Deirdre: Beyond the Politics Into Poetry and Myth

Of all the myths to come out of Irish legend, it is probable none is as popular as the story of Deirdre and the Sons of Usna. If it is popular today, it was even more so during the Irish Literary Renaissance. Between 1896 and 1906, W. B. Yeats, J. M. Synge, Lady Gregory, George Russell (writing as AE), William Sharp, Dr. John Todhunter and Henri d’Arbois de Jubainville all published their own versions or translations of the story. (Del Collo 159) While the essentials of the story remain the same, however, the treatment of Deirdre herself varies greatly from writer to writer, as does the use to which she and the story are put. Perhaps the greatest diversity between them can be seen in the treatment given Deirdre in the plays written by AE, Yeats and Synge. However, it is in the differences themselves that the significance of Deirdre’s story can be found, not only as a nationalist symbol used to send a message at a specific time in history but also as a discussion on the nature of the universality and power of Deirdre to the feminine in myth.

These are the basics of Deirdre’s story: While Conchubar[1] is king of Emain Macha, Deirdre is born to the wife of one of his men. Cathbad, Conchubar’s druid, predicts that Deirdre will bring destruction on the king, his soldiers and all of Emain Macha because of her beauty. The soldiers want to kill her then, but Conchubar saves her and sends her away to be raised in a remote location. When she is of age, he plans to marry her, but Deirdre has other ideas: She seeks out and falls in love with Naisi1, son of Usna. They elope and run away to Scotland with his brothers. Many years later they are found there by Fergus, who comes to them with a pardon from Conchubar, who swears he has forgiven them and asks them to come back to Ireland under Fergus’s protection. When they arrive in Ireland, however, Conchubar betrays them, and the sons of Usna are killed. Deirdre is either captured and eventually dies, or she commits suicide, depending on the version of the tale.

1.  Deirdre: The Political Symbol

AE’s Deirdre: A Legend in Three Acts and Synge’s Deirdre of the Sorrows both start the story at the same point in time, and their three acts follow the same story arc. Act I follows Naisi and Deirdre’s meeting and their decision to run away together. In Act II Fergus finds them and they choose to return to Ireland. Act III is the denouement, when they confront Conchubar and meet their fate and the tragedy comes to its close. Yeats, on the other hand, chooses to set his Deirdre solely in the final moments of the action, indeed in the final hour of Deirdre and Naisi’s life, as they come to realize they have been betrayed and wait for their deaths. However, while AE and Synge’s plays may have structure in common, it is Yeats and Synge who share a common purpose in their retelling of the Deirdre legend.

In the struggle between Deirdre, Naisi and Conchubar, Synge and Yeats see the struggle between England and Ireland. In Yeats’s Deirdre, Conchubar is a man who stoops to bargaining and commerce, treating Deirdre like a spoil of war and a prize to be possessed and hoarded for himself alone instead of a person, all traits that Yeats associates with the British Empire. (Daruwala 255) Deirdre and Naisi represent the ancient Ireland which Yeats idealizes, one associated with love and nature and song. Conchubar, however, “belongs in the ‘real’ world that replaced them, to the treachery and lack of honor that destroyed the Red Branch and to the values-if one may call them that-that Yeats saw as threatening the future of Ireland.” (260)

The bridal bed that Conchubar has prepared for Deirdre is one that has been hung with jewels imported from foreign lands and designed to destroy human will, stones Deirdre recognizes as ones wrought with enchantments which are powerful enough to turn enmity into love. (Yeats 18) But Conchubar has no intention of allowing his people to know the truth of his deceit and the coercion he has used to attain his prize. Deirdre and Naisi gave up all for love, but, like the British Empire, Conchubar will not risk his power to gain what he wants (Daruwala 264):

I will not make a bargain; I but ask

What is already mine. You may go free

If Deirdre will but walk into my house

Before the people’s eyes that they may know

When I have put the crown upon her head

I have not taken her by force and guile.

