Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1250
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.
Maeve, who never forgives Conachúr for marrying her against her will, finally decides to leave him. She is so unforgiving that she refuses to leave behind one thread of her clothes or one bit of her riches. Since some of the riches include great herds of cattle, flocks of sheep, heaps of silver and jewelry, and pieces of furniture, she makes careful plans to get everything away when Conachúr is not looking. She trusts no one entirely, but she has a spy, mac Roth, who is even more diligent than Conachúr’s Lavarcham. He discovers that Conachúr is to take a trip to Leinster; he even follows Conachúr’s company for two full days until he feels the group is far enough away to be unable to get back in time; then he returns to help Maeve in her flight. Only Lavarcham guesses that something might happen, but her messengers do not reach Conachúr before Maeve flees.
Conachúr grieves for Maeve, but he is unable to bring her back to Ulster. In the meantime, Lavarcham begins to brood about the matter. The whole kingdom wants the king to remarry, and Deirdre is sixteen years old. Lavarcham persuades the king to come to see Deirdre.
Although Lavarcham teaches Deirdre all that she needs to know about Conachúr, she does not realize that the child thinks of the king as ancient and fears him a little. Nor does Lavarcham know that Deirdre, longing for people of her own age, learns how to escape the guards around Emania.
Deirdre is first tempted to go beyond the walls by a campfire that she wants to investigate. Around it she sees three boys: Naoise, who is nineteen, Ainnle, who is seventeen, and Ardan, who is fourteen. They are the sons of Uisneac, who married Conachúr’s sister. Deirdre startles them when she first appears in the light of the fire, but they all laugh and tell so many good stories that she knows she will go back again. The younger boys insist that Naoise will soon be the champion of Ulster, and Deirdre does not doubt it.
When Conachúr goes to see Deirdre, he finds her the most beautiful girl in Ulster, and he intends to marry her immediately. Lavarcham, however, makes him wait a week, after which he will have a three-month feast. In love with Naoise, Deirdre is horrified at the idea of marrying a man who is so old and huge, but several nights pass before she can make her way to the campfire again. At her pleading, the brothers take her out of the country.
Six years later, Conachúr decides that Deirdre and the sons of Uisneac should be brought back from Scotland, their place of refuge, but the boys will not return except under the protection of one of Conachúr’s trusted men. Fergus and his sons are sent to Scotland with assurances of safety. Deirdre has a dream and begs Naoise not to leave, but he declares that Fergus is honorable.
When the travelers reach the coast of Ulster, Fergus is detained by one of Conachúr’s men, and Fergus’s sons take Deirdre and the sons of Uisneac under their protection. Arriving at Conachúr’s court at night, they are lodged in the fortress called the Red Branch. Then Deirdre knows there will be trouble, because Conachúr does not receive them under his own roof.
Conachúr sends his men to batter down the doors and to bring Deirdre to him. The sons of Uisneac and Fergus make quick sallies, dashing out one door and in another, and kill so many of Conachúr’s warriors that at last the king orders the fortress to be set on fire. As Deirdre and the boys flee, Conachúr asks Cathfa to stop them. Cathfa casts a spell that makes the boys drop their arms, and they are captured. Conachúr has the sons of Fergus and Uisneac killed. When Deirdre kneels over Naoise’s dead body, she sips his blood and falls lifeless.
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