourned until
"Her heart-strings snapt,
And death had overmastered her. She fell
Into the grave where Naisi lay and slept.
There at his side the child of Felim fell,
The fair-haired daughter of a hundred smiles.
Men piled their grave and reared their stone on high,
And wrote their names in Ogham. So they lay
All four united in the dream of death."
Such in a few words is the story of Deirdre. But you must read the tale itself to find out how beautiful it is. That you can easily do, for it has been translated many times out of the old Gaelic in which it was first written and it has been told so simply that even those of you who are quite young can read it for yourselves.
In both The Tain and in Deirdre we find the love of fighting, the brave joy of the strong man when he finds a gallant foe. The Tain is such history as those far-off times afforded, but it is history touched with fancy, wrought with poetry. In the Three Sorrows we have Romance. They are what we might call the novels of the time. It is in stories like these that we find the keen sense of what is beautiful in nature, the sense of "man's brotherhood with bird and beast, star and flower," which has become the mark of "Celtic" literature. We cannot put it into words, perhaps, for it is something mystic and strange, something that takes us nearer fairyland and makes us see that land of dreams with clearer eyes.
BOOKS TO READ
The Celtic Wonder World, by C. L. Thomson. The Enchanted Land
(for version of Deirdre), by L Chisholm. Three Sorrows (verse), by Douglas Hyde.