Conor Mac Nessa, King of Ulster was Queen Medb’s first husband. She quickly forsook him and stormed home to her father crying out “Who could stand that man!” Conor was not Medb’s ideal choice of husband, but the sad result of the peace debt incurred by her father. The first cause of the stirring up of the Cattle-raid of Cuailgne (Táin Bó Cuailgne) was Medb’s desertion of Conor. She was not the first, nor the last, to spurn Conor. Hence it is not amiss to glance at Conor’s conjugal character in one of the oldest and most moving stories of love and treachery in European literature.
The poignant ‘Exile of the Sons of Uisnech’ Iron Age saga tells of Ulstermen celebrating with Fedlimid Mac Doill, Conor Mac Nessa’s poet and storyteller, when Fedlimid’s wife gave birth to a baby girl. When it cried out, Conor’s driud, Cabhad, prophesied that the baby would be exceptionally beautiful with golden yellow hair and stunning grey-green eyes. The delight of the guests was dissipated when his prophecy foretold that, because of her great beauty and the intense jealousy it would elicit, she would be a woman over whom there would be great slaughter among the chariot-warriors of Ulster, resulting in terrible suffering and countless graves. He named her Derdriu. Because of the prophecy, Ulster’s young warriors wanted to have her slain. “No” said Conor Mac Nessa. He decreed that she should live: “I will rear her as I see fit and I will marry her when she comes of age.” No one dared oppose him.
Derdriu was reared in strict seclusion by a foster-mother, Leborcham, until she was by far the most beautiful woman in the Western world. One day as her foster-father flayed a calf for her meal, she saw a raven drink the blood on the snow. She remarked “I could love a man with these three colours, hair like a raven, cheeks red like blood, body white as snow.” “Lucky are you” said Leborcham “for such a man lives nearby, Noisiu, one of three brothers, the sons of Uisnech.” Derdriu said “I will be ill and pine and die unless I see him.” She stole out to see him as he rode through the woods. He was all she desired. They fell instantly in love. Even though he found her stunningly beautiful, Noisiu was reluctant to get involved, knowing of Conor’s plans and the prophecy of Cabhad. But she finally persuaded Noisiu to elope with her.
Knowing that Conor would hunt the length and breadth of Ireland for them, Noisiu and his two brothers fled with Derdriu to Scotland. Her beauty attracted the attention of the men of Scotland. Due to constant harassment they had to be on the move until they set up home in Glen Etive. Conor Mac Nessa was furious and sought to apprehend them. He was finally coaxed to call a truce and beg the fugitives to return to Ulster. “Let them come home,” he said, “let guarantors be sent to them.” Fergus Mac Róich, Dubthach and Conor’s own son Cormac agreed to guarantee their safety. However, when Derdriu, Noisiu and his brothers arrived, Conor Mac Nessa reneged on his guaranty and had the three sons of Uisnech assassinated by Eoghan Mac Durthacht and his men. One of Fergus’s sons was slain whilst trying to protect Noisiu. Derdriu was taken to Conor’s palace, her hands tied behind her back.
Outraged by this gross treachery, Fergus, Dubthach and Cormac attacked Conor’s palace, killing 300 men including his son Mane and grandson Fiachna. They burned down his Emain Macha palace. Not only Medb hated Conor now! Derdriu spent her time pining away, grieving, and never once raising her head from her knee. Her lament over Noisiu’s death is the masterpiece of early Irish tragic verse often rewritten by Irish scribes.
Annoyed, Conor asked her what she disliked most. “It is you yourself and Eoghan who slew Noisiu” she cried. Thereupon, Conor decreed that since she had spent a year with him, she would spend the next year with Eoghan. While being taken to Eoghan, she threw herself from Conor's chariot, dashing her brains out against a great rock. Soon thereafter Fergus Mac Róich, Dubthach and Cormac son of Conor, left Ulster and defected to Queen Medb in Connacht, the arch-enemy of Conor Mac Nessa, with 3000 of their followers.
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