The doors are open and the floors are strewed,

With all enchantments that give happiness,

By races that are neighbors to the sun. (Yeats 36)

In contrast to this room with its foreign enchantments meant to deceive and force a love that would never be anything but a lie like Ireland bowing gracefully to British rule, Naisi and Deirdre’s wedding night is described as a haven of natural beauty. When Deirdre can no longer stand the calmness with which Naisi wants to face their deaths believing that to be the better part of valor, as it were, she appeals to him to remember the beauty of their wedding night, their passion and love, and in so doing puts it in stark contrast to that which Conchubar had planned for her:

Do you remember that first night in the woods

We lay all night on leaves, and looking up,

Where the first grey of the dawn awoke the birds,

Saw leaves above us? (Yeats 31)

The political allegory here, where Deirdre stands for an Ireland out of reach but which defies the true control of the greedy British Empire as represented by Conchubar’s possessive lust was a message the nationalists of the time would have understood.

However, Deirdre’s later willingness to bargain with Conchubar for Naisi’s life was seen by some as a lack of commitment to the nationalist cause, making them turn to another to find their symbol. Where they turned was to Synge. (Rilschel 57) If Yeats’s Deirdre can be seen as a spirit of ancient Ireland meant to inspire a nationalist revival, Synge’s Deirdre was to be seen as a martyr to the nationalist cause, someone to strike a blow for the true Ireland against the greed of those who would try and possess her. (55) Unlike Yeats’s and AE’s Deirdre, Synge’s Deirdre does not try to sway Naisi from returning to Ireland when Fergus brings his false message of peace. Instead, it is Naisi who believes they should stay in Scotland, and Deirdre who convinces him they should go, even though they both know it is a trap. On one level, the pure level of story, they have been affected by a fear that their love is almost too perfect to last and so they return home in order to keep their love from dying and fading away with the advent of age and through the rigors of time:


There are as many ways to wither love as there are stars in a night of Samhain; but there is no way to keep life, or love with it, a short space only. . . . It’s for that there’s nothing lonesome like a love is watching out the time most lovers do be sleeping. . . . It’s for that we’re setting out for Emain Macha when the tide turns on the sand.


You’re right, maybe. It should be a poor thing to see great lovers and they sleepy and old. (Synge 60)

However, on another level, the meta level beyond the mere words on the page, Deirdre and Naisi must return because they are aware that they have a role to play on Ireland’s historical stage. Deirdre has the power to stop them going in Synge’s play, but she knows they have something greater to accomplish. Even after finding the grave that Conchubar has dug, they are not swayed from their purpose to die, with Deirdre stating softly, “it’s that grave when it’s closed will make us one forever, and we two lovers have had a great space without weariness or growing old or any sadness of mind.” (77) Synge’s Deirdre and Naisi realize that if they grow old and fade away, they will be forgotten by Ireland and the world, but if they die now they will remain unchanging and become the great lovers they are in mythology, known for their steadfastness and their love and loyalty in the face of treachery. “In a real sense, death is their duty to Ireland–representing the true Ireland against Conchubar’s representation of unnatural (in a traditionally Irish sense) greed.” (Rilschel 55)

Beyond her symbolism as a martyr for Ireland, Synge’s Deirdre brings to the story the passion of humanity. In her suffering over Naisi’s death, she reveals an inherently human pain, but she embraces a triumphant and conscious martyrdom, as well. “It’s a pitiful thing, Conchubar, you have done this night in Emain, yet a thing will be a joy and triumph to the ends of life and time.” (Synge 92) Deirdre kills herself not because she is a mystical spirit of a land, to be set apart and revered, but as a conscious decision to deny Conchubar what he desires most, to punish him for his greed. (Rilschel 55) Some may argue that this is different than Yeats’s Deirdre, but she, too, kills herself in deliberate defiance of Conchubar and in a very human way, with less of the distance of Yeats often gives his mythological characters. In lace of the pathos and grandiosity of the final speech of Synge’s Deirdre, Yeats’s Deirdre mocks the king for all of his weaknesses, tearing him down from his regal arrogance for the fear he shows of her defiance. Her strategy is different, but her death no less a triumph, no less a defiance. Nor is her plea for Naisi’s life a weakness, but her one attempt to engage in the commerce of bargaining that is Conchubar’s world as a different sort of martyrdom–the selfless giving one oneself for another. She is unable to continue it, however, even to save Naisi, thus maintaining the purity of the ideal of Ireland that Yeats was striving to hold out as inspiration.

