I don’t know what to make of this story, a great adventure of pre-Christian Ireland. There are many variants to this tale, but here are the basics: Oisín (oh-SHEEN) is one of the brave band of warriors known as the Fianna. One day, while hunting, Oisín and the Fianna encounter a beautiful young lady on a magnificent white horse. This lady, Niamh (NEE-if), says that she has come to Ireland to find the great warrior Oisín and bring him to her homeland, Tir Na nOg, the land of eternal youth over the waters to the west.
Oisín immediately falls in love with Niamh and travels with her to Tir Na nOg, where every year is like a hundred years on earth. Three Tir Na nOg years later, Oisín is homesick and decides to visit Ireland. Niamh agrees to let him ride the white horse back to his home, but warns him that if his feet were to touch the ground, he would become an old man. Oisín goes to Ireland, where 300 years have passed, and is saddened to learn that his family is gone and the Fianna have vanished.
Oisín then comes across some men attempting to move a great stone. Attempting to assist, he leans over to help push aside the rock, the saddle breaks, he hits the ground and instantly is transformed into an old man. The horse returns to Tir Na nOg without its rider, Niamh’s lover.
Is this a reverse Adam and Eve story, with Oisín's Eve tempting him not with the allure of transient joy, but with an eternity of bliss in a Garden of Eden beyond the sea - or maybe more precisely a Fountain of Youth? Three hundred years of bliss - not bad in the Love Game. But what about Oisín's itch to return home? Let’s concede the passion of his love for the golden-haired Naimh, but also allow the passion he feels for his warrior youth. And don’t forget: Oisín didn’t jump off the horse; he fell. Dollars to donuts, if Oisín doesn’t fall, he returns to Tir Na nOg. That’s my take.
Maybe we can also see Oisín as a fellow Wild Goose, like many of us emigrating to those lands beyond the mist of Ireland’s western shores. We learn from history that the Irish came to 19th century North America in great numbers, pined for the "Auld Sod" in song and verse (and continue to do so), but returned to Ireland only to visit. Only 5 percent of those Irish immigrants would return to Ireland for good, compared with about half of Italians, who also came to our shores seeking a new life, then went back to Italy to live. As a friend of my father used to tell him, “The Irish are always talking about Home Rule, but never home to enjoy it.” Ultimately, though Ireland tugs at our very being, for many of us exiles, “our love is in America.”
Sheridan was correct: “Ireland is the land of happy wars and sad love songs.” The story of Oisín and Niamh is one of tragic love and longing, any way it plays out in your mind.
Images courtesy of P.J. Lynch: Visit P.J.'s blog
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