Utilizing Mysticism in “Deirdre: A Drama in Three Acts”

© Copyright 2020 Haralambo Keriazes, Ryerson University

    ✳ Who is Deirdre? 

Fig. 1. “Deirdre of the Sorrows.” A Book of Myths, 1915. Public Domain.

  Deirdre is a famous character from Irish folktale titled “Deirdre of the Sorrows.”

  The tale surrounds the character Deirdre, the most beautiful woman in Ireland. She has been prophesied by a druid as one day being the cause of death of many. Unbothered by this, King Concobar wishes to marry her. However, she instantly falls in love with another man, Naisi and retreats with him to Scotland to avoid Concobar’s wrath. While there Concobar hatches a plan for their return, sending Fergus a man of honor to request Deirdre and Naisi back to Ireland. Since Fergus is known as a man of honesty they accept, though Deirdre remains skeptical. When they arrive in Ireland, they are immediately ambushed by Concobar who kills Naisi and his two brothers before taking Deirdre for his wife. After years of refusing to speak to him Concobar decides to send Deirdre off as a prize to another man. On the way Deirdre flings herself out of the coach, instantly dying. She is then buried beside Naisi and two trees grow out of the graves intertwined.

“Deirdre of the Sorrows” is regarded as a story of love and betrayal and is categorized in the Ulster Cycle of Irish folktales meaning that it was first composed in the 8-9th century (Encyclopedia Britannica). The tale is also a part of “the three sorrows of storytelling” a collection of three traditional Irish tales revolving around values such as heroism, debt, and loyalty. Deirdre’s vast connection to Irish culture signifies how familiar a story it was to many. It’s a tale that has been constantly told, retold, and preformed. This stream of retelling was enhanced during the Irish Celtic Revival, due to the importance placed on Irish culture and values – that Deirdre seamlessly portrays.



✳ The Irish Celtic Revival 

The Irish Celtic Revival was a rebirth of Irish intellectual life and civic action from roughly 1891-1922 (Kiberd and Matthews 24). During this period many were drawn to the concept of Ireland’s state as one with an individual identity, apart from Great Britain much like America before it. Additionally, these state-wide thoughts of Irish individuality eventually lead up to and predated the Irish war of independence, which took place in 1919-1921. This revival period was one of rebirth of traditional Irish values, as shown in Deirdre’s tale, throughout art and literature. Well known contributors to the movement consist of W.B Yeats, J. M. Synge, and Sean O’Casey – the former two which have contributed to the Green Sheaf.

Another important aspect of the revival was how people “variously questioned the coercive forces of empire, Christianity, capitalism,” then through this questioning “they discovered new modes of thinking and living in the alternative modes of socialism, feminism…and Celtic spirituality” (Kiberd and Matthews 26). Creators, intellectuals, and common citizens became open to these new concepts, as well as challenging their way of thinking through art and literature. In relation to Deirdre, the aspect of people thinking through Celtic spirituality is most relevant. As a story, “Deirdre of the Sorrows” is extremely connected to the spiritual and magical. This new way of thinking was constantly funnelled through literature, and art particularly in the fairy or folk tale as it provided “imaginative freedom” (Sumpter 13). Fairy tales and folklore like Deirdre provided an outlet for working through new spiritual ideas. Due to their automatic association to magic, dreams, and spirituality retelling Irish folktales became a tool to express this form of freedom.

For example, throughout the tale “Deirdre of the Sorrows” there are constant references to prophecy. First through the druid Cathbad’s prophecy of Deirdre inflicting death. Then Deirdre’s dream about falling in love with Naisi, and finally the two reuniting in death. These prophecies are also connected to mysticism and spirituality through their associations with values of loyalty and heroism. Deirdre’s dreams, though mystical indicate how her loyalty to Naisi is everlasting, starting before they meet to after they are both dead. Loyalty has been constantly associated with the folktale, making it one of the traditional Irish values that received resurgence in this period. Retelling folktales provided a way to communicate values such as these through already familiar narratives. The familiarity of the tales allowed for amplification of themes that best served the explorations of the Irish Celtic Revival. Such as spirituality and loyalty. Essentially, the pre-established narratives gave more opportunity for artistic experimentation due to the reader’s previous knowledge of them, than an entirely new story could.

  ✳ The Green Sheaf: Mystic Irish Revival 

Fig. 2. “The Green Sheaf.” Pamela Colman Smith, Internet Archive, Ryerson Centre for Digital Humanities, Public Domain.

The little magazine the Green Sheaf utilized the revival of Irish culture and folktales to provide a space for artistic exploration of both. Due to editor Pamela Colman Smith’s approach to art and literature the entirety of the little magazine is drenched in mysticism. Smith has been described as “connected to individuals who were intensely engaged with the occult, Theosophy, symbolism and Celtic spirituality” (“Pamela Colman Smith, Symbolism and Spiritual Synaesthesia” 146). Literary and artistic figures such as Cecil French, W. B Yeats, and A. E. are among her circle that produced various pieces in the magazine on these themes. All of these approaches though by multiple contributors are linked to mysticism. This gives the magazine an overarching theme and approach without limiting the types of contributions included. They are all fundamentally mystic.

