A thousand years of Star-Eyed Deirdre

In this post, Kate Mathis explores the significant achievement of Louey Chisholm’s *Celtic Tales Told To the Children(1910) —    a portrait of Deirdre which preserves some of the intricacy, danger, and violence of a thousand-year-old Gaelic tale…

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Sarah’s recent post on Ella Young (1867-1956) introduced us to her best-known, beautifully-illustrated work, Celtic Wonder Tales, published in 1910 in collaboration with Maud Gonne. The copy belonging to the Museum of Childhood, owned formerly by our elusive reader, Dora Rose, contains two of the loosely-linked group of tales known to scholars of medieval Gaelic literature as ‘The Three Sorrows of Storytelling’, whose origins extend at least as far back as the fifteenth century. Ella included ‘The Children of Lir’ as well as ‘The Eric-Fine of Lugh’ (a simplified version of Oidheadh Chloinne Tuireann, ‘The violent death of Tuireann’s children’, in which three brothers attempt, unsuccessfully, to placate the king of the Tuatha De Danann), but she omitted the other, which is of even greater antiquity and by far the most famous of the three.

Often referred to, erroneously, as ‘the story of Deirdre’, it is more than a thousand years old, composed in Ireland during the eighth or ninth centuries, written down in the twelfth (as Longes mac n-Uislenn, ‘The exile of Uisliu’s sons’), and a regular source of inspiration to historians of the Gaels like Seathrún Céitinn (ca. 1569-ca. 1644) as well as to their poets and seanchaidhean (tradition-bearers). The prominence of Deirdre, by no means the tale’s original focus, was developed most notably during the Celtic Revival (ca. 1880-ca. 1920), when the various tragedies of her short-lived life were explored, by both Scottish and Irish writers, in nearly thirty plays, novellas, and epic poems. One of these authors, ‘Fiona Macleod’ (alter-ego of Paisley-born critic and travel-writer William Sharp), exclaimed approvingly that “the name of Deirdre has been as a lamp to a thousand poets”.

Sketch for Deirdire by John Duncan (c.1905)

Its popularity amongst Revivalist writers as the greatest of Gaelic romances sits uneasily beside the narrative of its earliest-known version, Longes mac n-Uislenn, set at the court of Conchobor, king of Ulster, who imprisons a new-born baby girl in hopes of thwarting a prophecy that she will bring death and destruction on his kingdom; her tremendous beauty, also foretold, tempts him to keep her secluded from all other men until her adolescence, but a trouble-making poet flouts his authority and introduces the girl – whose name, Derdrethar or Deirdriu, means ‘disruption’ – to three brothers, Noísiu, Ainnle and Ardán, whom she accompanies to Scotland. A briefly peaceful interlude is shattered when the exiles are betrayed, returning to Ireland only to meet their deaths; Deirdriu, forced to submit to the king’s desire but refusing to speak to him in between, grieves a year for the brothers, killing herself accidentally while attempting to escape. A similar tale was known in Scotland, where a fifteenth-century version held by the National Library sets their bucolic home-in-exile firmly in Argyll, but their lives overall remain short and innately violent – still later versions vary the brothers’ deaths to include freezing, burning, and collective beheading, and the manner of Deirdriu’s mourning to include drinking their blood and throwing herself in their grave, dying immediately.

A Deirdre for children?    We might anticipate, therefore, that most children’s authors would have steered well clear! Yet Ella Young’s omission of the tale from her book seems to have stemmed from personal dislike, and her contemporary Louey Chisholm, whom Sarah’s post also introduced as the author of Celtic Tales Told To The Children (1910), was happy to present ‘The Star-Eyed Deirdre’ with remarkably little alteration.

