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The Irish For - Doomed tales of unrequited love in Irish literature

The tale of Úna Bhán and Tomás Laidir is one of many sad stories in Irish literature, writes Darach Ó Séaghdha.

Darach Ó Séaghdha Writer

IN THE OLD kingdom of Maigh Luirg in Roscommon in the 17th century, there lived a handsome, well-liked lad called Tomás Laidir (strong Tom) who fell in love with the girl next door.

Her name was Úna Bhán (fair Úna) and she was the daughter of the local Taoiseach (chieftan), Mac Diarmada. Unimpressed by the young man’s strength and unaffected charm, the Taoiseach would not bless the match.

Tomás was banished from the kingdom and Úna was sent to stay a castle on an island for her own good.  

This did not end well. Úna grew weak from lovesickness. Flouting the banishment order under cover of night, Tomás went to see her to ask her to run away with him but was forced to speak to a gatekeeper (droch-chomhairle, an evil adviser). 

Tomás swore not to bother her ever again if she did not want to see him but if she loved him back, she should send a messenger before he reached the river.  

Sadly, by the time Úna could arrange for a message to be sent, he had crossed the river, certain that his love was unrequited. She died of a broken heart.

When Tomás heard of this he swam to the island to be by her grave every night, eventually catching pneumonia. His dying wish was to be joined in death with the woman he wanted to spend his life with, and the grieving Taoiseach agreed.

It is said that two trees grew from their graves, their branches entwined in an eternal embrace. 

This sad tale is told in the beautiful poem Úna Bhán, ascribed to Tomás Laidir Mac Coisdealbha himself. It is just one of a vast treasury of sad poems and songs about doomed or unrequited love in Irish literature.

But is the Irish canon particularly sad, more so than other traditions? Are we a sulky goth standing in the corner of the teen disco of world folklore?  

Well, yes and no. 

Happy endings

Many happy-ending stories have become universal in their retelling, especially in film – Cinderella, Red Riding Hood and Goldilocks aren’t intimately associated with a country of origin in the same way as Deirdre of the Sorrows or the Children of Lir.

This is arguably true of other downer folk tales too, like the Pied Piper of Hamelin or the story of Icarus – tragedy is localised.

The happy endings that keep their identity are those stories which are part of famous anthologies, like those of the Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Anderson. And then there’s the small matter of inauthentic happy endings added after the fact to better known stories for commercial purposes.

While fairytales and folklore feel timeless, the phrase happily ever after is relatively recent, first noted in English in 1825.

Not everybody took to it – for example, Richard Francis Burton, the Anglo-Irish translator of the Arabian Nights, preferred the line “they lived happily until there came to them the One who Destroys all Happiness”.

In fact, the word happy itself – specifically its usage as the opposite of sad – only dates back to the 15th century. Like its equivalent in many neighbouring languages (heureux in French, feliz in Spanish, sona in Irish), happy’s original meaning was lucky or fortunate.

This is why the hapless, its linguistic opposite, still means unlucky. The abstract idea of long-lasting contentment, more deeply felt than gladness and less passive than bliss, is a recent invention.

So is there an Irish translation for happily ever after? One entry given in the foclóir is “bhí saol beag sona sásta acu ar fad ina dhiaidh sin” – literally, they had a fortunate and satisfied little life together then.

Who could ask for more?

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About the author:

Darach Ó Séaghdha  / Writer

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