Mysticism refers to both: the practice of religious ecstasies within a chosen ideology, and ecstasy or altered state of consciousness that gives spiritual meaning. Smith’s magazine displays many pieces that depict altered states, as well as spiritual ideology. Throughout the seventh volume, pictured, there are pieces with allusions to dreams, magical winds, and a vigil – all of which represent some connection to mysticism or spirituality. Questioning what can be transferred between states of consciousness or different worlds is a constant in the Green Sheaf.

✳ A. E’s Deirdre: A Drama in Three Acts

A. E’s piece utilizes this mystic approach when retelling the tale “Deirdre of the Sorrows” to a 1903 audience that is extremely familiar with the tale previously. To engage in “imaginative freedom” (Sumpter 13) as well as create a tale that is still relevant to the contemporary audience of the Green Sheaf, A.E. chooses to amplify the mystic and magic in the tale. This creates an opportunity for “a forum where folklore meets fiction – and both are reinvented by readers as well as writers” (Sumpter 21). The Green Sheaf acts as this forum of exploration, and due to its overall mystic connotations via Smith mysticism becomes a natural tool to revive the tale for the 1903 audience.

Through amplification of the mystic in “Deirdre: A Drama in Three Acts” A.E. also enhances the emotional states of the characters, conducts a dramatization of events, and questions the value of dreams. These inquiries embedded into the retelling are what make A. E’s retelling a refreshing take on a previously known tale, while still reviving interest in Irish culture. Additionally, the choice to create the retelling as a play instead of a poem or story signifies another callback to the ancient version of “Deirdre of the Sorrows” in which the tale would have been recited orally alike to dialogue in a play. The format of “Deirdre: A Drama in Three Acts” is an exploration of the original format of the tale, again introducing a revival of Irish folklore to the 1903 audience while inventing a stand-alone story. One does not need to know the folktale to understand A. E’s piece, but it is likely that the Green Sheaf’s readership was.

Within A. E’s play “Deirdre: A Drama in Three Acts” there is a specific focus on dreams and their relationship to spirituality and death. When the play opens Deirdre is asked about her dream, saying that she had recently experienced a dream that brought her happiness. In this dream she describes seeing Naisi and asks Lavarcam, who is the druid in this version, “do happy dreams bring happiness?” (4). She furthers this question with: “do our dreams of the Shee ever grow real to us as you are to me?” (4) which associates dreams with an inspection of desire and possibility for transfer to reality. The concept of the blending of dreams and reality is wholly mystic, as it implies travelling between states of consciousness as creating new possibilities. In Deirdre’s case this possibility is true love with Naisi and is framed as inevitable. This symbolist approach to consciousness and progression of self in Deirdre is a way to communicate the possibilities of alternate realities to the 1903 readership. By insisting on alternate realities A.E. serves the Irish revival by opening up the possibilities of Irish individualism through the character of Deirdre.

Secondly, A. E’s retelling of Deirdre’s tale implements an alternative ending to the well-known version of “Deirdre of the Sorrows.” A. E’s ending depicts a separation between Deirdre and Naisi because of magical sensory deprivation prior to Naisi’s death. Concobar once Deirdre, Naisi, and his brothers have returned to Ireland, uses Lavarcam to alter Naisi’s consciousness. Lavarcam makes him blind to the attack that kills him, and unable to hear Deirdre’s warnings in time. This interpretation puts an emphasis on reality and how the senses communicate that. Without being able to see or hear Naisi is separated from Deirdre despite her being in the same room as him, furthering the idea that one can be blind to something in close proximity to them – such as attention given to Irish culture in 1903.

Fig. 3. – Fig. 4.  “Deirdre” Cecil French, Pamela Colman Smith, The Green Sheaf Volume 7, Internet Archive, Ryerson Centre for Digital Humanities, Public Domain.

Editor Pamela Colman Smith, “…nurtured the image of herself as a mystic invested in an occult form of synesthesia” (“Pamela Colman Smith (1878-1951)”). This means that her style of editing encompassed both visual and written art. This is evident by the inclusion of both her own illustration (right) and one by Cecil French (left) in the middle of A. E’s play. The images appear side by side, without introduction following the opening of act II. They do not occur at a natural pause, such as the break between acts but instead in the middle of Deirdre and Naisi discussing what could happen if they were to ever return to Ireland. Deirdre is overtly distressed at the thought and exclaims “…I know I will die when we meet” (6) in reference to Concobar. The images following are both depictions of the romantic relationship between Deirdre and Naisi with no mention of Concobar. Perhaps this choice could be a way to build up further anticipation for what is to come. Readers of the Green Sheaf would know how the story ends more than Deirdre does through her fears in this scene. So further depictions of Deirdre and Naisi’s everlasting love works to remind the reader what is about to be lost through visuals. This anticipation further connects the reader emotionally to the piece, and amplifies the impact of the tragic ending.

