Oisín and Tir Na NÓg
In the beginning, fianna were loose and ragged bands of Celts, led by either women or men, for Eíre (Ireland) knew the strength of both.
Not long after the dark Druid Cathbad led a fiann of 27 men against the 12 foster-fathers of the Ulster princess Ness and killed him, however, and she retaliated with her own bloody revenge, the Fiannaíocht (FEE na) gathered on the Hill of Tara under Cumhaill (COOL) to serve the High Kings only.
They became Na Fianna, and took these three mottos:
- Truth in our hearts
- Strength in our hands
- Fulfilment in our tongues
Their battle cry was the Dord Fiann, and was raised in dire need.
Finn mac Cumhaill was the son of Cumhaill, and led Na Fianna after his father.
Sabdh was a beautiful maiden who loved Finn mac Cumhaill; however, Fear Droiche (Far DROKE-eh), a Dark Druid, wanted Sadbh for himself, and hated Finn.
Droiche transformed Sadbh into a deer; in agony, she fled to the forest near Finn’s home.
While hunting with his dogs, Bran and Sceolan, Finn found the deer, but when his dogs refused to harm it, he reached for it. At his touch, Sadbh transformed back into herself, and they married. She became pregnant straightaway.
When the Dark Druid discovered this, he planned revenge, luring Finn away with an attack on Na Fianna, but disguising himself as her husband. As soon as she stepped outside to warn him, he transformed her back.
For seven years, Finn searched for her in vain, until one day he found a seven year old boy in the woods. Finn named the boy Oisín.
Finn never saw Sabdh again, but he gratefully took his son home to raise; Oisín became not only a mighty warrior, but one of Na Fianna’s greatest poets and musicians.
Oisín grew handsome as well, and when he was grown, and the stories of his strength, his compassion, and his stories had spread throughout Ireland, it came to pass one day that the most beautiful woman any of Na Fianna had ever seen came riding over the Hills of Tara, upon a brilliant white horse.
None could barely look upon her, she shone so brightly, save for Finn and Oisín. Her hair was long and golden, and flowed behind her in the air as if it were underwater.
Clear enough she rode from Tir Na NÓg, the Eternal Land of Youth and Happiness; she introduced herself nonetheless.
“I am Niamh Chinn Óir, (Nayv Chin Oy), daughter of Manannán mac Lir, god of the sea, and I have watched you, Oisín, for some time. If you will have me as your wife, I would take you with me to Tir Na NÓg,” she said, never looking once at any man but him.
Oisín loved her all at once, and knew he must go, and his heart filled with love and longing and joy and fear all at the same time, which made his whole body too heavy to move.
Finn, too, knew the same. His father’s heart felt heavy: with joy for the future of this son, and with sorrow for his own loss.
Finn was not a selfish man. He put a hand on the shoulder of his son and whispered to him. “How can you stay, lad?”
Oisín turned to his father with tearful shock, and embraced the old warrior, hard and long…
… then quicker than anyone has ever seen, or will ever see, Oisín and Niamh of the Golden Hair were off upon her white stallion, Embarr, to disappear into the distance toward the Land of Tir Na NÓg.
Three perfect, joyful years passed for Oisín and for Niamh, and two perfect, joyful children were born: Oscar, a son, and Plor na mBan, a daughter.
No pain did Oisín feel once, nor sorrow. Not once did he feel a moment‘s troubling thought. Their love was perfect, their lives were perfect, their laughter was perfect…
Yet something, after three years, felt wrong.
Niamh knew, but dared not say. If only she’d known secrets make it worse for an Irishman.
Oisín first grew dark in his mood, and then worse: he grew quiet.
Niamh still could not bring herself to tell him the cause of his trouble; instead, she did everything else she could think of to distract him. She fed him sweet berries, fruit and cream, but he felt no hunger. She kissed him, but he felt no passion. She brought his harp, but he felt no inspiration.
Oisín walked long miles, at last, and returned. Niamh saw his face and was frightened: he knew.
“I must return to Ireland,” he said.
“It is impossible,” she said, but looked away from him.
“Nothing is impossible here, love,” he said, but he spoke gently, for he knew she lied, and lied badly, only because she loved him so.
Niamh felt tears on her face and wondered at their warm wetness; she had never wept before. “There is a way,” she said, “but I beg of you. Please do not leave this place.”
Oisín’s mind could not be changed. He was heartsick for the Hills of Tara, and Niamh could not be consoled; she was somehow certain he would never return. At last, Niamh realised she loved Oisín far more than she ever wanted to keep him a prisoner.
