One of “The Three Sorrows of Storytelling” of Irish Tradition, the tragedy of Deirdre (Gaelic Der for daughter and duer meaning tear) is one of the most popular Celtic legends in both Ireland and Scotland. While the men of Ulster were feasting at the home of Fedlimid mac Daill, seanchaidh to Conchobar mac Nessa (the king) the host’s wife gave birth to a beautiful baby girl. The Druid Cathbad prophesied the baby would grow to become a beautiful woman, but she would be the ruin of Ulster. The warriors at the feast demanded the baby be put to death for the sake of Ulster, but the King commanded that she be taken away to Alba.
The King ordered Deirdre to be raised by trusted servants until she reached womanhood when she would be his wife. One Winter day, when Deirdre was a young woman, she observed her foster father cleaning a deer he had slain. A raven landed to feast upon the blood in the snow. In this she saw the three colors sacred to the Celts, the black raven, the red blood, and the white snow. Deirdre told her foster father “Fair would be the man upon whom these three colors should be: his hair like the raven, his cheek like the blood, and his body like the snow.” Her foster father (perhaps pitying her fate to be wed to the old king) told Deirdre there was such a man living nearby. His name was Noise and they fell in love at first sight. Noise knew Deirdre was promised to Conchobar, but she said she chose the young over the old bull. The two eloped and fled across Eire with Conchobar in pursuit, and then to Alba where they found protection on the shores of Loch Etive (Gaelic goddess meaning little horrid one) in Glen Etive just south of Glencoe. Conchobar attempted trickery to get his fair bride, but failed. Finally he sent Fergus mac Roich a friend of Noise and a valiant warrior to guarantee safe journey claiming all was forgiven. Noise agreed, but Deirdre tried to convince her husband that Conchobar should not be trusted. Noise had faith his friend would not betray him so they returned to Eire with Fergus. Conchubar reminded Fergus he was forbidden by geis (Celtic oath) to turn away from a feast he had prepared. Then Conchubar summoned Deirdre’s nurse and asked if she was as fair since years had passed. The nurse told him Deirdre had been changed by her years in the forests of Alba. Then Conchubar sent a male servant to look upon Deirdre and bring him word if she were still fair. The servant gazed upon Deirdre and could not turn away because of her beauty. Noise saw him peering in the window and threw a chess piece that put out the servant’s eye. He returned to Conchubar and reported Deirdre was the most beautiful woman he had ever seen and he would still be gazing upon her if Noise had not put out his eye.Conchubar had the Druid put a spell on Noise and his brothers and beheaded them in front of Deirdre. Her hands were tied and she was brought to Conchubar where she remained a year without smiling. Finally she threw herself from a chariot and died from striking her head on a rock. Deirdre and Noise were buried side by side. Out of their graves grew two yew trees that intertwined at the top over the Church of Armagh. Conchubar’s jealousy did lead to the defection of most of Ulster’s best warriors as prophesied.
From James MacKillop’s Dictionary of Celtic Mythology, Oxford 1998