The Fate of the Sons of Usnech

or, The Sorrow of Deirdre

the Book of Leinster version, ca. 1150 CE
Translated by Cross and Slover

In the house of Feidlimid, the son of Dall, even he who was the narrator of stories to Conchobar the king, the men of Ulster sat at their ale; and before the men, in order to attend upon them, stood the wife of Feidlimid, and she was great with child. Round about the board went drinking-horns, and portions of food; and the revellers shouted in their drunken mirth. And when the men desired to lay themselves down to sleep, the woman also went to her couch; and, as she passed through the midst of the house, the child cried out in her womb, so that its shriek was heard throughout the whole house, and throughout the outer court that lay about it. And upon that shriek, all the men sprang up; and, head closely packed by head, they thronged together in the house, whereupon Sencha, the son of Ailill, rebuked them: "Let none of you stir!" cried he, "and let the woman be brought before us, that we may learn what is the meaning of that cry." Then they brought the woman before them, and thus spoke to her Feidlimid, her spouse:

What is that, of all cries far the fiercest,
In thy womb raging loudly and long?
Through all ears with that clamour thou piercest;
With that scream, from Bides swollen and strong:
Of great woe, for that cry, is foreboding my heart;
That is torn through with terror, and sore with the smart.

Then the woman turned her, and she approached Cathbad the Druid, for he was a man of knowledge, and thus she spoke to him:

Give thou ear to me, Cathbad, thou fair one of face,
Thou great crown of our honour, and royal in race;
Let the man so exalted still higher be set,
Let the Druid draw knowledge, that Druids can get.
For I want words of wisdom, and none can I fetch;
Nor to Felim a torch of sure knowledge can stretch:
As no wit of a woman can wot what she bears,
I know naught of that cry from within me that tears.

And then said Cathbad:

'Tis a maid who screamed wildly so lately,
Fair and curling shall locks round her flow,
And her eyes be blue-centred and stately;
And her cheeks, like the foxglove, shall glow.
For the tint of her skin, we commend her,
In its whiteness, like snow newly shed;
And her teeth are all faultless in splendour
And her lips, like to coral, are red:
A fair woman is she, for whom heroes,
that fight In their chariots for Ulster, to death shall be dight.

'Tis a woman that shriek who hath given,
Golden-haired, with long tresses, and tall;
For whose love many chiefs shall have striven,
And great kings for her favours shall call.
To the west she shall hasten, beguiling
A great host, that from Ulster shall steal:
Red as coral, her lips shall be smiling,
As her teeth, white as pearls, they reveal:
Aye, that woman is fair, and great queens shall be fain
Of her form, that is faultless, unflawed by a stain.

Then Cathbad laid his hand upon the body of the woman; and the little child moved beneath his hand: "Aye, indeed," he said, "it is a woman child who is here: Deirdre shall be her name, and evil woe shall be upon her."

Now some days after that came the girl child into the world; and then thus sang Cathbad:

O Deirdre! of ruin great cause thou art;
Though famous, and fair, and pale:
Ere that Félim's hid daughter from life shall part,
All Ulster her deeds shall wail.

Aye, mischief shall come, in the after-time,
Thou fair shining maid, for thee;
Hear ye this: Usnech's sons, the three chiefs sublime,
To banishment forced shall be.

While thou art in life, shall a fierce wild deed
In Emain, though late, be done:
Later yet, it shall mourn it refused to heed
The guard of Róg's powerful son.

O lady of worth! It is to thee we owe
That Fergus to exile flies;
That a son of king Conchobar we hail in woe,
When Fiachna is hurt, and dies.

O lady of worth! It is all thine the guilt!
Gerrc, Illadan's son, is slain;
And when Eogan mac Doorha's great life is spilt,
Not less shall be found our pain.

Grim deed shalt thou do, and in wrath shalt rave
Against glorious Ulster's king:
In that spot shall men dig thee thy tiny grave;
Of Deirdre they long shall sing.

"Let that maiden be slain!" cried out the young men of Ulster; but "Not so!" said Conchobar; "she shall in the morning be brought to me, and shall be reared according to my will, and she shall be my wife, and in my companionship shall she dwell."

