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Literature / The Exile of the Sons of Uisnech

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Deirdre's Lament by J.H. Bacon

The Exile of the Sons of Uisliú, or Deirdre and Naoise, is a story of the Ulster Cycle of Irish mythology, written down in the Middle Ages but set in the Celtic pagan Iron Age. King Conchobar of Ulster locks Deirdre away in a tower from birth, due to a prophecy that she would be incredibly beautiful and men would fight over her. Deirdre is the daughter of Conchobar's poet, but she grows up with foster parents and out of sight of all boys, so she doesn't fall for anyone else before Conchobar marries her. But, well, a pretty warrior-singer called Naoise ruins all that, and Deirdre persuades him to elope with her, incurring the wrath of Conchobar. Naoise's loyal brothers, Ardan and Ainnle, come along for the ride and they all end up in Scotland, where they live simply and happily for a while... Until Conchobar pretends all is forgiven and invites them home, precipitating a brutal, tragic ending. And the outraged exile of Fergus Mac Róich, which will be important later...


  • Abduction Is Love: Deirdre literally pounces on Naoise and says he'll be cursed or at least dishonoured if he doesn't run away with her. He seems to be okay with it eventually.
  • Babies Ever After: Inverted somewhat; in some versions of the story, Deirdre and Naoise have a son, Gaiar, and a daughter, Aebgreine, but their happy family life is interrupted by Conchobar's false promises of forgiveness.
  • Beauty Is Never Tarnished:
    • After Deirdre and Naoise and Naoise's brothers are returned to Emain Macha (Conchobhar's fort), Conchobhar is eager to know whether Deirdre is still worth pursuing and sends Leabharcham to find this out. When Leabharcham returns to tell him that a hard life in Scotland has prematurely aged and disfigured Deirdre (she is trying to protect Deirdre), Conchobhar is still suspicious and sends a spy instead. Deirdre sees the spy and Naoise puts his eye out, but not before the spy has seen her; half-blinded, he reports back to Conchobhar that Deirdre is so fair that blindness would be worth it. This is what makes Conchobhar order the death of Naoise and his brothers.
    • Averted with Conchobhar himself; he was a handsome, golden-haired warrior in his youth, but time has apparently not been kind to his appearance by the time Deirdre is of marriageable age, especially if he is at least 20 when Deirdre is born. He sees an exceptional beauty, she sees a wrinkled old man.
  • Big Bad: King Conchobhar of Ulster.
  • Big "NO!": Deirdre when she sees Naoise killed and finds herself hostage to Conchobhar.
  • Blessed with Suck: Deirdre.
  • Cassandra Truth:
    • Deirdre has the Second Sight; when Conchobhar sends Lord Fergus Mac Róich and Fergus' two sons with the false promise of forgiveness (Fergus and his sons themselves don't know that it's a trick), Naoise and his brothers are happy to believe it, but Deirdre can see right through this deception; she desperately warns them over and over even when they're back in Ulster, but Naoise and his homesick brothers feel duty-bound to return.
    • Cathbad the druid also applies here; Conchobhar wanted to be "humane" rather than kill Deirdre at birth, as his warriors demanded when they heard the druid's prophesy. Conchobhar's own selfish desires (in that he wanted to marry Deirdre when she came of age and thus "mitigate any contention") ultimately helped the prophesy come to pass. Cathbad himself curses Conchobhar so that his lineage may never again rule Ulster.
  • Damsel in Distress: Deirdre, although averted in that Deirdre is anything but helpless or shy and, despite the trouble that she faces, she remains determined to live her life.
  • Death Wail: Deirdre shrieks in horrified anguish as she is made to see Naoise and his brothers massacred.
  • Driven to Suicide: Deirdre; after her warning to Naoise and his brothers falls on deaf ears, the three men are slaughtered by their former comrades, Deirdre herself becomes Conchobhar's prisoner (but he always gets her icy rejection), and after a while he becomes fed up and tells her that he has decided to share her with Naoise's killer. Deirdre has had enough and ends up killing herself on the way there.
  • The Dulcinea Effect: Due to the aforementioned honor situation, Naoise and his brothers have to fight for Deirdre straight away.
  • Happily Married: Deirdre and Naoise seem to have the most loving relationship in all of Irish mythology, in spite of its strange beginning.
