Bardic Tales of Ireland and the Fate of the Children of Usna

A. M. Sullivan
c. 1900


ONE of the oldest, and perhaps the most famous, of all the great national history-poems or bardic tales of the ancient Irish, is called “The Fate of the Children of Usna,” the incidents of which belong to the period preceding by half a century the Christian era, or anno mundi 3960.

Indeed it was always classified by the bards as one of “The Three Sorrowful Tales of Erinn.”

Singularly enough, the story contains much less poetic fiction, and keeps much closer to the simple facts of history, than do several of the poems of Ossian's time, written much later on.

From the highly dramatic and tragic nature of the events related, one can well conceive that, clad in the beautiful idiom of the Irish tongue and told in the fanciful language of poetry, “The Story of the Children of Usnach” was calculated to win a prominent place among the bardic recitals of the pagan Irish.

A semi-fanciful version of it has been given in English at great length by Dr. Ferguson in the “Hibernian Nights' Entertainment;” but the story is variously related by other narrators.

As it may, perhaps, be interesting to my young readers, I summarize the various versions here as the only specimen I mean to give of the semi-imaginative literature of the pagan Irish:

When Conor Mac Nessa was reigning king of Ulidia, and Eochy the Tenth was Ard-Ri of Erinn, it happened one day that Conor had deigned to be present at a feast which was given at the house of Felemi, son of the laureate of Ulster.

While the festivities were going on, it came to pass that the wife of the host gave birth to a daughter; and the infant being brought into the presence of the king and the other assembled guests, all saw that a beauty more than natural had been given to the child.

In the midst of remark and marvel on all hands at the circumstance, Kavaiee, the chief Druid of the Ulidians, cried out with a loud voice and prophesied that through the infant before them there would come dark woe and misfortune to Ulster, such as the land had not known for years.

When the warriors heard this, they all demanded that the child should instantly be put to death.

But Conor interposed and forbade the deed.

‘I,’ said the king, ‘will myself take charge of this beautiful child of destiny. I shall have her reared where no evil can befall through her or to her, and in time she may become a wife for me.’

Then the chief Druid, Kavaiee, named the child Deirdri, which means alarm or danger.

Conor placed the infant under the charge of a nurse or attendant, and subsequently a female tutor, in a residence situated in a district which no foot of man was allowed to tread; so that Deirdri had grown to the age of woman before she saw a human form other than those of her female attendants. And the maiden was beautiful beyond aught that the eye of man had ever beheld.

Meanwhile, at the court of the Ulidian king was a young noble named Naeisi, son of Usna, whose manly beauty, vigor, activity, and bravery were the theme of every tongue.

One day, accompanied only by a faithful deerhound, Naeisi had hunted the deer from the rising of the sun, until, toward evening, he found the chase had led him into a district quite strange to his eye.

He paused to think how best he might retrace his way homeward, when suddenly the terrible idea flashed across his mind that he was within the forbidden ground which it was death to enter—the watchfully-guarded retreat of the king's mysterious protégée, Deirdri.

While pondering on his fatal position, he came suddenly upon Deirdri and her nurse, who were strolling in the sunset by a running stream.

Deirdri cried out with joy to her attendant, and asked what sort of a being it was who stood beyond; for she had never seen any such before.

The consternation and embarrassment of the aged attendant were extreme, and she in vain sought to baffle Deirdri's queries, and to induce her to hasten homeward.

Naeisi too, riveted by the beauty of Deirdri, even though he knew the awful consequences of his unexpected presence there, stirred not from the scene. He felt that even on the penalty of death he would not lose the enchanting vision.

He and Deirdri spoke to each other; and eventually the nurse, perplexed at first, seems to have become a confidante to the attachment which on the spot sprung up between the young people.

It was vain for them, however, to hide from themselves the fate awaiting them on the king's discovery of their affection, and accordingly Naeisi and Deirdri arranged that they would fly into Alba, where they might find a home.

Now Naeisi was greatly loved by all the nobles of Ulster; but most of all was he loved by his two brothers, Anli and Ardan, and his affection for them caused him to feel poignantly the idea of leaving them forever. So he confided to them the dread secret of his love for Deirdri and of the flight he and she had planned.

Then Anli and Ardan said that wherever Naeisi would fly, thither also would they go, and with their good swords guard their brother and the wife for whom he was sacrificing home and heritage.

So, privately selecting a trusty band of one hundred and fifty warriors, Naeisi, Anli, and Ardan, taking Deirdri with them, succeeded in making their escape out of Ireland and into Alba, where the king of that country, aware of their noble lineage and high valor, assigned them ample ‘maintenance and quarterage,’ as the bards express it.

There they lived peacefully and happily for a time, until the fame of Deirdri's unequalled beauty made the Albanian king restless and envious, reflecting that he might, as sovereign, himself claim her as wife, which demand at length he made.

Naeisi and his brothers were filled with indignation at this; but their difficulty was extreme, for whither now could they fly? Ireland was closed against them forever; and now they were no longer safe in Alba!

