‘The Ballad of Oisín in Tir na nÓg’ by Michéal Ó Coimín **** (Reading Ireland Month)

Myths, fairytales and legends from all over the world hold a dear place in my heart and fascinate and intrigue me to no end. They are always one of the first literary searches I conduct upon being brought in contact with a new culture, as they often contain so much precious information about the customs and mentality of the countries they originate from.

The Ballad of Oisín in Tir na nÓg is a book I stumbled upon whilst searching for some Irish mythology for the  Reading Ireland Month Cathy and Niall are hosting, and it made me delighted.

The character of Oisín and his adventurous travel to Tir na nÓg or The Land of the Young as it is often translated as, is an old Irish myth whose origin I couldn’t really trace, but in the edition I own it is written in verse form, in the tradition of most epic myths and legends, like The Odyssey, The Epic of Gilgamesh and The Song of the Nibelungs by Michéal Ó Coimín in 1750.

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Oisin and the beautiful lady travelling to Tir na nOg.

This epic poem basically consists of a dialogue between Oisín and St. Patrick, to whom our hero relates the circumstances surrounding his journey to The Land of the Young, how he got there and how he ended up returning back. As the legend has it, a very beautiful young lady appeared one day and asked to take Oisín with her to the Land of the Young, promising him youth, wealth, love and everything he could possibly ever desire. Oisín of course accepted this offer and he tells St. Patrick about all the adventures they had while trying to reach this much-promised land.

After his arrival Oisín enjoys his life there, but after a while he comes to miss Ireland, his home country, and asks of his beautiful wife to allow him to go back and see it once. His lady is afraid he will not return, so she tells him to go but make sure he doesn’t get off his horse, because the moment his feet touch the ground he will be unable to return to her Land of the Young.

I do not want to give out the ending (though I’m sure some of you know it already), but I think it’s pretty obvious in which direction Oisín’s story is going to move towards. I really enjoyed reading this legend/poem and picking out all the similarities and differences it has with other similar legends I’ve read or heard of.

In 2014, I spent a semester in Poland as an Erasmus student and I had the opportunity to take a splendid course about fairies in tradition and culture, in which our brilliant lecturer acquainted us with so many different manifestations of fairies and fairy-like creatures and their usual behaviour. From the myth of Sir Orfeo (with which Oisín’s story shares so many elements) to the Shakespeare’s plays and Tolkien’s elves, the fairy tradition can be found in so many places. Therefore, I cannot help but observe the affinity between the fairy queens of those legends and the beautiful young woman who suddenly appeared to claim Oisín as her husband and take him to her land, where all his wishes could come true.

The story of Oisín has inspired so many writers; even W. B. Yeats had written a poem called The Wanderings of Oisin, which I’m certain is a retelling of this myth, as both Oisín and St. Patrick are included and it is also written in the form of an epic poem.

I throroughly enjoyed reading this myth, in addition to enhancing my mythology/legend collection. The storyline may seem typical today (though I’m not entirely sure where it was first encountered) but the Irish elements and the Gaelic influences are more than evident.

Have you read or heard of this myth? What other similar myths do you enjoy? 🙂

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13 thoughts on “‘The Ballad of Oisín in Tir na nÓg’ by Michéal Ó Coimín **** (Reading Ireland Month)

  1. I remember reading this as a kid in a book of Irish legends. The book also had the Children of Lir, Deirdre of the Sorrows, a tale about how Cu Chulainn (who is like the Irish Herculaes) got his name, and The Salmon of Knowledge (which is about Oisin’s father Fionn Mac Cumhaill). Fun fact in Titanic it is Oisin and the Land of Tir Na Og which the Irish mother is telling her children as the boat sinks. It also forms the basis of an Irish film called Into the West.

  2. By the way you are correct, The Wanderings of Oisin is Yeats version of the tale. Yeats was big into Irish mythology and incorporated into alot of his poems. He also wrote a play about Cu Chulainn (It’s not great, I wouldn’t recommend it. Yeats poems are only interesting because he wrote them and they are important in the context of the Gaelic Revival but as plays they are weak.)

    • All those myths sound so very fascinating – they must have been even more magical reading them as a child 🙂 I really want to read more Irish mythology; and I just love how each country or culture has their own version of a hero or type of story.
      Really? I never knew that about Titanic! What an interesting fact!
      Thank you for confirming my supposition 🙂 I’ve only read Cathleen Ni Houlihan from Yeats’ plays, but I will try to read The Wanderings of Oisin soon, to see how he portrayed the story. I can’t help but love the myth element in his writings, though 🙂

      • Cathleen Ni Houlihan is an extremely important play historically but that’s about all that can be said about it. RTE have an interesting documentary about Yeats at the moment called A Terrible Beauty. It’s on their player which tends not to be geolocked.
        Check out Kennys Bookshop. They have quite a few books of Irish mythology. Most aimed at kids but still. They offer free worldwide shipping.

  3. I’ve not been to Poland for a long time. How did you find it? I’ve always loved the Greek and Roman myths and legends. Thanks for making me aware of such a lovely Irish one.

    • Poland was a complicated experience for me 😛 Most of the cities I visited were really pretty, but the one I was living in, Lotz, was probably the bleakest one.

      • Naturally, my first option was UK, but even though we were in the English department there were only 2 openings for UK and I didn’t make it. My second option was Czech Republic, but there was a mix-up with the interview and my third and final choice was Poland. I’d never been there and I wanted something different from Greece, so I didn’t mind going. I just think the circumstances were not very favourable (I went there all alone, I had language issues etc) and I didn’t overall agree with the Erasmus party-all-day ideology. But I did get the chance to travel a lot very cheaply, so it had its advantages too 🙂

      • Shame, as the Czech Republic is lovely. Have you read any Kafka? When I went to Prague I thought of him loads. I had the option to go to the USA as part of my English and American Literature degree but there were too many restrictions so I went after I graduated. I’d like to go to Poland someday.

    • I’d heard of this movie but I haven’t watched it yet – and I certainly didn’t know it used this myth! I’ll definitely check it out now, thank you Cathy! 🙂

  4. I have heard of this but sadly not read it. I did enjoy The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrun by J R R Tolkien, which was based on the legend of Sigurd and the fall of the Niflungs from Norse mythology.

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