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.
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.
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.
"Where are the Fianna?" Oisín asked him one day.
"They're in Hell, because they weren't Christians,"
"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 GodAfter 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.
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".
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This page was last up-dated August 03, 2000