Emerald Isle

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.

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