References: http://bardmythologies.com/diarmuid-and-grainne/, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Pursuit_of_Diarmuid_and_Gráinne, Irish Folk & Fairy Tales Omnibus (Time Warner Books, 2005) by Michael Scott, http://www.timelessmyths.com/celtic/ossian.html#Pursuit, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Loathly_lady#Diarmuid, Celtic Myth and Legend (Newcastle Publishing Co. Inc., 1975) by Charles Squire, Legends of the Celts (HarperCollins, 1994, originally published 1989) by Frank Delaney
Trigger warning: references to suicide and sexual coercion
Irish mythology is filled with the stories of sad women, and these are two of the saddest. They never met, but there is a thematic resonance between them: theirs are the stories of jealous kings, reckless hearts and unnecessarily tragic love.
During a rowdy feast at the house of the bard Fedlimid, the heavily pregnant mistress of the house patiently waited on the men until they had all drunk themselves under the table, before retreating to her chamber to rest. No sooner had she reached the room, however, than her unborn child began to scream. Everyone woke in uproar. Fedlimid’s wife turned to the druid Cathbad for an explanation of what was happening. He laid a hand on her belly, and prophesied that she would give birth to a beautiful golden-haired girl, beloved by great warriors and kings. A few days later, however, when the baby was born, Cathbad made a second, much darker prophecy: that the baby girl, named Deidre, would bring shame and ruin to her land, that she would bring about the banishment of the sons of Usnach and the desertion of the warrior Fergus.
Fedlimid’s household were so horrified by this prophecy that some demanded the baby be killed. King Conchobar of Ulster, however, commanded that Deidre be brought to his palace, to be raised there and to in due time become his wife. He believed this arrangement would be enough to avert the prophecy. He was, needless to say, a very arrogant man.
Deidre grew up into a very beautiful young woman, golden-haired and blue-eyed, just as the druid had predicted – so beautiful that Conchobar grew possessive of her and housed her in isolation, much as one might lock up a prized piece of jewellery in a box. The only people Deidre was allowed to see were her foster-parents and a very stubborn (female!) satirist called Leborcham. One day the two women were watching Deidre’s foster father butchering a calf outside when a raven alighted on the snow to drink the spilled blood. “I could only love a man with those three colours,” Deidre claimed. “His hair must be as black as that raven, his cheeks must be as ruddy as the calf’s blood, and his skin should be as white as snow.”
If that sounds familiar, it should. Snow White’s mother made a similar set of wishes for her child. It would seem that Naoise, the eldest son of Usnach, came by his unusual colouring naturally. Leborcham told Deidre about his existence, which was not necessarily the best decision she could have made. Naoise was also an extraordinarily gifted singer, a powerful warrior and a skilled hunter. One day Deidre heard Naoise singing and sought him out. Recognising her as the future bride of the king, he was wary, but Deidre was having none of that; she pounced on him, seizing hold of his ears. “These two ears will be your shame and mockery, unless you take me away with you,” she told him, laughing. Naoise sang to call his brothers Ardan and Ainle to him and explained the command Deidre had laid on him. They all apparently saw the command as inescapable, because instead of trying to dissuade her, they decided to take her and escape to another kingdom.
The brothers and their followers journeyed through Ireland with the wrath of Conchobar always biting at their heels. In time they crossed the sea to England, first as cattle raiders, then as warriors in the service of the king. Deidre was once again kept in seclusion, but unfortunately the king’s steward spotted her in Naoise’s bed early one morning and decided that she would make the perfect queen. Her being very obviously taken was no problem at all – the steward only needed permission to have Naoise killed. The king of England, however, ordered that Deidre be wooed in secret first.
Deidre could not have been less interested. She repeated every promise and bribe to Naoise. The king sent the sons of Usnach on increasingly dangerous tasks, in the hope they would be killed, but they came back safely every time. Finally, the king instructed two of his guards to kill Naoise while he lay sleeping. Deidre heard of the plot in time and her whole party escaped.
The brothers had friends in Ulster who chose to blame the whole situation on Deidre and urged Conchobar to forgive and forget. Conchobar offered a safe return home, with his warriors Fergus, Dubhthach and Cormac as guarantors, and gave only one stipulation: the brothers were not to eat until they arrived at Conchobar’s table. Deidre suspected the worst. Prone to visions of darkness of her own, she argued to stay in England, but the homesick brothers agreed to Conchobar’s terms.
He betrayed them, as Deidre had said he would. According to one account, a band of mercenaries lay in wait, rising up when the brothers came in view. Naoise was stabbed with a spear, and when Fergus’s son leapt to shield his fallen friend, he was murdered too. The brothers and their friends fought fiercely, but were overcome by the number of opponents. There is another account in which Cathbad enchanted the brothers, making them believe that waves were rising up around them on dry land; Cathbad believed that Conchobar would spare them, but instead the king had all three beheaded at one stroke with Naoise’s sword Retaliator. When the guarantors heard of the treachery, there was war between them and Conchobar. Fergus did indeed desert Ulster, leaving to serve Queen Medb. Cathbad laid a curse on Conchobar and on his land. And Deidre was left alone for Conchbar to claim.