The men of Ulster were not so hardy as to turn him from his purpose, and thus it was done. The maiden was reared in a house that belonged to Conchobar, and she grew up to be the fairest maid in all Ireland. She was brought up at a distance from the king's court; so that none of the men of Ulster might see her till the time came when she was to share the royal couch: none of mankind was permitted to enter the house where she was reared, save only her foster-father, and her foster-mother; and in addition to these Lebhorcham, to whom naught could any refuse, for she was a witch.

Now once it chanced upon a certain day in the time of winter that the foster-father of Deirdre had employed himself in skinning a calf upon the snow, in order to prepare a roast for her, and the blood of the calf lay upon the snow, and she saw a black raven who came down to drink it. "Lebhorcham," said Deirdre, "that man only will I love, who hath the three colours that I see here, his hair as black as the raven, his cheeks red like the blood, and his body as white as the snow.

"Dignity and good fortune to thee!" said Lebhorcham; "that man is not far away. Yonder is he in the city which is nigh; and the name of him is Naoise, the son of Usnech." 

"I shall never be in good health again," said Deirdre, "until the time come when I may see him."

It befell that Naoise was upon a certain day alone upon the rampart of the city of Emain, and he sent his warrior-cry with music abroad: well did the musical cry ring out that was raised by the sons of Usnech. Each cow and every beast that heard them, gave of milk two-thirds more than its wont; and each man by whom that cry was heard deemed it to be fully joyous, and a dear pleasure to him. Goodly moreover was the play that these men made with their weapons; if the whole province of Ulster had been assembled together against them in one place, and they three only had been able to set their backs against one another, the men of Ulster would not have borne away victory from those three: so well were they skilled in parry and defence. And they were swift of foot when they hunted the game, and with them it was the custom to chase the quarry to its death.

Now when this Naoise found himself alone on the plain, Deirdre also soon escaped outside her house to him, and she ran past him, and at first he know not who she might be.

"Fair is the young heifer that springs past me!" he cried.

"Well may the young heifers be great," she said, "in a place where none may find a bull."

"Thou hast, as thy bull," said he, "the bull of the whole province of Ulster, even Conchobar the king of Ulster."

"I would choose between you two," she said, "and I would take for myself a younger bull, even such as thou art."

"Not so indeed," said Naoise, "for I fear the prophecy of Cathbad."

"Sayest thou this, as meaning to refuse me?" said she.

"Yes indeed," he said; and she sprang upon him, and she seized him by his two ears. "Two ears of shame and of mockery shalt thou have," she cried, "if thou take me not with thee." 

"Release me, O my wife!" said he.

"That will I."

Then Naoise raised his musical warrior-cry, and the men of Ulster heard it, and each of them one after another sprang up: and the sons of Usnech hurried out in order to hold back their brother.

"What is it," they said, "that thou dost? let it not be by any fault of thine that war is stirred up between us and the men of Ulster."

Then he told them all that had been done; and "There shall evil come on thee from this," said they; "moreover thou shalt lie under the reproach of shame so long as thou dost live; and we will go with her into another land, for there is no king in all Ireland who will refuse us welcome if we come to him."

Then they took counsel together, and that same night they departed, three times fifty warriors, and the same number of women, and dogs, and servants, and Deirdre went with them. And for a long time they wandered about Ireland, in homage to this man or that; and often Conchobar sought to slay them, either by ambuscade or by treachery; from round about Assaroe, near to Ballyshannon in the west, they journeyed, and they turned them back to Benn Etar, in the north-east, which men to-day call the Mountain of Howth. Nevertheless the men of Ulster drove them from the land, and they came to the land of Alba, and in its wildernesses they dwelled. And when the chase of the wild beasts of the mountains failed them, they made foray upon the cattle of the men of Alba, and took them for themselves; and the men of Alba gathered themselves together with intent to destroy them. Then they took shelter with the king of Alba, and the king took them into his following, and they served him in war. And they made for themselves houses of their own in the meadows by the king's burg: it was on account of Deirdre that these houses were made, for they feared that men might see her, and that on her account they might be slain.

Now one day the high-steward of the king went out in the early morning, and he made a cast about Naoise's house, and saw those two sleeping therein, and he hurried back to the king, and awaked him: "We have," said he, "up to this day found no wife for thee of like dignity to thyself. Naoise the son of Usnech hath a wife of worth sufficient for the emperor of the western world! Let Naoise be slain, and let his wife share thy couch."

