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Welcome to Unreal, a podcast about Irish history, stories and tradition.
Somewhere far away, across the sea or in the sky, is a land only known in story. Tír na nÓg, the land of youth, a place where there is no ageing, illness, or death. For Irish people long ago, stories of Tír na nÓg and other magical lands like it, were close to tales of paradise or heaven. People journeyed there, but few ever returned to tell of its wonders.
There is one man who did make it to Tír na nÓg – and made it back to Ireland. But he paid a terrible price in doing so. His name was Oisín – son of Fionn Mac Cumhaill, and warrior of the Fianna. The story of Oisín’s journey to Tír na nÓg has become one of Ireland’s best-loved legends – and pretty much everyone in Ireland can tell you what happens. But the tale of its telling, the history of how it came to be told, may still surprise you. I’m Ruth Atkins, and this is Unreal.
Oisín Mac Fionn’s story is a tale of time – the way it passes, how it shapes and changes you, and the landscape and people around you – and how it can leave you behind when you’re not paying attention. Even before his journey to TÍr na nÓg became an established part of the story, it was widely told that Oisín, through some strange adventure, became stranded in time. He was one of the last surviving members of the Fianna, surviving long after the age of his fellow warriors had passed. In a 12th Century manuscript called called Agallamh na Senórach, or The Conversations of the Ancients, Oisín and another member of the Fianna called Caoilte mac Rónan are old men, who walk through a newly Christian Ireland with St Patrick, keeping the legends of the Fianna alive by telling him about the adventures they had so long ago.
Oisin and Caoilte straddle two ages in Agallamh na Senórach – the age of myth and heroism, and the modern age, where magic and epic adventure exist only in story. But, in this manuscript at least, it’s never really explained how they came to be in this situation.
Around this basic premise, a legend built up that Oisín followed a woman to a magical realm, a place where time moved differently to the way it does on earth. Oisin spent what he thought was a brief period in this land, but when he returned to Ireland, he found that much more time had passed than he thought, and that he alone remained of the Fianna and their age.
Stories all around the world and throughout history have used this motif of magical realms affecting the passage of time. In Japan, there is a tale of a fisherman man called Urashima Taro. One day Urashima rescued a turtle from a group of children, and to repay him, the grateful turtle agreed to carry Urashima Taro on his back to an underwater palace where a beautiful princess lived. After a few days, Urashima Taro grew homesick, and the princess agreed to let him return to his own land. Before he left, she gave him a strange box, and told him never to open it. When Urashima returned to his own land, he found that nothing was as he left it. His home and family were long gone, and he knew nobody who lived there anymore. Forgetting the princess’s warning, Urashima opened the box the princess had given him. At once, a cloud of white smoke billowed out from the box. The smoke surrounded Urashima, and stole away his youth, turning him into an old man with white hair.
An old English story from the 12th Century follows a similar pattern. Herla, king of the Britons, was tricked into attending a wedding at a dwarven king’s realm. The wedding lasted for three days in the dwarf world, but when Herla returned to his own country the strange people now living there could barely understand his speech, for the age of the Britons had passed and Saxons rule the land. Herla’s wife is long gone, and the people Herla meets tell him they know only of a legend of an ancient queen who went through a cliff to the dwarf world to follow her husband, and was never seen again. Now before they left his magical kingdom, the dwarf had warned Herla and his men that they must not to get down off their horses until their dog had jumped down first. When a couple of Herla’s men ignored the warning, the others watched in horror as they crumbled instantly into dust. So Herla and the others remain on their horses, wandering the land and waiting for their dog to give the signal. Some stay they are wandering still.
There are many stories of Oisín, in his early life, before he became stranded out of time. His father was Fionn Mac Cumhaill, one of Ireland’s greatest heroes, and his mother was a deer maiden called Sadbh, a woman forced by magic to spend much of her life in the shape of a deer. Oisin is well-known in Scottish as well as Irish folk-tales and mythology, and it is a Scottish folk tale that gives rise to one of my favourite details about his early life.
When Oisín was born, Sadbh knew that if she licked him to clean him he would turn into a deer just like her. So she let him go, to be raised in the world of men. But Sadbh loved her son so much that she couldn’t resist giving him just one small lick on his forehead before she left him. Because of this, her son had a small patch of deerskin just above his eyebrow for the rest of his life. And that was how he got his name – Oisín, which means little deer.