  • Harp of Femininity: Inverted; Naoise is a talented harper and singer in addition to Conchobhar's best warrior and hunter. Ancient Gaelic warriors were required to be proficient with the harp, poetry, and ficheall (a type of board game resembling chess) if they wanted to become great heroes.
  • I Have You Now, My Pretty: Played with
  • It's Personal: With Naoise killed by Eoghan Mac Durthachd during the massacre ordered by Conchobhar on the sons of Uisneach, Deirdre becomes Conchobhar's captive. Unsurprisingly, considering that he has tried to possess her from a very early age, made her flee her home to avoid marrying him, has Naoise (her de facto husband, in some stories also the father of her children) and Ardan and Ainnle (her de facto brothers-in-law) murdered, and then holds her hostage, she angrily rejects his attempts at courting her and for a year and a day all she does is weep for her dead loved ones. At the end of said year and a day, Conchobhar is frustrated by her continuing hostility toward him and asks, "What is it you hate most in the world?" She answers, "I hate you and that beast Eoghan who killed my love." Conchobhar is enraged but then taunts her by telling her that he'll share her with Eoghan.
  • Last Disrespects: Conchobhar is apoplectic when he sees that the young couple is united in death and orders his men to open the grave and drive stakes between the bodies of Deirdre and Naoise. Cathbad, who has already cursed Conchobhar's lineage, snaps at him: "Stop your senseless persecution of the dead!"
  • Love at First Note: Rare gender inversion; Deirdre first hears Naoise when he is singing with his harp on a beautiful springtime day and follows it to him. The rest is history.
  • Love at First Sight: Deirdre, on watching her foster father slaughter a calf in the middle of winter and watching a raven land and eat the newly bloody snow, begins having visions of a stunningly handsome, fearless young man with raven-black hair, snow-white skin, and blood-red cheeks. This description matches Naoise.
  • Mama Bear: Leabharcham (LEV-ar-kham), Deirdre's nurse and teacher. She is reluctant to allow Deirdre to even meet Naoise when she recognizes the young warrior's description from Deirdre's vision, knowing that Conchobhar would be furious, but in some versions of the tale she is complicit in bringing the young couple together. And, when Deirdre, Naoise, and Naoise's brothers have been fetched from Scotland, Conchobhar orders Leabharcham to report Deirdre's beauty to him; trying to protect her adoptive daughter, Leabharcham reports that Deirdre is prematurely aged and disfigured. Unfortunately, her efforts are in vain.
  • May–December Romance: One-sided, in that Conchobhar is infatuated with Deirdre, a much younger woman, while for Deirdre herself the feeling is anything but mutual since Conchobhar is old enough to be her father. The legal marriageable age in Ireland was 15 years for women and 18 years for men until 1607; Conchobhar apparently already had children by several wives and concubines when Deirdre was born, Deirdre has supposedly just reached marriageable age when she meets Naoise in person.
  • Men Are Strong, Women Are Pretty: Inverted somewhat, in that Deirdre is beautiful but she is also daring enough to meet Naoise and courageous and determined enough to live her life in the face of trouble while Naoise, a fearless champion of battle, is also described as beautiful and is also an talanted harper and singer.
  • Murder the Hypotenuse: Conchobhar orders Naoise killed so he can take Deirdre for himself.
  • The Mutiny: Furious at finding that Conchobhar’s promise of clemency was all a lie, Fergus leads his troops in a mutiny on Conchobhar and his army, killing Conchobhar's son and many other warriors.
  • Not Good with Rejection: King Conchobhar.
  • One-Woman Wail: Deirdre, several times in the story: she shrieks before her birth, again at Naoise's murder, and just before she commits suicide.
  • Pregnant Badass: In some versions of the story, Deirdre and Naoise have a son, Gaiar, and a daughter, Aebgreine, while on the lam in the wilderness of Scotland; presumably for their children's protection as well as for their education, Manannan Mac Lir, God of the sea, fosters them.
  • Prophecies Are Always Right: Everything that Cathbad foretold to King Conchobhar and his court came to pass, despite Conchobhar's self-serving attempts to avert disaster. Conchobhar himself flagrantly dismisses of the demand of his own warriors to have the infant Deirdre killed at birth and therefore totally avert the prophecy, all because he is intrigued by the descriptions of her future beauty in the prophecy. Unsurprisingly, none of his plans went like he thought they would.
  • Raven Hair, Ivory Skin: Naoise; Deirdre falls in love with a handsome young warrior (Naoise) with raven hair, snow-white skin, and blood-red cheeks.
