Irish folklore has many stories about Fionn Mac Cumhaill, the giant warrior and leader of the Fianna warriors. Today we are going to look at Fionn’s son Oisín, another powerful warrior who was also regarded as the greatest poet in Ireland.
Although this is the story of Oisín it does begin with Fionn. As a strong leader and warrior, Fionn often took part in hunting and he had two Irish wolfhounds, Bran and Sceolan that accompanied him everywhere he went. One day whilst Fionn was out hunting he spied a deer and took off in pursuit leaving the other hunters behind. He soon noticed that rather than chasing the deer down, Bran and Sceolan were running alongside the deer and acting playfully with it. For they recognised that this was no ordinary deer but a human in deer form. Seeing how his dogs reacted, Fionn realised there was something special about this creature and he brought the deer home where she transformed into a beautiful woman.
The woman was named Sadhbh and had been turned into a deer by a dark druid when she refused his advances. Fionn and Sadhbh fell madly in love and were soon married and shortly after they discovered Sadhbh was expecting a child. The druid heard about this and was filled with a jealous rage. One night when Fionn had been called away to defend Ireland from an invasion, he turned Sadhbh back into a deer and she ran away into the wilderness. Fionn was heartbroken and spent much time accompanied by his dogs searching for her. Some years later whilst hunting on the slopes of Ben Bulben, Bran and Sceolan discovered a child. Seeing how his dogs reacted to the boy, Fionn knew that this was his son. He brought him back to his fort and named him Oisín, which means ‘little fawn’, in honour of his mother.
Oisín grew to be a mighty warrior and had a reputation as a kind and generous man. Whilst the Fianna were out hunting one day a beautiful woman on a majestic white horse approached them. Many of the group were afraid but not Oisín, who was curious about this beautiful stranger and he asked her who she was. The woman declared “I am Niamh of the Golden Hair and my father is King of Tír na nÓg. I have heard of a great warrior named Oisín and I believe he is the one destined to be my husband”. Transfixed by her beauty, Oisín agreed to return with the Princess to Tír na nÓg and they left together, riding across the sea on the snow white horse.
Tír na nÓg is a land of eternal youth and great beauty. The weather was always perfect, the people didn’t age and were always happy. Oisín had everything he could desire. He was welcomed by Niamh’s family and was greatly loved and respected by the people of the land. Depsite all this, Oisín still missed Ireland and he spent much time telling stories about Fionn, the Fianna and the beauty of his country. After some time, Niamh agreed that Oisín could borrow her magical white horse and visit Ireland. But she warned him “if you set foot on Irish soil, you will break the spell and will never be able to return to Tír na nÓg”. Oisín agreed to heed her warning and mounted the white horse riding across the sea back to Ireland.
When he arrived in Ireland, Oisín quickly realised that he didn’t recognise anything. The family castle was a ruin, there was no sign of Fionn or the Fianna and the people were strange to him. The time in Tír na nÓg had passed much slower than in the human world, so what had felt like three years was actually three hundred and everything was changed. Oisín rode through the forest calling out for his father. He came across some men who were trying to move a boulder and Oisín enquired after Fionn but the men didn’t know who this was. Feeling defeated Oisín decided to return to Tír na nÓg but being kind hearted he offered to help them men move the boulder. As he bent down to help, his saddle snapped and he fell to the ground. As soon as he hit the ground he aged 300 years and the spell was broken.
Legend says that the men were horrified and brought Oisín to St Patrick. Although St Patrick tried to comfort him, Oisín was filled with great sadness and despair for the loss of his father, his tribesmen and his wife. Oisín died shortly after but he spent the few remaining days of his life talking about his beautiful Princess Niamh and his time in Tír na nÓg. He told of his life amongst the Fianna in great detail and the many legendary deeds of Fionn Mac Cumhaill. Oisín is credited with being the main narrator of the Fenian Cycle of Irish Mythology which have allowed the tales of Fionn to live on through the ages and become some of the best known stories in folklore.
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Folklore is so entrenched in Irish culture that places, people, trees and beers are named after them. The lads tried out the Little Fawn IPA, brewed by White Hag Brewery, County Sligo in the beer tasting series Brew Review.