Previous Next

Creative writing

The Story of
Oisín and Tír na nÓg

by Michael Roberts This is the wonderful story of Oisín and Niamh retold by a modern Irish storyteller. Oisín, a young warrior, is smitten by a beautiful woman from the Otherworld who carries him away to her Land of Youth, where he lives with her for 300 years. On his return, he feels as if he has just slept one night and goes looking for his Fianna friends, all of whom are long since dead.
  Niamh brushed her hair and gazed at the clouds from the window high up in her tower. The wind was blowing towards the land of the little people. She wondered what it might be like there. She had heard so often about these small people, small in stature and small in ideas. Even their chief, Fionn seemed so weak and wanton in comparison to the men of Hy Brasil, those tall, imposing giants of the western world who held the world in place, controlled the winds and who, each night, shepherded the stars towards their rising place. If she could catch one of these mortals, and train him, train him in the ways of her world, perhaps he could then be sent back to the world of the little people and improve their lot immensely. This would be a challenge worthy of her talents and her time! Time? She had plenty of it. It meant nothing here where Bresís rule and Fionn of the Fianna were just characters in a story. Time was an idea of small minds involved in small ideas.

The horses were already in the field with the wind at their back. The time was ripe. She would put her plan into action. She chose Caoilte for her mount, big as a house and strong as a hurricane coming out of the west. The other horses would follow, to cover her trail and for company on her trek. They headed east to find this Sacred Isle of the Blest, Land of Heroes and men. Only clouds showed on the horizon with the sun somewhere behind them. She would get there as the bright ring of morning circled the sky.
The Fianna hunted the western glens at this time of the year. They did so each year as long as anyone could remember. Fionn favoured the high plains above Glencar for the great stags and wild boar that roamed there. He spent the moons of autumn in the Shelly Place each year. He liked to hunt there with a small band of his select warriors and this year would be no exception, but it would be different.

