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Voix de femmes à la scène, à l'écran

Nicole Vigouroux-Frey

Irlande et Royaume Uni

Derdriu and her Sisters: Woman’s voice... Nature’s voice?

Leonard H. Frey

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1Longes macc nuisland (The Exile of the Sons of Uisliu), or to give it its better known title “Derdriu of the Sorrows”, is by now well enough rooted in the esteem and affection of a wide and continuing audience, as the greatest of Irish love stories and one of the greatest in world literature, that it is easy to overlook its non-uniqueness as a theme, most especially as a Celtic theme but also on a world basis. The story of the beautiful woman who has rival forces (one senior, a father or husband, and one junior, a suitor or lover) contending for her possession is as old as Homer (Helen of Troy, Menelaus, Paris) or the Argonaut story (Medea, Aeetes, Jason) and as young (in Celtic terms) as John Ford’s “The Quiet Man” or (as I will argue) the Breton Robbe-Grillet’s and Resnais’ “Last Year at Marienbad”. It may be precisely this non-uniqueness of theme for the Derdriu story that makes it a suitable point of embarkation for the Woman’s Voice theme of this paper: a dimension of Woman as nature’s voice in a process of natural selection.

  • 1 The ancient Irish system of totems and taboos.

2Before we begin our inquiry in this direction, it would be well to summarize the Derdriu story, familiar though it may be: a baby girl is born to the Ulster bard Fedlimid, for whom the Druid Cathub prophesizes such great beauty that wars and warriors will rage around her and give her an eternal fame. After the Ulster Court demand her death, the king Conchobar pre-empts the child, to be raised as a future wife for himself. Derdriu grows up to all the beauty forecast for her and one day confides to her nurse Lebarcham that she yearns for a man with three colors of black, red, and white (hair like a raven, cheeks like blood, body like snow). Such a young man is nearby in the person of Noisiu, one of Conchobar’s warriors, and the girl in effect seduces him into an elopement. Conchobar’s rage pursues them throughout Ireland and together with Noisiu’s brothers they take refuge in Scotland, where they are the matrix of attention from an amorous Scots king as well. They return to Ireland with a guarantee of safety from Conchobar, with the great nobleman Fergus Mac Roy who is diver-ted from his protective role by an invitation he is GESSA1 -bound to accept. Upon their arrival at Conchobar’s court in Emain Macha the lovers are betrayed, Noisiu and his brothers executed and Derdriu eventually a suicide after refusing the consolation of the king.

  • 2 Early Irish Myths and Sagas, Penguin Books Ltd., 1981.
  • 3 The concluding bibliographical note indicates available study material for these.

3Geoffrey Gantz2 has noted in the Derdriu (and the Wooing of Etain) legend a pattern it will be our partial purpose to explore here; the rivalry of a senior and a junior masculine figure for possession of a woman, with the passage of the woman (through her own preference) from the senior to the junior figure, with a return to the former at the close. The implications here may be at once simple and complex: a woman leaves a father/husband figure for a lover, or the wider possibility of nature passing from the old year to the new, with the implied seasonal changes until the cycle renews itself the following year. The Celtic examples here are wide-ranging indeed and would include those episodes (in their numerous tellings and re-tellings) in Arthurian legend that involve the triangulations of Guenivere, Lancelot, and Arthur himself, as well as the Isolde, Tristan, and King Marc material. The Welsh Mabinogion also figures here: the Wooing of Olwen story with Culhwch and Ysbaddaden as the rivals, or the Rhiannon and Branwen episodes in the Four Branches. For control purposes, from the whole area of Celtic possibilities, the following stories have been selected to illustrate the thesis first set forth in Derdriu: (1) the epic “Pursuit of Dairmud and Grania” from the Fionn Mac Cumaill cycle (2) the fifteenth century romance of “Cearbhall and Fearbhlaidh” (3) the radically contrastive films “The Quiet Man” (1952) and “L’Année Dernière à Marienbad (1960)3”. Derdriu and her sisters, then, may reflect a considerable spectrum of styles and fashions within the confines of the theme.