The full distress of their position was soon realized: for the king of Alba came with force of arms to take Deirdri.

After many desperate encounters and adventures, however, any one of which would supply ample material for a poem-story, the exiled brothers and their retainers made good their retreat into a small island off the Scottish coast.

When it was heard in Ulidia that the sons of Usna were in such sore strait, great murmurs went round among the nobles of Ulster, for Naeisi and his brothers were greatly beloved of them all.

So the nobles of the province eventually spoke up to the king, and said it was hard and a sad thing that these three young nobles, the foremost warriors of Ulster, should be lost to their native land and should suffer such difficulty ‘on account of one woman.’

Conor saw what discontent and disaffection would prevail throughout the province if the popular favorites were not at once pardoned and recalled. He consented to the entreaties of the nobles, and a royal courier was dispatched with the glad tidings to the sons of Usna.

When the news came, joy beamed on every face but on that of Deirdri. She felt an unaccountable sense of fear and sorrow, ‘as if of coming ill.’

Yet, with all Naeisi's unbounded love for her, she feared to put it to the strain of calling on him to choose between exile with her or a return to Ireland without her. For it was clear that both he and Anli and Ardan longed in their hearts for one glimpse of the hills of Erinn.

However, she could not conceal the terrible dread that oppressed her, and Naeisi, though his soul yearned for home, was so moved by Deirdri's forebodings, that he replied to the royal messenger by expressing doubts of the safety promised to him if he returned.

When this answer reached Ulster, it only inflamed the discontent against the king, and the nobles agreed that it was but right that the most solemn guarantees and ample sureties should be given to the sons of Usna on the part of the king.

To this also Conor assented; and he gave Fergus Mac Roi, Duthach del Ulad, and Cormac Colingas as guarantees or hostages that he would himself act toward the sons of Usna in good faith.

The royal messenger set out once more, accompanied by Fiachy, a young noble of Ulster, son of Fergus Mac Roi, one of the three hostages;, and now there remained no excuse for Naeisi delaying to return.

Deirdri still felt oppressed by the mysterious sense of dread and hidden danger; but (so she reflected) as Naeisi and his devoted brothers had hitherto uncomplainingly sacrificed everything for her, she would now sacrifice her feelings for their sakes. She assented, therefore (though with secret sorrow and foreboding), to their homeward voyage.

Soon the galleys laden with the returning; exiles reached the Irish shore. On landing, they found a Dalariadan legion waiting to escort them to Emania, the palace of the king; and of this legion the young Fiachy was the commander.

Before completing the first day's march some misgivings seem occasionally to have flitted across the minds of the brothers, but they were allayed by the frank and fearless, brave and honorable Fiachy, who told them to have no fear, and to be of good heart.

But every spear's length they drew near to Emania, Deirdri's feelings became more and more insupportable, and so overpowered was she with the forebodings of evil, that again the cavalcade halted, and again the brothers would have turned back but for the persuasions of their escort.

Next day, toward evening, they sighted Emania.

‘O Naeisi,’ cried Deirdri, ‘view the cloud that I here see in the sky! I see over Eman Green a chilling cloud of blood-tinged red.’

But Naeisi tried to cheer her with assurances of safety and pictures of the happy days that were yet before them.

Next day came Durthacht, chieftain of Fermae (now Farney), saying that he came from the king, by whose orders the charge of the escort should now be given to him.

But Fiachy, who perhaps at this stage began to have misgivings as to what was in meditation, answered that to no one would he surrender the honorable trust confided to him on the stake of his father's life and honor, which with his own life and honor he would defend.

And here, interrupting the summarized text of the story, I may state that it is a matter of doubt whether the king was really a party to the treachery which ensued, or whether Durthacht and others themselves moved in the bloody business without his orders, using his name and calculating that what they proposed to do would secretly please him, would be readily forgiven or approved, and would recommend them to Conor's favor.

Conor's character as it stands on the page of authentic history, would forbid the idea of such murderous perfidy on his part; but all the versions of the tale allege the king's guilt to be deep and plain.

Fiachy escorted his charge to a palace which had been assigned for them in the neighborhood; and, much to the disconcerting of Durthacht of Fermae, quartered his legion of Dalariadans as guards upon the building.

That night neither the chivalrous Fiachy nor the children of Usna disguised the now irresistible and mournful conviction that foul play was to be apprehended; but Naeisi and his brothers had seen enough of their brave young custodian to convince them that, even though his own father should come at the palace gate to bid him connive at the surrender of his charge, Fiachy would defend them while life remained.

Next morning the effort was renewed to induce Fiachy to hand over the charge of the returned exiles. He was immovable.

‘What interest is it of yours to obstruct the king's orders?’ said Durthacht of Fermae; ‘can you not turn over your responsibility to us, and in peace and safety go your way?’—‘It is of the last interest to me,’ replied Fiachy, ‘to see that the sons of Usna have not trusted in vain on the word of the king, on the hostage of my father, or on the honor of my father's son.’