Oisín was eventually found and adopted by Fionn, and from then on he lived with the Fianna, away from his mother and the place of his birth. And in several folk stories, Oisín’s trip out of time is not a romance – he does not go to marry a beautiful woman of a magical race. Rather, he goes to visit his mother.
One day, so the story goes, Oisín met a pretty woman while walking.
The woman said to him, “Will you not spend a day with your mother? You have been long enough with the Fianna.”
So Oisín went with her, and she opened a door in a rock to where his mother was. Oisín stayed there a week, and then asked to return to his home and the Fianna. But his mother told him that the week he had spent there had in fact been hundreds of years in the regular world. “Since you came here,” she told him. “Neither Fionn, nor any man of the Fianna lives.” On hearing this, Oisín cried out a song of grief: “My time is past. My friends are extinct. My peace and ease is over. … The grave is my home, so let me now die and live no more!”
Oisín always hungered for adventure, and before his journey to Tír na nÓg, there were premonitions about what was going to happen to him. In one story, Oisín and the Fianna were out hunting, and they came to rest for the night at a house in the woods. Inside the house, there was an old man lying in the bed, a little thin man sitting down, a beautiful girl who cooked the supper, and a very large ram tied up in the corner. The supper had just been served, when the ram suddenly broke from where he had been tied, and charged toward them knocking the table upside down and scattering the dishes of food all over the floor. Each of the Fianna tried to tie up the ram, but were unable to get the better of him. Then suddenly to their surprise the little thin man easily brought the ram under his control. Soon after this, when the company sat down, the beautiful girl came towards them, sitting on the knee of each of the men of the Fianna in turn. Each of them in turn tried to hold on to her, but she slipped from their grasp, eventually disappearing out of the room. In the morning, the Fianna asked the old man to explain what had happened. Who were all those strange people and creatures in the house that night?
“I am Old Age,” said the man. “The little thin man is Death. The ram is the World, and the girl is Youth. You thought you could hold on to Youth forever, but she slipped out from you, and once gone you cannot regain her. You thought you could control the World, but the World bested you all. Yet Death can easily vanquish the world. So do not walk around thinking you are so powerful, Fianna men, for both the World and Death are stronger than you. And do not foolishly hope to keep young forever, for already Youth has slipped away from you all.”
The Fianna listened and understood, and never again were so conceited. And the old man had so enjoyed talking with them that he told them that they could ask anything from him, and they would get it.
“Well,” said Fionn, “I wish that any prey my hound puppy follows, she’ll get the best of it.”
Goll Mac Morna wished that any warrior he fought with would be beaten with one blow to spare.
Diarmuid wished for his love spot, that if any woman saw it they would fall forever in love with him.
Finally, Oisín’s turn came. “I wish,” he said, “that I may never die until I see the Land of Youth.”
This folktale is a fascinating introduction, setting up several legends at once. References to Fionn’s hounds and Goll’s strength abound in folktales, while Diarmuid’s love spot becomes an important element of a very famous legend called The Pursuit of Diarmuid and Gráinne. And of course, it sets up a promise that one day Oisin will indeed visit the magical realm Tír na nÓg.
But the story also contains a warning, which I think is important in almost every Irish story: not every adventure will end happily – and not everything will be entirely as it seems.
The story of Oisín we now know best tells of a beautiful woman who enticed him into marriage, and brought him to live in Tír na nÓg with her. Although it existed already in folklore, the version that is closest to the tale we tell today was written as a poem in the mid-18th Century, by a Jacobite poet called Michael Comyn. The poem is written as a dialogue between Oisín and St Patrick, much like Agallamh na Senórach was many centuries earlier.
Oisin and the other members of the Fianna were hunting at Loch Léin, the lakes of Killarney, when they saw a woman riding towards them on a slender white horse. The woman was beautiful – a royal crown was on her head, her hair hung down in golden curls:
Redder were her cheeks than the rose,
Fairer was her visage than the swan upon the wave
And more sweet was the taste of her balsam lips
Than honey mingled through red wine
This woman was Niamh Chinn Óir, the golden-haired daughter of the King of Youth. She went up to Fionn Mac Cumhaill and told him that she had long been in love with one of his sons, Oisín, and had come all the way from the Tír na nÓg, the land of youth, to find him.