4Within the Derdriu story itself, it is important to note the following, for variation potential: (1) It is Derdriu’s Helen-of-Troy-like beauty that is the generative force of the material. This is the essence of the Druid’s prophecy for her life, is reflected in the Scots king’s desire for her, and is Conchobar’s main concern when he seeks to know if she has altered in her absence from Ireland. In terms of the woman-as-nature thesis for the story, this suggests nature as renewal, rejuvenation, and repetition on the cyclic basis of seasonal change in the very permanence of her beauty. Derdriu herself has opted for the nature colors of the raven, blood, and snow in her ideal man; further, her fatal beauty is destroyed only by the hardness of stone in the manner of death she chooses for herself (2) The senior-junior thesis for the masculine rivals has Noisiu, like Cuchullain, in something like a filial relationship to Conchobar. Noisiu’s reluctance to elope (duplicated in the Grania and Dairmud story) is bound in with his oaths of royalty to his king. The son’s besting of the father is thus at least suggested here, and Conchobar’s betrayal of Noisiu actually does involve the death of one of his own sons in the violence at Emain Macha. Thus the Derdriu triangulation becomes a kind of family tragedy, a man who raised her for his own needs, and lost her to a surrogate son/rival. (This betrayal is interpreted in the largest possible terms by the Ulaid, in that it explains the presence of numerous defectors from Ulster to the Connacht cause in the Tain Bo Cuailnge). The nature-implications here should be evident. One year displaces another, just as seasons succeed one another: a larger displacement embracing a smaller. Nature is modified by these displacements, yet remains in essence the same. The woman’s death here has its own hint of renewal in the manner of her burial with her lover, with vegetation (the archetypical vine and tree) that will inter-act and stay intimately in touch.

5Let us now examine in turn the situations of Grania, Fearbhlaidh, Mary Kate Danaher, and the Lady of Marienbad for their variations on the Derdriu theme.

  • 4 The ancient Irish otherworld and its divinities.

6(1) The so-called “Pursuit of Dairmud and Grania”, a miniature epic within the vast Fionn-cycle, follows the Derdriu story-line fairly closely — at least, until the conclusion. Again, we have the beautiful young woman balking at marriage with a man old enough to be her father and eloping with one of Fionn’s greatest warriors, Dairmud of the Love Spot, the darling of all the women of Ireland. (Again, too, after the settling of an obligation in the form of a Geis on the young man by Grania.) After numerous spectacular adventures and much aid from the Sidhe4 (in the person of Dairmud’s foster-father Angus Og of Bruh na Boinne/Newgrange), the couple are reconciled with the jealous Fionn, who then participates in the fated death of Dairmud in an attack by a magic wild boar. The widowed Grania is in time persuaded to accept the renewed wooing of Fionn, and the two are joined at the close, to the jeering of Fionn’s warrior-band (including his son and grandson).

7What is evident here is the lessening of the spiritual stature of the woman-figure. The anti-feminism of the later Middle Ages, a displacement of the earlier (and continuing) Courtly Love tradition, is mainly seen in the uses of the Adam and Eve material or such stock comic types as the gossip or shrewish wife (like Noah’s). Grania is in this tradition, clearly no Derdriu who chooses death for true love’s sake. Anti-feminism plus the conception of woman as barter-material (Grania is concerned for what advantages she may gain for her off-spring) join here with the tendencies of Romance to favor incident over character. Grania at the close is if not a villain-figure at least quite distasteful, hardly worthy of Dairmud’s heroics on her behalf (a kind of Celtic Cressida). By implication, she is at least a partial cause of the subsequent decline of the Fianna as a cohesive heroic band. On the other hand, as a survivor-type she subscribes to a conception of Nature as an amoral force, obedient to cyclic time.