As he drew up short, his surprise showing clearly, he gaped as this beautiful woman reined in her panting mount.
As Caoilte rounded the brow of the last hill Knock na Rae rose from the waves and stood at attention, doing sentry duty on the shore. Niamh nudged him with her knees to follow the course of the ancient river that led to the old village in the valley among the hills. His snorting raised great clouds to disguise their entry to the Land of Men. Cumeen strand was coming into view, where she would bring him ashore to dry land. He stood for a while, prancing on the water line and sniffing the air. The salt felt good in his nostrils. He shook his long flowing mane and signalled for the other white horses to wait by the shore for him and his precious load. His golden shoes would keep him from touching dry land but he had to pick his way with great care. If he stumbled, and Niamh should touch the ground, all would be lost, his mission, his honour and beautiful Niamh of the Golden Locks would dissolve into a vapour that might never make its way back to Tir na nOg, the Land of Youth and Promise.
The estuary narrowed and the cromlechs, curves of stone, appeared to their right, on the brow of the hill above the river. Crossing the lake brought them to the Hazel wood and on to Lug Na Gall. Niamh could smell the heathers and the grasses from the meadows, high above the lake at Largy. There still lay the open court tombs of the Fir Bolg, centuries after the Fir Bolg had left and retreated to their home at the east, far beyond the Grey Door. In the distance, towards the Glen of Aodh, the music of hound and hunt rang through the early morning air. The Fianna were on the trail.
Bran and Sceolan had raced with the first beams of sunlight, soundlessly, through the thickets, trailing a magnificient stag. This majestic beast had led them a merry chase all through the dawn. Now it was slowing down and the hounds were gaining ground. Fionn was close behind on his favourite hunting chariot. This dawn chorus burst through the mountain copses and undergrowth and came, screaming and shouting with excitement and charging recklessly. The entire retinue sang loud while it spread throughout the countryside.
Oisín had dogged the chariot all night. He, initially, had raised this stag. His own fairy nature had sensed the beast, hidden in the thick brush and without being aware of it, he himself had roused this relative of his mother, Saba, sooner than good hunting decreed. He knew that the chase would be exhilarating before the stag would escape into the high cover above Glen Aodh. In this way he satisfied his split allegiance to his comrades, the Fainna, and Cernunnos, Stag Lord of the Forest.
Fionn had sought Saba, high and low, in these same foothills. Saba, the beautiful Danaan woman, had been taken away from her home at Almu by the Dark Lord of the North. He intended that she would be his consort in his castle under the waves. She had shape-changed to a doe of the great clan of this valley where she intended to escape from Balor, the Dark Lord. Saba and Oisín had been brought here on the way north. That rain soaked land was still recovering from the onslaught of the Fomorians.
She had left Oisín for Fionn to find while she followed the Dark Lord through the woods of Largy. She had still hoped to escape too but could not risk the recapture of her son. When Fionn found Oisín he had been playing with the fawn of Largy at the edge of the forest in the early morning sunshine.
Oisín knew these woodlands like he knew the back of his own hands. He, Oisín, knew more than anyone that the fun was in the chase, the glorious chase, when the blood ran in the veins and the mind floated above the menial details of life. This journey of flight and fancy was the stuff of dreams of young people since the world was new.
As expected, the stag finally turned, doubled back on his own tracks, and ran for the shore of the lake of Aodh. With one mighty leap from a crag near the crannog it launched itself into the shining waters of the lake. The mighty beast had put both distance and height between himself and the baying hounds. His leap put him out of their reach, for today, at least. Oisín stood on the cliffs above and watched him swim to the far shore. He threw back his head and laughed at the swirling dogs and hunters, milling about on the outcrop below him. Swiftly, he turned on his heel and strode back into the woods, straight into the eyes of Niamh of the Golden Hair. She sat there, on her enormous white steed, a vision beyond all understanding.
As he drew up short, his surprise showing clearly, he gaped as this beautiful woman reined in her panting mount. They waited for the hunt to gather in a large circle about them in the early morning sunlight. The hounds finally settled while the warriors found soft ground to rest on. Fionn came forward to greet the unexpexted arrival. Protocols were observed as required when two clans meet. With his two favourites dogs, like light and shadow at his heels, Fionn strode to the edge of the clearing and addressed Niamh. He enquired of her mission. He knew that she had a mission, she would not be here otherwise.
Her eyes has already settled on Oisín and although she conversed with Fionn her attention was on Oisin, son of Saba, the mystical fairy princess and of Fionn, sunny chief of the Fianna. Oisín would come with her, of that there was no doubt. He had stood there, like a big bostoon of a boy, open-mouthed and speechless since she had first arrived. He was not even aware of the conversation going on around and about him, concerning his life and future. His only thought was of how soon he could ride away with this woman of Fairy. He said yes to everything, including that he would go with her to Hy Brasil and would learn whatever she wanted to teach him. Somehow he felt that he would teach her a thing or two as well. Men! Would they ever wake up?
As if in a dream, he mounted her steed behind her and with his arms embracing her, he took the reins. The Fianna cheered them as he swung the rearing horse with the golden hooves towards the west. The great hooves flashed in the sun, sending blinding darts of the light into the eyes of the Fianna. Fionn was concerned for Oisínís welfare but what could he do? This young man was smitten, in love, beyond all rhyme or reason. Logic and common sense were out of bounds. What could any man do?
Oisín was away with the fairies. He was totally immersed in the moment. The past was a far country while a future had not yet occurred to him. And now, he was mounted and on his way, to where and what, he did not know. And he was delighted to be going! With a final snort, the great beast whirled and was gone.
The sun was high now as they rode the bright road to the west. It was all a blur for Oisín, like the fluttering of a birdís wings. He was dazzled by the beauty of Niamh, the smell of her hair and the music of her voice, like the singing of mountain streams of a spring morning. The beast moved easily beneath them. The plains of Largy were soon left behind and the sea was calling, calling in that relentless way like rolling thunder in the distance.
The beast seemed to grow beneath them as it gathered itself for the long journey ahead. Itís mane flew and shook in the freshening breeze. Itís tail was up and its flank muscles rippled like the tide on the long strand at Culleennamore. The salt air in itís nostrils gave it the energy to make the run to the sea, the shining sea, sparkling in the sunlight on the horizon. They came down from the brow of Gulbainís hill and headed for the rós point directly ahead.
A stream of people, all laughing and talking, came out to greet Niamh and her new catch. What would she think of next?