On seeing Niamh, Oisín too fell instantly in love. He took her hand in his, welcomed her, and told her he would marry her above any other woman in the world. She was like a mild star, he said, of loveliest countenance.
Niamh asked Oisín to come with her – to ride upon her white horse and return to Tír na nÓg with her. It was, she said, the most delightful country to be found, filled with riches and plenty. It was a place where no one aged, and people could live forever. Niamh told him of the treasures that awaited him if he would come – a hundred swords, a hundred of the fastest horses, jewels, soldiers, feasts, music, and a life of plenty.
You will get everything I promise you, she said.
And delights, also, which I may not mention,
You will get beauty, strength and power
And I myself will be your wife.
Who could possibly refuse such an offer? Oisín accepted, and he climbed on to Niamh’s white horse, riding in silence to the mouth of the great sea. Fionn and the Fianna followed, and as they watched, Oisín and Niamh rode into the waves and disappeared.
So begins Comyn’s version. But Niamh Chinn Óir actually doesn’t seem to have been a part of the legend prior to his poem. The woman in most folk versions is unnamed, and when Oisín first meets her, she is significantly less beautiful than in the story we now know.
In these folk versions, the Fianna see a woman’s body walking toward them, out of the forest. But the body doesn’t have the head of a woman. In one story, she has the head of a pig, but in most versions, she has no head at all.
But although the woman is headless, she is still somehow able to speak. In the story, the woman stood before the men of the Fianna and asked to be married to one of them. Each of the Fianna in turn refused her – which I can kind of understand, it’s a pretty strange thing to happen! But finally the woman asked Oisín.
“I will marry you,” Oisín said.
The two were wed, and Oisín promised her that he would never strike her a blow.
The next morning, the woman finally revealed her true form. She was no longer headless or pig-headed – in fact, she was beautiful, one of the most beautiful women ever seen in Ireland.
Oisín and the woman lived happily, and she bore him two children. But one day, when Oisín returned from hunting, he became angry when he saw that his wife had let loose the hound puppy he had tied up outside. Forgetting his promise, he struck three blows to the leash that had been tying the puppy dog.
The moment he did that, the woman fled, taking their two children with her. And no matter how far Oisin looked, east, west, up or down, he couldn’t find her. The woman had returned to her home place, Tír na hÓige, the land of youth.
Soon though, the woman decided she wanted Oisín back. She bewitched her brother, turning him into a lame hare, and sent him to Ireland, knowing that Oisín wouldn’t be able to resist hunting him. Every day that Oisín went out hunting, the lame hare was there in front of him. Oisín pursued him for days, but couldn’t catch him. Finally, one evening, Oisín managed to grab the hare by his hind legs. He struck its head with a stone, and killed him. When the hare was dead, he transformed back into a beautiful young man. And as Oisín looked up into the sky, he saw four men coming down from above with a coffin and cross, to take the man away.
When the men weren’t looking, Oisín clambered into the coffin himself, and was swept up into the sky with them, until they let him out in Tír na nÓg. There, Oisín rejoined his wife.
In Comyn’s poem, Oisín’s adventures on the way to Tír na nÓg are told in detail. As they travelled through the sea, they saw many wondrous things – cities, courts and castles, strange animals that chased each other through the water, and strange travellers also riding on horses on top of the waves. Oisín even saved another fair maiden, the daughter of the King of the Land of Life, from an evil giant named Fomhor Builleach.
But the beauty and splendour of Tír na nÓg, when they finally arrived, surpassed everything that Oisín had seen up to that point. The gardens were in full bloom, and the houses were made from precious stones. Niamh’s parents, the King and Queen of Youth emerged from their palace in a parade, and gave a hundred thousand welcomes to their daughter’s new lover. And then, in a feast that lasted ten nights and ten days, Oisín and Niamh were married.
Tír na nÓg was such a wondrous place that Oisín soon forgot about the life he had before. In the poem, he lives there for a few years, and has three children with Niamh. In the folk version, the time is even shorter – only a couple of days. You see, Oisín was under a kind of spell. There was a strange slab in the King of Youth’s garden, which was called Leag na Smaointí – the Stone of Thoughts and Memory. And it was known by everyone who lived there, that anyone who lay down on that stone would fall asleep, and every memory they had forgotten would return to them in their dreams. Everyone knew this, that is, except for Oisín. His wife and the people of Tír na nÓg worked hard to keep him away from the garden and the stone, for fear that he would remember Ireland, and want to return there forever.
