Introduction: At a time when the Fianna of Ireland (a band of warriors led by the great Fionn Mac Cumhaill) were coming to their end, a woman called Niamh Chinn Óir (Niamh of the golden hair) came to the shores of Ireland from Tír na nÓg (The country of the young). She came because she was in love with Fionn’s son Oisín. Niamh asked Oisín to come with her to Tír na nÓg and he did. In Tír na nÓg however, all sense of time is lost and so three hundred years had passed in what seemed like a flash to Oisín who after that time wanted to come back to hear the stories of how the Fianna had fared. Niamh told him he must stay up on his horse because if he touched the soil he would turn into a withered old man. This is the story of the birth of Oisín and the love story between himself and Niamh of the golden hair.
Come to Tír na nÓg with me
Every day I ride a white horse through blue mist. I ride past castles white with smiles. I see riders on errands of magic and mercy when I am going to the green and brown wooded shore, where I search through the trees and the shadows of trees. Some days I can see shafts of light gleam through. Then, hope shows her face again but I never see him. It must be a hundred years since he left and still I have not stopped hoping to see a lost rider with ringlets of gold the same as my own, calling out for me and in a thousand years I fear, I will be doing the same.
It was on the green and brown wooded shore I first saw him. It was a fancy of mine to watch mortals in their short lives. He was with a band of men, dirty, scarred from many battles, carrying an immense tiredness that was visible to me. Long livers I thought to myself. There are a few that are extraordinary and as I was thinking that, it became clear to me that it would not be long before they would all be dead. I could see, even though their faces were hidden under moss coloured cloaks barely lit by the flickering fire; the tiredness under their eyes. The were labouring even as they ate. One would take a knife from one of the many scabbards across his body, cut a sliver of meat from the animal on the spit, hold it up over his head, drop it into his open mouth. The next man would do the same and then the next. It was as if they were even tired of eating, but they knew how to share which is a scarce enough quality among the living. Then would come laughter. I could discern the many times they had laughed heartily together, but that laughter, that day, held the pain of parting inside it. I saw all the ghosts of endings surrounding them.
One stood out to me, no, they all stood out to me, but one was a little like me. Amber skinned with hair as gold as my own and even though he was covered in earthiness I could see his love shine because there was magic all around him. And oh, if I ever got a fright in my long life it was there and then as I beheld, a little hornless deer there and yet, not there, lying like a cloak over his shoulders without him knowing a thing about it. Who was she?
Who are you I asked? I heard her voice in my head.
I am his mother she said.
I asked her, Why have you such helplessness in your form.
I am in-between she said. It is because of him I have not given in to death but now I want to go.
I said to her, I already love him so you can go but before you do will you tell me your story.
And she said I am Sadbh, the love of Fionn mac Cumhaill, leader of the Fianna who are the men you are watching. They are warriors, poets, great orators, magnificent with prowess and handsomeness. But they are all on their last legs, fighting their last battles in a changing world.
How is it that you are his mother? I said.
I was the victim of a spell put on me for refusing to give my love to Doirche, the dark druid of the men of Dea. Inside his wish to possess me his anger conjured a spell that changed my shape into a little fawn. That shape I kept until one day when the Fianna were out on a hunt in their favourite hunting ground of Glenasmole I was chased for the kill. I ran for my life but when Fionn’s great hounds, Bran and Sceolan caught up with me, they only licked my face because they knew the human in me for it was in themselves as well. They took me home and there, in the safe dun of the Fianna I came back into my woman’s form. Fionn fell in love with me and I with him and after a while our child was growing in my belly. We were Sadbh and Fionn, we were full of happiness and even as he came and went from our dun he went in the knowledge that I was safe from harm in there. That was until the day, when the Fianna were called over the bay to *Beinn Edair because plundering ships were coming from the snowy lands. And they had to be turned around with fear put on them bigger than their desire to ever come back.
While they were gone on that mission I was lured out of the dun by the image of Fionn and the image of his voice calling to me. And I went but it wasn’t him at all and so I was changed into a deer again.
I lived my life in the wild life after that. I gave birth to my human child all alone, protecting him from every danger, all alone. Until seven years had past and then I knew I would have to let him go to his father because there were things I could never teach him that he would need to know. So one day when the Fianna were out hunting I left my child inside a little glade and then came Bran and Sceolan showing the whites of their eyes and their white teeth bared for blood. But the child had no fear and so when the men came after them they found a little boy and two hounds playing together like pups. I saw my love, Fionn ride up to the front of the company and when he saw his son he knew him and he took him into his arms and he said to his comrades, This is my son. I will call him Oisín, the little deer after his beautiful mother who I lost. I was happy then and I thought, I will die now but I was as torn in death as I was in life and so my death left me between two worlds and now if you take him, I can leave my grief and go.
