Published online by Cambridge University Press: 05 October 2013
Interpreting Longes Mac nUislenn
She's young. She's beautiful. She's Irish. So she's dead meat: at least in opera, where box office and body count go hand in hand.
This review of Healy Willan's opera Deirdre, a distant descendant of the early Irish tale Longes Mac nUislenn, is in a long interpretative tradition, even if indirectly. Of course, the twentieth-century opera is at many removes from the medieval narrative, separated by time and language, by substance and genre. Nevertheless, it reflects an assumption that this saga of broken bonds between men, of fraternal exile, of sex and death, pivots around its central female character, Deirdre. She is simultaneously catalyst and victim, helpless to save her lover Noísiu, and Noísiu's brothers, from deathly betrayal. This is no surprise: the Gaelic Irish themselves recalibrated the story. It was reinvented in the fourteenth or fifteenth century as Oidheadh Chloinne Uisnigh – still a tale of shattered male loyalties but now acted against a more emotive narrative of doomed love. This appealingly affective aesthetic underlies nearly all subsequent versions of what was increasingly seen as Deirdre's story, including those in English. Significantly, even Keating's retelling of the tale in Foras Feasa ar Éirinn, one largely based on Longes Mac nUislenn rather than Oidheadh Chloinne Uisnigh, did not displace the latter. Instead, subsequent redactions of the narrative attempted to harmonise the accounts, ultimately leaving the main substance of Oidheadh Chloinne Uisnigh intact. In the process Deirdre's identification as a suitably tragic Irish woman became predominant.