Mar 25, 2015

The Legend of Oisín and the Fabled Island of Tír na nÓg - A Tale of Paradise, Love, and Loss


Ossian (Oisín) on the Bank of the Lora, Invoking the Gods to the Strains of a Harp, 1801.
The fabled paradise island of Tír na nÓg is said to be located off of the west coast of Ireland. Tír na nÓg is known as the land of perpetual youth. It is also named the Island of the Living, the island of Life, Brasil's Island, The Land of Promise, and the Land of Youth, among others.

The story of Tír na nÓg is one of a land where time stands still. In legend, those on the island are said to never age, and they never grow old. It is said to be a land where there is no illness, and no sorrow. In stories the island is covered in blooming flowers which never die, orchards of fruit trees, and forests dripping with honey. Days are filled with sports and mead. The climate is temperate, neither too hot nor too cold. Everyone who lives on the island is beautiful and young. They never suffer from pain nor illness, and they live a life of perpetual happiness. To live in the island paradise of Tír na nÓg was desired by all. However, reaching the island proved impossible. It was said that one would have to cross a stretch of water, and then travel beneath the waves for some time. At that point, the island would emerge.

In the center of the lore about the fabled paradise is the story of Oisín. Oisín (pronounced uh-SHEEN) was a great warrior, and was revered as a fine athlete, and a very gifted poet. He was the son of the mythical Fionn Mac Cumhaill (also known as Finn MacCool). Fionn was the leader of a group (known as the Fianna) who guarded the King of Ireland. Oisín and the Fianna would explore the green hills of Ireland daily, hunting and protecting the King. Oisín was very happy with his life with the men.


Fionn Mac Cumhaill and the Fianna. Public Domain

The story goes that one day, while traveling through the hills hunting, Oisín saw a majestic white horse. Riding the white horse was a beautiful maiden. The maiden was the most alluring woman Oisín had ever seen, and he was captivated by her. She had a godly appearance, with long golden hair and a pale blue dress covered in stars. A golden light surrounded her.

She approached the Fianna on her horse. As she came closer, she told them her name was Niamh. She was the daughter of the king of the mystical land of Tír Na nÓg. She had heard of a great warrior named Oisín, and she came to take him back with her to Tír Na nÓg, the Land of Eternal Youth. She explained that Tír Na nÓg was a land where nobody ever aged, nobody felt sadness, and everyone lived in a perpetual state of happiness. She explained it was a place where laughter flowed through the air, the island was covered with fruit-tree orchards, and forest trees dripping with honey.

Oisín loved his father, and he did not want to leave him. But he felt drawn to Niamh and her promises of the Land of Eternal Youth. In the tale Oisín fell in love with Niamh instantly, and he agreed to return to Tír Na nÓg to live with her. He promised his father that he would return soon, and bade him farewell.

Oisín arrived in Tír Na nÓg and was very happy there with Niamh. Her description of the land had been true. Everyone was young, and beautiful, and happy. Upon meeting an older woman, Oisín was confused, as he thought everyone there was young. The old woman explained she had been older when she arrived, and that in Tír Na nÓg she would continue to get younger until she reached the age of a child.


Painting, Ossian's dream. 1813. Public Domain

Oisín was happy living with Niamh at Tír Na nÓg, but he felt that something was missing. He felt a loneliness in his heart as he missed his father, the Fianna, and his homeland of Ireland. He asked Niamh if he could return to Ireland, but she resisted. Eventually Niamh saw how much Oisín missed his homeland and his father, and she agreed to allow him to return to visit them. She sent Oisín on her white horse, instructing him to remain on the horse. Should his feet touch the land, he would never be able to return to Tír Na nÓg again.

Oisín headed home, anxious to see his family, but when he returned, everything was different. The Fianna was no longer there, and his family home was crumbling away and covered in ivy. He was desperate to find something, anything that he would recognize. But he did not recognize this land, and he decided to return to Tír Na nÓg.

Legend says that as he headed back, he came across several old men who were struggling to move a rock. He spoke with them about his father and the Fianna, but the old men told Oisín that his father, Fionn Mac Cumhaill, and the Fianna were not real, and that they were just legends. As Oisín leaned in to help them move the rock, he fell from Niamh’s majestic white horse. Just as Niamh had warned him, the moment he touched the ground, he instantly aged 300 years. What Oisín did not know was that while he felt he had only been away at Tír Na nÓg for a short time, 300 years had actually elapsed back in Ireland. Time did not exist in Tír Na nÓg, as Niamh had warned him. Now an old, blind man, Oisín tried to locate his father, and was devastated to learn that Fionn had died many years prior.

He shared the stories of his father, the Fianna, and Tír Na nÓg to St. Patrick before dying of old age.

To this day, the story of Oisín and Tír Na nÓg remains a powerful and endearing Irish legend. Tír Na nÓg remains a symbol of elusive paradise – an island of youth where everyone is happy and no one ever ages, but the tale also the tragic story of a man who wanted to return home, but was too late.

Featured image: Ossian (Oisín) on the Bank of the Lora, Invoking the Gods to the Strains of a Harp, 1801. Public Domain

References


By M R Reese
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