Niamh and Oisin
Irish and Celtic myths and legends, Irish folklore and Irish fairy tales from the Fenian Cycle
A story of love and loss, Niamh and Oisin
Fionn Mac Cumhaill and the rest of the Fianna were resting after a great battle, weary and sore with sorrow at the loss of their fellows, when they spied coming along the shores of Loch Lein in County Kerry a beautiful young woman riding a swift horse, so swift indeed that its hooves scarcely seemed to touch the ground!
Now although the women of Kerry are famed for their rare beauty and pleasant ways, the head of every man in the troop was turned to watch this one approach. She wore a crown upon her head and a silken cloak worked with red-gold stars, hair of gold and eyes as blue and green as the dew on spring grass.
Even the horse whose golden bridle she held was crowned, and on his hooves were shoes of shining gold.
She rode up to the men and spoke to them in a kindly tone, gentle and lilting, although her accent seemed strange to them and old. She told them her name was Niamh of the golden head, and that she was beyond all women of this world, for she was the daughter of the King of the oceans, Manannan Mac Lír, and Fand who soared above them.
Thinking her a rare creature, Fionn asked her what she wanted, and she told him that she'd come to seek a husband, for the harvest was ripe and the autumn was drawing in close. With that she pointed to Oisín, the son of Fionn, who was a mighty warrior and chief among all the poets of the land.
Fionn's heart was troubled at this for he knew the boy's mother was one of the Sidhe, and he knew that the woman before him was one of their kind too, but he looked at Oisín and knew the lad would do as he willed regardless.
When Oisín heard her words he sprang forth full of joy, and took the maiden's hand in his own. She said to him that they'd away to the Land of the Young, where the trees stoop down with fruit and with leaves and with blossom, where no wasting comes on any nor death's cold hand nor the weakening of age, where there are feasts, playing and drinking, sweet music on the strings, silver and gold and many jewels and delights beyond them of which she was forbidden to speak, and as if that weren't temptation enough she herself would be his as a wife.
Well who could resist such an offer! Oisín scarcely paused to hug his father and bid the rest of the Fianna a good day when he was up on the back of the horse and away they went at a gallop.
Across the land they rode and into the sea, but didn't sink as the horse in truth didn't touch the ground, yet the sea fell away before them and closed up after them. Past many strange places they rode, palaces and cities of great splendour, and on into a terrible storm which swallowed them up, through which they saw stars and clouds, and eventually a bright country, the Land of the Young.
It was all that Niamh had promised and more, and he took her to wife and they had a daughter called Plor na mBan, the flower of women. Three years passed and at length Oisín began to feel the call of home, for he desired to see his father and the Fianna again.
When he said this the same fear settled on Niamh as had touched the heart of Fionn, fear that she might never see her fair Oisín again! She gave him the same horse they had arrived on, whose name was Embarr, and warned him of only one thing – never to set foot on the mortal soil, for many years had passed and the wide world's laws wouldn't be denied.
Away he rode light of heart and full of cheer to see his family and friends again, not really understanding her warnings for it seemed as though only a handful of years had passed to him. Returned at last to fair Ireland he looked about himself on all sides, but nobody had heard of Fionn.
He came upon a great troop of riders who gazed at him in wonder, for was considerably larger and stronger than their mightiest, while to him they appeared oddly smaller and weaker than the men and women he knew. They had indeed heard of Fionn, they said, but only in old legends and poems told by the sweet Gaelic storytellers.
Confounded, he rode to the place where he knew Fionn's Dun lay, but found there only tumbled rocks and overgrown ruins, occupied now by blackbirds and badgers. Seeing some men there struggling to lift a stone from the place for a wall, he rode up to them and leaned over to lift the rock, for it was a small thing to the likes of him.
Small it may have been but the girth-strap of his horse was not equal to the challenge of bearing its weight for it snapped and deposited him on the rocky soil! And in an instant, centuries of age descended upon his shoulders. The horse, taking a fright, ran off and fled into the seas, never to be seen again.
Astounded, the nearby men helped him to his feet as the anguish of what he'd done fell on him, and they took him weeping to the great Saint Patrick himself, who made him comfortable and heard his story. They argued at some length, as Patrick had come to bring the light to Ireland and Oisín was of the old ways, and so not very inclined to change his habits, until in the end he passed away, the last of his kind.
Of all that he had lost, he lamented none more than his wife Niamh.
You who are bent, and bald, and blind,
With a heavy heart and a wandering mind,
Have known three centuries, poets sing,
Of dalliance with a demon thing.
Now, man of the croziers, shadows called our names
And then away, away, like whirling flames;
And now fled by, mist-covered, without sound,
The youth and lady and the deer and hound
Fled foam underneath us, and round us, a wandering and milky smoke,
High as the saddle-girth, covering away from our glances the tide;
And those that fled, and that followed, from the foam-pale distance broke;
The immortal desire of Immortals we saw in their faces, and sighed.
~ WB Yeats
His grave is said to be in the north of the country, in the Glens of Antrim, indicated on the map below.