She told him.
Oisín listened carefully to Niamh’s warnings: he must ride the white horse Embarr, and he musn’t dismount for any reason, no matter how compelling. Embarr would safely take him there and home, so long as he remained upon the horse’s back.
Oisín swore upon the love between them, upon the love for their children, he would do what she asked.
Niamh believed him, but still her eyes filled with strange new tears. They spent the night together. At the first light of dawn, Oisín set out on Embarr.
In the three years Oisín had spent in Tir Na NÓg, three hundred years had passed in Ireland.
The castle at Tara was gone. Na Fianna was gone. All who had known him were gone. Nothing remained, and what had replaced all … seemed… smaller.
Even the new buildings, with their odd crosses on them, seemed so much smaller.
Even the men, building them, were smaller. They seemed to Oisín so much … weaker … somehow, than the men he had known.
Oisín, as he surveyed his once-beloved homeland, felt fists of pain around his throat and his heart.
Embarr slowed his pace, but dared not stop until Oisín made him.
Oisín watched from some distance, shocked, as three small men, together, lifted one stone. It was a stone he, or any of Na Fianna, could easily have lifted alone.
“What has become of Ireland?” Oisín whispered.
An elderly beggarwoman, passing by on the road, overheard him and laughed. “St. Patrick,” she said.
Oisín did not understand, but had no time to ask. He saw the stone, high in the air, about to fall and crush the men beneath it.
He spurred Embarr on, who charged forward.
Oisín, remembering his promise, guided Embarr only near the falling stone. He himself leaned over, as far as he could, and using his great strength, made a mighty fist.
Oisín swung that fist as hard as he could, sending the stone from its killing path, away from the grateful men.
As Oisín did so, however, the force of the blow snapped the leather of his saddle. Embarr feeling the sudden freedom, doubled back, to try to get under Oisín once more, but no horse, even one from the Land of the Sídhe, can corner as fast as that…
In this way, Oisín’s body, still young and beautiful, hit Ireland’s ground, despite his promise.
His neck broke first, then his back. A small mercy he felt no bodily pain, since immediately his heart was full of agony as three hundred relentless years found him.
Oisín closed his eyes and thought of his Niamh, his son and his daughter, and hoped they knew how much he loved them.
In Tir Na NÓg, Niamh shuddered and gave out a great gasp; it was only moments later Embarr returned, but it took far longer until she found strength to summon the children.
The men rushed to thank the shining stranger; one had run to catch his horse, but it was gone …
The crowd gathered in awe. What was happening to the poor man?
Only the strange and ancient beggar woman, who had finally reached the chaos, seemed to understand.
“This is Oisín,” she whispered. “Oisín, the bard of Na Fianna. Come all these years, from Tir Na NÓg.”
The crowd muttered. She was crazy; those were stories, and not Christian ones.
“Still true,” she said. As they watched his three hundred years fall on him, no one could doubt, and the murmurs faded.
He moaned, just once. They stood, helpless.
The beggar woman kneeled by the his face. “Do you know me, Oisín?”
Oisín used the last of his strength to open milk-white eyes.
“I am Bodhmall. I am the last Druid.”
As shocked and horrified whispers spread through the crowd, Oisín searched his fast-fading memory, which was dying with every year he was weighted with … Bodhmall. Yes, he knew. His uncle’s foster-mother; when Oisín first was taken from the forest, away from his mother forever, this Druid was kind to him.
Yes. He knew. Oisín did not know, but as he shed a tear, so too, did Niamh.
Bodhmall smiled at the recognition in his eyes. “Oisín, I too am old … there is no more place in this Ireland, for either you or me. Let me care for you one last time, child.”
Oisín face showed alarm, but the Druid laid a wizened hand upon him, and he seemed peaceful.
The crowd watched, mystified, as both Oisín and the old beggar woman seemed suddenly to turn to dust and bones, and bell tower on the half-built church began to ring.
Oisín staggered, still alive, into Niamh’s arms, and collapsed.
He slept for seven days, while Niamh waited, never leaving him.
He awoke, confused, but restored. Without a word, he ran to their window, where he saw a deer standing unafraid and still.
Oisín leapt up and ran to the wide green field, stopping just short of the graceful animal. The two gazed at each other, then took deliberate steps toward one another.
The moment Oisín’s hand touched the animal, it became Sadbh once again, and Niamh and the children ran to join them, forever joyful in the Land of Youth.