"Not so!" said the king, "but do thou prepare thyself to go each day to her house, and woo her for me secretly."

Thus was it done; but Deirdre, whatsoever the steward told her, was accustomed straightway to recount it each even to her spouse; and since nothing was obtained from her, the sons of Usnech were sent into dangers, and into wars, and into strifes that thereby they might be overcome. Nevertheless they showed themselves to be stout in every strife, so that no advantage did the king gain from them by such attempts as these.

The men of Alba were gathered together to destroy the sons of Usnech, and this also was told to Deirdre. And she told her news to Naoise: "Depart hence!" said she, "for if ye depart not this night, upon the morrow ye shall he slain!" And they marched away that night, and they betook themselves to an island of the sea.

Now the news of what had passed was brought to the men of Ulster. "'Tis pity, O Conchobar!" said they, "that the sons of Usnech should die in the land of foes, for the sake of an evil woman. It is better that they should come under thy protection, and that the (fated) slaying should be done here, and that they should come into their own land, rather than that they should fall at the hands of foes."

"Let them come to us then," said Conchobar, "and let men go as securities to them." The news was brought to them.

"This is welcome news for us," they said; "we will indeed come, and let Fergus come as our surety, and Dubhtach, and Cormac the son of Conchobar." These then went to them, and they moved them to pass over the sea.

But at the contrivance of Conchobar, Fergus was pressed to join in an ale-feast, while the sons of Usnech were pledged to eat no food in Erin, until they had eaten the food of Conchobar. So Fergus tarried behind with Dubhtach and Cormac; and the sons of Usnech went on, accompanied by Fiacha, Fergus' son; until they came to the meadows around Emain.

Now at that time Eogan the son of Durthacht had come to Emain to make his peace with Conchobar, for they had for a long time been at enmity; and to him, and to the warmen of Conchobar, the charge was given that they should slay the sons of Usnech, in order that they should not come before the king. The sons of Usnech stood upon the level part of. the meadows, and the women sat upon the ramparts of Emain. And Eogan came with his warriors across the meadow, and the son of Fergus took his place by Naoise's side. And Eogan greeted them with a mighty thrust of his spear, and the spear brake Naoise's back in sunder, and passed through it. The son of Fergus made a spring, and he threw both arms around Naoise, and he brought him beneath himself to shelter him, while he threw himself down above him; and it was thus that Naoise was slain, through the body of the son of Fergus. Then there began a murder throughout the meadow, so that none escaped who did not fall by the points of the spears, or the edge of the sword, and Deirdre was brought to Conchobar to be in his power, and her arms were bound behind her back.

Now the sureties who had remained behind, heard what had been done, even Fergus and Dubhtach, and Cormac. And thereon they hastened forward, and they forthwith performed great deeds. Dubhtach slew, with the one thrust of his spear, Mane a son of Conchobar, and Fiachna the son of Feidelm, Conchobar's daughter; and Fergus struck down Traigthren, the son of Traiglethan, and his brother. And Conchobar was wrath at this, and he came to the fight with them; so that upon that day three hundred of the men of Ulster fell And Dubhtach slew the women of Ulster; and, ere the day dawned, Fergus set Emain on fire. Then they went away into exile, and betook them to the land of Connacht to find shelter with Ailill and Mebd, for they knew that that royal pair would give them good entertainment. To the men of Ulster the exiles showed no love: three thousand stout men went with them; and for sixteen years never did they allow cries of lamentation and of fear among the Ulstermen to cease: each night their vengeful forays caused men to quake, and to wail.

Deirdre lived on for a year in the household of Conchobar; and during all that time she smiled no smile of laughter; she satisfied not herself with food or with sleep, and she raised not her head from her knee. And if any one brought before her people of mirth, she used to speak thus:

Though eager troops, and fair to see,
May home return, though these ye wait:
When Usnech's sons came home to me,
They came with more heroic state.

With hazel mead, my Naoise stood:
And near our fire his bath I'd pour;
On Aindle's stately back the wood;
On Ardan's ox, or goodly boar.

Though sweet that goodly mead ye think
That warlike Conchobar drinks in hall,
I oft have known a sweeter drink,
Where leaps in foam the waterfall:

Our board was spread beneath the tree,
And Naoise raised the cooking flame:
More sweet than honey-sauced to me
Was meat, prepared from Naoise's game.

