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Stories, Myths and Legends

Oisín in Tír na nÓg

It happened that on a misty summer morning as Finn and Oisin with many companions were hunting on the shores of Loch Lena they saw coming towards them a maiden, exceedingly beautiful, riding on a snow-white steed. She wore the garb of a queen; a crown of gold was on her head, and a dark-brown mantle of silk, set with stars of red gold, fell around her and trailed on the ground. Silver shoes were on her horse's hoofs, and a crest of gold nodded on his head. When she came near she said to Finn, "From very far away I have come, and now at last I have found you, Finn son of Cumhal."

Then Finn said, "What is your land and race, maiden, and what do you seek from me?

"My name," she said, "is Niamh of the Golden Hair. I am the daughter of the King of the Land of Youth, and that which has brought me here is the love of your son Oisin."

Then she turned to Oisin, and she spoke to him in the voice of one who has never asked anything but it was granted to her.

"Will you go with me, Oisin, to my father's land?"

And Oisin said, "That will I, and to the world's end," for the fairy spell had so wrought upon his heart that he cared no more for any earthly thing but to have the love of Niamh of the Head of Gold.

Then the maiden spoke of the Land Oversea to which she had summoned her lover, and as she spoke a dreamy stillness fell on all things, nor did a horse shake his bit, nor a hound bay, nor the least breath of wind stir in the forest trees till she had made an end.

And what she said seemed sweeter and more wonderful as she spoke it than anything they could afterwards remember to have heard, but so far as they could remember it
was this:

"Delightful is the land beyond all dreams,
Fairer than anything your eyes have ever seen.
There all the year the fruit is on the tree,
And all the year the bloom is on the flower.

"There with wild honey drip the forest trees;
The stores of wine and mead shall never fail.
Nor pain nor sickness knows the dweller there,
Death and decay come near him never more.

"The feast shall cloy not, nor the chase shall tire,
Nor music cease for ever through the hall;
The gold and jewels of the Land of Youth
Outshine all splendors ever dreamed by man.

"You will have horses of the fairy breed,
You will have hounds that can outrun the wind;
A hundred chiefs shall follow you in war,
A hundred maidens sing thee to your sleep.

"A crown of sovereignty your brow shall wear,
And by your side a magic blade shall hang,
And you will be lord of all the Land of Youth,
And lord of Niamh of the Head of Gold."

As the magic song ended the Fians beheld Oisin mount the fairy steed and hold the maiden in his arms, and ere they could stir or speak she turned her horse's head and shook the ringing bridle, and down the forest glade they fled, as a beam of light flies over the land when clouds drive across the sun; and never did the
Fianna behold Oisin son of Finn on earth again.

Yet what befell him afterwards is known. As his birth was strange, so was his end, for he saw the wonders of the Land of Youth with mortal eyes and lived to tell them with mortal lips.

The Journey to Fairyland
When the white horse with its riders reached the sea it ran lightly over the waves, and soon the green woods and headlands of Erin faded out of sight. And now the sun shone fiercely down, and the riders passed into a golden haze in which Oisin lost all knowledge of where he was, or if sea or dry land were beneath his horse's
hoofs. But strange sights sometimes appeared to them in the mist, for towers and palace gateways loomed up and disappeared, and once a hornless doe bounded by them chased by a white hound with one red ear; and again they saw a young maid ride by on a brown steed, bearing a golden apple in her hand, and close behind her followed a young horseman on a white steed, a purple cloak floating at his back and a gold-hilted sword in his hand. And Oisin would have asked the princess who and what these apparitions were, but Niamh bade him ask nothing nor seem to notice any phantom they might see until they were come to the Land of Youth.

Oisin's Return
The story goes on to tell how Oisin met with various adventures in the Land of Youth, including the rescue of an imprisoned princess from a Fomorian giant. But at last, after what seemed to him a sojourn of three weeks in the Land of Youth, he was satiated with delights of every kind, and longed to visit his native land again and
to see his old comrades.

He promised to return when he had done so, and Niamh gave him the white fairy steed that had borne him across the sea to Tir na nÓg, but charged him that when he had reached the Land of Erin again he must never alight from its back nor touch the soil of the earthly world with his foot, or the way of return to the Land of Youth would be barred to him for ever.

Oisin then set forth, and once more crossed the mystic ocean, finding himself at last on the western shores of Ireland. Here he made at once for the Hill of Allen, where the dun of Finn was wont to be, but marveled, as he traversed the woods, that he met no sign of the Fian hunters and at the small size of the folk whom he saw tilling the ground.

