‘Mourning the Maic Uislenn: Blood, Death and Grief in Longes Mac nUislenn and Oidheadh Chloinne hUisneach’

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On Tuesday 5 February 2013, the Centre was pleased to welcome Kate Mathis who discussed ‘Mourning the Maic Uislenn: Blood, Death and Grief in Longes Mac nUislenn and Oidheadh Chloinne hUisneach’. Below is this listener’s brief summary of the lecture.

This lecture was focused on Deirdre (Deirdriu) from the Ulster Cycle of Irish mythology, specifically, her mourning of the three sons of Maic Uislenn. In many versions of this tale, Deirdre drinks the blood of one, or all three, of the dead brothers; the most extreme manifestation of her grief. This is attested in other Ulster tales, including the death of Cú Chulainn, but Deirdre is held up as the epitome of the act.

In the earliest known version of this tale from the Book of Leinster (c.1160), after the death of three brothers Deirdre refuses to eat, takes little care in her appearance and recites two poems expressing her grief. She speaks of the idyllic life enjoyed by the three brothers and herself before the interference of Conchobar. This version singles out Noisiu as the object of Deirdre’s romantic love and she directly blames Conchobar for his death. Yet at Noisiu’s grave, a ‘jet-black little cairn’ is described but Deirdre does not drink the blood of his corpse. 

Another version of the tale, albeit incomplete, is found in the Glenmasan Manuscript, found in the National Library of Scotland. This was compiled c.1490 but a missing page means most of Deirdre’s tale is left untold. Various editors have attempted to fill in the gap, including Theophilius O’Flanagan in 1808 and later writers, Ewan MacLachlan and Whitley Stokes. The latter two editors fill in the missing page with this older version, mentioned above. 

A later version occurs in the text of the Royal Irish Academy IV. 1, from September 1671. In this tale (among various other differences from the earliest attestation) Deirdre explicitly drinks the blood of all three brothers and then jumps into the grave of all three, to her own death. Later versions from the 17th century, as found in Keating’s, Foras Feasa ar Éirinn, promote the romantic relationship between Noisiu and Deirdre over her (presumably non-sexual) relationship with the three brothers. 

On the motif of blood-drinking in general, there seem to be ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ instances of the act. For example, a pre-mortem sexual relationship is not necessary but often implied. Somewhat crassly, any form of pre-mortem ‘fluid exchange’, including breast-feeding, may render the act ‘right’. One instance features a daughter drinking the blood of her father only to go promptly mad. This may hint towards an incest taboo. 

Overall, Dr. Mathis emphasised that there is no ‘definitive’ Deirdre story and even her association of blood-drinking is not ubiquitous. Nevertheless, a growing tradition of blood-drinking originating the 12/13th century is found as an example of ‘extreme mourning’. 

Summary by Ross Crawford (PhD Researcher)

Next Tuesday 12 February, our seminar series continues with Joanna Clements discussing, ‘Perceptions of Scottish musical antiquity in the Enlightenment’. We are back in Room 202 of 3 Uni Gardens at 5.30pm. All very welcome.

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