‘Art thou indeed Deirdre, that Deirdre of whom I have dreamed?’ by Katharine Cameron

“In olden days, when many Kings reigned throughout the Green Island of Erin, none was greater than the great Concobar. So fair was his realm that poets sang its beauty, and such was the wonder of his palace that the sweetest songs of Erin were of its loveliness…”

Chisholm’s tale begins when a convivial feast at the home of Felim, “a warrior and harper dear unto the King”, is spoiled by a prophecy uttered by “an old magician” amongst the King’s party: –

“‘This night, O Felim the Harper, shall a girl-babe be born to thee within these castle walls. Loveliest among the lovely shall thy star-eyed daughter be; no harp-strings shall yield such music as her voice, no fairy strains pour forth such wonder-stirring sound. Yet, O Felim, in days to come, because of this fair child shall great sorrow come upon our King Concobar and upon all his realm. In those days shall Erin’s chief glory perish, for if the House of the Red Branch fall, who shall stand?’” (2)

Although his warriors, Felim amongst them, call for the child to be killed, the King insists that if she lives, but is raised apart, “deep within the forest, beyond the Moor of Loneliness”, he may take her ill-starred fate upon himself and spare the kingdom by making her his wife. The girl is named Deirdre; during her youth, her only companions are a nurse and a story-teller, Lavarcham, so that “it was she who told to Deirdre the old tales of knights and ladies, of dragons and fairies that dwelt in the Enchanted Land” (6). One cold winter’s morning, however, the peace of the secluded house is shattered: –

“Deirdre looked from her window, and saw lying in the snow a calf. It had been killed by her nurse to provide food for the little household, and its bright red blood dyed the thick-lying snow. As Deirdre watched the flow of the scarlet stream, a raven, black as night, flew down and drank of the warm blood. Then Deirdre smiled. ‘Where are thy thoughts, fair child’, asked Lavarcham, entering the room. ‘Only did I think’, said Deirdre, ‘that if a youth could be found whose skin was white as snow, his cheek crimson as that pool of blood, and his hair black as the raven’s wing, him could I love right gladly’. Then Lavarcham spake: ‘Such a man have I seen, and one only’” (7).

Realising her error, when Deirdre spends her days thereafter dreaming only of this man – Nathos, son of Usna, a native of Alba – Lavarcham seeks to trick her by passing-off an ageing swineherd and two shepherds as Nathos and his brothers; unconvinced, Deirdre tells the men to let Nathos know that she is waiting for him to meet her. When he keeps the appointment, they declare their mutual love and decide to flee to his homeland, where his own kinsmen will protect them from the anger of the King once he has learned of Deirdre’s loss. Having set sail, they reach the island of Mull, where a richly-dressed but hooded stranger invites them to stay in his castle – Deirdre, recognizing him from a recent vision as the King of Alba, who wishes to steal her from Nathos and kill the brothers, persuades them to sail north, and they take refuge at his father’s castle, then at his mother’s old home, where her kinsmen swear fealty to Nathos. Learning some time later of the King of Alba’s death, they make peace with his successor and live in harmony for several years.

 

‘Thence ofttimes in the young summer would they sail southward’, by Katharine Cameron

During this time, Concobar broods in Ireland upon his loss of Deirdre. He hosts a splendid feast, feigning forgiveness for the brothers’ defection and urging several warriors in turn to seek them out in Alba; one, Fergus, is selected for the task as he alone vows not to harm the King, even should he break his pledge for the exiles’ safe passage. When they return, despite Deirdre’s suspicions of the King’s goodwill, Fergus leaves the brothers to keep an engagement (arranged in advance to lead him astray), and the party of exiles proceed to the court, where they are housed in the Red Branch fortress and begin to play chess. The game is interrupted twice, by Lavarcham – sent to tell the King whether Deirdre has retained the beauty for which he loved her – and by a warrior whose father was killed by Nathos, who spies upon the house from outside until his presence is noticed: –

“…espying one open window, he put his eye near to the lower corner that he might glance within. And Deirdre saw the man’s eye, and told Nathos, and he, with the ivory bishop that was in his hand, took aim as if with a javelin, and the chessman pierced the spy’s eye, and it became blind” (35).

