The Land of Tír na nÓg

According to my sources, the 26th of February is ‘Tell a Fairy Tale Day’ – as if I needed an excuse to delve into my library of Irish Folklore! Before the days of books, kindles, and Hollywood interpretations, the only way to pass on a legend was through word of mouth. This oral tradition of storytelling was always particularly powerful in Irish heritage, and to this day we remain a nation of narrators!


Many of our legends revolve around Ireland’s Otherworld – the place where faeries and other such magical creature live their lives undisturbed from human interference. Amongst these tales of the Otherworld, there are several mentions of of Tír na nÓg –  the land of the youth. Some chroniclers will insist that this is simply another name for the magical dwelling as a whole, while some maintain that it is merely one branch of the complex structure of the faerie world that lies beneath our feet – and that Tír na nÓg was reserved only for the powerful faerie race – the Tuatha de Dannan.


Whichever definition you ascribe to, it was universally agreed that Tír na nÓg was a place of splendid beauty, through which honeyed waters flow and sparkle, sprouting trees bearing the most magnificent fruits, and where none of its residents should ever age. Being a strictly human-free zone, you are perhaps wondering how the people of Ireland have come to know of the wonders of Tír na nÓg… Our awareness, it is said, lies very much within the sad story of Niamh and Oisin.


Oisín was a great warrior of the Fianna, a demi-god born of the famous Fionn mac Cumhaill and Sadhbh, who had royal magical blood running through her veins. The third stage of Irish mythology, known as the Fenian cycle, is narrated by Oisín – who wielded his pen just as efficiently as his sword.


Niamh on the other hand, had not a mortal bone in her body. In fact, she wasn’t just merely another faerie in Tír na nÓg, but rather the princess of the Otherworld – with her parents residing as King and Queen of the Tuatha de Dannan. Now, just as we tell tales of the antics of faerie folk – so they look to humans for inspiration for their own stories, and Niamh Cinn-Óir ( Niamh of the Golden Hair) fell in love with the strong, brave and poetic soldier name Oísin, and vowed that one day she would marry him.


And so, her determination resolute, the beautiful Niamh climbed upon her snow-white steed and set her sights upon the world of mortals or, to be precise, one mortal in particular. She galloped across the roaring waves and emerald plains, until she happened upon the object of her affection on a hunting excursion with his companions. She bid her time, hiding behind the trees of the forest, drinking in his handsome features, confident movements, and easy, laughing, nature. When the group paused by a stream to take a quick sip of water, she gently urged her horse from the shadows and revealed herself to them; her long rope of golden hair shining softly in the sunlight, and her high cheekbones flushed with the excitement of her chase.


Oisín and his men were dumbfounded by this vision before them; she seemed to glow with an otherworldly energy, and when she spoke her voice was of the sweetest music  that had ever graced their ears. “Oisín”, she said, “I have heard many tales of your kindness and bravery, and I promised myself that when the time came for me to marry, it would only be your fair hand that I seek. Having seen you today in the flesh, my love has not only been confirmed but strengthened, and I ask if you would do the honour of travelling to the land of Tír na nÓg with me, and spending the rest of your days as my husband”.


Oisín, entranced by the beauty before him, instantly fell in love, and accepted her proposition gladly. He bid farewell to his men and jumped upon the horse of his betrothed, and together they made the journey to the land of Tír na nÓg. Despite his part mortal status, Oisín was welcomed into the Land of Youth with open arms, and the King and Queen rejoiced in their daughter’s successful voyage for love. They immediately arranged a lavish wedding in which the Bride and Groom were showered with good food, wine, riches and, above all, happiness.


Oisín spent three of the happiest years of his life with his new family, with Niamh giving birth to two sons Oscar and Finn (after his father), and a beautiful daughter named Plor na mBan. The hero could want for nothing, but as fulfilled as his existence in the Otherworld was, he couldn’t help but yearn for his family and friends that he had left behind.


Niamh could feel her husband’s sadness, but knew that reuniting him with the world above could result in dire consequences. She gently warned him that time in Tír na nÓg moved differently than in the mortal world, and that there was no way of knowing how many years had passed in his absence. Still, Oisín maintained that he wanted to set eyes upon Ireland one more time before settling into his life of immortality with his wife and children. Niamh conceded to her husbands wishes, lending him her own shining white horse for the journey – along with a piece a grave advice… Oisín could travel wherever he pleased and speak to whomever he met, but at no point should he touch the grounds above. If he did, he would never be able to reunite with his beloved family in the land of Tír na nÓg.


Oisín, eager as he was to begin his adventure, agreed without hesitation: he kissed his wife and children – promising to return before they had even noticed his absence, and jumped upon the magical steed for the second time in his life.


Through the realms of magic and mortality he galloped, the silvery hoofs skimming just above the grass and waters they flew across – never directly touching the forbidden earth below. Far and wide Oisín searched, unable to find the home and people which he called his own. The whole landscape felt different to him, the roads were no longer where he remembered them, the buildings were unrecognisable, and even the trees seemed to grow in totally different patterns.


Eventually he came across a group of older men, who were shifting a large rock from the path which it was blocking. He slowed his horse until he was level with them and asked if they knew where his friends might be. The men paused to listen to this strapping young man upon his enchanted stallion, but knew not of the names he recited, shaking their head at each utterance. “What?” exclaimed Oisín, “you have never heard of the Fianna, and their fearless leader – Fionn mac Cumhaill who have bravely fought to serve and protect these lands?” At the mention of the father’s name the group started to eagerly agree that they had of course heard the legends of Fionn, and the astonishing feats he had accomplished throughout his life. However, they added, that was over three hundred years ago – and he and his men are now long gone from the land of the living.


Oisín was stunned to learn that the three years he has passed in Tír na nÓg had stretched to three centuries in the mortal world. He was consumed with grief at the loss of his father and friends, but wanted to thank the men for their information before returning home to Niamh and his children. In his distraction, he jumped from the horse to help the men move the stone that they had been struggling with, but the moment that his feet touched the soil below – the years he had missed started to cross his features. His face became lined, and his skin began to wither; his strong back bent double and his knees trembled with the effort of supporting him. In no time at all, Oisín had transformed from a young warrior in his prime, into an ancient old man, miraculously clinging on to what little life he had left.


The horse fled back to its mistress, whinnying in distress at what it had just witnessed, and confirming to a heartbroken Niamh that her beloved husband would never return to the blissful life that they had once shared together.


Meanwhile, Oisín knew that he had precious little time left on the earth that he has so desperately wanted to see once more, and begged the men to tell him if there was a writer amongst them. The oldest of the group, astonished by what he had seen but determined to help, stepped forward – putting his pen and paper at Oisín’s service.


And so, the once great warrior began to talk – he told them of the adventures of the Fianna, the strength and wisdom of Fionn mac Cumhaill, and the great deeds that they had accomplished together. Then, with tears spilling from his eyes and love pouring from his mouth – he spoke of the unrivalled beauty and kindness of Niamh Cinn-Óir, the generosity of the faerie King and Queen, and the wonders of Tír na nÓg. Enraptured by the tale he was hearing, the writer urged Oisín to reveal the gateway to this magical realm of eternal youth. Oisín thought of his wife, his children, and simply smiled a tired smile and closed his eyes. “Someday”, he whispered - the last words of the man who had but tasted the life of immortality.


This astonishing word of mouth account is said to be how the legend of Tír na nÓg filtered into the bedtime stories of Ireland’s children, forever resting in their minds until their time came to recite the legend themselves. And the first person to hear this astounding tale? Legend has it, that the scribe was none other than St. Patrick himself…