2.  Deirdre: The Mythic Symbol

Beyond the political allegory present in Synge and Yeats’s appropriation of Deidre’s story, there lies the deeper myth which has stood the test of time. Yeats once called Deirdre the “noblest woman in Irish Romance.” (Del Collo 157) But this push to popularity and universality was not a foregone conclusion. Deirdre’s story was not originally part of the Ulster cycle. There was a gap between why Fergus had once been king in Ulster but had willingly stepped down from the throne, and later was at the head of Maeve’s forces when they invaded his former kingdom. An explanation for his actions was needed, and Deirdre’s story filled that need, likely being pulled from lore which was floating around outside of the Ulster cycle. (Ó hÓgáin 196) Added to the explanation for Fergus’ behavior was the theme common to Tristan and Isolde and Helen of Troy – a story of a cursed beauty men would die for, and the story shot to universal popularity. (Del Collo 161) It is this universality of Deirdre’s tale, and the mythic elements inherent in it which cause the story to resonate and capture imaginations and hearts, thus allowing her to be used as a platform for such political allegory as that in which Synge and Yeats engage.

The trope of freedom is one which runs throughout the myth, echoing Irelands deep longing throughout its history in the heart on one cursed girl. All three playwrights compare Deirdre to a wild bird who must not be caged, or a girl who is more content to wander the hills than to be bound at any court or by any man. AE has Lavarcham tell Conchubar, “Her happiness is to be here. But she asks why must she never leave the glen. Her heart quickens within her. Like a bird she listens to the spring, and soon the valley will be narrow as a cage.” (Russell Act I)  Likewise, in Synge’s play, Lavarcham and the Old Woman discuss Deirdre’s nature, “Who’d check her like was meant to have her pleasure only, the way if there were no warnings told about her you’d see troubles coming when an old king is taking her, and she without a thought but for her beauty and to be straying the hills.” (Synge 16) It is Naisi in Yeats’s play who speaks of her to Fergus: “She has the heart of a wild bird that fears the net of the fowler or the wicker cage, and has ever been so.” (Yeats 19)  This wild, untamed spirit, this girl who must be free, is the woman the reader is presented with, but men keep trying to tame her. In AE’s version, it is not only Conchubar in his lust and greed who looks to quell her spirit, but Naisi as well. In many ways, by his portrayal of her, AE’s Deirdre is tamed, for the description of her he gives never quite matches up with her voice which is more suited to a dithering debutante than a Celtic debutante who defies a king. On the other hand, the Deirdres given to us by Yeats and by Synge remain wild, free and defiant to the last, though Yeats presents us with a craftier Deirdre, and Synge with one more resolute.

At the moment of her birth, like many a fairy tale princess, Deirdre was cursed, and it is a curse which is to doom her and all who come into contact with her. On the night of her birth Cathbad prophesied that she would be the downfall of a nation for nothing more than her beauty: “Many will be jealous of your face, O flame of beauty; for your sake heroes shall go to exile. For there is harm in your face; it will bring banishment and death on the sons of kings. In your fate, O beautiful child, are wounds and ill-doings, and shedding of blood.” (Lang 309) Despite the prophecy, her life was spared, but only because Conchubar already wanted her for his own for the beauty that she would become. Already greed and possessiveness had set in and her curse had taken hold of him. In Jean Lang’s telling of the tale, he felt the “witchery of the perfect beauty and the magic charm of Deirdre” before she was even born. (308)

The fixation on her beauty continues through her life–even Naisi seems to fall in love with her for her beauty alone, though, to be fair, she seems to do the same for him, because he is young and beautiful compared to Conchubar. One look at her, and men seem to go mad with a need to possess her–in some versions, she and Naisi are not able to find a place to settle even in Scotland because so many kings keep trying to possess her, though only Yeats alludes to this constant trouble in his play.  However, while Yeats focuses on the lust and greed of men intent to possess Deirdre (or Ireland) for themselves, it is Synge who seems to most capture this ability of Deirdre’s to truly enchant those around her from beyond a base brutality to some sort of aching need for her that drives them. Synge’s Conchubar, while ruthless in his revenge, is also more of a human man–for all his political symbolization–than either AE’s or Yeats’s. More than that, he is a man in love, pleading for the love of a woman who has bewitched him.

