Friday Fiction: A Traditional Irish Love Story

Below is the beginning of a short story about a famous Irish love story, the story of Líadan and Cuirithir (pronounced phonetically in English Leeadawn and Coorihir).

One of the most heartrending poems in the ancient Irish annals is “Comhrach Líadaine agas Cuirithir“, written by the female poet, Líadain (Leeadawn).

She was a 7th-century ollamh, or Irish master-poet, one of the few women to earn that distinction. She fell in love with a fellow poet, Cuirithir (Coorihir), but her devotion to her work put their relationship under strain. They lived together in celibacy for a time, but it was all too much for him, and after a time he left to found another hermitage, in a different part of the country.

One of the reasons this tale is famous is that it's different to the usual structure of Irish stories that weave supernatural and heroic and tragic into a larger-than-life plot of battles and wonders. It's based on historical real-life people and while it's unmistakably Irish, it also reflects concerns that were rising in the literatures of other countries at the time.

One that's close to a similar struggle in our time: the struggle this young woman experienced between her physical love for Cuirithir and her spiritual love of God.

Medievalists told many such stories of lovers who reach an impasse between their affections for each other and what they saw as their spiritual obligations. In “Eliduc”, Marie de France’s famous story, the heroine Guilliadun takes the veil and her lover Eliduc joins a monastery. Or think of Guinevere and Lancelot, committing themselves to god at the end of the Arthurian cycle.

Here's the start of the story, which will appear in my Songs and Stories of Old Ireland.

Líadan of the Corca Divna, a poet of the spirit, was following her pilgrim soul around the island of Ireland. This was a time when all the families of the island were known onto each other.

She went calling into the country of Connaught and her reputation went before her. Cuirithir, the son of Otter, was curious to meet this woman, who was said to have soul of a dream. Themes and melodies ran like rivers through her, and charmed the men of the kingdom, but she had time only for god.

Cuirithir persuaded his father to make a great ale-feast for her and received her into their hall with the ten hearth fires lit. Entering the great hall, Líadain felt the honor of the feast prepared for her and knew it was the working of the son of the house.

She noted the blood of a roast pig, besides a steaming haunch of venison, resting on the edge of the table. She had the hunger on her, from her journey and took her seat.

“Welcome, pilgrim and poet,” the old man said.

He was decorated with jewels, rings of gold and silver, and a band of precious stones upon each upper arm. His son carried a bone harp, carved with strange designs. “We have not had another poet in our house for many months. Pray stay with us as long as you like.”

The hall was full of pale-faced women, the servants of the house, and dark-faced men sitting at a long table. Down at the end of the hall, a fool was dancing, hands outstretched and arms flapping. He looked like a great black crow that had forgotten how to fly. The son of the house smiled to her about it, the rueful smile of a conspirator.

Cuirithir was well-pleased with her. Her face is a pale oval, with eyes that stared, as if the world, the food, the watchers in the hall, had no importance to her. She wore a long green cloak and a cloth of fine wool that came down to her knees, and down the back of the garment were braids of her dark hair. She was barefoot and bareheaded and around her, the air seemed to burn golden, and linger in a vapor.

They ate.

Afterwards, she was invited her to speak and she sang her tale in the voice of old world songs, in a whisper, but with the power of a thousand warriors.

“My name is Líadan,” she began. “And I am the first of my kind. I have come to speak to you of the days of old, when we were many, and of the darkness that is coming. First, I must tell you of the time before, when we roamed the world in another form.

“Impossible to tell whether this was a bird, a dragon or some other creature, only it had feathers and scales, wings and and beak, and moved through the air in such number that to the creatures of the earth, the sky seemed dark, as if a great storm is coming…”

Her eyes were two bright orbs of green, beautiful, and filled with great sorrow born of other lifetimes…


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