Once upon a time Conor son of Fachtna, and the nobles of the Red Branch, went to a feast to the house of Feidhlim the son of Doll, the king's principal storyteller, and the king and people were merry and lighthearted, eating that feast in the house of the principal storyteller, with gentle music of the musicians, and with the melody of the voices of the bards and the ollavs, with the delight of the eloquence and ancient tales of the sages, and of those who read the keenes (?) written on flags and books; listening to the prognostications of the druids and of those who numbered the moon and stars. And at the time when the assembly were merry and pleasant one-with-another, it chanced that Feidhlim's wife bore a beautiful well-shaped daughter, during the feast. Up rises expeditiously the gentle Cathfaidh, the head-druid of Erin, who chanced to be present in the assembly at that time, and a bundle of his ancient (?) fairy books in his left hand with him, and out he goes on the horder of the rath and falls to minutely observing and closely scrutinizing the clouds of the air, the position of the stars, and the age of the moon, to get a prognostication and a knowledge of the fate that was in store for the child who was there born. Cathfaidh then returns quickly to all, in presence of the king, and told them an omen and a prophecy, that many hurts and losses should come to the province of Ulster on account of the girl that was there born.
On the nobles of Ulster receiving this prophecy, they resolved all the plan of destroying the infant, and the heroes of the Red Branch bade slay her without delay.
Let it not be so done, says the king, it is not laudable to fight against fate, and woe to him who would destroy an innocent infant, for agreeable is the appearance and laugh of the child; alas! it were a pity to quench her life. Observe, O ye nobles of Ulster, and listen to me, O ye valiant heroes of the Red Branch, and understand that I still submit to the omens of the prophecies and fore-tellings of the seers, but yet do not submit to, nor do I praise, the committing of a base deed or a deed of treachery, in the hope of quenching the anger of the power of the elements. If it be a fate which it is not possible to avoid, give ye, each one, death to himself; but do
p.145not shed the blood of the innocent infant, for it were not our due to have prosperity thereafter. I proclaim to you, moreover, O ye nobles of Emania, that I take the girl under my own protection from henceforth, and if I and she live and last, it may be that I shall have her as my one wife and gentle consort. Therefore I assure the men of Erin, by the securities of the moon and sun, that anyone who would venture to destroy her, either now or again, shall neither live nor last, if I survive her.
The nobles of Ulster, and everyone in general, listened silent and mute, until Conall Cearnach, Fergus mac Roigh, and the heroes of the Red Branch rose up together, and 't was what they said: O High King of Ulster, right is thy judgment, and it is our due to observe it, and let it be thy will that is done.
As for the girl, Conor took her under his own protection, and placed her in a moat apart, to be brought up by his nurse, whose name was Lavarcam, in a fortress of the Red Branch, and Conor and Cathfaidh the Druid, gave her the name of Déirdre. Afterwards Déirdre was being generously nurtured under Lavarcam, and under other ladies, perfecting her in every science that was fitting for the daughter of a high prince, until she grew up a blossom-bearing sapling, and until her beauty was beyond every degree surpassing. Morever she was nurtured with excessive luxury of food and drink that her stature and ripeness might be the greater for it, and that she might be the sooner marriageable. This is how Déirdre's abode was situated, namely in a fortress of the Branch, according to the king's command, every aperture for light closed in the fort of the dún, and the windows of the back ordered to be open. A beautiful orchard full of fruit lay at the back of the fort, in which Déirdre might be walking for a while under the eye of her tutor, at the beginning and the end of the day; under the shade of the fresh boughs and branches, and by the side of a running meandering stream that was winding softly through the middle of the walled garden. A high, tremendous, difficult wall, not easy to surmount, was surrounding that spacious habitation, and four savage man-hounds sent from Conor were on constant guard there, and his life were in peril for the man who should venture to approach it.
For it was not permitted to any male to come next nor near to Déirdre, nor even to look at her; but only to her tutor whose name was Cailcin and to king Conor himself. Prosperous was Conor's sway, and valiant was the fame i.e. famous was the valour of the Red Branch defending the province of Ulster against foreigners and against every other province in Erin in his time; and there were no three in the household of Emania nor throughout all Banba Ireland more valiant than the sons of Uisneach, nor heroes of higher fame than they, Naoise, Ainle, and Ardan.