Synge’s Conchubar has waited for Deirdre to grow up, as patiently as possible, and is growing impatient as she puts him off again and again, and Deirdre plays her power against him as any woman might with a suitor until he is asserts his own power in turn. (Synge 23-25) Where Yeats portrays their relationship as one of  rapacious conqueror and one who would not be conquered, and AE portrays Conchubar as a hard man of whom Deirdre lives in fear, Synge portrays them as a man in love with a woman who does not return his affection. Perhaps their power balance is not equal, but Deirdre is not helpless. Synge imbues her with power of her own to wield over the lovesick king, and while it does not save Naisi, there is a sense throughout that while Synge’s Conchubar is a man driven by greed, he is also driven by a love he cannot break.  Synge’s Conchubar has not prepared the bridal chamber with enchantments to try and trick Deirdre. Instead, he seems the one to be under a spell, believing to the point of delusion that somehow, that once Naisi is dead, he has a chance, that Deirdre will turn to him, will love him, so great is his love. At the end of the play, Synge’s Conchubar is a man broken, who must be led from the stage by Lavarcham. Yeats’s Conchubar is a man raging that his prize has escaped him a second time.

Synge employs this sense of Deirdre as fulfilling the mythic role of enchantress with Naisi, as well.  Deirdre has already met Naisi on the hills before the beginning of the play, and it is revealed that she told him that he and his brothers could shelter at her home that night. When she learns that Conchubar is determined to take her for his bride in just two days time, she steps up her escape plan, making Lavarcham and the Old Woman put out all the best silver and dressing herself as a queen to receive Naisi and his brothers. She attempts to ask him to run away with her, and Naisi points out she is meant to be Conchubar’s queen. Deirdre lets him know she would rather be his, and Naisi becomes distressed, speaking of honor and bravery. Deirdre moves to him, and convinces him they must run away together with one speech and seductive touches:

You must not go, Naisi, and leave me to the High King, a man is aging in his dun, with his crowds round him, and his silver and gold. I will not live to be shut up in Emain, and wouldn’t we do well paying, Naisi, with silence and a near death. I’m a long while in the woods with my own self, and I’m in little dread of death, and it earned with riches would make the sun red with envy, and he going up the heavens; and the moon pale and lonesome, and she wasting away. Isn’t it a small thing is foretold about the ruin of ourselves, Naisi, when all men have age coming and great ruin in the end? (Synge 40)

Despite his previous misgivings, and even with her talk of death and discounting it as just a small thing, Naisi yields. One look at Deirdre, and his brothers decide they will go with them into exile, as well, even though they know it is their doom. This is very similar to how, when the time comes, Deirdre convinces them all they must return to Ireland, despite them all knowing it is a trap.  (Synge 59-61)

Likewise, Yeats’s Deirdre claims responsibility for enchanting Naisi and takes the blame of his actions on herself, in an effort to spare him from Conchubar’s wrath. (Yeats 40) AE’s Deirdre, on the other hand, though called “enchantress” by Naisi in Act I, and said to be schooled by a Druidess, capable of “dream-leading’ Naisi to her, seems to be just as enchanted by Naisi as he is by her, and though Conchubar surely wants her, he seems as determined to rescue her from her fate as in love with her, and as much a man whose pride is wounded as a jilted lover. (Russell Act I)

Much is often made of Deirdre’s foresight and insight, sometimes as if to justify that she was more than just a pretty face, but a rare creature of both beauty and wisdom. (Lang 309-10)  However, like Cassandra, her words are ones that those around her seem rarely to heed as men see only her beauty and dismiss her mind. Despite her foreboding dreams of betrayal, AE’s Naisi refuses to heed Deirdre–laughs at her fears, even. Likewise, Yeats’s Naisi refuses to listen to her when she tells him that Conchubar means them ill until it is too late:

Hush! no more

You are King Conchubar’s guest, being in his house

You speak as women do that sit alone,

Marking the ashes with a stick till they

Are in a dreamy terror. Being a queen

You should have too calm thought to start at shadows. (Yeats 14)

Even after Deirdre learns of the enchanted bridal bed from the musicians and once again begs Naisi to leave, he refuses telling her that there is “Naught to fear; the king’s forgiven all.” (19) Fergus joins in to convince her to stay, warning her that men have blamed her for the quarrel and the troubles in Ireland these past seven years, and if she runs again, they will blame her all the more and hunt Naisi as an outlaw for the rest of his life. (21)

For Yeats, Deirdre and the musicians are the voice of reason, the wise women of myth who should be heeded, and Fergus and Naisi the fools who will not listen. However, despite saying that Deirdre shares a powerful connection to the Sidhe and allowing her dreams of portents, AE seems to fail to give his own Deirdre the voice of strength to speak the words that the audience and read knows are true. When Naisi dismisses Deirdre’s fears as foolish, she does not possess the strength to stand up for her own convictions. When Fergus arrives with his false message of pardon, Deirdre pleads with Naisi not to return to Ireland, but he rebukes her for her fears, even though he knows the prophecy that because of her, Ireland is to be ripped apart and he and his brothers to fall:

O children of Usna, there is death in your going! Naisi, will you not stay the storm bird of sorrow? I forehear the falling of tears that cease not, and in generations unborn the sorrow of it all that will never be stilled!