In one version, she lived as Conchobar’s bride for a year, so deep in grief that no one could so much as make her smile. She hated everyone at the court, most of all Conchobar and Eoghan, leader of the mercenaries, and she was not afraid of saying so. Conchobar’s pride couldn’t take that. He gave her to Eoghan, who placed her in his chariot and tied her up so that she couldn’t run – but that did not stop Deidre, who threw herself over the side and died in the fall. In another version, Conchobar never got his hands on her. She dashed her head open on a rock rather than return to him. Her friends had her buried beside Naoise and from each grave grew a pine tree, the branches entwined, inseparable. Thus ends one of the Three Sorrows of Storytelling.
Deidre was treated as a thing from birth; loving Naoise wasn’t just a rebellion, it was a deliberate act of escape. It’s a classic Helen of Troy situation – men choose to kill each other and say it was a woman’s fault. If there was a prophecy of future wrongs to be made about anyone, it should have been Conchobar.
Grainne was the daughter of Cormac, the High King of Ireland, and Queen Aeta. When Fionn mac Cumhaill, leader of the Fianna – a famous band of warriors – paid court to her, both she and her father consented, but at the celebratory feast Grainne actually saw Fionn, who was much too old for her. She also saw Diarmait O’Duibhn, who was not.
He was one of Finn’s warriors and very handsome, with a beauty mark on his cheek that made any woman who saw him love him. As such, it’s hardly surprising that he had already played one of the lead roles in a tragic romance. Years ago, an ugly old woman who had wandered the world alone for seven years came to the lodge where the Fianna were sleeping, begging each warrior in turn to share the warmth of his bedroll with her. Only Diarmait took pity on her. In the morning, she awoke as a beautiful young woman, and she became Diarmait’s wife. She gave him the house he had always wanted by the sea, and all she asked of him was that he never mention how she had looked when they first met. Basic courtesy, you might think! But when she gave away the pups of his hunting dog to his friends, he rubbed her face in how noble he had been that one time, and in doing so he lost everything. She vanished. Diarmait’s search for her led him into the Otherworld, where he discovered that she was the king’s daughter and deathly ill. He saved her with a cup of healing water, but the price was that his love for her ended with her sickness.
He returned home to the Fianna, and met another beautiful princess. This one, however, was made of harder stuff, and what she wanted, she got.
Grainne sent around a drinking-horn of drugged wine, but did not offer it to Diarmait, so he was left awake. She told him that she loved him, and asked for his love in return. When he refused out of loyalty to his chieftain, Grainne laid a geasa – a bond – on him to run away with her.
When his fellow Fianna woke, Diarmait went around to each of them with his dilemma, and each told him that he could not break the geasa. Even Finn, when told the same story without Grainne’s name attached to it, gave the same advice. So that night Diarmait fled with Grainne. For some time they travelled together in a state of sexually frustrated antagonism, with Diarmait leaving small signs where she had slept to tell Fionn that Grainne was not his lover. As they were crossing a ford, a splash of water wet Grainne’s thigh and she remarked acerbically that it was braver than Diarmait was. She may have forced him into running away with her, but she needled him into bed.
Diarmait wove her a hut to sleep in, surrounded by a fence with seven doors. When the Fianna finally caught them up, the odds looked very bad. Diarmait had an impressive ally on his side, however: his foster-father Angus, the Irish god of love. Angus came to the lovers with a mantle of invisibility, offering to spirit them away. Diarmait’s pride wouldn’t allow him to leave in that eminently advisable way, but he asked Angus to take Grainne to safety. Nor were the Fianna really against him; of the seven doors, five were guarded by good friends who would have let Diarmait pass without bloodshed. It was his choice to go out of the one guarded by Fionn himself, and to do so with such a dramatically high leap that no one could catch him. Pure show-offery. He caught up with Angus and Grainne, unharmed.
Angus advised the lovers to never hide in a tree with one trunk, to never rest in a cave with one entrance, to never land on an island with one channel of approach, not to eat where they cooked and sleep where they ate, and where they slept once, to never sleep again – in short, to never ever stop moving. That was enough for a time, but Fionn was always hunting them. Knowing that he could not trust his own men to capture Diarmait, he sent other warriors to do the deed.
Diarmait and Grainne befriended the giant Muadhan, who travelled with them for a while as a protector. While the group were sheltering in a cave, three warriors came to camp in the same place and talked of pursuing Diarmait without realising the man himself was before them. Which does rather raise the question of how they were expecting to find him at all? Diarmait solemnly informed them that he had learned tricks from the hero they hunted, and would show them how dangerous their quest was. He then proceeded to slaughter the champions’ followers and left the champions themselves tied up on the beach. He also evaded their venomous (venomous?) hounds.