I said to Sadbh who was saying goodbye to her child for the second time, That will be no sacrifice to me because I love him already. And it was in that moment, she passed her son to me and faded into the air in front of my eyes but not before I saw the shape and face of the woman she had been when she was in love with Fionn. As she was fading I heard her voice on the air say:
The time for the great heroes, the Fianna of Ireland is making its way to an end. The great friendship between Fionn and the sons of Morna will be broken, old bitterness’ are coming between them the way stones buried in the clay will rise to the top. The great warriors, protectors of Ireland’s people who had an honour code that was exceptional will be gone before long.
After she was gone there were echoes in my head of her sorrow and her loss and then I bade her farewell as I rode my white horse into the darkness of the Fianna’s camp.
Imagine me, on my watery horse flowing with my watery hair, flecked with gold and silver. Imagine the blue of my eyes shimmering like the sea on a sunny day. Imagine the pink of my cheeks showing the nature of my heart. The wine of my lips holding the dream of every kiss, the sheen on my amber skin exciting the tips of the calloused fingers on the hands of every man.
They backed away in awe as I said: I come from The Land of the Ever Young which is how it is named but for myself, I call it Home. It is far out into the ocean hidden by mist and wave and beyond all reckoning for the mortal man and woman. It is the place where springs the wondrousness of youth, where time passes in the blink of an eye and yet is ever renewing, so that autumn is the evening, winter is the night, spring is the bird chorus in the morning and summer is the daytime. And on every shore, a white horse is always waiting so that no one feels they cannot leave. My home has riches beyond all reckoning and yet it has peace. The children play on a gentle shore because the shore is gentle to them. The climb the highest trees because the trees will catch them if they fall. The sheep have golden fleeces, there is feasting but no greed, there is song that is sweetly sung along with singing birds. That is the place I am from and I come here because I am in love with the golden haired one whose name is Oisín. I said, Oisín I wish for you to come with me and be my husband.
My words echoed. There was silence, except for the crackling of the fire and the sound of the odd twig breaking under a nervous foot. Oisín then stood before me and said he would come with me even though he loved each and every man there. He said that leaving them was the measure of his love for me.
I told him, My father and mother would welcome him and bring him into our fold as their own with honour and respect, because they already knew he had lived a life full of that. And he would have me and I would bear our children and we would be happy. And he kissed his father and he kissed his son, Osgar and Luadaidh and Caoilte and Diorraing and Goll and every man in that glade on that day had tears flowing down their faces. When we rode away men were crying out loud behind us for Oisín of the golden hair was loved by them all.
We lived happily after that and he came with me in forgetting all sense of time. We had the children I promised. A girl called we called Blathnaid after the flowers and two boys that I called Fionn and Osgar. There was nothing, nothing but mortality that could have ruined it. And so, as it was always going to happen, the mortal awoke in Oisín and he said to me he would like to go back to see the friends he had left behind. He missed them. He was curious to see how they had fared after he went. I told him and even though I told him they were long gone, he would not believe me. I tried to show him the difference between time passing here and there. But he had begun his life in mortal time and so he struggled with what I was telling him. He wanted to go back and so I had to help him go, for no-one is imprisoned in the land of the ever young. And as he went I said, Please believe the one who loves you more than herself, that I tell you no lie and please listen to me when I say, if you put your feet on the ground of Ireland you will wither and die and I and our children will never see you again. Stay on your watery horse for your whole time there for the sake of us all, my darling. And he said he would heed all that and he rode away and he passed by all that he saw on his way, and he rode away, and he rode away.
And now, every day I ride a white horse through blue mist. I ride past castles white with smiles. I see riders on errands of magic and mercy when I am going to the green and brown wooded shore, where I search through the trees and the shadows of trees. Some days I can see shafts of light gleam through. Then, hope shows her face again but I never see him. It must be a hundred years since he left and still I have not stopped hoping to see a lost rider with ringlets of gold the same as my own, calling out for me and in a thousand years I fear, I will be doing the same.
- Oisín: Little Deer
- Glenasmole: Glen of the Thrushes near Dublin
- Beinn Edair : Howth Co Dublin