In days long gone, at a time that is long past, Fiacc, the great raven, watched as the King of Ulster, Conor Mac Nessa arrived at the home of Phelim, a storyteller. Fiacc knew that there would be food for a hungry bird at such a gathering. The raven, wise in the ways of men, ate and listened with half an ear to the shouted exchanges within the hall. He heard the whispers too. Cathbad the druid warned the king that Phelim’s unborn child would be a beautiful girl, but that much blood would be shed over her. The child would be called Deirdre and Conor, intrigued, decided to keep her, perhaps they would marry when she was grown. Deirdre was placed in the care of the old veiled one, Leabharcham.
Years later, on a hard winter’s day, Leabharcham and Deirdre were skinning a calf in the freezing snow. Fiacc, the raven swaggered over to take his share of the scraps. As she watched the bird, Deirdre sighed, “One day I will marry a man with hair like the raven’s, with skin white as the snow, and with lips as red as the calf’s blood”. Leabharcham knew of such a man, Naoise, a warrior and poet in Conor’s court. She arranged for the young pair to meet and, against Naoise’s better judgement, they fell in love. They eloped to Scotland accompanied by Naoise’s brothers.
For a time they were happy, but Conor tracked them down and persuaded them to return with promise of a pardon for abandoning Naoise’s duties. When they arrived at Conor’s court he sent Leabharcham to see whether Deirdre was still beautiful. Leabharcham returned telling the King that Deirdre could be mistaken for a cailleach, a veiled one, a hag. Conor did not believe her and sent Gelbann, who only glimpsed Deirdre before Naoise threw a gold chess-piece at him and blinding him in one eye. Gelbann told Conor that Deirdre was as beautiful as ever; 'Your majesty, Deirdre is still so very beautiful that I think it was worth losing an eye just to see her for a moment.'. Conor ordered his men to surround the hall, to kill the men and capture Deirdre. Some of the knights were so horrified at this betrayal of trust that they defended the fugitives, but still Naoise and his brothers were killed.
High above, Fiacc the raven called to his kin to come and feast.
Deirdre was forced to marry Conor, but in time her grief overwhelmed her and she threw herself from a chariot and died. And when they buried her it is said there grew from her grave and from Naoisi's two yew trees, whose tops, when they were full-grown, met each other and intertwined together, and none could part them.
Story by Kevin Johnston, Illustration by David Rooney, Sculpture in bronze by Charlie Mallon