Deirdre! Deirdre! It is not right for you, beautiful woman, to come with tears between a thousand exiles and their own land! Many battles have I fought, knowing well there would be death and weeping after. If I feared to trust to the word of great kings and warriors, it is not with tears I would be remembered. What would the bards sing of Naisi. without trust! afraid of the outstretched hand!–freighted by a woman’s fears! By the gods, before the clan Usna were so shamed I would shed my blood here with my own hand. (Russell Act II)

In recounting this scene, Jean Lang describes Naisi as being driven onward by his fate, perhaps providing a clue as to why Deirdre cannot sway the Sons of Usna. Naisi fled Ireland, knowing the prophecy that would spell his doom, but it is hamartia which draws him back–fate itself, blinding him to the words he once knew were true. (Lang 326) The loving man who had listened to his queen’s pleas now laughs at her and forces her toward her death, and his own. Whatever enchantment Deirdre wielded over him, whatever power she had to sway him is broken. Even when it becomes obvious that Conchubar means to kill them, Naisi does not apologize, but instead says they must face their deaths with calm, chiding Deirdre for her weakness when she cannot sit calmly with him and play chess:

Naisi, I cannot. I cannot.
The end of all has come. Oh, Naisi!

If the end has come we should meet it with calm.
It is not with sighing and tears the Clan Usna
should depart. You have not played this game
as it ought to be played.

Your pride is molded and set like a pillar of bronze. O warrior, I was no mate for you. I am only a woman, who has given her life into your hands, and you chide me for my love.

Poor timid dove, I had forgotten thy weakness. I did not mean to wound thee, my heart. Oh, many will shed hotter tears than these for thy sorrow! They will perish swiftly who made Naisi’s queen to weep! (Russell Act III)

It seems as if Deirdre’s spell on him is truly broken at the end. He runs out to the battle, and comes back in enchanted, this time by the druid Cathbad, thinking they are at sea until he walks out directly onto a spear, never quite aware of where they are again. In the end, Deirdre is simply a broken creature who finally just rests her head on Naisi’s dead chest and dies of grief.

Yeats’ hatred of this scene and this treatment of Deirdre as Victorian victim instead of a powerful force in the lives of the men around her was, perhaps, one of the things which roused him to his own depiction of this scene. (Daruwala 254) For Yeats, as well, seats Deirdre and Naisi at a chessboard waiting to meet Conchubar’s men in an attempt to go to their end calmly and nobly, but Deirdre rejects the notion with passion and revulsion, saying that she cannot go on playing like the queen of Lugaidh Redstripe, “That had but the cold blood of the sea in her veins.” (Yeats 30)  Naisi does not rebuke her, and she moves to his side, reminding him of their wedding night, their passion, reliving it, wanting to hold on to that heat instead of the coldness of calm. (31)  It is her strength, her passion, then, that we see driving the rest of the play. When Naisi rushes out to confront Conchubar, Deirdre secures a knife from the musicians, hiding it on her person, not intending to be left to wilt away alone as AE had her do.

Deirdre’s strength as a woman sets her apart in the plays of Yeats and Synge as compared to that of AE, yet the fundamental difference in how Yeats and Synge saw and portrayed her, is revealed in the final confrontation between Deirdre and Conchubar. In both plays Deirdre begins with an appeal to Conchubar’s mercy–asking that though they know he has come with treachery in his heart, that he relent. Synge’s Deirdre speaks to him kindly, asking that he just invite the brothers to supper, that the anger has gone on too long, and how much better would it be if they all were friends. (78) Conchubar comes near to relenting, but Naisi’s brothers have already been attacked, and blood spilled, and it is too late to go back–the die have been cast. Deirdre attempts to keep Naisi from his brothers, and he rebukes her. Their last words to each other are harsh ones, fighting, and in a cruel twist, the reality of how real people behave in a stressful situation intrudes on the idealism of heroic myth and it seems their love comes undone in the reality of death before them, and he rushes to his brothers, leaving her behind, calling her cruel:


They’ll not get a death that’s cruel, and they with men alone. It’s women that have loved are cruel only; and if I went on living from this day I’d be putting a curse on the lot of them I’d meet walking in the east or west, putting a curse on the sun that gave them beauty, and on the madder and the stone-crop put red upon their cloaks.


