Exile of the Sons of Uisliu

Exile of the Sons of Uisliu
(Story of Deirdre)
(eighth–ninth century)
   Perhaps the best-known of all ancient Irish tales, the Exile of the Sons of Uisliu, or, as it is perhaps more popularly known after its haunting heroine, the Story of Deirdre, is a part of the Ulster Cycle of Irish legends, the cycle concerning the deeds of the great Irish mythical hero CUCHULAIN. Deirdre’s story is one of the “pre-tales” attached to the chief story in the Ulster cycle, the Irish national epic called the TÁIN BÓ CUAILNGE (The Cattle-Raid of Cooley). In the Táin, the kingdoms of Ulster and Connacht go to war over ownership of a miraculous bull. The Exile of the Sons of Uisliu is told, in part, to show why the great Ulster heroes Fergus, Dubthach, and Cormac fight on the side of Connacht in the Táin.
   Conchobar, king of Ulster, is generally presented in a sympathetic manner as the uncle and lord of the great hero Cuchulain. In the Exile of the Sons of Uisliu, however, Conchobar is depicted as a cruel tyrant and an enemy of the lovers who are the tale’s protagonists. The story begins with the birth of Deirdre (Irish Derdriu) in Conchobar’s court. She is daughter of Conchobar’s court storyteller, or scelaige, but a dire prophecy—that she will bring evil—surrounds her birth. Despite the warning, Conchobar raises her in his court and, when she is old enough, takes her to his bed. Deirdre chafes at her position as Conchobar’s concubine, and turns to Noisiu, son of the Ulster warrior Uisliu, to be her deliverer. She accosts him one day while he is tending cattle and, threatening him with shame and mockery, she obtains his oath that he will marry her. The situation is a difficult one for Noisiu: He is bound by blood ties and other obligations to Conchobar as his lord, and the only way to have Deirdre is to elope with her and flee the court. Noisiu’s brothers throw in their lot with the two lovers, and leave Conchobar’s fortress with them.
   After some time the sons of Uisliu sue for peace with Conchobar, and the king gives his word that he will accept them back at his court. He sends three of his greatest retainers, Fergus, Dubthach, and his own son Cormac, as guarantors of the brothers’ safety on their return. But secretly, he plots their destruction. First he makes use of an ancient Irish taboo called a geis against Fergus. It is a peculiar geis of Fergus that he must never refuse an invitation to eat or drink, and so the king causes Fergus to be delayed by a meal while the rest of the travelers, who have sworn not to eat or drink until they arrive at Conchobar’s court, move on. With Fergus out of the way, Conchobar convinces his former retainer, Eogan mac Durthacht, that killing the sons of Uisliu would regain him Conchobar’s friendship. Eogan does so, killing Fergus’s son, along with Noisiu and his brothers. In the battle that follows, Fergus, Dubthach, and Cormac join the fight against Conchobar. Later, of course, they will fight against him in the Táin.
   But the story of Deirdre is not over. Conchobar again takes her captive after Noisiu is slain, and for a year, she mourns her husband and refuses to yield to Conchobar’s attempts to seduce her. But she despises being a captive of the man she hates. In the end as Conchobar and Eogan mac Durthacht are driving her to a fair in a chariot, she kills herself by dashing her head against a block of stone.
   Deirdre has been called the Irish Helen since, like Helen of Troy, she helps bring on the destruction of a kingdom. She has also been compared to Isolde, spurning the king who wants her in favor of one of his retainers. But her tale has also become an archetypal myth of the defiant woman who will not be defined or imprisoned by the tyranny of social convention. Her story of resistance inspired a number of 20th-century retellings, most important William Butler Yeats’s 1906 play Deirdre and John Millington Synge’s Deirdre of the Sorrows, first produced at Ireland’s National Theater, the Abbey, in 1911.
   ■ Dillon, Myles. Early Irish Literature. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1948.
   ■ Gantz, Jeffrey, trans. Early Irish Myths and Sagas. Harmondsworth, U.K.: Penguin, 1981.
   ■ Kinsella, Thomas, trans. The Táin. London: Oxford University Press, 1970.

Encyclopedia of medieval literature. 2013.

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