Deirdre was the daughter of the royal storyteller Fedlimid mac Daill. Before she was born, Cathbad the chief druid at the court of Conchobar mac Nessa, king of Ulster, prophesied that Fedlimid's daughter would grow up to be very beautiful, but that kings and lords would go to war over her, much blood would be shed because of her, and Ulster's three greatest warriors would be forced into exile for her sake.
Hearing this, many urged Fedlimid to kill the baby at birth, but Conchobar, aroused by the description of her future beauty, decided to keep the child for himself. He took Deirdre away from her family and had her brought up in seclusion by Leabharcham, a poet and wise woman, and planned to marry Deirdre when she was old enough. As a young girl, living isolated in the woodlands, Deirdre told Leabharcham one snowy day that she would love a man with the colours she had seen when a raven landed in the snow with its prey: hair the color of the raven, skin as white as snow, and cheeks as red as blood.
Leabharcham told her she was describing Naoise, a handsome young warrior, hunter and singer at Conchobar's court. With the collusion of Leabharcham, Deirdre met Naoise and they fell in love. Accompanied by his brothers Ardan and Ainnle, the three sons of Uisneach and Deirdre fled to Scotland. They lived a happy life there, hunting and fishing and living in beautiful places; one place associated with them is Loch Etive. Some versions of the story mention that Deirdre and Naoise had children, a son Gaiar and a daughter Aebgreine, who were fostered by Manannan Mac Lir.
But the furious, humiliated Conchobar tracked them down. He sent Fergus mac Róich to them with an invitation to return and Fergus's own promise of safe conduct home, but on the way back to Emain Macha Conchobar had Fergus waylaid, forced by his personal geis (an obligation) to accept an invitation to a feast.
Fergus sent Deirdre and the sons of Uisnech on to Emain Macha with his son to protect them. When they arrived, Conchobar sent Leabharcham to spy on Deirdre, to see if she had lost her beauty. Leabharcham, to protect Deirdre, told the king that Deirdre was now ugly and aged. Conchobar then sent another spy, Gelbann, who managed to catch a glimpse of Deirdre but was seen by Naoise, who threw a gold chess piece at him and put out his eye.
The spy managed to get back to Conchobar, and told him that Deirdre was as beautiful as ever. Conchobar called his warriors to attack the Red Branch house where Deirdre and the sons of Uisnech were lodging. Naoise and his brothers fought valiantly, aided by a few Red Branch warriors, before Conchobar evoked their oath of loyalty to him and had Deirdre dragged to his side. At this point, Éogan mac Durthacht threw a spear, killing Naoise, and his brothers were killed shortly after.
Fergus and his men arrived after the battle. Fergus was outraged by this betrayal of his word, and went into exile in Connacht. He later fought against Ulster for Ailill and Medb in the war of the Táin Bó Cúailnge (the Cattle Raid of Cooley), the Irish Iliad.
After the death of Naoise, Conchobar took Deirdre as his wife. After a year, angered by Deirdre's continuing coldness toward him, Conchobar asked her whom in the world she hated the most, besides himself. She answered "Éogan mac Durthacht," the man who had murdered Naoise. Conchobar said that he would give her to Éogan. As she was being taken to Éogan, Conchobar taunted her, saying she looked like a ewe between two rams. At this, Deirdre threw herself from the chariot, dashing her head to pieces against a rock.
There are many plays and other stage productions based on Deirdre's story, including :
- George William Russell's Deirdre (1902)
- William Butler Yeats' Deirdre (1907)
- J. M. Synge's Deirdre of the Sorrows (1910)
- Vincent Woods' A Cry from Heaven (2005).
- John Coulter's Deirdre of the Sorrows (An Ancient and Noble Tale Retold by John Coulter for Music by Healey Willian) (1944) , operetta
Music includes the album "A Celtic Tale: The Legend Of Deirdre" by Mychael & Jeff Danna.
- Helen of Troy
- Tristan and Iseult
- Irish mythology in popular culture
- Corpus of Electronic Texts
- MacKillop, James (2004). "A Dictionary of Celtic Mythology". Oxford University Press. p. 181. ISBN 9780198609674.
- "Deirdre of the Sorrows". bardmythologies.com. Retrieved 2018-04-13.
- Monaghan, Patricia. 2008. The Encyclopedia of Celtic Mythology and Folklore. Checkmark Books. p. 123.
- Hitt, J. G. 1908. Deirdre and the Sons of Uisneach: A Scoto-Irish Romance of the First Century A.D. Marshall Brothers. p. 46.
- University of Cork, Ireland : CELT (Corpus of Electronic Texts) : Longes mac nUislenn
- University of Cork, Ireland : CELT (Corpus of Electronic Texts) : Longes mac nUislenn (translation by Douglas Hyde)
- A Scoto-Irish Romance of the first century A.D., compiled from various sources by William Graham, 1908
- The Exile of the Sons of Usnech
- Deirdre of the Sorrows by J. M. Synge
- The Lament of Deirdre
- John Coulter Finding Aid McMaster University Libraries
- "Deirdrê" A detailed retelling of the story for children, by Jeanie Lang (1914)