The Encounter of Líadain and Cuirithir

Last week, I listened to one of my lecturers read aloud a poem in Old Irish, and I learned a few things:

  1. Old Irish is a language which is meant to be listened to.
  2. Listening to someone read poetry aloud in Old Irish, even when you don’t understand what the hell he’s saying, is… well, let’s just say it’s very pleasant. 😉

The Encounter of Líadain and Cuirithir is a romantic tragedy, and a story I had not yet come across. It is told, as many old Irish stories are told, in both poetry and prose, with the poetry normally being reserved for speech, or to emphasize a particularly important point, or exchange. And because February is the month of love (just look at all the people born in November and tell me it isn’t!), I thought I’d share it with you.

Linguistically, the story dates to the ninth century, but is set back in the seventh century. It concerns two poets, and the love which grew between them, and how it ended in tragedy.

Líadain of Corco Duibne was a lady poet (see… women could be poets in ancient Ireland!) who was touring the province of Connacht, where she met  Cuirithir mac Doborchu, a local poet. Well, it was love at first sight, and being lusty Irish, they spent the night together.

Cuirithir wanted more than a one night stand; “Why do we not make a union, o Líadain? Brilliant would be our son whom you would beget,” he entreated her, no doubt alluding to their combined skills as poets.

Líadain had fallen even more deeply in love, but something held her back… her love for God (you might know he’d poke his nose in at some point, if St. Patrick wasn’t available).

She told him to come for her at her home when she has completed her tour as a poetess. This he does, and the couple then approached Bishop Cummine for guidance.

He was not kind. He instructed Cuirithir to renounce his love and banished him to a monastery far away over the sea. Líadain takes the veil, but never forgets her passion for her lost love.

As he crossed the sea in his coracle, she mourned the cruel loss of her lover from a vantage point on a boulder overlooking the bay, and died of a broken heart.

The Bishop then placed the stone over her grave. What became of Cuirithir, if he ever learned of his lover’s death, we don’t know.

This is part of the poem Líadian composes about Cuirithrir:

I am Líadain,
I loved Cuirithir.
It is as true as they tell it.

It was a short time that I was
in the company of Cuirithir.
Towards him, my companionship was good.

The music of the wood
used to sing around me when I was with Cuirithir
with the sound of the blood-red ocean.

I would have thought
that nothing of whatever things I might do
would bring Cuirithir against me.

One shouldn’t hide it:
he was my heart’s desire,
even if I loved everyone besides him.

A roar of fire
has broke my heart.
It is known that it will not live without him.

I think these words are so poignant, so sad and heartfelt. The passing of centuries has not diminished them. She clearly regrets having turned him down, having let her fear of God come between them. It is a lament that she hurt the man she loves so dearly… look how often she repeats his name: she is obsessed. I really feel for her.

There does seem to be some confusion in the story; the delay to their getting together is attributed to both her desire to become a nun, and her desire to continue her tour as a travelling poetess. Clearly, it can’t be both, so which is it?

If she becomes a nun first and then sleeps with Cuirithir, then clearly they have both sinned, which explains the Bishop’s harsh decision. But if she becomes a nun after Cuirithir leaves her, then clearly her decision to put her career as a travelling poetess first offended him deeply, in which case she should forget about the selfish arse!

If the former is true, then the story is one of chastity, punishment, love of God, and that most heinous of crimes, female lust. But if the latter is true, more than likely the story has an older source, and is a tale of love and tragic misunderstanding which has been tampered with by Christians to suit their moral code.

Was Líadian a historical figure? It’s hard to say. Her name means the ‘Grey One’, or the ‘Grey Lady’, perhaps in reference to the nun’s habit she wore. Her name does crop up elsewhere in the company of three other female poets, but there is no actual evidence that she really existed.

However, medieval writers were wont to put their stories in the mouths of historical personae as speakers of history. It may even be that her story is true, but she did not write it, at least, not in the version which currently exists. Linguistically, some of the rhyme in the text has been found to date specifically to the ninth century.

