Saturday, 27 September 2008

Deirdre of the Sorrows

I'm currently teaching the marvellous Old Irish text Longes Mac nUislenn to K. and to a talented German philologist. The story is the oldest version of the Deirdre legend - no, not Deirdre Rashid, but Deirdre the tragic heroine, 'the Irish Helen of Troy'. It's a strange tale, and a viscerally powerful one. The author seems to have eschewed the usual blether that encrusts Old Irish literature - tedious genealogies, digressions, repetition, loose ends, alarming lurches of tone and diction etc. Instead he has adopted a pitiless starkness that means that this brief prose tale can bear comparison with the most tautly-constructed Greek tragedy.

The Ulstermen are feating in the house of Fedlimid, the story-teller of their King, Conchobor mac Nessa. Fedlimid's wife is serving food and drink, though she is heavily pregnant. After the usual mass-drunkeness, everyone gets ready to go to bed. As Fedlimid's wife crosses the floor of the house, the foetus in her womb screams so loudly that everyone leaps up, terrified. Cathbad, the chief-druid and seer of the Ulstermen, places his hand on the woman's belly and prophesies that the child will be called Deirdre ('roiler, rage-resounder, churner'), that she will be preternaturally beautiful, and that she will cause disaster.

Conchobor (idiot) announces that the child will be raised apart, and that when she is grown, she will become his mistress. Deirdre is born, and raised in a secluded place, with entry forbidden to everyone but her fosterfather, fostermother, and Lebarcham. The latter is a ban-chainte, or 'woman satirist', a troublemaker who can't be kept out. In Early Ireland, the power of satire was much-feared. Then -

Fecht n-and didiu baí a haite na ingine oc fennad loíg fhothlai for snechtu i-mmaig issin gaimriuth dia funi di-ssi. Co-n-acca-si ní, in fíach oc ól inna fola forsin t-shnechtu. Is and asbert-si fri Lebarchaim:
“Ro-pad inmain oen-fher forsa-mbetis na tri dath ucut .i. in folt amal in fíach ocus in grúad amal in fuil ocus in corp amal in snechta.”
“Orddan ocus tocad duit!” ar in Lebarcham, “ Ni cían úait. Atá is’taig it arrad .i. Noísi mac Usnig.”
“Ni-pam slán-sa ám,” ol-si, “conid n-accur-saide.”

Once upon a time, then, the girl’s foster-father was skinning a weaned calf in the snow upon the plain in winter to cook it for her. And she saw something – the raven drinking the blood upon the snow. And then she said to Lebarcham: “Beloved would be the one man upon whom were those three colours: hair like raven, a cheek like the blood, and a body like the snow.”
“Dignity and good luck to you!” said Lebarcham. “He is not far from you. He is inside near to you - Noísi the son of Uisnech.”
“Truly, I shall not be well” she said, “until I see him.”

She sneaks out of her confinement, and meets Noisi, who at first doesn't realise who she is. She grabs him by the ears and threatens to shame and satirize him if he does not run away with her. As his honour has been impugned, he has no choice. They - Deirdre, Noisi, and his brothers - escape over the sea to Scotland. There, they live a peripatetic but idyllic life, hunting game, eating berries, drinking mead. Deirdre tenderly washes Noisi by the fire, and his brothers bring them deer, slung over their backs.

The King of Scotland takes a fancy to Deirdre, and the little band and their followers have to escape again. Eventually, messages are exchanged with Conchobor, and they agree to return to Ireland, thinking that all is forgiven. The noble warrior Fergus mac Roth agrees to be guarantor of their safe-passage. As they approach Conchobor's court of Emain Macha, Fergus is called away 'to an ale-feast', and Conchobor and his henchman Eogan mac Durthacht ambush Noisi and his brothers. Deirdre is captured, and Noisi is speared through the spine. Fergus cannot forgive himself, and goes into exile amongst the Connachta, the people of Connaught.

For a year, Deirdre will not raise her eyes from the ground, will not speak, or eat, or laugh. In two devastating poems, she pours out her grief for her lover, remembering their time in the woods of Scotland, and the haunting song of Noisi and his brothers echoing through the forests. Finally, Conchobor has had enough. He bundles her into a chariot, with Eogan mac Durthacht. He asks her what she hates most in the world. 'You!' she spits. 'You, and Eogan mac Durthacht!' Conchobor cruelly jokes that she is like a sheep between two rams, and announces that, as she dislikes them so much, both he and Eogan will share her as their concubine. At that moment, the chariot is rattling through a narrow mountain pass. Deirdre leans out of the chariot, and smashes her skull to smithereens against the rock.

* * *

Longes mac nUislenn
is one of the very few works of Celtic art that respond usefully to a Structuralist approach, in which every fragment of the text is read in relation to the whole. (Critical theory-based approaches very rarely work with medieval Celtic literature; ambiguity, disjunction, fracture and compositeness are so much at the forefront of the texts that such approaches feel cumbersome and blunt. In many cases, it's as though the texts have already been deconstructed before we even get to them.) The text is amazingly rich; recurrent animal images flicker through the text, there are mysterious uses of sounds and echoes to pattern the story, and Deirdre is one of the most compelling heroines in all of Celtic literature, which is not short of powerful female characters. All of this written in a language that resembles the kind of thing a group of whisky-sodden Indo-Europeanists might have devised whilst on an especially weird acid-trip. It's just bloody brilliant.

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