But, nothing stays secret for long. And one day, Oisín did indeed find the garden. He stretched back on the slab, and as he slept, Ireland and the Fianna came back into his mind.
He returned to his wife, scratching at his head in worry. As soon as she saw him, his wife realised what must have happened.
“There’s something in your head now,” said Oisín’s wife, “and no comb or rock will remove it.”
“Yes,” said Oisín. “I cannot rest here any longer until I come to Ireland and see my family.”
“You will not find them,” she said. “How long do you think you have been here?”
“I’ve been here,” said Oisín, “for three days.”
“You have been here,” said his wife, “for three hundred years, and if you go to Ireland now you will find no one in the country who will give you any report of your people.”
“I don’t care,” said Oisín, “I won’t wait to go there.”
Oisín’s wife had no wish to go with him, but seeing his determination, she told him how he could get there on her horse. But she warned him that he could not ever get off the horse while on Irish soil. This happens in Comyn’s poem too – Niamh warns Oisín three times not to get off the horse in Ireland. If he did so, she said, he would never return to the land of youth again. Oisín, promised her that he would do as she said and return soon. Then he kissed her, and his three children, and left on Niamh’s white horse to go to Ireland.
Just as Niamh had warned him, Oisín found Ireland greatly changed when he returned. The home where had lived was a ruin, filled with nettles and weeds, and there was no sign of Fionn or the men of the Fianna anywhere.
Eventually, Oisín found a group of people, and went toward them. The people were astonished at Oisín’s size – the age of the tall strong men of the Fianna had passed, and to them Oisín seemed like a giant.
Oisín asked them whether they had any knowledge of Fionn and the Fianna and what became of them.
“We have heard tell of them,” the people said “in stories and in song, their names live on.”
They had heard too, that Fionn’s handsome son had disappeared with a beautiful woman to the land of youth, and was never heard of again.
Nearby, three hundred men were trying, and failing, to carry a great slab of marble. When they saw Oisín’s size and strength they called on him to help them.
Oisín agreed. Still on his horse, he lifted the marble slab easily, and threw it seven perches away to where they wanted it moved.
But as he did so, the weight of the slab broke the stirrup on Niamh’s white horse, and Oisín stumbled and fell. When he hit the ground, Oisin transformed instantly, becoming an old, blind man on the ground. And as soon as this happened, the horse fled from him, leaving Oisín completely alone.
As he was old and frail now, and no longer had a magic horse to travel on, this brought an end to Oisín’s adventures. No more would he go travelling far into strange and magical realms, and no more would he see the people he had loved and lost. But he met with St Patrick, converted to Christianity, and told him of the adventures he had had when he was young.
It’s easy to think of Oisín in Tír na nÓg as a tragedy. And certainly there are sad elements to it. Oisín is left alone – he has long missed the lives and deaths of his comrades in Ireland, and he can never return to his family living on in Tír na nÓg. Depending on which version of the story you know, you might also feel that Oisín and his wife’s relationship is not particularly a happy one – built on lies and filled with trickery, nowadays some might even call it a toxic relationship, one where each partner does plenty to bring harm to the other. We also tend to focus on Oisín’s final moment of foolishness, the fatal mistake of lifting the stone and the fall from the white horse, as the central part of the story, rather than the long, full and adventurous life he lived up to that point.
But Oisín doesn’t die at the end of the tale. Rather, the story ends the way it begins – telling his story to St Patrick. And although he is old, and the everlasting life and youth of Tír na nÓg is no longer available to him, through this Oisín finds a new kind of immortality. When he tells the stories of the Fianna, he keeps their legends alive. And so do we, when we tell it today. The stories shift, and change, and grow, like life itself. That, I think, is the truer happier message of the tale – there is no death where stories live on in our hearts.
Thanks for listening to this episode of Unreal. Unreal is written and created by me, Ruth Atkins. You can find links to the sources and music from today’s episode on my website, Unrealpodcast.com If you enjoyed today’s episode, please do tell a friend or leave a review on apple podcasts – thanks to everyone who has done that so far. I’ll be back soon with another story, and until then, go néirí an bóthar leat.