I’m well pleased there’s no one in this place to make a story that Naisi was a laughing-stock the night he died.


There’d not be many’d make a story, for that mockery is in your eyes this night will spot the face of Emain with a plague of pitted graves. (81)

Left alone, Deirdre seems to lose her wits while Conchubar begs her to let him ease her grief. Deirdre’s power to wound and to compel seems to come back in full force, as it truly seems to hurt Conchubar to see Deirdre in pain, though not enough to have spared her the pain, and she likewise will spare him no more kindness in turn:


There’s one sorrow has no end surely — that’s being old and lonesome. ( With extraordinary pleading. ) But you and I will have a little peace in Emain, with harps playing, and old men telling stories at the fall of night. I’ve let build rooms for our two selves, Deirdre, with red gold upon the walls and ceilings that are set with bronze. There was never a queen in the east had a house the like of your house, that’s waiting for yourself in Emain. (Synge 83)

Deirdre does not yield to his pleading now any more than she did seven years before. Instead, she kills herself, calling it a triumph and refusing to let him have her, thus fulfilling her role as Ireland’s greatest tragic heroine and leaving Conchubar a broken man.

By contrast, Yeats’s Deirdre tells Conchubar to ask anything of her but to part from Naisi, and she will give it, and appeals to his ego, saying how all of the world will call him a good and noble king for showing mercy. (37) Conchubar refuses outright, and Deirdre asks Naisi if she should not go with him, to save Naisi’s life, saying she will not live long once they are parted, but Naisi will not allow her to sacrifice herself for him. At that point, Deirdre kneels and begs, not for her life but for Naisi’s, asking that she alone be punished, that she enchanted Naisi, but while she begs, Conchubar has Naisi killed. (37-40) Unlike in Synge and AE’s plays, Yeats’s Deirdre does not descend into any form of hysteria, beyond just a moment’s cry at this point. It is as if, having had the worst happen the calm she was searching for before has finally found her, and she knows what must be done. Conchubar may not possess her–he must be denied and that is now her primary purpose. Even Conchubar comments on her calmness: “But why are you so calm? I thought that you would curse me and cry out, and fall upon the ground and tear your hair.” (41)

For the rest of the play, Deirdre plays both to and against stereotypes of both heroines and women. Conchubar expects the Victorian victim of AE’s Deirdre. Instead, Deirdre plays the part for him of the vain beauty the men of Ireland have suggested she is, harkening back to Fergus’ earlier comments, that “Men blame you that you have stirred up a quarrel up…and all the screaming household can but blame the savage heart of beauty for it all.” (21) So, Deirdre becomes the savage heart of beauty for the moment, telling Conchubar that he clearly does not know women such as her: “If I were less worthy of desire, I would pretend as much; but, being myself it is enough that you were master here. Although we are so delicately made, there’s something brutal in us and we are won by those who can shed blood.” (41) A repartee begins between them, with Conchubar not entirely believing her, but wanting to have his way as easily as possible, the better to prove his sovereignty to her and his people. She insists on laying out Naisi, and when he refuses, she mocks him and his manhood:

I’ll have this gift

Because it is the first that I have asked.

He has refused. There is no sap in him,

Nothing but empty veins. I thought as much.

He has refused me the first thing I have asked–

Me, me his wife. I understand him now;

I know the sort of life I’ll have with him;

But he must drag me to his house by force.

If he refuse, he shall be mocked of all.

