Near the beginning of J. M. Synge's play Deirdre of the Sorrows, Deirdre's nurse Lavarcham says:

Who’d check her like was meant to have her pleasure only, the way if there were no warnings told about her you’d see troubles coming when an old king is taking her, and she without a thought but for her beauty and to be straying the hills.

Synge, John Millington. Deirdre of the Sorrows. 1910. Boston: Luce, 1911. p. 16. Accessed at archive.org 14 April 2024.

What does this mean in plain English?

1 Answer 1


This is indeed very elliptical. In order to make sense of the lines, it is necessary to know something of the legend that is Synge's source. A prophecy at her birth foretold that Deirdre would be the most beautiful woman in Ireland, and that two-thirds of the warriors in Ireland would die in battles for her hand. The king, Conchubor, thereupon decided that when she was of age, he would make her his queen. He ordered Deirdre to be raised away from all men except himself, believing that since no other man would see her, he would have no rivals.

Deirdre grows up to be strong-willed, and roams the hills unchecked. Lavarcham is unable to keep her indoors even after Deirdre learns that she is "meant to be a queen" (ibid.). Lavarcham's speech is her defense when she is reproved for not checking Deirdre. A paraphrase would be:

Who could control someone like her? She was meant to do whatever suits her (have her pleasure only). Even if nobody knew that she was fated to bring sorrow (if there were no warnings told about her), it's obvious that when a powerful old man like Conchubor plans to marry a beautiful young girl like Deirdre, no good can come of the situation (you'd see troubles coming). Yet Deirdre thinks only about her own beauty and freedom.

What makes this speech particularly difficult is the triple duty done by like. It could mean:

  • her like: someone like her
  • like was meant to have her pleasure: she was likely created to do whatever she wanted
  • Who'd check her like was meant to have her pleasure: someone wanting to control her was likely destined just to serve her desires.

Any of these readings is defensible. The last makes the most sense in terms of Deirdre's relationship to not only Lavarcham, but also Conchubor. Conchubor wishes to keep Deirdre in check, but his efforts likely tend just to reinforce her desire to be free. This dynamic, with Deirdre proud of her beauty and wanting nothing to do with Conchubor, is clear from their first exchange. Deirdre has kept Conchubor waiting, and comes in from the hills with a bag:

   Conchubor: What have you brought from the hills?
   Deirdrequite self-possessed.—A bag of nuts, and twigs for our fires at the dawn of day.
   Conchuborshowing annoyance in spite of himself.—And it's the way you're picking up the manners will fit you to be Queen of Ulster?
   Deirdremade a little defiant by his tone.—I have no wish to be a queen.
   Conchuboralmost sneeringly.—You'd wish to be dressing in your duns and grey, and you herding your geese or driving your calves to the shed—like the common lot scattered in the glens.
   Deirdrevery defiant.—I would not, Conchubor. (She goes to tapestry and begins to work.) A girl born the way I'm born is more likely to wish for a mate who'd be her likeness. ... A man with his hair like the raven, maybe, and his skin like the snow and his lips like blood spilt on it.

ibid., pp. 22–23.

Deirdre makes clear her preferences: to roam the hills freely, and to have a lover matching her youth and beauty. The speech you're asking about foreshadows this battle of wills between Deirdre and Conchubor. The nurse, knowing Deirdre's destiny and self-will, is averring that it is futile to try to make her behave more like an intended queen, because even Conchubor will no more be able to control Deirdre than Lavarcham herself is.

  • The "translation" you give above adopts your first proposed meaning of "like," yet you say that the third one makes the most sense. Commented Apr 17 at 0:25
  • @RichardHevener The paraphrase gives the first meaning in the first sentence of the paraphrase, the second in the second. It takes me the rest of the answer to explain the third. And what I actually said was the third meaning "makes the most sense in terms of Deirdre's relationship to ... Conchubor," i.e., this third meaning "foreshadows" what we see of their relationship later in the play. Sorry it isn't too clear, but it's the best I can do for now. Thanks for the comment!
    – verbose
    Commented Apr 17 at 7:48

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