Though well your horns may music blow,
Though sweet each month your pipes may sound,
I fearless say, that well I know
A sweeter strain I oft have found.

Though horns and pipes be sounding clear,
Though Conchobar's mind in these rejoice,
More magic strain, more sweet, more dear
Was Usnech's Children's noble voice.

Like sound of wave, rolled Naoise's bass;
We'd hear him long, so sweet he sang:
And Ardan's voice took middle place;
And clearly Aindle's tenor rang.

Now Naoise lies within his tomb:
A sorry guard his friends supplied;
His kindred poured his cup of doom,
That poisoned cup, by which he died.

Ah! Berthan dear! thy lands are fair;
Thy men are proud, though hills be stern:
Alas! to-day I rise not there
To wait for Usnech's sons' return.

That firm, just mind, so loved, alas!
The dear shy youth, with touch of scorn,
I loved with him through woods to pass,
And girding in the early morn.

When bent on foes, they boded ill,
Those dear gray eyes, that maids adored;
When, spent with toil, his troops lay still,
Through Irish woods his tenor soared.

For this it is, no more I sleep;
No more my nails with pink I stain:
No joy can break the watch I keep;
For Usnech's sons come not again.

For half the night no sleep I find;
No couch can me to rest beguile:
'Mid crowds of thoughts still strays my mind;
I find no time to eat or smile.

In eastern Emain's proud array
No time to joy is left for me;
For gorgeous house, and garments gay,
Nor peace, nor joy, nor rest can be.

And when Conchobar sought to soothe her; thus Deirdre would answer him:

Ah Conchobar! what of thee! I naught can do!
Lament and sorrow on my life have passed:
The ill you fashioned lives my whole life through;
A little time your love for me would last.

The man to me most fair beneath the sky,
The man I loved, in death away you tore:
The crime you did was great; for, till I die,
That face I loved I never shall see more.

That he is gone is all my sorrow still;
Before me looms the shape of Usnech's son;
Though o'er his body white is yon dark hill,
There's much I'd lavish, if but him I won.

I see his cheeks, with meadow's blush they glow;
Black as a beetle, runs his eyebrows' line;
His lips are red; and, white as noble snow
I see his teeth, like pearls they seem to shine.

Well have I known the splendid garb he bears,
Oft among Alba's warriors seen of old:
A crimson mantle, such as courtier wears,
And edged with border wrought of ruddy gold.

Of silk his tunic; great its costly price;
For full one hundred pearls thereon are sewn;
Stitched with findruine, bright with strange device,
Full fifty ounces weighed those threads alone.

Gold-hilted in his hand I see his sword;
Two spears he holds, with spear-heads grim and green;
Around his shield the yellow gold is poured,
And in its midst a silver boss is seen.

Fair Fergus ruin on us all hath brought!
We crossed the ocean, and to him gave heed:
His honour by a cup of ale was bought;
From him hath passed the fame of each high deed.

If Ulster on this plain were gathered here
Before king Conchobar; and those troops he'd give,
I'd lose them all, nor think the bargain dear,
If I with Naoise, Usnech's son, could live.

Break not, O king, my heart to-day in me;
For soon, though young, I come my grave unto:
My grief is stronger than the strength of sea;
Thou, Conchobar, knowest well my word is true.

"Whom dost thou hate the most," said Conchobar, "of these whom thou now seest?"

"Thee thyself," she answered, "and with thee Eogan the son of Durthacht."

"Then," said Conchobar, "thou shalt dwell with Eogan for a year;" and he gave Deirdre over into Eogan's hand.

Now upon the morrow they went away over the festal plain of Macha, and Deirdre sat behind Eogan in the chariot; and the two who were with her were the two men whom she would never willingly have seen together upon the earth, and as she looked upon them, "Ha, Deirdre," said Conchobar, "it is the same glance that a ewe gives when between two rams that thou sharest now between me and Eogan!" Now there was a great rock of stone in front of them, and Deirdre struck her head upon that stone, and she shattered her head, and so she died.

This then is the tale of the exile of the sons of Usnech, and of the Exile of Fergus, and of the death of Deirdre.

And this is one of the Three Sorrows of Storytelling.

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