8(2) If the defect in Grania highlights her story, that of the lovers Cearbhall and Fearbhlaidh is notable for its transformations and fairy-tale qualities. Fearbhlaidh, the beautiful daughter of the Scots king, Seamus Mac Turcaill, is vainly courted by many high suitors but has fallen in love with a vision in a dream, the youthful Irish bard Cearbhall. Promising her father that if she fails in her search for Cearbhall, she will accept his political marriage plans for her, she sends her nurse Duibhghil (a remarkable figure, the equal of Derdriu’s Lebarcham) on a successful search of the British Isles. Conjuring a magic wind, Duibhghil finds Cearbhall in the bardic school of Finnyvara in west Ireland. Transformed as doves, Fearbhlaidh and her nurse visit the young poet and, resuming her own form, the young woman becomes his lover. Cearbhall falls sick after the women return to Scotland, and Fearbhlaidh sends a magic healing stone, which enables him to visit Scotland with his poet-troop. After performing feats of bardic magic, he incurs the ill-will of the girl’s father, is imprisoned, sentenced to death, and escapes by exchanging clothes with Fearbhlaidh, who pacifies her father. The lovers remain separated until Cearbhall marries an Irish princess after sorcerers have drugged him with forgetfulness. Brought back to his senses by Fearbhlaidh and her nurse, the bard meets the women in their guise as swans until they must flee Ireland for Scotland. There, the king Seamus’ hatred of Cearbhall prompts him to spread false reports of the bard’s death, news which kills Fearbhlaidh, whose death in turn brings on Cearbhall’s.

9In this wildly improbable 15th century piece (a Celtic Romeo and Juliet variant), our interest must be in the transformational aspects as well as the psychology of the father-figure. The dimensions of human affection and jealousy evident in the Derdriu and Grania stories are absent here, and we are treated to something like the Sidhe transformations in the much earlier “Wooing of Etain” of the Mythological Cycle. The passage of the heroine back and forth from Scotland to Ireland also suggest something like the solar-deity aspects of the Cuchullain legend. Fearbhlaidh completes at least two full cycles from east to west over the British Isles, in the manner of a magical vitalizing force, with Cearbhall — the Irish west (the mythic world of mist and mystery) — gaining inspiration from her visits and performing at his bardic best when he visits the eastern source. This inspiration (as the Greeks imagined their solar-deity-forces inspiring imagination) of the bard, and a failure of inspiration in her politically-oriented father, may serve as well as an oblique commentary on the Celtic distinction between art and politics, with the woman not as the feminine mystic of the Cult of the Virgin but the tie-in with elevation of the bard as a primary social force, in contrast to the quicksands of politics.

10(3) With Ford’s romantic comedy “The Quiet Man”, we arrive at further modifications of our triangulation. The woman, Mary Kate Danaher, a lovely fiery red-head, is powerfully attracted toward the returned American Sean Thornton, but her property-obsessed brother Red Will regards Sean as an enemy who has claimed land he has coveted. Danaher blocks the courtship until he is persuaded his advantage lies in his sister’s removal to another man’s house, in terms of his own courtship of a wealthy widow. After Mary Kate’s marriage to Sean, Danaher refuses her her dowry when his own courtship goes awry. The remainder of the story lies in Mary Kate’s and Sean’s recovery of the dowry and a reconciliation with Danaher, after a Donnybrook of fisticuffs. Here, the paramount theme has to be woman as representing property and her own attitude towards property. Sean, the Quiet Man, mistakes his wife’s interest in her dowry for greed, when it actually represents self-respect and freedom from the servile role she has played in her brother’s house. For her time, Mary Kate is very much a modern woman, determined to stand tall in marriage as a partner and no mere ornamental slave. Significantly, when she does recover her dowry money from her brother, she and Sean toss it into the fire, and she settles into her newly established spiritual substance in marriage. Sean, as an ex-boxer afraid of what he might do in a fight (he has accidentally killed a man in the ring), has something of the reluctant gun-fighter about him, as well as a real passion for Irish beauty. Danaher as a bully represents the land-greed explored in John Keane’s “the Field”. There is also a note here of woman as a stimulus to self-fulfillment in her man. Sean is forced to come to terms with his choice of the Old World and be a new kind of hero. The nature-element is everywhere indicated, from Mary Kate’s first appearance as a sheperd’s vision of the ideal shepherdess, to her practical and aesthetic responses to her husband’s gardening, to her bucolic preference for animals over machines.

