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
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
"There is such a one," said Lavarcam, "he is Naisi the son of
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
"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.
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."
Ancient Gaelic writing, Douglas Hyde
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
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
 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.