At length, coming from the forest path into the great clearing where the Hill of Allen was wont to rise, broad and green, with its rampart enclosing many white-walled dwellings, and the great hall towering high in the midst, he saw but grassy mounds overgrown with rank weeds and whin bushes, and among them pastured a
peasant's kine.

Then a strange horror fell upon him and he thought some enchantment from the land of Sidhe held his eyes and mocked him with false visions. He threw his arms abroad and shouted the names of Finn and Oscar, but none replied, and he thought that perchance the hounds might hear him, so he cried upon Bran and Sceolan and strained his ears if they might catch the faintest rustle or whisper of the world from the sight
of which his eyes were holden, but he heard only the sighing of the wind in the whins.

Then he rode in terror from that place, setting his face towards the eastern sea, for he meant to traverse Ireland from side to side and end to end in search of some escape from his enchantment

The Broken Spell
But when he came near to the eastern sea, and was now in the place which is called the Valley of the Thrushes,* he saw in a field upon the hillside a crowd of men striving to roll aside a great boulder from their tilled land, and an overseer directing them.

Towards them he rode, meaning to ask them concerning Finn and the Fianna. As he came near they all stopped their work to gaze upon him, for to them he appeared like a messenger of the Fairy Folk or an angel from heaven. Taller and mightier he was than the men-folk they knew, with sword-blue eyes and brown, ruddy cheeks ; in his mouth, as it were, a shower of pearls, and bright hair clustered beneath the rim of his helmet.

And as Oisin looked upon their puny forms, marred by toil and care, and at the stone which they feebly strove to heave from its bed, he was filled with pity, and thought to himself,
"Not such were even the churls of Erin when I left them for the Land of Youth " and he stooped from his saddle to help them. He set his hand to the boulder, and with a mighty heave he lifted it from where it lay and set it rolling down the hill. And the men raised a shout of wonder and applause; but their shouting changed in a
moment into cries of terror and dismay, and they fled, jostling and overthrowing each other to escape from the place of fear, for a marvel horrible to see had taken place.

For Oisin's saddle girth had burst as he heaved the stone and he fell headlong to the ground. In an instant the white steed had vanished from their eyes like a
wreath of mist, and that which rose, feeble and staggering, from the ground was no youthful warrior, but a man stricken with extreme old age, white-bearded and withered, who stretched out groping hands and moaned with feeble and bitter cries.

And his crimson cloak and yellow silken tunic were now but coarse
homespun stuff tied with a hempen girdle, and the gold-hilted sword was a rough oaken staff such as a beggar carries who wanders the roads from farmer's house to house.

When the people saw that the doom that had been wrought was not for them they returned, and found the old man prone on the ground with his face hidden in his arms. So they lifted him up, and asked who he was and what had befallen him.

Oisin gazed round on them with dim eyes, and at last he said, "I was Oisin the son of
Finn, and I pray you tell me where he dwells, for his dun on the Hill of Allen is now a desolation, and I have neither seen him nor heard his hunting-horn from the western to the eastern sea."

Then the men gazed strangely on each other and on Oisin, and the overseer asked, "Of what Finn do you speak, for there be many of that name in Erin?"

Oisin said, "Surely of Finn mac Cumhal mac Trenmor, captain of the Fianna of Erin."
Then the overseer said, "You are daft, old man, and you have made us daft to take you for a youth as we did a while ago.

But we at least have now our wits again and we know that Finn son of Cumhal and all his generation have been dead these three hundred years. At the battle of Gowra fell Oscar, son of Oisin, and Finn at the battle of Brea, as the historians tell us; and the lays of Oisin, whose death no man knows the manner of, are sung by our harpers at great men's feasts.

But now the Talkenn*, Patrick has come into Ireland and has preached to us the One God and Christ His Son, by whose might these old days and ways are done away with; and Finn and his Fianna, with their feasting and hunting and songs of war and of love,
have no such reverence among us as the monks and virgins of Holy Patrick, and the psalms and prayers that go up daily to cleanse us from sin and to save us from the fire of judgment."

But Oisin replied, only half hearing and still less comprehending what was said to him, "If your God has slain Finn and Oscar, I would say that God is a strong man." Then they all cried out upon him, and some picked up stones, but the overseer bade them let him be until the Talkenn had spoken with him, and till he should order what was to be done.

* Glen na Smole *Adze-Head

From Celtic Myths and Legends, by T. W. Rolleston (Senate, 1994)


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