Deirdre was the daughter of the royal storyteller Fedlimid mac Daill. Before she was born, Cathbad the chief druid at the court of Conchobar mac Nessa, king of Ulster, prophesied that Fedlimid's daughter would grow up to be very beautiful, but that kings and lords would go to war over her, much blood would be shed because of her, and Ulster's three greatest warriors would be forced into exile for her sake. Hearing this, many urged Fedlimid to kill the baby at birth, but Conchobar, aroused by the description of her future beauty, decided to keep the child for himself. He took Deirdre away from her family and had her brought up in seclusion by Leabharcham, an old woman, and planned to marry her when she was old enough. Deirdre grew up, and one day told Leabharcham that she would love a man with hair the color of the raven, skin as white as snow, and lips as red as blood. Leabharcham told her she knew of such a man-- Naoise, a handsome young warrior, hunter and singer at Conchobar's court. With the collusion of Leabharcham, Deirdre met Naoise. At first the young man wanted nothing to do with her, because it was known that she was destined for the king. But Deirdre shamed him into eloping with her. Accompanied by his fiercely loyal brothers Ardan and Ainnle, the sons of Uisnech, they fled to Scotland. For a while, they lived a happy life there, hunting and fishing and living in beautiful places; one place associated with them is Loch Etive. But the furious, humiliated Conchobar tracked them down.
He sent Fergus mac Róich to them with an invitation to return and Fergus's own promise of safe conduct home, but on the way back to Emain Macha Fergus was waylaid by the king's plan, forced by his personal geis (an obligation) to accept an invitation to a feast. Fergus sent Deirdre and the sons of Uisnech on to Emain Macha with his son to protect them. After they had arrived, Conchobar sent Leabharcham to spy on Deirdre, to see if she had lost her beauty. Leabharcham, trying to protect Deirdre, told the king that Deirdre had lost all her beauty. Mistrustful, Conchobar then sent another spy, Gelbann, who managed to catch a glimpse of Deirdre but was seen by Naoise, who threw a gold chess piece at him and put out his eye. The spy managed to get back to Conchobar, and told him that Deirdre was as beautiful as ever. Conchobar called his warriors to attack the Red Branch house where Deirdre and the sons of Uisnech were lodging. Naoise and his brothers fought valiantly, aided by a few Red Branch warriors, before Conchobar evoked their oath of loyalty to him and had Deirdre dragged to his side. At this point, Éogan mac Durthacht threw a spear, killing Naoise, and his brothers were killed shortly after. There are other versions of the death of Naoise. Fergus and his men arrived after the battle. Fergus was outraged by this betrayal of his word, and went into exile in Connacht. He later fought against Ulster for Ailill and Medb in the war known as the Táin Bó Cúailnge (the Cattle Raid of Cooley), the Irish Iliad.
After the death of Naoise, Conchobar took Deirdre as his wife. After a year, angered by Deirdre's continuing coldness, Conchobar asked her whom in the world she hated the most, besides himself. She answered "Éogan mac Durthacht," the man who'd murdered Naoise. Conchobar said that he would give her to Éogan. As she was being taken to Éogan, Conchobar taunted her, saying she looked like a ewe between two rams. At this, Deirdre threw herself from the chariot, dashing her head to pieces against a rock. In some versions of the story, she died of grief.
There are at least five plays based on Deirdre's story: George William Russell's Deirdre (1902), William Butler Yeats' Deirdre (1907), J. M. Synge's Deirdre of the Sorrows (1910), John Coulter's Deirdre of the Sorrows: An Ancient and Noble Tale Retold by John Coulter for Music by Healey Willian (1944), and Vincent Woods' A Cry from Heaven (2005). There are also three books: Deirdre (1923) by James Stephens, The Celts (1988) by Elona Malterre, and "The Swan Maiden" by Jules Watson.
The LÉ Deirdre (P20), a ship in the Irish Naval Service (now decommissioned), was named after her.
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