Both images utilize colour to depict both the start of their relationship through French’s image and the last peaceful moment of it, through Smith’s. The use of the cooler blue and purple within French’s illustrations of Deirdre’s dream could indicate their loyalty to each other as well as her unyielding devotion to him even in death. In contrast, Smith’s use of warmer tones of yellow primarily in the background could be a nod to their deceit they are about to face in their return to Ireland. Through the inclusion of these images embedded into the narrative, Smith allows for an additional layer of storytelling that makes the images and text one cohesive piece.

✳ Why in the Green Sheaf?

In volume seven, A. E’s “Deirdre: A Drama in Three Acts” is the main event. It is mentioned on the cover as the supplement for the entirety of the volume as it takes up around thirteen pages of the total twenty four. There are only six different pieces in addition to A. E’s depiction of Deirdre, making it a deliberate draw for the volume. A. E’s piece is also the one that closes the entire volume, which ends up leaving the tragic tone of the ending with the reader leaving them in wonder of the world of ancient Ireland they were transported to. It is a great way to entice readers to pick up the following volume, as well as provide a primary spot for the main draw of the 7th volume.

The Green Sheaf provides a platform for A. E’s for the questioning of consciousness and spirituality’s effects in changing individual’s perceptions. Within the Green Sheaf there is constant pieces with references to death and dreams as another world to be discovered. A sense of wonder is within every page due to Smith and her contemporary’s mystic outlooks. Through the utilization of mysticism A. E. “…challenges modern society not with a return to pre-industrial values, but with a retreat into a mystic realm” (Sumpter 153). “Deirdre: A Drama in Three Acts” is certainly not out of place and becomes the star of volume 7, as Smith anchored every other aspect of the volume around it. In the Green Sheaf A. E’s retelling of “Deirdre of the Sorrows” actively works to revive interest in Irish folktales and by extension Irish culture’s relevance in 1903.

“Textual Ornaments” Pamela Colman Smith, The Green Sheaf Volume 7, Internet Archive, Ryerson Centre for Digital Humanities. Public Domain.

✳ Works Cited

Boyd, Ernest, A. “’A.E.’ – Mystic and Economist,” The North American Review, Periodicals Archive Online, 1915, pp. 251-261.

Claes, Koenraad. “Introduction,” The Late-Victorian Little Magazine, Edinburgh University Press, 2017, pp. 1-15.

Denisoff, Dennis. “Pamela Coleman Smith, Symbolism and Spiritual Synaesthesia,” The Occult Imagination in Britain 1875-1947, Taylor & Francis Group, 2017, pp. 146-164.

—. “Pamela Colman Smith (1878-1951),” Y90s Biographies. Yellow Nineties 2.0, edited by Lorraine Janzen Kooistra, Ryerson University Centre for Digital Humanities, 2019, https://1890s.ca/smith_bio/.

The Editors of Encyclopedia Britannica. “AE,” Encyclopedia Britannica, July 13, 2020, https://www.britannica.com/biography/AE.

—. “Mysticism,” Encyclopedia Britannica, December 4, 2019, https://www.britannica.com/topic/mysticism.

—. “Deirdre,” Encyclopedia Britannica, December 27, 2018, https://www.britannica.com/topic/Deirdre-Irish-literature.

The Green Sheaf, vol. 7, 1903. Yellow Nineties 2.0, Internet Archive, Ryerson University Centre for Digital Humanities, 2019. https://archive.org/details/green_sheaf_1903_07/page/n9/mode/2up.

Haskell, I.C. “The Decorative Work of Miss. Pamela Colman Smith.” Pratt Institute Monthly. Vol. 6, no. 3, 1897, pp. 65-67.

Harris, Jason Marc. “Victorian Literary Fairy Tales: Their Folklore and Function,” Folklore and the Fantastic in Nineteenth Century British Fiction, Routledge, 2008, pp. 37-61.

Kiberd, Declan and Matthews P. J. editors. “Introduction,” Handbook of the Irish Revival: An Anthology of Irish Cultural and Political Writings 1891-1922, University of Notre Dame Press, 2016.

Smyth, Gerry. “Two dramatic treatments of the ‘Deirdre’ legend: a case study in Irish betrayal,” Irish Studies Review, vol. 21, no. 2, 2013, pp. 164-177.

Sumpter, Caroline. The Victorian Press and the Fairy Tale, Palgrave Macmillan, 2008.

NOTE: Images in this online exhibit are either in the public domain or being used under fair dealing for the purpose of research and are provided solely for the purposes of research, private study, or education.