Deirdre (Derdriu) , mythological figure, beautiful and cursed, is a tragic protagonist of the early medieval Ulster cycle. She first emerged into literature in the eighth or ninth century and, over the course of nearly a thousand years, was defined and refined till she found a permanent place in Gaelic historiography through Geoffrey Keating (qv) and his Foras feasa ar Éirinn. Deirdre, however, outlived the Gaelic culture that gave birth to her. She continues to be reinterpreted, and in the process she has been transformed from a disruptive woman into a victim of male desire. Her modern incarnation, Deirdre of the Sorrows, offers a compelling, if kitsch, image of self-sacrificing Celtic womanhood.
‘Longes mac nUislenn’ (‘The exile of the sons of Uisliu’) is the oldest extant version of the tale that has become known as the story of Deirdre. In brief, it tells how the king of Ulster, Conchobar (qv) son of Ness, and his followers are feasting at the house of Feidlimid son of Dall while being served by Feidlimid's unnamed pregnant wife. All seems well till the feasters are terrified by the screaming of the unborn child in the womb. Even worse, the druid Cathub prophecies dire events should the child he calls Deirdre live. The name, derived from derdrethar, ‘to rage, resound’, is itself suggestive. Nevertheless, Conchobar allows her to come to term and has Deirdre raised in seclusion, intending her as his future wife. Unfortunately, Deirdre sets eyes on a young attractive warrior, Noísiu son of Uisliu, and falls in love with him. She seduces Noísiu, forcing him into an impossible position: by eloping with Deirdre he breaks his bond of loyalty to Conchobar. Noísiu is accompanied by his brothers, Arddán and Aindle, and the stage is set for a tale which turns on multiple betrayals.
The greatest of these betrayals is performed by the ageing and jealous Conchobar, firstly through his persecution of the sons of Uisliu, which drives them from Ireland to Scotland, and finally through the act of false forgiveness with which he lures Noísiu and his brothers back to Ulster and to their murder at the hands of Eógan son of Durthacht. Deirdre is reclaimed as a sexual commodity by Conchobar. Her suicide, a full year after the death of her lover, is from shame when Conchobar publicly announces that she will be handed over as a companion to Noísiu's murderer, Eógan. Yet the fate of Deirdre is incidental for, although she is the catalyst, the tale's sympathy lies with Noísiu. ‘Longes mac nUislenn’ is an intense study of the fragile bonds that join together kings and their followers. It is not a romance.
Nevertheless, it did contain seeds for a romantic narrative, seeds that burst open in the very different milieu of later medieval Ireland. ‘Oidheadh chloinne hUisneach’ (‘The destruction of the children of Uisneach’), composed in the fourteenth or fifteenth century, retains the core narrative of the earlier saga but is substantially retooled and refocused. Deirdre's role is greatly expanded. In comparison, Noísiu and his brothers remain one-dimensional. Pathos becomes the dominant tone, with Deirdre dying of immediate grief following the death of Noísiu, rather than lingering for a year as Conchobar's sexual companion. ‘Oidheadh chloinne hUisneach’ was enormously popular and by the early eighteenth century, if not before, had joined two other narratives, ‘Oidheadh chloinne Tuireann’ (‘The destruction of the children of Tuireann’) and ‘Oidheadh chloinne Lir’ (‘The destruction of the children of Lir’) as one of the ‘three sorrows of storytelling’. These three tales, originating in different eras, did much to create the perception of an archaic emotional Gaelic world at odds with the forces of anglicisation and modernity.
This perception was a prejudice of anglicised Ireland. Deirdre's story definitively entered English in the eighteenth century, partly in response to Macpherson's Ossian. The linguistic transition was accompanied by an even further romanticisation of Deirdre, with the result that the other protagonists of the tragedy were reduced to foils. By the nineteenth century the public had access to a whole Deirdre tradition in English. The Samuel Ferguson (qv) poem ‘Deirdre's lament for the sons of Usnach’, with its repeated refrain of ‘Dig the grave both wide and deep’, is representative. The conflicting loyalties and social nuances of the earlier tales were lost; Deirdre was an emblem of doomed love, not easily distinguished from similar figures that dominated the imagination of the romantic movement. The superficial exoticism of Gaelic origins only strengthened her appeal.
This appeal was seized on by Irish cultural revivalists. At the turn of the twentieth century Deirdre had eclipsed all the other characters that inhabited her legendary history. In 1907 the Abbey Theatre produced the play ‘Deirdre’ by W. B. Yeats (qv). However, it was another play, ‘Deirdre of the Sorrows’, by John Millington Synge (qv), premiered in Dublin in January 1910, which stamped her on popular consciousness. It opened the gates to a Deirdre industry. Its products include not only novelistic treatments such as Deirdre, written by James Stephens (qv), but also several operas that were inspired directly or indirectly by Synge. Some suffered from a Deirdre ‘curse’. Geoffrey Molyneux Palmer's work of the 1920s, Deirdre of the Sorrows: an opera, has only survived through the libretto of William Mervyn Crofton. Karl Rankl, famous Austrian composer and first post-war director of music at Covent Garden, was one of the winners at the Festival of Britain in 1951 with his opera Deirdre of the Sorrows. It was never performed. More fortunate was Healey Willan's Deirdre, which was premiered on Canadian radio in 1946 and has since been performed on stage. Deirdre continues to receive musical treatment. In 1998 the London Symphony Orchestra released a CD of Patrick Cassidy's instrumental work Deirdre of the Sorrows. This is unlikely to be Deirdre's last embodiment; she shows all the signs of vigorous life.
Yet, Deirdre never lived. Instead, her imagined biography has fascinated Irish audiences in different languages and different media for over a millennium. Her changing role offers insights into the profound social and linguistic developments that have shaped the island. Noísiu and Conchobar, Arddán and Aindle, are the names of a vanished Ireland. Deirdre of the Sorrows has outlasted them all.