As for Déirdre, when she was fourteen years of age she was found marriageable, and Conor designed to take her to his own Royal couch. About this time a sadness and a heavy flood of melancholy lay upon the young queen, without gentle sleep, without sufficient food, without sprightliness as had been her wont.
Until it chanced of a day, while the snow was lying on the ground in the winter, that Cailcin, Déirdre's tutor, went to kill a calf to get ready food for her, and after shedding the blood of the calf out upon the snow, a raven stoops upon it to drink it, and as Déirdre perceives that, and she watching through a window of the fortress, she heaved a heavy sigh so that Cailcin heard her. Wherefore thy melancholy, girl? said he. Alas that I have not yonder thing as I see it, said she. Thou shalt have that if it be possible, said he, drawing his hand dexterously, so that he gave an unerring cast of his knife at the raven, so that he cut one foot off it, and after that he takes the bird and throws it over near Déirdre. The girl started at once, and fell into a faint, until Lavarcam came up to help her. Why art thou as I see thee, dear daughter? said she, for thy countenance is pitiable ever since yesterday. A desire that I chanced to have, said Déirdre. What is that desire? said Lavarcam. Three colours that I saw, said Déirdre, namely the blackness of the raven, the redness of the blood, and the whiteness of the snow. It is easy to get that for thee now, said Lavarcam; she arose and went out without delay; and she gathered the full of a vessel of snow, and half the full of a cup of the calf's blood, and she pulls three feathers out of the wing of the raven, and she laid them down on the table before the girl. Déirdre began as though she were eating
p.149the snow, and lazily tasting the blood with the top of the raven's feather, with her nurse closely scrutinizing her, until Déirdre asked Lavarcam to leave her alone by herself for a while. Lavarcam departs, and again returns, and this is how she found Déirdre shaping a ball of snow in the likeness of a man's head, and mottling it with the top of the raven's feather out of the blood of the calf, and putting the small black plumage as hair upon it, and she never perceived her nurse scanning her until she had finished. Whose likeness is that? said Lavarcam. Déirdre starts, and she said it is a work easily destroyed. That work is a great wonder to me, girl, said Lavarcam, because it was not thy wont to draw pictures of a man, and it was not permitted to the women of Emania to teach thee any similitude but that of Conor only. I saw a face in my dream, said Déirdre, that was of brighter countenance than the king's face or Cailcin's, and it was in it that I saw the three colours that pained me, namely the whiteness of the snow on his skin, the blackness of the raven on his hair, and the redness of the blood upon his countenance, and O woe! my life will not last unless I get my desire. Alas for thy desire, my darling(?), said Lavarcam. My desire, gentle nurse, said Déirdre. Alas! 'tis a pity thy desire, it is difficult to get it, said Lavarcam, for fast and close is the fortress of the Branch, and high and difficult is the enclosure round about, and there is the sharp watch of the fierce man-hounds in it. The hounds are no danger to us, said Déirdre. Where did you behold that face? said Lavarcam. In a dream yesterday, said Déirdre, and she weeping, after hiding her face in her nurse's bosom, and shedding tears plentifully. Rise up from me, dear pupil, said Lavarcam, and restrain thy tears henceforth, till thou eatest food and takest a drink, and after Cailcin's eating his meal we shall talk together about the dream. Her nurse lifts up Déirdre's head, Take courage daughter, said she, and be patient for I am certain that thou shalt get thy desire, for according to human age and life, Conor's time beside thee is not to be long or lasting.