So, till next time, Myth Lovers…


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19 Comments on “The Encounter of Líadain and Cuirithir

  1. Pingback: Were There Women Poets in Ancient Ireland? | aliisaacstoryteller

  2. Pingback: Who was the Old Woman of Beare? | aliisaacstoryteller

  3. I love the beginning of this post. So much. The 2 things you learned.

    Ah, the Grey Lady. How many legends, myths, and tales does she appear in? In how many traditions and countries? It’s remarkable.

    (And, my two cents, the Bishop’s an arse.)

    Liked by 1 person

    • Lol! Well you know me, I’m a Northerner living in Ireland, what do you expect! Also clearly spending too much time with our foul-mouthed glorious BB leader! 😂

      Liked by 1 person

      • It is incredibly wonderful this and other stories of this Time have endured the centuries. Another similar tale brought to mind, Romeo and Juliet- we do love our romantic tragedies. What gorgeous images of soulful and erotic love they conjure, while their tragedy makes them impossible to forget.

        Liked by 1 person

        • Absolutely Jennifer, I agree. These stories really hit a nerve with people that is quite timeless. Unrequited love is so soul destroying, and the tragedy of two people who love each but can’t be together yet cant be without one another is something we can all empathise with regardless of our own conditions. Shows that whilst our technologies and learning have changed over the centuries, the basic essence of what it is to be human has not. 😊


  4. Ancient poetry was always intended to be recited aloud, so I am not surprised that Líadain and Cuirithir sounds wonderful in its original language, I was lucky enough to hear Beowulf in Old English a few years ago and that too sounded magnificent, beautiful, thrilling and terrifying all at the same time.

    Next time you hear something like that try and imagine what it would have been like to hear it in its original context. The feast is over, everyone is cradling their ale horns, and are mostly a little drunk. The space by the fire has been cleared for the singer, and they begin. There are cheers when the hero or heroine succeed, shock when tragedy strikes, and tears as it comes to its sad conclusion.

    And as for the curious inconsistencies in the tale, I always suspect that the versions we have of some ancient tales are compilations or ‘best fits’. When it was written down there were either several versions that the scribe tried to correlate, fitting together several tales to make a complete whole. Or the only version they had was missing some explanatory pieces. A bit like the folk song collectors of a century ago, they often recorded fragmentary songs, the singer only knowing some verses of a longer song. In some cases the song could be reconstructed from several different versions in others all that survives are tantalising fragments.

    Liked by 3 people

    • Thank you, Gordon! Yes, I think you must be right, the scribes were doing the best with what they had. I often moan because to me it sounds like the scribes fiddled with the stories to make them fit with their Christian beliefs, but the truth is if it wasnt for them, many of these stories would be lost by now. Beowulf in Old English would be impressive… did you understand it? I was looking at some Chaucer the other day, and I could literally only understand a few words! Its barely like English at all! 😊


      • I could understand some, also the cadences are similar to modern English and you get the ‘feel’ for what is going on. Indeed Chaucer is more understandable when spoken as it was written phonetically. I had the good fortune to be accompanied by my son, who read English at Oxford and lists Old and Middle English amongst the languages he speaks!

        Liked by 1 person

  5. It could be an interesting exploration to suggest this to be a story about Cailleach Bheara, the Irish creatrix figure. There are several poems and stories about her leaving her role as a god and becoming a nun to follow the Catholic God, specifically in that she wore a grey veil or habit.

    I believe the poem itself is called The Lament of the Old Woman and it’s definitely got some tones that relate it somewhat to this.


    • Hi Cass, first of all, I’m so sorry it’s taken me so long to get back to you. The poem is indeed called the Lament of the Old Woman, and both she (the writer) and Liadan were reputed to have come from the same nunnery in Cork. I will be writing about this on the blog in the near future, so look out for it if you’re interested. It is an achingly beautiful and sad poem. With reference to the grey habit and veil, there are references in Irish literature to women (who may have been Druids) from pre-Christian Ireland who dressed this way, for example Liath Luachra, who helped raise Fionn mac Cumhall in secret in the forest of Sliab Blama. They certainly seem mysterious figures. Thanks for your comment! ☺


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