6 Most Tragic Love Stories in Irish Mythology (Part One)
Updated: May 9
One thing I’ve always wondered about as I read all the old myth stories, is what’s the score when it comes to love, sex and marriage in pre-Medieval Ireland?
I mean, according to mythology, Lugh had two wives; Fionn mac Cumhall had several; Midir brought home Etain when he already had Fumnach; Cuchulain had an affair with Fand, who was married to Manannán, yet his wife Emer was waiting for him; Deirdre married her dead sister’s husband, the ageing Fionn, yet eloped with Diarmuid on her wedding night, and the Dagda had an affair with Boann, fathering Óengus on her, then stopped the sun in the sky for nine months so that the child could be born in one day and put into fosterage without her husband, Elcmar, finding out. Oh, but wasn’t she married to Nechtan?
Got a head-ache? Yeah, me too. It’s hard keeping track of all these long-lost love triangles, although they do make for some great stories.
I suspect relationships and marriages were a lot more fluid in the past then they are now. Given that women were pretty equal with men in terms of their rights, I doubt a man had more than one wife at a time. But life was shorter and more violent back then; survival required heirs, and that meant if one’s wife died in childbirth, or battle, or from sickness, a man needed another. And visa versa, I’m sure.
According to P. Joyce’s A Smaller Social History of Ancient Ireland, the Brehon Laws were quite clear in that women were considered equal in marriage, retaining their own property, and were free to divorce (and remarry) a man if he didn’t fulfill his husbandly duties.
On marriage, the husband had to pay the bride’s father a ‘bride-price’, or dowry. This is where the idea comes from that a man ‘bought’ his wife. This payment was made in annual increments, of which each year an increasing proportion was paid directly to the wife, finally ending at the twenty-first year of marriage.
Although the marriage contract was officially recognised, there doesn’t seem to have been any legal or religious ceremony involved, and divorce, or separation, seems to have been easy, with no stigma attached, like there is today.
We can see this in the Tailten marriages, a pagan tradition which continued well beyond Christian times. At the annual festival of Lughnasa in Teltown (between Navan and Kells), young people could be married by joining hands through a hole in a large stone, or wall.
If the relationship didn’t work out, the marriage could be dissolved at the following year’s festival by standing back to back on top of Rathdhú (an archaeological feature in the landscape of Tailten) and walking away from each other. This type of marriage was called ‘handfasting’.
The Brehon Laws recognised ten types of relationships between men and women:
Union between partners of equal rank and property.
In which a woman has less property than the man and is supported by him.
In which a man has less property than the woman and agrees to manage her livestock and lands.
In which no property rights were exchanged.
The mutual consent of a man and woman to share their bodies, but not a home.
In which a defeated enemy’s wife is abducted.
A temporary and primarily sexual union ie a one night stand.
When a man seduces a woman through lying, deception or taking advantage of her intoxication ie what we call ‘date rape’ today.
Union between the weak-minded or insane.
Think they just about got it all covered! We can see examples of some of these in the mythological cycles. But one thing the Brehon Law doesn’t mention is LOVE, and the myths are full of the stuff. It doesn’t come easy, however; most love stories in Irish myth end tragically for one or both lovers. So let’s take a closer look…
This is my favourite tragic love story. Clíodhna (Klee-na) of the Fair Hair was a daughter of the Sidhe who fell in love with Ciabhán (Kav-awn) of the Curling Locks, a prince of Ulster. She visited him from the Otherworld, and Ciabhan became so enamoured of her, that when she left to return home, he stole a fishing boat pulled up on the stony strand nearby, and attempted to follow her.
The little curragh was tossed about like jetsam upon the stormy sea, so that the poor young man nearly drowned. Manannán took pity on him, however, and brought him safely into his magical lands.
There he spent many happy days in Clíodhna’s company, until one day they were warned by Fand, Manannán’s wife, that the sea-god thought it high time Ciabhan returned to his own people.
Devastated, the lovers couldn’t bear to be parted, and stole Manannán’s magical boat, the Wave Sweeper, setting sail for Ireland. Back on the strand, Clíodhna fell asleep after their long sea voyage, and Ciabhán went hunting for a deer to provide their supper.
Having learned of their treachery, Manannán was furious and sent a huge wave to reclaim the runaway maiden, and so she was swept to her death. The wave which relentlessly pounds the shore there to this day is named in her memory.
deirdre of the Sorrows
Conchubar mac Nessa, king of Ulster, had a storyteller named Feidhlimidh (Fay-lim) Mac Daill, and a druid named Cathbad. He prophecied that Feidhlimidh’s unborn daughter would grow up to be so beautiful, the men of Ireland would go to war over her. The warriors wanted the baby to be killed at birth, but Conchubar decided to have her raised in the forest in isolation, where she could do no harm. Her name was Deirdre (Dee-urd-ruh).
One day many years later, quite by chance, Deirdre met Naoise (Nee-shuh), one of the three sons of Uisneach (Ish-nok), who was passing through the forest. He was so dazzled by her beauty, that he agreed to elope with her. Accompanied by his two brothers, the couple fled to Scotland, far from King Conchubar’s wrath. They lived quite happily in the wilderness, hunting and fishing to survive.
Eventually, the king tracked them down, and sent Fergus mac Róith to bring them home, promising safe passage. Fergus was invited to a feast along the way, which his personal geis would not let him refuse, so the party continued on under the protection of Fergus’s son.
On arrival at the King’s court, Conchobar attacked and killed Naoise and his brothers. Fergus arrived too late to save them, and outraged, took up service with Queen Medb of Connacht, soon becoming her lover. He later led her army against the warriors of Ulster in the Cattle Raid of Cooley.
Conchobar took Deirdre as his wife, but after a year of her continued rejection of him, he grew tired of her, and decided to torture her further by giving her to the man who had made the death-stroke against her beloved Naoise.
Deirdre had other plans, though. On the way to her new husband, she threw herself from the chariot, hitting her head against a stone, and so was killed, although some versions of the story say she died from grief.
Niamh and Oisin
One day, Oisin (Osh-een) was out hunting with his father, Fionn mac Cumhall, and the men of the Fianna, when he was approached by a beautiful woman riding a white stallion. She told him she was Niamh of the Golden Hair, a woman of the Sidhe, and she had long loved him from afar. She invited him to go with her and live in the Otherworld. Although sad to be leaving his family and friends, Oisin agreed.
He lived very happily with Niamh in Tir na Nog for what he thought was three years, but then he grew sad and homesick. Niamh reluctantly agreed to let him return to visit his family, and lent him her white horse, who would carry him safely there. She warned him not to let his feet to touch Ireland’s soil.
When Oisin arrived in Ireland, he did not recognise it. He couldn’t find any sign of his home, his family or friends. He saw some men struggling to remove a boulder from a field, and went to help them. Through chatting to them, he realised that three hundred years had passed while he had been with Niamh in Tir na Nog.
Shocked, he slipped and fell from his saddle as he leaned over to haul up the rock. Instantly as his feet touched the earth, he was transformed into a very old man, and died. Some versions say he survived long enough to meet St Patrick and tell him all the stories of Fionn and the Fianna, before converting to Christianity.
So that’s it for Part One. You can read Part Two here, where I reveal the tragic love stories of Diarmuid and Graine, Fionn and Sadbh, and one of my personal favourites, Tristan and Iseult, which actually appears in the Arthurian tales, but is definitely an Irish story.
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