After Lavarcam's departing from her, she Lavarcam perceived a green mantle hung in the front of a closed-up window on the head of a brass club and the point of a spear thrust through the wall of the mansion. Lavarcam puts her
p.151hand to it, so that it readily came away with her, and stones and moss fell down after it, so that the light of day, and the grassy lawn, and the plain of the champions in front of the face of the mansion, and the heroes at their feats-of-activity outside, were visible. I understand now, my pupil, said Lavarcam, that it was here you saw that dream! but Déirdre did not answer her. Her nurse left food and ale on the table before Déirdre, and departed from her without speaking, for the boring-through of the window did not please Lavarcam, for fear of Conor or of Cailcin coming to the knowledge of it. As for Déirdre, she ate not her food, but she quenched her thirst out of a beaker of ale, and she takes with her the flesh of the calf, after covering it under a corner of her mantle, and she went to her tutor, and asks leave of him to go out for a while to walk at the back of the mansion. The day is cold, and there is snow darkening in the air, daughter, said Cailcin, but you can walk for a while under the shelter of the walls of the mansion, but mind the ... house of the hounds. Déirdre went out, and no stop was made by her until she passed down through the middle of the snow to where the den of the man-hounds was, and as soon as the hounds recognized her and the smell of the meat, they did not touch her, and they made no barking till she divided her food amongst them, and she returns into the house afterwards. Thereupon came Lavarcam, and found Déirdre lying on one side of her couch, and she sighing heavily and shedding tears. Her nurse stood silent for a while, observing her, till her heart was softened to compassion, and till her anger departed from her. She stretches out her hand and 't was what she said: Rise up, modest daughter, that we may be talking about the dream, and tell me did you ever see that black hero of the dream before yesterday? said Lavarcam. White hero, gentle nurse, hero of the pleasant crimson cheeks, said Déirdre. Tell me without falsehood, said Lavarcam, did you ever see that warrior before yesterday, or before you bored through the window-work with the head of a spear and with a brass club, and till you looked out through it on the warriors of the Branch when they were at their feats-of-activity, on the Champions' plain, and till you saw all the dream you spoke of. Déirdre hides her face in her nurses bosom, weeping, till she said: O gentle mother and nurturer of my heart, do not
p.153tell that to my tutor, and I shall not conceal from thee that I saw him on the lawn of Emania playing games with the boys, and leaming feats of valour, and och! he had the beautiful countenance that time, and very lovely was it yesterday. Daughter, said Lavarcam, you did not see the boys on the green of Emania from the time you were seven years of age, and that is seven years ago. Seven bitter years, said Déirdre, since I beheld the delight of the Green, and the playing of the boys, and surely moreover Naoise surpassed all the youths of Emania. Naoise the son of Uisneach? said Lavarcam. Naoise is his name, as he told me, said Déirdre, but I did not ask whose son he was. As he told you! said Lavarcam. As he told me, said Déirdre, when he made a throw of a ball, by a mis-cast, backwards, transversely over the heads of the band-of-maidens that were standing on the edge of the Green, and I rose from amongst them all, till I lifted the ball, and I delivered it to him, and he pressed my hand joyously. He pressed your hand, girl! said Lavarcam. He pressed it lovingly, and said that he would see me again, but it was difficult for him, and I did not see him since, until yesterday; and O gentle nurse, if you wish me to be alive take a message to him from me, and tell him to come to visit me and talk with me secretly to night, without the knowledge of Cailcin or any other person. O girl, said Lavarcam, it is a very dangerous mission to gain the quenching of thy desire being in peril from the anger of the king, under the sharp watch of Cailcin, considering the fierceness of the savage man-hounds, and considering the difficulty of scaling the enclosure round about. The hounds are no danger to us, said Déirdre. Then too, said Lavarcam, great is Conor's love for the Children of Uisneach, and there is in the Red Branch no hero more dear to him than Naoise. If he is the son of Uisneach, said Déirdre, I heard the report of him from the women of Emania, and that great are his own territories on the west of Alba, outside of Conor's sway; and gentle nurse go to find Naoise, and you can tell him how I am, and how much greater my love for him is than for Conor. Tell him that yourself, if you can, said Lavarcam, and she went out thereupon to seek Naoise, till he was found, and till he came with her to Déirdre's dwelling in the beginning of the night without Cailcin's knowledge. When Naoise beheld the splendour of the
p.155girl's countenance, he is filled with a flood of love, and Déirdre beseeches him to take her and escape to Alba. But Naoise thought that too difficult an enterprise for fear of Conor, but in the course (?) of the night Déirdre gained the victory over him, so that he consented to her wish, and they determined to depart on the night of the morrow.
Déirdre escaped in the middle of the night without the knowledge of her tutor or her nurse, for Naoise came at that time and his two brothers along with him, so that he bored a gap at the back of the hounds' den, for the dogs were dead already, through poison from Déirdre.
They lifted the girl across the walls, through every rough impediment, so that her mantle and the extremity of her dress were all torn-to-pieces, and he set her upon a steed's back, and no stop was made by them till they reached Sliabh Fuaid and Fionn-charn of the watch, till they came to the harbour and went aboard a ship and were driven by a south wind across the ocean-waters, and over the back-ridges of the deep sea, to Loch n-Eathaigh in the west of Alba, and thrice fifty valiant champions sailed along with them, namely fifty with each of three brothers, Naoise, Ainle and Ardan.
Frenchpark, Co. Roscommon.