Deirdre and the Sons of Uisne

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  • Teideal (Title): Deirdre and the Sons of Uisne.
  • Uimhir Chatalóige Ollscoil Washington (University of Washington Catalogue Number): 840107.
  • Uimhir Chnuasach Bhéaloideas Éireann (National Folklore of Ireland Number): none.
  • Uimhir Roud (Roud Number): none.
  • Uimhir Laws (Laws Number): none.
  • Uimhir Child (Child Number): none.
  • Cnuasach (Collection): Joe Heaney Collection, University of Washington, Seattle.
  • Teanga na Croímhíre (Core-Item Language): English.
  • Catagóir (Category): story.
  • Ainm an té a thug (Name of Informant): Joe Heaney.
  • Ainm an té a thóg (Name of Collector): unavailable.
  • Dáta an taifeadta (Recording Date): 18/10/1983.
  • Suíomh an taifeadta (Recording Location): University of Washington, United States of America.
  • Ocáid an taifeadta (Recording Occasion): evening class.
  • Daoine eile a bhí i láthair (Others present): unavailable.
  • Stádas chóipcheart an taifeadta (Recording copyright status): unavailable.

Deirdre is the daughter of Mannanán Mac Lir, king of the sea. One day, Manannán hears the child calling from his wife’s womb. The voice – a girl’s voice – tells him that her name will be Deirdre, and that two thirds of the men of Ulster, one third of the men of Ireland, and the three sons of Uisne will all die because of her. Determined to prevent this calamity, he decides to destroy the child when she’s born, but is prevented from doing this by King Conchubhair, who subsequently takes her to raise himself.

Deirdre grows up to be the most beautiful woman in the world, and Conchubhair decides that when she grows up he’s going to marry her himself. He sequesters her from seeing any other men. One day, while looking out the window, she sees a crow lying killed in the snow, and says she could love a man with hair as black as the crow’s wing, skin as white as the snow, and cheeks as red as the crow’s blood in the snow. Her maid tells her that there is such a man, his name is Naoise, one of the three sons of Uisne, but that he is beyond her reach.

By a strategem that she concocts with her maid, Deirdre manages to get sight of Naoise; they fall in love; and Deirdre elopes to Scotland from Conchubhair’s palace with Naoise and his two brothers. The brothers defend Deirdre from the armies sent against them, but eventually are killed when they are tricked by Conchubhair into coming to stay in a house provided by him – a house that is roofed with lead. While they are asleep, Conchubhair’s men set fire to the house, the lead melts, Deirdre is taken captive, and the brothers’ eyes are put out by the molten lead. They put up a huge fight, and kill all of Conchubhair’s men; but at the end of the battle they don’t realize that their enemies have all been killed, and they turn their swords on one another. Naoise, at last realizing that he has killed one of his brothers, takes his own life.

Conchubhair thinks that Deirdre will be his own wife at last; but as he and Deirdre are crossing a bridge, Deirdre flings herself from the carriage and onto some rocks below, and dies.


Joe says that he heard the story from a Carna storyteller, and that he believes it can be found in a manuscript collected by the Irish Folklore Commission (Cnúasach Bhéaloideas Éireann / Collection of the Folklore of Ireland, housed at University College Dublin).

Like Joe’s story about the Naming of Cú Chulainn, this story is part of the Ulster Cycle, a group of tales preserved in manuscripts in Old Irish that includes the most famous of Irish tales, Táin Bó Cuailnge, ‘The Cattle-Raid of Cooley.’ The tragedy of Deirdre and the Sons of Uisne provides one of the main justifications for the animosity between the men of Ulster and the men of Connacht, whose battles are the subject matter of the Táin.