Exile and Revenge

Exile Abroad

They travelled all over Ireland, gaining only temporary protection wherever they went, for Conchobor followed after in a rage, and razed where the sons of Uisliu led. Eventually the sons crossed the sea to Alba and settled in a wasteland, living off the land until it failed them, then resorting to raiding the nearby territories for sustenance. The people of Alba united at last and set out to destroy them, but the sons made a pact with the king of Alba: to serve him as hired soldiers. Realising the value of such fierce men he accepted the proposal and the Ulster-folk finally settled among the people of Alba.

Derdriu was kept hidden, however, for the sons feared that the peace would not be long in lasting if the king was to see and covet her for himself. But it happened that the king heard about her unbelievable beauty and sent a steward to seek her out. Early one morning the steward spied Derdriu and Noisiu sleeping together. He gleefully returned to the king and woke him. "I have never until this moment seenan who was more fit to be your queen", he said, "A woman of unsurpassed beauty. She sleeps with Noisiu, one of the sons. If you have him killed she will be yours". "No, I will not do that yet, but go to her and ask her to leave him and come to me", the king replied.

The steward did this, but she refused and told Noisiu. He persisted and still she refused. The king, despairing and craving her, schemed to send the men of Uisliu into all sorts of traps and battles, but they were so hard in battle that nothing came of it. Finally the steward approached her and told her that if she did not accede to the king's demands all the folk of Ulster would be killed. The sons convened and decided to slip away that very night. This they did, and reached sanctuary in a torn and bare island in the north sea between Ireland and Alba.

This news filtered back to the court of Conchobor, who still seethed with the loss of Derdriu. "Conchobor, it would be shame on us if men and women of Ulster were to die in a foreign place all through the fault of one bad woman", everyone told him, "Forgive them and protect them. Save their lives and let them home, and do not let them fall under a foreigner's hand. "

Conchobor considered this matter long and hard, and no-one spoke. Then he raised his head and said to those assembled "Let them come home, and guarantee them safety".

And he smiled.

Conchubhar's Revenge

The news reached Derdriu and the sons of Uisliu that Conchobor wished them to return home: the guarantee of no retribution softened them, and they dreamt warmly of Ireland and planned their return. But Noisiu was wary still, and sought shelter under the arms of Fergus and his son Fiacha, and Dubtach, and Conchobor's own son Cormac. These were first and foremost men of honour, and were to be trusted by all honest men.

When Conchobor heard of the preparations for their return he schemed to divert Fergus from the protection he held over the band of returning refugees. Now Fergus was the victim of all old oath, a geas, and this was that he could never refuse a glass of ale if it was lifted in his honour. Conchobor arranged that Fergus attend several of these celebrations as he escorted the Sons and Derdriu from the coast to Conchobor's court at Eamain Macha, and Fergus soon fell behind the group, who had sworn not to eat until they sat at Conchobor's table. Dubtach stayed with him, as did Cormac. Only Fiacha continued with them.

The group progressed steadily until they finally reached the common outside Eamain, where before them lay the splendour of Conchobor's fortified palace. They were met on the palisade by Eogan Mac Durtacht the king of Fernmag. This man had previously been an enemy of Conchobor's but had made his peace on one condition: he was chosen to kill the Son of Uisliu.

And so it went that Conchobor's own hired soldiers stood apart as Eogan and his men overwhelmed the sons; Eogan thrusting a barbed spear into Noisiu that split his spine. With a wail of shame Fersus' son Fiacha threw himself over Noisiu's fallen body but Eogan's second stroke impaled both to the bloodied grass. The slaughter continued on the common, with Conchobor's men apart, under orders of their king, downcast and mortified. No one left the field of battle except 'by spike of spear or slash of sword'. After the massacre Derdriu was brought bound by hand over to Conchobor, who gloated in a haze of virulent purple.

Fergus heard of this, as did Dubthach and Cormac. Enraged they flew to Eamain Macha and terrible havoc flew around and between them: Dubthach killed Maine, Conchobor's son. Fiachna, the son of Conchobor's daughter Fedelm, was killed. Fergus killed Traigthren, Traiglethan's son and brother both. Conchobor met them and by morning three hundred men of Ulster fell. Dubthach had massacred the girls of Ulster and Eamain Macha itself was razed by Fergus. These rebels with honour, Fergus and Dubthach, these killers of kin and clan, then took three thousand Ulster exiles with them to Connaught, to the king and queen Ailill and Mebd. This they knew would be no home for Ulstermen, but they sought the protection the Connaught kingdom offered them, and they continued to raid and murder in their own lost Ulster for 16 more years. Every single night of those years saw weeping and trembling in Ulster, where brother fought son and father yet.

Derdriu's Fate

And what of Derdriu? Conchobor kept her for a year only, a year in which she never smiled once, nor ate or slept, nor lifted her head from her knees. Maddened by shame and the weakness of knowing he was guilty of the slaughter of his own, but still besotted with her, Conchobor despaired of all. In vain he sent bards and harpists to her in efforts to woo. Oftentimes Conchobor himself would approach her, with soothing words and trembling hands and mad staring eyes, and she would ask him what he was thinking, telling him that she could not spare him any love having taken away the most precious thing in her life.

His desire frustrated but his temper risen, Conchobor said to her "What do you see that you hate most of all?". She replied, "Why, you, most surely. You and Eogan Mac Durthacht!". "Very well then", he railed at her, "You shall go live with Eogan for a year!"

And so he prepared to send her to Eogan. The next morning she was put behind Mac Durthacht in his chariot, and they headed for the fair at Macha. As she passed Conchobor he eyed her coldly and said  "You swore to me that two men alive in the world together would never have you. But this is good, Derdriu. For between me and Eogan you are a sheep eyeing two rams". The chariot gathered pace and shortly passed the mound where lay the son of Uisliu. Derdriu flung herself from the chariot, and her head was dashed to pieces on a stone standing there, and she was dead.

previousPrevious - Derdriu and the Exile of the Sons of Uisliu