The Legend of

Oisín and Saint Patrick

(This is a continuation of Tír na nÓg - Oisín and Niamh.)

But the men got an awful fright. They thought Oisín was dead, until they heard him muttering, "Tír na nÓg, Tír na nÓg." So they did the logical thing -- they took him to the wisest man they knew, and that was Saint Patrick.

Patrick was an old man himself then. He died about 1500 years ago, and so we know almost the exact date when Oisín returned to Ireland from Tír na nÓg: about AD 480. Fionn and the Fianna had been dead for 200 years.


When the men told Patrick that Oisín had said he was Oisín, the son of Fionn mac Cumhail, Patrick knew what they were talking about, and he was very interested. He had a great respect for the old traditions and stories, and he knew that Oisín was the poet and historian of the Fianna, and if anyone could tell him the old stories, it was Oisín. But there was another thing. Oisín was the last of the old pagan heroes, and Patrick very much wanted to convert him to Christianity and baptise him.

But what was he to do with this feeble, blind old man who kept muttering, "Tír na nÓg, Tír na nÓg -- The Land of Youth, The Land of Youth"? Patrick was kind and sympathetic, and he said to Oisín, "Tír na nÓg is gone now. It disappeared with the coming of the new religion of Christianity."


"Níl sin fíor," Oisín said. "That's not true." And of course it wasn't. How could Tír na nÓg be gone if it's forever? But Patrick thought it was true -- or perhaps he only wanted it to be true.

Oisín said:
"Féach thiar ansin í,
Thiar ar fhíor na spéire.
Sin an áit go mba mhaith liom bheith --
Sin Tír na nÓg.

"Look! There it is,
Just there on the horizon.
That's where I belong --
In the Land of Youth."

Patrick shook his head sadly to see Oisín staring with his sightless eyes and pointing at the wall. Eventually, Oisín understood that for him Tír na nÓg would always remain "just there on the horizon".
Patrick took Oisín into his house and gave him a servant boy to look after him and lead him around, and he asked Oisín to tell him the old stories and explain how the places in Ireland got their names, so he could write down the information for future generations. Oisín realised it was the only way to correct the lies that people were telling about the Fianna, and he agreed. So Oisín and Patrick travelled around the country with a scribe. 

That's how the stories of Fionn and the Fianna have come down to us today, from Oisín through the writing of Patrick's scribe and down through generations of poets and storytellers, and that was the beginning of my own present-day Legendary Tours.

The scribe, whose name was Brogán, was either extremely conscientious or overwhelmed in the presence of the two most prominent men of his age. He wrote down everything until Patrick told him he could leave out the instructions to himself.

Sgriobh sin a Brogáin sgribhinn
   do comrádh fhirgrinn fheassach
ní d'imteachtoibh mic Cumhaill
    do fhulaing mor ttaom ndeacrach
Eisdeacht ré n-abair Oissín ...

Write it, Brogán, in the form of a truly wise conversation about the adventures of the son of Cumhaill and the great trials he endured. Let us listen to what Oissín says ...
(from Duanaire Finn, Pt II, Gerard Murphy, ed.)

While they were travelling around the country, Patrick took the opportunity to tell Oisín about the God of Christianity and Heaven and Hell.

"Where are the Fianna?" Oisín asked him one day.

 "They're in Hell, because they weren't Christians," Patrick said.

 "What's Hell like?"

 "It's hot, and there are devils and demons always poking at you with pitchforks."

 "Sure, the Fianna will be well able for them. They've fought worse in their time. And what's Heaven like?"

"Everything is warm and comfortable, and you sing the praises of God all day."

"Sounds boring," Oisín said. "I'd rather be with my friends in Hell, if I can't go to Tír na nÓg. And you say your God is stronger than our old gods. Well ...

"If my son Osgar and God
Wrestled it out on the hill
And I saw Osgar go down
I'd say your God fought well."
(version by Frank O'Connor)
After all the stories were written down, Oisín needed to do something to earn his keep. Old and blind and feeble though he was, Oisín still had the strength of ten normal men, and Patrick put him to work clearing the fields of the big stones that were too heavy for the other men to move. Oisín didn't mind this at all. A real poet enjoys working close to the earth and getting his hands dirty with honest labour. But one day he complained:

"Patrick," he said, "you have me working hard all day moving stones, but you don't feed me properly."

"Oisín," said Patrick, "how can you say that? You get a full quarter of beef each day for your meat. You get a full griddle of bread. And you get a full churn of butter."

Oisín said, "In my day, I've seen a quarter of a blackbird bigger than your quarter of beef. And I've seen an ivy leaf bigger than your griddle of bread. And I've seen a rowan berry bigger than your churn of butter."

"I don't believe that," Patrick said.

Now, to call any man a liar is a great insult. To call a member of the Fianna a liar is a greater insult. But to call a poet a liar is the greatest insult of all, because a poem is the embodiment of truth, and a poet is the designer and creator of that embodiment. If a poet tells a lie, he loses the ability to see truth and to be a poet. And so to call a poet a liar is to deny that he is what he is, to say he is nothing. Oisín was so angry he could hardly speak.

"I'll prove what I said is no word of a lie. The three things the Fianna lived by were the truth in our hearts, the strength in our hands, and fulfilment in our tongues."