There was a rowan tree guarded by a one-eyed giant named Sharvan the Surly, who looked so terrifying that no warrior dared cross into his lands, making his general vicinity a good place for determined outlaws to hang out. Diarmait, who after all was very charming, managed to sweet-talk Sharvan into letting the lovers camp indefinitely on his lands. The only rule was that they were never to eat the berries of the tree. So of course, Grainne desperately wanted the berries. She was pregnant and the cravings were unbearable. When she told Diarmait, he took her request to Sharvan, only to be flatly denied. Diarmait then fought the giant and won. Sharvan died; Diarmait fetched Grainne and the two of them climbed the tree to eat the sweetest berries in the higher branches.
Fionn heard of Sharvan’s death and knew instinctively that Diarmait had killed him. He arranged his men underneath the tree and decided to lure Diarmait out with a game of chess, played against his son Oisin. Every time Oisin went to make a move that would lead to his defeat, a berry fell on the place he ought to move. Only one man in Ireland could beat Fionn at chess, and when Oisin managed that for the first time, Fionn knew he had been guided by Diarmait. Another extraordinary leap saved Diarmait from capture, and Angus swept Grainne away in his cloak.
Fionn called on his old nurse, likely to have been the druidess Bodhmall, who was also Fionn’s aunt. She flew through the air on a water lily and when she caught up to Diarmait, she pierced his shield with poisoned darts. Though the pain was agonising, Diarmait managed to retaliate in kind, killing her with a spear. What was more, he survived afterwards.
Diarmait and Grainne had five children together, four sons and a daughter, and if ANYONE can find out what their names were, have mercy and tell me. Not one of my sources names one of them. Life on the run with a large family was hellish, one would imagine. Between the imploding Fianna and the actual god of love pointing out the absurdity of the situation, Fionn finally gave up on the pursuit and allowed the lovers to live in peace. Diarmait had a fort built for his family, named Rath Grainia after Grainne, and he even managed to salvage some of his friendship with Fionn. There are versions in which Fionn eventually married Grainne’s sister, Ailbe Grúadbrecc.
But he never quite lost his desire for vengeance.
Grainne missed her father and Diarmait missed his comrades from the Fianna. Grainne convinced him to invite their nearest, dearest and most deadly to a feast, including Fionn as a gesture of goodwill. That night, as the household slept, Diarmait woke to the sound of hunting hounds. Each time he woke, Grainne – for all her sweet overtures, not trusting Fionn an inch – convinced him not to leave the bed. In the morning, she could not convince him to leave the matter be, or go outside with his armour on and his best weapons to hand.
What happened next depends on the version you read. In one, Fionn’s intentions were not actively destructive. Diarmait’s father had murdered Diarmait’s half-brother Roc, and the dead boy had been transformed into a savage boar for the sole purpose of exacting revenge. Fionn warned Diarmait of the danger, and Diarmait chose to disregard that warning. In this version, Diarmait killed the boar but was gored in the process. In an alternative account, Fionn knew exactly what he was doing. Diarmait survived the boar hunt uninjured, but Fionn asked him to measure out the beast’s skin with his bare feet, and Diarmait’s heel was pierced by a poisoned bristle.
Diarmait lay dying. If Fionn brought him a drink of water between his hands, he would be healed; Fionn had once stuck his thumb in the cauldron of Cerridwen, and ever after there was a magic in it. Fionn went to the river, but let the water trickle away as he remembered Diarmait’s elopement with Grainne. Torn by the old friendship, he returned to fetch more water, only to let it trickle away again. The third time, he pulled himself together and brought the water to Diarmait’s mouth – but too late. By then, Diarmait was dead.
Angus would not let the Fianna bury his foster-son. He took the body away with him, and through his divine arts, sometimes gave it what little life he could, so that he could speak with Diarmait again. Even in her grief, Grainne was relieved Angus had what was left of her husband in his keeping. What else she felt varies widely in different accounts. In one version, Fionn was not married to Ailbe, and paid court to Grainne again. Though at first she scorned him, she finally agreed to be his wife. In another version, she died of a broken heart.
In a third version, she raised her boys on a diet of fury to avenge their father. Not that they really needed to, in the end – Diarmait’s death was the beginning of the end for the Fianna.
Grainne was not a kind woman. When she saw something she wanted, she went after it without giving a damn about the consequences to herself or to anyone else. She essentially kidnapped Diarmait and taunted him into sleeping with her. But damn, what a hurricane of a personality. I like to think she did live, and raged, and Fionn knew better than to set foot near her for the rest of his days.
These stories vary wildly depending on time and teller – I work with the sources I have to hand but if you know an alternative version I would love to hear it!