‘The hedge of spears’, by Katharine Cameron

When the man returns to Concobar and reveals to him the full extent of Deirdre’s loveliness (Lavarcham had lied, hoping to protect her), the men of Ulster set the fortress on fire and the brothers emerge, defending themselves successfully until the King resorts to a spell and surrounds them by enchanted waves. When he demands their deaths, the brothers insist that none of them should be first to die: –

“‘It were not meet that we three, the sons of one mother, should be divided in death [said Nathos]. Together have we sowed the seeds in the springtime, side by side have we plucked the fruits of summer; autumn is still afar, yet we must be cut down as ripe corn. But let us fall each by each, that there may not be left the one to mourn the other. With this sword, that was given me by a hero of the land, may our heads at one stroke be severed from our bodies’” (40).

This is done, and the brothers are buried standing up, each reunited with his head, and Deirdre dies of grief upon the same day and is placed in the same grave. The magician who had prophesied her fate, and the kingdom’s, declares that it has come to pass: –

“And so it was, for on the morrow Concobar’s host was scattered as the autumn leaves, and the House of the Red Branch perished, and ere long Concobar died in a madness of despair, and throughout the Green Isle was mourning and desolation. But through the ages has the tale of the wondrous beauty of Deirdre been sung, and yet shall it be told again, for when shall the world tire of the sorrowfullest of ‘The Three Sorrows of Story-telling’, – the Fate of the Sons of Usna and of Deirdre the Star-Eyed?” (41).

‘[Deirdre] kissed his dead lips’      Chisholm’s conclusion suggests she was familiar with at least some of the tale’s extensive heritage in Gaelic tradition, while her preface to the book expresses her debt to several earlier Deirdres, identifying Alexander Cameron’s Reliquae Celticae (1894) and Douglas Hyde’s Three Sorrows of Story-telling (1895) explicitly (the former, a transcript of the fifteenth-century National Library manuscript, is not translated, implying that Chisholm, or perhaps an acquaintance, could read Gaelic). Her title for the tale is borrowed from Hyde, who begins his own rendition of the fateful prophecy with the line: “I see two shining stars – they are her eyes”, but may also suggest, alongside her choice of ‘Nathos’, an unacknowledged debt to James Macpherson’s poem Darthula (etymologized as “a woman with fine eyes”), published in 1765 and credited, notoriously, to ‘Ossian the son of Fingal’, or Fionn mac Cumhaill.

As noted, very little of her sources’ bloodshed and generally hostile atmosphere have been tampered with by Chisholm, and there are several well-expressed descriptions of lurking peril – the swineherd who takes Deirdre’s message to Nathos is caught and murdered by the king, and the couple are pursued by his spies from their first encounter:

“… as Nathos [spoke] Deirdre saw a strange look in his eyes, and in a moment he had flung his javelin among the bracken but a few paces apart. ‘What beast wouldst thou slay?’ cried Deirdre, affrighted. ‘It was no beast’, said Nathos, ‘but yonder among the bracken lieth a dead man, if my javelin missed not its mark’. In fear and wonder Deirdre ran to the spot. No man lay there, but she saw on the bracken the form of a crouching man, and the tracks that marked his escape…” (15).

Still a witness to the brothers’ deaths, though Deirdre doesn’t actually drink their blood she is not removed further from the graveside, and Chisholm is content to leave the distinctly unsettling implications of her final farewell intact: “Deirdre kneeled, and bent low over the head of Nathos, and kissed his dead lips” (40). Only twice does she alter the existing narrative overtly: when Concobar pledges marriage, not concubinage, and when Nathos introduces Deirdre to his brothers and declares her to be his wife (barely an hour having elapsed since they met!), but this subtle legitimization of both couples’ relationship status is borrowed directly from Douglas Hyde, and is characteristic of Revivalist bowdlerization.  In general terms, Sarah’s post was quite correct to point out that, though far from tamed or adapted beyond recognition, such stories of violence, danger, and betrayal as ‘The Star-eyed Deirdre’ remain “the stuff of fairy tales”, shared with the typical contents of an Andersen or Grimm.