We now have an amazing Patreon page as well, where you can listen to the many myths and legends on the Emerald Isle! Exclusive to our Patreon, you can now hear stories of ancient Ireland, folklore and fairy tales and more, all professionally narrated. It's at times like these that it's most important to support artists and creative people whose income might be reduced, so if you'd like to support the work that goes into Emerald Isle, the Patreon can be found here: https://www.patreon.com/emeraldisle
More Legends from the Fenian Cycle
Young Fionn Mac Cumhaill was out walking with his dog Bran one fine morning, and he happened to pass into a deep and thick dark wood of the kind that once covered all of Ireland, for the hunting was better there, when what did he come across but a thousand horses hauling timber and men chopping down the trees and preparing the logs. "What a ... [more]
There was a mighty warrior in the west of Eriu, and Cumhal Mac Art was his name. Feared was his axe and he could skewer two men with a single cast of his feathered war-dart, and yet for all that he lived a lonely life, and a life of fear – for it had been foretold that should he ever marry, he would die in battle the very next day! But all ... [more]
It was in the day of Fionn Mac Cumhaill when he was an old man, yet still hale and hearty, that one of his warriors, whose name was Diarmaid son of Donn and grandson of Duibne, had carried off his young bride-to-be, Gráinne daughter of Cormac! The two had fallen in love and Gráinne, for all of Fionn's fame, wanted nothing to do wi ... [more]
One warm summer's day Fionn and his men were out hunting through the darkling forests of Ballachgowan in Munster, chasing deer and boar through the gloomy glades, when they stopped short all of a sudden and came face to face with a startling sight! For what had stepped between them and their prey but a strange, damp giant of a man. Black wer ... [more]
Fionn Mac Cumhaill stood at the door of his hunting lodge with his fists on his hips, his heart sinking as he realised his intentions to hunt for deer this day were lost in the waves of mist and fog that had rolled in from Dublin bay, although at that time it was known by a different name. It had come as far inland as Gleann na Smol, the Glen of th ... [more]
When Fionn Mac Cumhaill became leader of the Fianna, the fiercest and most warlike of those bands of heroes who lived in the wild places, hunting and acting as champions for their kings, and defending Ireland from evil, he decided that he wished to have only the best warriors to follow him. So he sat down and sucked his thumb to taste the wisdom ... [more]
Close by where Limerick city stands today lie the ruins of an ancient and once mighty fortress called Carrigogunnel, which commanded all the lands about with a stern hand. It was known then as a place of ill omen, and it is known today as the same, for it was once the home of an uncanny hag by the name of Gráinne. Amid the surrounding mar ... [more]
A dark horde of fell-handed warriors approached Ireland, sails gathered off the coast like storm clouds, billowing out in the gusts of uncertain wind, while oars bent to the rolling thunder of drums. Fierce indeed was the host of King Colgan, master of Lochlainn, and he came to make war on Cormac Mac Airt, High King of Ireland! As soon as Fionn ... [more]
Diarmuid the Fair, son of Donn or Duibhne of the Tuatha De Danann was one of the Fianna, the great warriors of ancient Ireland who protected the land from dangers near and far. It was said that no woman could resist his gaze, for he'd been granted the blessing of comeliness by the Ghost Queen Morrigan after he helped her out of a spot of bother ... [more]
Fionn Mac Cumhaill and the rest of the Fianna were resting after a great battle, weary and sore with sorrow at the loss of their fellows, when they spied coming along the shores of Loch Lein in County Kerry a beautiful young woman riding a swift horse, so swift indeed that its hooves scarcely seemed to touch the ground! Now although the women of ... [more]
Now it is known by some that the fairies of Ireland weren't much like the fairies we hear about in these latter days, harmless things of mischief and frolic, but were instead respected and often feared, for their anger was quick and their kindness was whimsical. Some would join men in battle, and some would make war on men, others were omens of ... [more]
It was a fine brisk spring morning in Ireland when Fionn Mac Cumhaill decided to take himself for a stroll along the white sandy beaches of the seashore, the better to breathe the air and enjoy the simple pleasures life had to offer. But that morning, life had more to offer and it didn't look pleasant, for it was a giant bearing down on the bea ... [more]
Fionn MacCumhaill was well known as a fair and handsome man, but his most distinguishing feature was his grey hair - and he was not born with it! Fionn was one time out on the green of Almhuin, and he saw what had the appearance of a grey fawn running across the plain. He called and whistled to his hounds then, but neither hound nor man heard hi ... [more]
After his seven years of training with the poet Finegas were done, Fionn Mac Cumhaill took himself from the river Boyne to the great hall of the High King in Tara, Conn of the Hundred Battles, to present himself there as a member of the Fianna, the very best of the best warriors throughout Ireland. Announcing himself, Conn took him into the band an ... [more]
Here is the story of how Fionn MacCumhaill gained the knowledge of the world. And wouldn't it be a great thing to know it all? Still, knowledge and wisdom must be balanced, and this was known to the young man called Fionn, which means fair and bright. He was fleeing from the warriors who had murdered his father when he came upon the hiding plac ... [more]