They’ll say to one another, “Look at him

That is so jealous he lured a man

From over sea, and murdered him, and yet

He trembled at the thought of a dead face. (44)

Conchubar offers up one final protest: that Deirdre might have a knife on her person.  She laughs, and tells him to have her searched then, and, refusing to call her bluff and risk looking the fool, grudgingly he lets her go. Of course, she promptly kills herself, denying him his prize. Unlike Synge’s Conchubar who shows real grief at Deirdre’s death, even if he acted through greed for what he did not have, Yeats’s Conchubar can think only of the prize he has lost: “No, no; I’ll not believe it! She is not dead — She cannot have escaped me a second time!” (46) But she has, and Conchubar has lost, though perhaps the final tragedy, like so many, is in his absolute unwillingness to see or admit accept any responsibility for all of the horror that he has wrought, and leaving little hope for the future of Conchubar’s kingdom (or the British Empire).

It is interesting to note that political agendas of the playwrights aside, each of them allowed Deirdre through her foresight some knowledge of her future immortality, though AE’s Deirdre took no comfort in it.  She says with a cry to Naisi when trying to convince him not to return to Ireland, “Oh, pulse of my heart, I know the gift we shall give to the Gael will be a memory to pity and sigh over, and I shall be the priestess of tears.” (Russell Act II) Synge’s Deirdre, on the other hand, knew well that she and Naisi were going to a place of immortal memory and song, and rejoiced in it, if only because they would endure and love forever that way. Yeats’s Deirdre who was perhaps the most conscious of the knowledge that she and Naisi would become the stuff of a tragic poem. Indeed, she charges the First Musician with not only telling her tale but being sure to tell it right, giving her bracelet as a token for the musician to show to let people know she was there to add veracity to her story. By that point, Deirdre knows she is to die, and she “lives and suffers for the purposes of the poem manifest in her last day, a poem long to be sung.” (Wickstrom 470)

In some versions of the myth, Deirdre is taken by Conchubar and made to live with him for a year, then given as a concubine to the man who slew Naisi–the one man she hates more than Conchubar–as further degradation and punishment when she refuses to love the king. In those versions it is only at this point that she takes something of a stand, committing suicide by throwing herself from the chariot before she can be taken by the other man. That all three playwrights saved Deirdre from this fate is telling, but it is Yeats and Synge’s Deirdre, with her defiantly memorable stand who endures above any other. Whether she died for love, or for Ireland, Deirdre as represented by Synge and Yeats made a choice, calculated and sure, to chart her own destiny. She refused to kneel to Conchubar and become his bride, leaving the only home she had ever known with a man she had only just met to grab at a chance at happiness. She lived each moment after as free as she could for as long as was given to her. And when that freedom came to an end, she chose to embrace her own end to it, rather than the one prescribed for her. She was the wild bird who would not be caged, defying the passivity that AE’s version, and others, have tried to impress upon her. It is that spirit of independence, that willingness to chart her own course even into death which keeps her story compelling, which allowed it to be used for such a powerful message of defiance and freedom by Synge and Yeats, and which keeps it relevant and vibrant today.

Works Cited

Daruwala, Maneck. “Yeats and the Mask of Deirdre: ‘That Love is All We Need’.” Colby      Quarterly. 37.3 (2001): 247-66. Digital.

Del Collo, Sarah. “Yeats, Fergus(on), O’Grady, and Deirdre.” The South Carolina Review. 32.1  (1999): 158-67. Print.

Lang, Jean. A Book of Myths. New York: Thomas Nelson & Sons. Project Gutenberg.      September 21, 2007. <> . Online.

Ó hÓgáin, Dáithi. Myth, Legend and Romance: An Encyclopedia of the Irish Folk Tradition.  New York: Prentice Hall Press, 1991. Print

Rilschel, Nelson O’Ceallaigh. Synge and Irish Nationalism: The Precursor to Revolution. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2002. Print.

Russell, George William. Deirdre: A Legend in Three Acts. 1901.  Read Books Online. 2003. October 24, 2010. <>. Online.

Synge, John Milton. Deirdre of the Sorrows. Boston: John W. Luce & Company, 1910. Print.

Wickstrom, Gordon M. “Legend Focusing Legend in Yeats’s Deirdre.” Educational Theatre    Journal. 30.4 (1978): 466-74. Print.

Yeats, William Butler. Deirdre. Dublin: Maunsel & Co., Ltd., 1907. Print.

[1] Spelling for the king and Naisi is different in many of the sources and in the plays. For consistency in this text, Conor/Conchubar/Conchubor will be spelled “Conchubar,” and Naisi/Naoise will be spelled “Naisi” in the text, though spellings in quoted material may differ, so as not to alter the source material.