‘because of their sheer beauty’       Yet Chisholm has also rejected the opportunity to address her readers – whom reviewers of the ‘Told to the Children’ series imply to be “very little” indeed – in a voice of grown-up experience, instilling courage, wisdom, or appropriate moral sensibility amidst the gloom and despair. Her preface, in fact, excludes any such possibility firmly: –

“One of my friends tells me that you, little reader, will not like these old, old tales; another says they are too sad for you, and yet another asks what these stories are meant to teach […]. It is true they are sad, but you do not always want to be amused. And I have not told the stories for the sake of anything they may teach, but because of their sheer beauty…” (vii).

William Sharp in 1894, by Frederick Hollyer

Her attitude is all the more remarkable when compared to the vast majority of Revival-era versions of ‘the story of Deirdre’ which were not addressed overtly to a juvenile audience, few of which share Chisholm’s tolerance for the coarser elements of their original.[i] Deirdre and the Sons of Usna (1903) by ‘Fiona Macleod’ (1855-1905) claims almost identical sources to Chisholm’s in the work of Douglas Hyde and Alexander Cameron, and the style of its preface too resembles hers, though addressed to one particular reader, Esther Mona, the daughter of William Sharp’s friend, women’s rights’ activist Mona Caird (1854-1932). Fiona’s Deirdre is described as a semi-divine creature made from “dusk and ivory”, but her hesitant speech and exemplary good manners resemble those of any well-brought-up Victorian daughter. During her first conversation with Naois (Fiona’s chosen spelling) she admits to being ignorant of polite society, asking forgiveness for any immodesty betrayed by speaking to him first. When his head is cut off, she kisses his lips but washes them first, and her own death is not described at all (Fiona refers coyly to ‘a grave made wide enough for two’). Also notable, and in marked contrast to Chisholm’s “very little” audience of readers, is Fiona’s suggestion that certain tales are not appropriate for all age-groups, but should be encountered gradually. Esther, addressed in the preface as “little girl”, is advised that: –

when you grow to maidhood and womanhood, it is a hope of mine that you will love these old legendary tales… Before you read this time-sweet story of great love [i.e. Deirdre’s] you will come to the story of Fionnula and her brothers, because the Tale of the Children of Lir, or the Tale of the Four Swans as it is sometimes called, is first among the beautiful old stories for the delight of those standing in or passing beyond childhood” (v).

Fiona also cites the influence of another Deirdre, whose origins derived from the living tradition of the Scottish Gàidhealtachd (drawn upon earlier by Macpherson). Published in book form in 1905, Deirdire and the Lay of the Children of Uisne was the result of nearly forty years’ interest by eminent folklorist and seanchas-collector Alexander Carmichael (1832-1912), whose version was taken down originally in 1867 from the recitation of John Macneill, an 83-year-old cottar from Barra. The 1905 text included a number of his own additions,[ii] several of which suggest that Carmichael was keen to emphasize that Deirdre was not simply beautiful, but “above comparison of [all] the world’s women” in manners, accomplishments, and dignity. She is presented, like Fiona’s heroine, as the epitome of a demure, well brought-up young lady, who requests that her future husband should provide “merry, mannerly, [and] modest maidens” to instruct her during the year of their engagement, since by her own admission “she had no knowledge of the duties of wife, nor of the manners of maiden, seeing that she never sat in gathering or in company before”. Another, unintentionally humorous alteration to John Macneill’s version was noted by Alan Bruford, towards the close of the story when the brothers are under attack from a magical sea designed to entrap them. Macneill had observed that Naoise “set Deirdire on his shoulders with a leg on either side of his neck” in order to keep her dry, altered by Carmichael to insist, instead, that “Naoise placed [her] on the very summit of his shoulders”, sitting “side-saddle rather than astride”![iii]

Deirdire by John Duncan (1905)

 

The frontispiece for Carmichael’s book was provided by Scottish symbolist artist John Duncan (1866-1945), many of whose best-known works, such as ‘Riders of the Sidhe’ (1911), also depicted subjects derived from medieval Gaelic literature. Duncan made several other sketches of Deirdre (as above), and an entry in one of his notebooks, ca. 1912, suggests that further, larger-scale works on the same theme were planned, but not completed.

