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Oisín and Niamh in the land of Tír na nÓg (the Land of Youth)

Niamh convince Oisin to come with her
Niamh convince Oisin to come with her

On the Atlantic fringe of Europe, on the Aran Islands, off the western coast of Ireland, we meet a farmer out on his small fields seeing after his cattle. Like most small farmers, he has time to stop and chat and tell of lore often forgotten in this fast-moving world but yet with powerful subliminal messages.

As he shelters by one of the many stone walls from the mild but strong south-westerly winds that blow in from the Atlantic Ocean, he tells us of the legend of Oisín and Niamh and Tír na nÓg, i.e. the Land of Youth.
Long, long ago in Ireland, from the time of Conn Céadchathach (Conn of the Hundred Battles), when the Roman Caesars ruled most of Europe, in Ireland there lived a band of free-roaming warriors called the Fianna. Their leader was Fionn mac Cumhail, and his son was Oisín the poet.

One morning the Fianna were deer hunting on the shores of Lough Leane, near the present day Killarney, in County Kerry. Suddenly, they saw a beautiful white horse rapidly approaching over the Atlantic waves. As the horse drew nearer, they discerned the outline of a most beautiful woman as rider. She wore a long dress as blue as the summer sky and studded with silver stars. Her long, golden hair hung to her waist.

“What’s your name and where do you come from?” asked Fionn, leader of the Fianna. “I am Niamh of the Golden Hair. My father is king of Tír na nÓg, a land across the ocean where the people never grow old,” she replied. “I have heard of a warrior named Oisín. I have heard of his courage and of his poetry. I have come to find him and take him back with me to Tír na nÓg”. “Tell me”, Oisin said, “what is Tír na nÓg?”. “Is it really true that nobody grows old in that fairy-tale land?”. “Yes, that is indeed true”, replied Niamh. “It is a most wonderful place, with no pain or sorrow. Only good things happen and all wishes come true; it is really the Land of Youth. If you come with me, you will find all this to be true.”

Oisín mounted the white horse and said goodbye to his father and the rest of the Fianna. He promised he would return soon. The horse galloped off over the waves, moving as swiftly as a shadow and soon was no more than a silhouette against the setting sun in the western Ocean. The Fianna were sad to see their hero go, but Fionn reminded them of Oisín’s promise to return soon, and so they set about what they liked best, i.e. hunt the deer and fishing the many streams, rivers and lakes for salmon and trout.
The king and queen of Tír na nÓg welcomed Oisín and it was indeed a wonderful land, just as Niamh had said. He hunted and feasted, and at night he told stories of Fionn and the Fianna and of their lives roaming the hills and wooded dales of Ireland. Oisín had seldom before been so content, he fell in love with Niamh and before long they married, at which the king and queen and the entire people greatly rejoiced.

Time passed quickly and although he was very happy Oisín began to think of the old ways, his father Fionn and the Fianna, and he remembered that he promised to come back and visit. When he told Niamh of his wish, she was troubled but at last she said, “Take my white horse. It will carry you safely to Ireland and back. Whatever happens you must not get off the horse or touch the soil of Ireland. If you do, you will never return to me or to Tír na nÓg." She did not tell him that what to him were a few years, were in reality three hundred years.

Oisín set out on the long journey, but his white house sped over the waves and soon he saw the jagged coast and the hills of Ireland rising rapidly out of the sea. Before long he was riding through the countryside. But the countryside itself had changed beyond recognition, and the people were unrecognisable. There was no trace of his father or the rest of the Fianna. The thick forests and the wildlife had largely disappeared and instead there were fields, and cattle, sheep and pigs were everywhere. The place appeared to be crowded but how small and puny the people looked and not at all like the Fianna that he knew. Building was everywhere in progress; in other words, it was an early Celtic Tiger economy. Finally, he stopped at a cluster of houses where a group of men were struggling to move a large stone. “What is this for”, asked Oisín. “We are building a church and this is the lintel stone for the western doorway” they replied. “Can you give us a helping hand”. Instinctively, Oisín bent down to lift the stone. Under the weight, the saddle girth broke and Oisín fell to the ground. The white horse took fright and galloped off never to be seen again. Meanwhile, the workmen saw Oisín being transformed before their very eyes into an old, wizened and feeble man. They took him to a holy man who lived nearby whom some say was St. Patrick himself.

“Where is my father and the Fianna?” Oisin asked. When he was told that they were long dead he was heartbroken. He spoke of the many deeds of Fionn and their adventures together. He spoke of his time in Tír na nÓg and his beautiful wife, Niamh, whom he would never see again. Having embraced Christianity but still pining for the days of the druids and the old Celtic ways, he finally died and was given a Christian burial.

Michael O'Connell