11Our final case in point, the Alain Resnais-Alain Robbe-Grillet collaboration in “L’Année Dernière à Marienbad” seems on the face of it a far remove from the Derdriu world. One of the great “art” films of a generation ago, it remains a mystery film as well, its elliptical dialogues and fleeting photographic images adding up to no certain meaning for audiences and critics alike. The plot, such as it is, involves a beautiful and stylish woman, a companion/protector (the role is never clarified), and a suitor whose business it seems to be to remind the woman of a previous meeting, “last year at Marienbad”. Within the elegant confines of a luxury-spa, the triangulation unfolds: the woman is flattered by the suitor’s attentions yet unwilling to commit herself and obviously attached in some way to her protector. Finally, the suitor wins out, besting his rival in a strange kind of table-game, and meeting the woman, suitably dressed to travel, for an elopement “into the night”. The chief Celtic clue here would seem to be the “last year” references. Celtic lore, perhaps most notably in the Gawain and the Green Knight plot, abounds in passages of a year’s time as a feature of plotting. (Cf. Also the Mabinogion and the legends surrounding Cuchullain). For our film-story, the time-reference may take on a dark, even sinister aspect. The world of the film shows a group of elegant and lifeless spa-guests, a depiction of an idle-rich health resort. If this may be assumed and the woman is among the ailing, the suitor’s claim of a previous encounter (a bout of near-fatal illness?) makes him a kind of death-angel seeking to claim his own. There is a further dark dimension here: the protector is presented as a cadaverous figure, a death-in-life type the woman seems to rely on, grasping at what life is left her. Contrasted with the debonaire suitor, in this light life does seem pale in the face of death. When the woman joins the suitor and the night, she appears to be enacting the rights-of-passage images that abound in the film, doors, corridors, garden paths as tolling devices toward her escape. When it is recalled that a year’s time span embraces the seasons and nature’s life-cycle, the thesis seems tenable. The woman yields to love-death with the promise of renewal as nature yields to the winter solstice as both an end and a beginning. Admittedly, nothing conclusive may be established here but love-death is a powerful suggestive force in the Derdriu archetype and may be here.

12The Celtic world, so rich in tapestries of lovely women presented as triumphs of nature (the Druid’s lyric description of Derdriu’s beauty-to-be, the accounts of the Sidhe-figure Etain in both the “Wooing of Etain” and the “Da Derga’s Hostel” stories), has been briefly examined here in term of a dimension of Woman’s Voice. The inquiry might enlarge itself, but that is another story.


The original text of the Derdriu story has been edited by Vernam Hull as Longes Mac Uislenn (New-York: Modern Language Association, 1949). Careful translations in English are available in Thomas Kinsella’s The Tain (Oxford University Press, 1969) and in Gantz (Op. Cit.). The Dairmud and Grania story has been retold in English perhaps most coherently by Lady Augusta Gregory in Gods and Fighting Men (The Coole Edition, Colin Smyth Ltd., 1970). Cf. Also Eoin Neeson’s Irish Myths and Legends (Mercier Press, 1966). Good summaries in French of the Derdriu and Grania stories are available in J. Markale et G. Dottin, L’Epopée Irlandaise (Les Presses d’Aujourd’Hui, 1980). James E. Doan has made a first translation into English of The Romance of Cearbhall and Fearbhlaidh (Dolmen Press, 1985). For the film pieces, Video Cassettes are readily available.


1 The ancient Irish system of totems and taboos.

2 Early Irish Myths and Sagas, Penguin Books Ltd., 1981.

3 The concluding bibliographical note indicates available study material for these.

4 The ancient Irish otherworld and its divinities.

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