6 most tragic love stories in irish mythology (part two)
Updated: May 19
Nowadays, it’s not acceptable to commit to marriage, then have a bit of extra-marital fluff on the side. In Irish mythology, however, it was all the rage.
At the time of the Cattle Raid of Cooley, Queen Medb was on to her third husband, Ailill, who was her former bodyguard. Medb required three qualities from her men; that he be without fear, meanness, or jealousy. She went on to have many affairs, but her lover of choice was Fergus mac Roich, for it was said it took seven men to satisfy her, or Fergus only once.
Eventually, jealous Ailill had Fergus killed, but when Medb discovered Ailill’s infidelities, she sent an assassin to kill him in revenge. So it seems that while affairs were conducted fairly openly and without shame, jealousy made such dalliances a risky business.
Often, children were born of these illicit unions. I have already told the story of Óengus’s conception and birth in Part One; he was fostered at birth by Midir of the Danann. This was not unusual; fostering children was common practice in ancient Ireland. (You can read about this here: The Fosterling in Irish Mythology)
It was more normal to foster a child circa the age of seven years old. Lugh was born of a one night stand between Cian of the Danann and Ethniu of the Fomori, and fostered by Tailtiu, last Queen of the Fir Bolg; Fionn mac Cumall was fostered (at birth) by his aunt, Bodhmal, and the warrior-woman Liath Luachra; Cuchulainn was conceived on Dechtine by Lugh in a dream/ one night stand, although she was married to Súaltam mac Róich. Cuchulainn was fostered by Fergus, Súaltam’s brother.
Lineage was important, but the bond of fosterage was considered just as strong. It seems that the conditions of a child’s conception were irrelevant; there seems no shame in being the product of an illicit once-off liaison between one’s parents.
This indicates to me that children were considered the offspring of the whole clan, rather than just two parents; and shows how relationships between men and women could have been more casual and fluid than they are today, without the moral insertions of religion.
I suspect this applied to marriage, too; the confusing number of wives and husbands the various characters in mythology had does not indicate polygamy, but rather the ebb and flow of ‘marriages’ coming to a natural end, and both partners moving on.
And so to my next favourite tragic love stories from Irish mythology…
fionn and sadbh
Sadbh was a daughter of Bodb Derg, High King of the Sidhe. When she refused the advances of the Dark Druid, he transformed her into a deer. She escaped, and after three years wandering, found her way to Almu, the home of Fionn mac Cumhall.
Here she was safe, and the Dark Druid’s spell held no power. Returned to her true form as a beautiful young woman, she and Fionn fell deeply in love. Within a year, she was expecting their first child.
Around this time, Fionn, along with his Fianna, was called away to defend Ireland’s shores against invaders. Every day, Sadbh paced the palisade, watching and waiting for her love’s safe return.
One day, she noticed a warrior and his two dogs approaching. Convinced it was Fionn and his faithful hounds, Bran and Sceolán, she ran joyfully to meet him. It was only when she was in his arms that she realised her mistake. Away from the safe haven of Almu, she was vulnerable again, and the man who wore the likeness of her husband was in fact the Dark Druid, come to claim her.
At the touch of his hazel wand, she became a little brown doe again, and together they simply vanished, never to be seen again.
Fionn was distraught to find her gone on his return. He lost all interest in everything exept searching for his lost love. After seven years, he came across a small boy, alone and wild, without the power of speech, wandering the lower slopes of Benbulben.
When he looked into the child’s eyes, he saw the look of Sadbh in them, and so he knew that this was their son. He brought him home, and named him Oisin, meaning ‘little deer’, but what became of Sadbh, he never found out.
The Pursuit of Diarmuid and Gráinne
Gráinne was the daughter of Cormac mac Art, High King of Ireland. At her wedding feast to the ageing Fionn mac Cumhall, she met the young and handsome Diarmuid. They fell in love, and eloped.
They were chased across the length and breadth of Ireland by Fionn, who was jealous and angered by their betrayal. Eventually, a truce was sought by Óengus, Diarmuid’s foster-father, when Gráinne became pregnant.
The couple settle far from Fionn in his court at Almu, and live happily together, bringing four fine sons into the world. But an invitation from Fionn to join the Fianna on a boar hunt leads to Diarmuid’s death.
Fionn claims Gráinne as his bride, but she never recovers from her loss, and dies of a broken heart.
Tristan and Iseult
I first read Rosemary Sutcliffe’s beautiful version of this story when I was about nine years old, and it has stayed with me ever since. Just a chapter in the Arthurian romances, it is very much an Irish story, although it does not appear in the Irish Mythological Cycles.
Tristan travels to Ireland seeking the hand of Princess Iseult for his uncle, King Mark of Cornwall. During the return journey, they fall in love, in some versions, by drinking a love potion intended for Iseult and Mark.
When Mark learns of their betrayal, he sentences them both to death, Tristan by hanging, and Iseult by burning. Tristan escapes and rescues her, and they flee into the forest.
Eventually, they make peace with Mark, and Iseult agrees to return to her husband, but Tristan is banished. On his travels, he meets and settles with another Iseult, known by the epithet ‘of the White Hands’, who is the daughter of Hoel of Brittany.
In later years, Tristan is wounded by a poisoned lance. He sends for Iseult of Cornwall, for only she is skilled enough in the healing arts to repair such a wound. He is uncertain that she will come; he asks that if she does, the ships sails are to be white, but if she refuses, they must raise a black sail.
Of course Iseult rushes to be with her lover again. The ship’s captain follows Tristan’s orders, and a white sail is hoisted. Too weak to leave his bed, Tristan asks his wife, Iseult of the White Hands, about the colour of the sail. In a sudden fit of jealousy, she answers 'Black.'
Tristan dies from grief, and when Iseult of Cornwall discovers his dead body, she too dies from a broken heart. After they are buried, a hazel tree grows from Tristan’s grave, and a honeysuckle from Iseult’s, and it was said that the honeysuckle clung to the hazel so tightly, they could never be pulled apart.
I hope you have enjoyed these sad but beautiful stories. In reality, they are far more intricate and glorious than I can show in just a few lines. If you missed Part One, you can read it here.
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