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Louey Chisholm’s willingness to preserve the intricacy, danger, and often pointless violence of a thousand-year-old Gaelic tale is laudable, and highlights an intriguing discrepancy between the attitude of a self-styled ‘children’s author’ and that of several contemporary writers, only too keen to ply a much wider audience with their own Revivalist agendas for the (re)presentation of medieval literature (imposing what Murray Pittock has described as the ‘three pillars’, “symbolic beauty, perfection and death”, of late-Victorian Neo-Jacobitism). The complex heritage of ‘Star-Eyed Deirdre’ should not be overlooked, but its inclusion in Chisholm’s book – with such beautiful illustrations by Katharine Cameron – was a delightful surprise for this particular reader (a slightly older ‘child’!), who hopes that Chisholm’s closing wish for her readers came to pass:

“I expect you to enjoy [these tales] as hundreds and hundreds of Irish and Scottish children have already enjoyed them – without knowing or wondering why”.

[i] See Kate L. Mathis, ‘An Irish Poster Girl? Writing Deirdre during the Revival’, in Romantic Ireland from Tone to Gonne: Fresh perspectives on Nineteenth-Century Ireland, eds. Willy Maley, Paddy Lyons, and John Miller (Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2013) pp. 29-46.

[ii] See Tristan ap Rheinallt, ‘Alexander Carmichael, Alan Bruford and Deirdire’, Scottish Gaelic Studies 28 (2011), pp. 227-32.

[iii] Alan Bruford, ‘“Deirdire” and Alexander Carmichael’s treatment of oral sources’, Scottish Gaelic Studies 14/1 (1983), p. 16.

For a list of Revival-era works concerning Deirdre and the Sons of Uisliu, see Tadaaki Miyake (ed.), Deirdrefrom the earliest manuscripts to Yeats and Synge (Okayama-Ken: University Education Press, 1999).

For Alexander Carmichael, see Dòmhnall Uilleam Stiùhart (ed.), The life & legacy of Alexander Carmichael (Port of Ness: Islands Book Trust, 2008), and the ongoing work on the Carmichael-Watson collection in Edinburgh University Library (http://www.carmichaelwatson.lib.ed.ac.uk/cwatson/).

For Ossian, and the genuine Gaelic tradition underlying James Macpherson’s poetry, see Derick S. Thomson, The Gaelic Sources of Macpherson’s Ossian (Edinburgh: Oliver & Boyd, 1952), Fiona Stafford and Howard Gaskill (eds.), From Gaelic to Romantic: Ossianic Translations (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1998), and Dafydd Moore (ed.), The International Companion to James Macpherson and the Poems Of Ossian (Glasgow: Scottish Literature International, 2017).

Image credits (public domain): (1) https://www.wikiart.org/en/john-duncan/deirdre-of-the-sorrows); (2)-(4) https://archive.org/details/celtictalestoldt07488gut); (5) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/William_Sharp_(writer); (6) personal collection.

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About Kate   

Based in Celtic and Scottish Studies at the University of Edinburgh, Kate teaches medieval Welsh and Gaelic language and writes about the reception of Gaelic literature in Early Modern and fin-de-siècle Scotland and Ireland. She is working on a book about the character of Deirdre from her earliest incarnation to the Celtic Revival, and has also published on Gaelic women’s poetry and elegy in the Scottish Gàidhealtachd. The realm of children’s literature is fairly new, but she will happily commend Rosemary Sutcliffe, Susan Cooper’s Arthurian quintet The Dark is Rising, and Alan Garner’s The Owl Service as the most faithful (and eeriest!) uses of Celtic-language medieval literature for a slightly younger audience!

    

 

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