Deirdre Summary (James Stephens)

James Stephens


(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

The king of Ulster has a daughter called Assa, the Gentle. She loves knowledge and has many tutors. One day, returning from a visit to her father and finding her tutors killed, she buckles on her armor and sets out to find the murderer. Henceforth her name is Nessa, the Ungentle. While she is bathing in the forest, Cathfa, the magician, sees and loves her. He offers to spare her life only if she will marry him. Their son is Conachúr mac Nessa. After a while, Nessa leaves Cathfa, taking her son with her.

When Conachúr is sixteen years old, Nessa is still the most beautiful woman in the land. Fergus mac Roy, the new king of Ulster, is only eighteen years old, but he falls in love with Nessa as soon as he sees her. She promises to marry him only if Conachúr can be king for a year while she and Fergus live away from court. Fergus agrees, but after the year is up, Conachúr keeps the throne, and Fergus becomes one of his most trusted followers.

Nessa arranges a marriage between Conachúr and Clothru, daughter of the high king of Connacht. On a visit to her father, Clothru is killed by her sister Maeve. Conachúr’s first son is born just before she dies. Bent on vengeance, Conachúr goes to Connacht. There he sees Maeve and, changing his mind, he marries her against her wishes. When she goes to Ulster with him, she takes along great riches and also a guard of one thousand men.

During one of his journeys at a time when Maeve refuses to accompany him, he stops at the house of Felimid mac Dall, his storyteller. That night, Conachúr sends a servant to say that Felimid’s wife should sleep with him. The servant returns to say that Felimid’s wife cannot accommodate him as she is expecting a child. Soon the men hear the wail of the newborn infant. Conachúr asks his father to interpret the wail and other evil omens that the men saw recently. Cathfa prophesies that the child then born, a girl, will be called The Troubler and that she will bring evil and destruction in Ulster. When one of his followers suggests that Conachúr have the child killed immediately, he sends for the infant; but he decides it is not becoming for a prince to evade fate, and he lets the child live. Deirdre is her name.

Conachúr has Deirdre brought up at Emania by Lavarcham, his conversation-woman, who lets the girl see no one but women servants and a guard of the oldest and ugliest swordsmen in Ulster. Lavarcham can adapt herself to any situation or group of people; while acting as a spy for Conachúr, she also learns everything that has to be taught to Deirdre to prepare her for the place Lavarcham decides she should have in the kingdom.

Lavarcham reports regularly to Conachúr so that, while he never sees Deirdre, the king knows how she progresses month by month. He refuses to believe Lavarcham’s glowing reports; besides, at that time, he is well satisfied with Maeve. On the other hand, Lavarcham reports at length to Deirdre about Conachúr until the child knows all his whims, his boldness, and his majesty.


(The entire section is 1250 words.)