Oisín knew there was a new litter of pups in the house. He told his servant boy to bring the pups to him. The boy did so, and Oisín said, "Fasten a cowhide to the wall, then throw the pups against the cowhide one by one, and tell me what happens."

The boy threw the pups against the cowhide and reported to Oisín:

"All the pups fell down except the last one, and he held onto the cowhide with his teeth and claws."

"Keep that one," said Oisín, "and raise him in a dark room for a year, and don't let him taste meat or blood during that time."

The boy did that, and at the end of the year, Oisín said, "Now put a collar and chain on the dog and lead me to Glenasmole."

Glenasmole -- the Glen of the Thrushes -- is a peaceful glen in the Wicklow Hills just an hour's bicycle ride from the centre of Dublin. There are farms at the lower end where the land is green and fertile, and as the glen rises into the heathery hills all you can see and hear are the sheep and horses wandering loose and the wild birds and animals living their wild and natural lives. As you remember, that is where Oisín fell off the great white horse.

When Oisín and the boy arrived in Glenasmole, Oisín said, "Now, you'll see a big stone ..."

The boy said, "Oisín, sir, this part of the glen is full of big stones."

"Oh, that's right," said Oisín. He described the stone he meant, and the boy found it and led Oisín to it.

"Now lift the stone and tell me what you find under it."

"Oisín, sir, you expect me to lift this stone?"

Oisín lifted the stone, and the boy said, "I see a rusty old sword and an iron ball and a big bronze trumpet."

"Take the trumpet and blow it," said Oisín, "and tell me what you see."

The boy blew the trumpet.

"Did anything happen?" said Oisín.

 "No," said the boy.
"Blow it again. Louder this time."
The boy blew the trumpet louder.
"Do you see anything now?" said Oisín.
"No," said the boy.
"Give me the trumpet," said Oisín, and he blew a blast on the trumpet that knocked the leaves off all the trees in Glenasmole and shook the birds from their perches.
"Now do you see anything?" he asked the boy.
"Yes. I see a flock of big blackbirds flying this way up the glen."
"Anything else?"
"Yes. Behind that flock is another flock of blackbirds, and they're even bigger than those in the first flock."
"Anything else?"
"Yes. And behind that flock is a third flock of huge blackbirds, and they're bigger than any bird I've ever seen."
"Take the chain off the dog now," said Oisín.

The boy took the chain off the dog, and the dog ran towards the blackbirds, growling and licking his lips. He singled out the largest of the birds and attacked it, and as big and ferocious as the dog was, the bird was even bigger, and it was a hard battle the dog fought before he finally killed it. The dog licked the bird's blood and then turned towards Oisín and the boy, with its eyes blazing and blood and slaver dripping from its mouth.

"It's gone quiet," Oisín said. "What's happening?"

"The dog killed the blackbird and drank its blood, and now I think the taste of blood has driven the dog mad. Now it's coming towards us. Now it's running. It's going to attack us. What are we going to do?"

"Take the iron ball," Oisín said calmly, "and throw it at the dog."

"I'd be afraid to do that, sir. What if I miss?"

"Give me the ball, and point me to where the dog is."

The boy handed the ball to Oisín, and Oisín threw it, and the ball went into the dog's mouth and straight through it and out the other end and killed it.

"Now," said Oisín, "sharpen the sword and cut open the blackbird and tell me what you find in its stomach."

The boy cut open the blackbird and he said, "I found two things in its stomach: an ivy leaf that's bigger than the griddle of bread, and a rowan berry that's bigger than the churn of butter that Patrick gives you each day."

"And now cut off a quarter of the blackbird with the sword," Oisín said.

The boy did that, and the quarter of blackbird was bigger than the quarter of beef that Patrick gave Oisín for his meat each day.

"Now," said Oisín, "let's show these things to Patrick."

They did that, and when Patrick heard the story and saw the ivy leaf and the rowan berry and the quarter of blackbird, he said to Oisín, "Oisín, I was wrong. You told no word of a lie."

"It was the three things we lived by," said Oisín: "the truth in our hearts, the strength in our hands, and fulfilment in our tongues."


The Irish verses in orange are from Colm Mac Séalaigh's song "Tír na nÓg" on Na Fíréin's recent compilation CD "Na Fíréin" (Gael-Linn CEFCD 162) and their 1986 tape "Sin Mar a Bhionn" (Gael-Linn CEF 116) -- I think, although the CD info seems to say it was the 1991 tape "Beagáinín Nios Fearr".

Back to Graham


This page has been visited times since January 14, 2000

This page was last up-dated August 03, 2000

[Home] [ Cairns] [Glen of Imaal] [Jack Russells] [Other Breeds] [Guestbook] [E-Mail]

The Fine Print:
© Copyright Rose Croft Terriers 1997/98/99/00
Web Design & maintenance by Jerrie Wolfe

©2000 - Jerrie Wolfe of all original written material unless otherwise indicated. 
No part of the
Rose Croft Terrier Web may be copied or re-used without expressed written permission. 
Most graphics at the
Rose Croft Terrier sites are original photographs and are the copyrighted 
property of the original photographer. Graphics and photographs may not be copied, 
distributed, sold, or used in any way without permission.
Rose Croft Terrier Web was established August 4, 1997