Deirdre of the Sorrows reinvented as a modern feminist parable
Yeats and Synge made Deirdre into a symbol of the oppressed Irish nation but to a modern eye she comes across as a woman seeking freedom from an intolerant state
Alan Walsh: Deirdre of the Sorrows has plenty to say about a country today, where women are still marginalised and continue to fight for adequate legislation and representation
When both John Millington Synge and WB Yeats wrote stage versions of the Irish myth, Deirdre of the Sorrows, in the early twentieth century, they had a particular point to make. It was a point Yeats made over and over throughout his poetry and plays, strongly enough to maintain a hold over all of our national mythology even now.
The myth of Deirdre has a number of variations in the telling but in general it goes that Deirdre was cursed even before birth with a beauty destined to have men war and kill over it. On being born, she was whisked away by the High King, Conchobor, so he could raise her until she was old enough to be his queen, sequestering her away from all men, accompanied only by her maid. One day, however, Deirdre spied Naoise, a young man she greatly preferred, and forced him to rescue her. As you might imagine, they fell in love and he and his brothers went into hiding around Ireland, chased by the king’s men through all of the provinces and kingdoms. Finally, they escaped to Scotland, at which point Conchobor offered them a truce if only they’d return to him. When they did, he betrayed them completely. He had his foremost soldier, Fergus, murder Naoise and all of his brothers, he took Deirdre as his wife against her will and, as a punishment, declared he’d share her with Fergus, the man who murdered her beloved, the man she hated more than anyone.
The story ends with Deirdre committing suicide as both an escape and an act of defiance, in some cases with a knife and in others by raising her head when the royal chariot is passing beneath a low rock.
It isn’t a terrifically uplifting tale, but Yeats and Synge saw something uplifting in it. They saw a young, mystical beauty pursued by a powerful and greedy king. They saw the youth as spirited and resourceful and pure and the king as spent, corrupt and debased. Deirdre of the Sorrows became from that point a story about Ireland being oppressed by the evils of the foreign kingdom of England. It tapped into a lot of what was happening with Irish culture at that point.
Along with the Young Irelanders, Yeats was helping collate the national folk tales into a single, identifiable canon with a definite outlook. Ireland was to be identified as Celtic, as having an otherworldly beauty, unsullied and ancient, as opposed to England, portrayed as Teutonic, industrialised, polluted and modern.
The myth of Deirdre slotted especially well into this attitude. The interesting thing is that it’s hardly been able to escape it since. Yeats did such a powerful job standardising national folklore to mean one thing, we’re still identifying Cuchullain, Fionn McCumhaill, Deirdre, the children of Lir and everyone else, with a serene, ethereal grace quite opposed to the actual content of many of the stories. Deirdre decapitates herself on a low-hanging rock, Cuchulainn murders a dog with a sliotar, Ireland goes to war over a stolen cow.
Mythology tends to deal in extreme, visceral characters, blood-letting, dark plot, but these stories still seem like the preserve of either the lofty realms of the Abbey stage or the gentle, sterilised retellings familiar in children’s storybooks. It’s hard to imagine an Irish myth treated with the same gusto and licence you’d witness at something like Medea or Antigone.
What’s interesting about Deirdre today, is, I supposed that it talks about people not defined and dictated to by their idea of nation. Deirdre is being set up as the queen of the country, but nothing could interest her less. She wants to pursue her own needs and her own journey. There isn’t anything grand for her to fight for, to her mind, other than her own will. In this regard Deirdre symbolises a lot about how we think of ourselves in an Irish republic free from foreign rule for the better part of a century. If anything, today the story can be seen as one about an individual being oppressed and hounded by a dominant governing power.
Myths are essential to the fabric of a community by helping establish what ties its people together, but also, through the lasting power of its stories, relate to the challenges and issues encountered as the community evolves. Deirdre of the Sorrows has plenty to say about a country today, where women are still marginalised and continue to fight for adequate legislation and representation. The story still speaks to a place where the nationwide mistreatment of children and young people has only recently begun to be uncovered. It speaks to people forced to leave for other shores against their will, especially for their own safety.
When I was writing Sour, I noticed a number of other people had picked up on a similar notion about the story. Eamonn Carr published Deirdre Unforgiven, relating the myth to the troubles in the North, and this year Aston Productions are looking for funding for a film version of the play.
Aside from Deirdre, many of the old tales are beginning to find new homes in unusual places. Will Sliney’s Celtic Warrior – the Legend of Cuchullainn repurposes the national warrior as a comic-book hero almost as much as his appearance in Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy comic book or in 2000AD as Slaine. Video games like Square Enix’s Final Fantasy series have characters from Irish myth appear as strange, alien creatures. Hagwitch by Marie Louise Fitzpatrick draws on the Children of Lir to talk about a young girl being raised in strange circumstances. Perhaps this reimagining of our folklore reflects a whole new outlook when it comes to ourselves as a nation. These many, weird and wonderful imaginings might, instead of discussing an idea of flag or country, reflect the modern needs and motivations of the people within it.