  • Rejection Affection: Since Conchobhar has killed Deirdre's de facto husband and brothers-in-law and holds her hostage, she is hostile to all of his efforts to court her. Given his fine singing voice, he even tries serenading her and she complains about the "horrible noise".
  • Rule of Three: Naoise and his brothers, Ardán and Ainnle, are the finest warriors of Ulster and all Ireland; the prophesy says that “Ulster’s finest warriors will be forced into exile and die” on Deirdre’s account.
  • Screw This, I'm Outta Here: Deirdre; after just over a year in King Conchobhar’s captivity after Naoise’s execution, Conchobhar is furious with her continuing coldness toward him and decides to share her with Naoise’s executioner. On the ride there, Deirdre sees an overhanging rock and sticks her head out of the speeding chariot, dashing her head against the rock.
  • So Beautiful, It's a Curse: Cathbad’s prophesy about the newborn Deirdre fits this perfectly; Deirdre will grow up to be so beautiful that “kings and lords will go to war over her, much blood will be spilled on her account, Ulster’s three finest warriors (who later turn out to be Naoise and his brothers) will be forced into exile and die for her sake, and the kingdom of Ulster will collapse.”
  • Squick:
    • When Conchobhar taunts Deirdre that he and Eoghan mac Durthachd (who killed Naoise in the massacre) will share her, he says: "You look like a ewe caught between two rams".
    • Conchobhar already has several children by several wives and concubines when Deirdre is born, thus making him at least 20 years older than her. As she reaches marriageable age, he is smitten with her while she only sees a wrinkled old man.
  • Tarnishing Their Own Beauty: Leabharcham's report about Deirdre to Conchobhar; to protect Deirdre, Leabharcham reports that Deirdre is aged and ugly from a harsh life on the run, concluding that "she is nothing special to behold anymore", hoping that this will assuage the king's wounded pride and protect the young couple. Unfortunately, Conchobhar is not convinced and sends a spy.
  • Together in Death: Those loyal to Naoise and his brothers lay Deirdre to rest in the same grave as her de-facto husband and brothers-in-law. Miraculously, two yew trees grow over the grave and twine around each other into an arch.
  • Uriah Gambit:
    • Conchobhar orders Naoise killed so he can steal Deirdre.
    • When Deirdre and the sons of Uisneach first take refuge in Scotland, a local king decides to put Naoise and his brothers on the front line in battle (and in increasingly dangerous situations) so that he can take Deirdre for himself. Naoise and his brothers are victorious each time, but Deirdre can tell what he is trying to do and warns them. The four of them flee in a hurry.
  • Warrior Poet: Naoise is Conchobhar's finest warrior and hunter and he is also a talented singer and harper. Among the ancient Gaels, poetry and the harp were often required to become great warriors.
  • We Used to Be Friends: After massacring many of Conchobhar’s troops in retaliation for his betrayal, Fergus and his troops flee southwest to Connacht and ally themselves with Queen Maeve and King Ailill, and from there Fergus leads Maeve's armies to battle against Conchobhar. Maeve, who is Conchobhar's estranged ex-wife, is only too happy to oblige.
  • What Beautiful Eyes!: When Deirdre and Naoise meet and she looks into his eyes for the first time, she is just as mesmerized by his blue eyes as he is mesmerized by her greyish-green eyes.
  • World's Most Beautiful Woman: Deirdre is at least the fairest in all Ireland, if not the world. In accordance to the prophesy, Deirdre is tall and elegant, with "twistednote  reddish-goldennote  tresses, mesmerizing grey-green eyes, and cheeks flushed like foxglove".
  • You Said You Would Let Them Go: Fergus mac Róich to Conchobhar. Conchobhar had promised to Fergus and Fergus' two sons that he would leave Deirdre and the sons of Uisneach alone when they had returned the fugitives to Ulster; after waylaying Fergus, Conchobhar has Deirdre dragged to his side and he orders his warriors to massacre Naoise and his brothers. Naoise and his brothers and Fergus' son, Illian, fight valiantly while Fergus' son Buinne is bribed in mid-battle. Fergus and his troops arrive minutes too late to stop the massacre. When he sees the sons of Uisneach dead, one of his sons dead, his surviving son disgraced, and Deirdre traumatized, Fergus goes berserk.

Alternative Title(s): Deirdre Of The Sorrows