Then all chance of prevailing on Fiachy being over, Durthacht gave the signal for assault, and the palace was stormed on all sides.

Then spoke Naeisi, touched to the heart by the devotion and fidelity of Fiachy:

‘Why should you perish defending us? We have seen all. Your honor is safe, noblest of youths. We will not have you sacrifice vainly resisting the fate that for us now is clearly inevitable. We will meet death calmly, we will surrender ourselves, and spare needless slaughter.’

But Fiachy would not have it so, and all the entreaties of the sons of Usna could not prevail upon him to assent.

‘I am here,’ said he, ‘the representative of my father's hostage, of the honor of Ulster, and the word of the king. To these and on me you trusted. While you were safe you would have turned back, but for me. Now, they who would harm you must pass over the lifeless corpse of Fiachy.’

Then they asked that they might at least go forth on the ramparts and take part in the defense of the palace; but Fiachy pointed out that by the etiquette of knightly honor in Ulidia, this would be infringing on his sacred charge.

He was the pledge for their safety, and he alone should look to it. They must, under no circumstances, run even the slightest peril of a spear-wound, unless he should first fall, when by the laws of honor, his trust would have been acquitted, but not otherwise.

So ran the code of chivalry among the warriors of Dalariada.

Then Naeisi and his brothers and Deirdri withdrew into the palace, and no more, even by a glance, gave sign of any interest or thought whatsoever about their fate; whether it was near or far, brightening or darkening; ‘but Naeisi and Deirdri sat down at a chessboard and played at the game.’

Meanwhile, not all the thunders of the heavens could equal the resounding din of the clanging of shields, the clash of swords and spears, the cries of the wounded, and the shouts of the combatants outside.

The assailants were twenty to one; but the faithful Fiachy and his Dalariadans performed prodigies of valor, and at noon they still held the outer ramparts of all. By the assailants nothing had yet been won.

An attendant rushed with word to Naeisi. He raised not his eyes from the board, but continued the game.

But now the attacking party, having secured reinforcements, returned to the charge with increased desperation. For an hour there was no pause in the frightful fury of the struggle.

At length the first rampart was won.

A wounded guard rushed in with the dark news to Naeisi, who ‘moved a piece on the board, but never raised his eyes.’

The story in this way goes on to describe how, as each fosse surrounding the palace was lost and won, and as the din and carnage of the strife drew nearer and nearer to the doomed guests inside, each report from the scene of slaughter, whether of good or evil report failed alike to elicit the slightest motion of concern or interest one way or another from the brothers or from Deirdri.

In all the relics we possess of the old poems or bardic stories of those pagan times, there is nothing finer than the climax of the tragedy which the semi-imaginative story I have been epitomizing here proceeds to reach.

The deafening clangor and bloody strife outside, drawing nearer and nearer, the supreme equanimity of the noble victims inside, too proud to evince the slightest emotion, is most powerfully and dramatically antithesized; the story culminating in the final act of the tragedy, when the faithful Fiachy and the last of his guards having been slain, ‘the Sons of Usna’ met their fate with a dignity that befitted three such noble champions of Ulster.

When Fergus and Duthach heard of the foul murder of the sons of Usna, in violation of the pledge for which they themselves were sureties, they marched upon Emania, and, in a desperate encounter with Conor's forces in which the king's son was slain and his palace burned to the ground, they inaugurated a desolating war that lasted in Ulster for many a year, and amply fulfilled the dark prophecy of Kavaiee the Druid in the hour of Deirdri's birth.

Deirdri, we are told, ‘never smiled’ from the day of the slaughter of her husband on Eman Green.

In vain the king lavished kindness and favors upon her. In vain he exhausted every resource in the endeavor to cheer, amuse, or interest her.

One day, after more than a year had been passed by Deirdri in this settled but placid despair and melancholy, Conor took her in his own chariot to drive into the country. He attempted to jest her sarcastically about her continued grieving for Naeisi, when suddenly she sprang out of the chariot, then flying at the full speed of the steeds, and falling head foremost against a sharp rock on the roadside, was killed upon the spot.

Well known to most Irish readers, young and old, is Moore's beautiful and passionate “Lament for the Children of Usna:”

“Avenging and bright fall the swift sword of Erin

On him who the brave sons of Usna betrayed!—

For every fond eye he hath waken'd a tear in,

A drop from his heart-wounds shall weep o'er her blade!

“By the red cloud that hung over Conor's dark dwelling,

When Ulad's three champions lay sleeping in gore—

By the billows of war, which so often, high swelling,

Have wafted these heroes to victory's shore—

“We swear to revenge them!—

No joy shall be tasted,

The harp shall be silent, the maiden unwed,

Our halls shall be mute, and our fields shall lie wasted,

Till vengeance is wreak'd on the murderer's head!

‘Yes, monarch, tho' sweet are our home recollections;

Though sweet are the tears that from tenderness fall;

Though sweet are our friendships, our hopes, our affections,

Revenge on a tyrant is sweetest of all!”

Portrait of Thomas Moore