Strange! The sun was setting early today. Time had shifted. Long shadows made the brow furrows of Ben Bulben frown, as if worried by the outcome of this pending adventure. A great warp in the continuum had occurred. The Otherworld had broken through. The thin veneer of reality had rippled and cracked. Oisín was becoming more aware. In the half dark he could hear animals calling in the distance, at the edges of his mind. A Great Stag whistled from the cliffs at Mullaghmore and was answered by a snickering doe from the foot of Knock na Rae.
The Black Boar of the Mountain himself was abroad, snuffling and snorting in the sedge along the shore of the Glen Car waters. A Sea Eagle skree-ed from the heights above Drumcliff, Druim Cliabh, the Ridge of the Rush Bundles. It soared to great heights and had a clear vision, all the way to the ocean. Magic was afoot and the Pooka were abroad in the hills.
The pair on the magnificient charge skimmed the waters of the bay, passing Cumeen, where they had come ashore, heading for the fiery point in the horizon. Tir na nÓg where time stood still and its people stayed forever young, lay directly ahead. The other sea horses that had waited for them near Cumeen Strand joined them and they churned the trail to froth, riding across the sky to the sea on a milky white trail of foam.
As they passed the seventh wave a great shoal of salmon smolt surfaced and swam along with them. The gleam of their silver bellies winked on and off as they turned and rolled through the curling waves. Their bright, unblinking eyes scanned the pair on horseback, eyeing each other and eyeing the striding, prancing beast of the deep. Oisín could sense them speak to each other, and understood what they were saying to him. Questions of destiny and causes and the why of things flashed through his mind. The simple answers of these creatures of the eternal waters seemed so clear and complete and uncomplicated.
These anadromous creatures knew it all. They had received instructions from the Mother of All, as they travelled from her womb through her life channel to the sea that held all the wisdom of the ages, everything ever known, since the world began. They had been swimming in this sea of wisdom for so long that it had soaked into their very being. With a signal from their leader, and in unison, they all swung about, taking a new heading towards the rós now far behind them. As the ninth wave came into view a monster of the deep surged to the surface and surfed ahead to show them the way to Tir na nOg. The crust of shell and shingle of ages past along the line of his back seemed to point the way to the future, a future that for Oisín was so full of promise and joy. The leviathan smoothed the way until the sun set and then continued until a light appeared out of the blackness. No moon lit the way or showed the trail to follow. Only instinct, the guide light of the Mother, could bring you to that point of light. Like the star of morning, the light on the brink of eternity set a true course for them.
Golden gates opened as they approached and music, soft and sweet, filled the air. The bounding beast beneath them became smaller and strutted to a halt on a mossy green or lawn in front of a large castle that was made of glass and gold and silver. Everything glinted and glittered like salt on a fresh fish. A stream of people, all laughing and talking, came out to greet Niamh and her new catch. What would she think of next? Her enchantment with the people from beyond their eastern shore had been noted long ago. The young man with her looked bright and doe-eyed, like a grilse in spring, strong in body and clear of mind. He talked freely and answered all their questions and had many of his own.
The group moved back into the castle and wined and dined through the night and the following day and on into the next night. Food was never brought to the table, it was there in abundance no matter how many people came or went. The conversation was unrelenting, the singing was magical, lifting the heart and keeping the soul in tune with the spirit. Oisín laughed his way through the milieu and met with everyone who came to share his stories and to share theirs with him. It seemed to go on forever, a timeless, seamless flowing of joy and companionship and good craic. He didnít feel tired or weary of this university of life.
Brehon laws, good hunting and tracking, fairness in the division of the spoils of the hunt were all up for debate and review. The lives of fish, birds and animals seemed an open book to these people who discussed the finer points with an intensity that was the foundation of all learning and wisdom. Oisín couldnít help but notice how the dress and hair styles of these new found friends reminded him of feathers, scales, fins and furs. Had they spent so long on the hunt that they had begun to take on the character of their prey? This intensive engagement had brought all the kingdoms together. Oisín felt the knowledge become part of him, in his hair, in his blood and in his bones.

  And then, his mind clouded. It became misty. After an eternity of immersion in this wonderland, the mist gathered before his eyes. All those around Oisín began to shape shift. First they became amorphous, then trasparent, and then they melted into the mist and floated away from his knowing. He could feel a breeze rising, full of smells that reminded him of home. Home? The idea seemed foreign to his mind but somehow he felt that he must go there. A distant drum called to him, fast and demanding, calling from the depths of his mind.
It was morning when Oisínís head cleared again. The sun was high over Largy Plains and a soft breeze rippled through the grasses and ferns. Where were Fionn and the Fianna and had that stag made the far shore safely? His bones were stiff and his body felt heavy. He must have slept for a long time. The hunt was far off and the whole world seemed cooler and less tangible. This long beard that reached his belt was grey and thin. The hair on his head felt thin and light and the backs of his hands looked strange to him, wrinkled and mottled and yellow-brown. What kind of dream had come with the vision of Niamh? This fairy woman had worked her magic well. He felt the weight of great years on him, and wisdom from beyond all understanding.
He would go into the world and see what he could tell his people of the wonderful sights that he had seen. What would they think of what he would tell them of his adventure? It would take a long time to recount it all and for them to understand all he had been given. Would he see Niamh again or was she just a figment of his imagination created from his hunger for knowledge? He would seek out Fionn and his friends and discuss the whole thing with them. They would help him to understand all that he had come to know and help him settle his mind. Wouldnít they? Well, wouldnít they?

Michael Roberts lives in County Sligo, Ireland.

This article first appeared in Dal Riada, Journal of Celtic Heritage and Cultural Traditions, Vol. 16, Issue 3, available from Taigh Arainn, Glenartney Hotel, Brodick, Isle of Arran, Scotland. It is published here with permission.