There is a great poem by Irish writer Thomas Kinsella. The piece is entitled “Mirror in February,” and ends as follows: “In slow distaste / I fold my towel with what grace I can, / not young, and not renewable, but man.” In those few brief words, an important question is elegantly drawn — why is it that, as a global society, we have the tendency to fixate on the irreversible, unstoppable nature of the ageing process? For as long as our homo sapien brains have understood the concept of mortality, we have raged against the perceived tragedy of fading youth, and, of course, that which inevitably follows — death.
For centuries now, this universal fear has worked its way into the most foundational of our cultural narratives: take, for example, the backbone of Christian dogma, built around the belief that if we as individuals are good, kind, and respectful of God’s laws in life, we need never truly die; instead, we go to to heaven, where we can enjoy a new “eternal life” for the rest of time.
In fairy tales and folk stories, too, our collective wish to cheat old age and death is abundantly clear. From the 5th century B.C., stories of the Fountain of Youth (a sprig capable of granting immortality to anyone who drinks from its waters) have been widely circulated all over the world.
In the famous Brothers Grimm tale of Snow White, the evil queen obsesses over how her beauty withers more with every year that passes — and, naturally, she is eventually usurped by the titular character, a girl much younger and lovelier than she.
Taking all of this into account, it’s most certainly not for nothing that the most famous legend associated with ancient Ireland is that of Tír na nÓg — a place name which translates, literally, to Land of the Young. Indeed, the perpetual youth of this country’s denizens is the feature it’s best remembered for by lovers of Irish folklore. However, not many are aware that Tír na nÓg is just one of many names given to what’s known as the Celtic otherworld — a place populated with supernatural races, the divine, and even, in some stories, the dead. A land of eternal youth, populated with the spirits of the deceased? It’s about as strange as it sounds on first reading — but then, Irish myth has never been known for its simplicity!
Other names commonly given to the Celtic otherworld include Tír Tairngire (Land of the Promised), Ildathach (Multicolored Place), and Emain Ablach (Isle of the Apple Trees). With each new name, the realm takes on new characteristics — however, health, youth, and happiness can quite safely be considered the general baseline requirements. Other Celtic mythologies, such as those native to Wales and Scotland, feature similar territories in their legendary landscapes, such as Annwyn and Elfhame. In all of these places, inhabitants are free to do as they please — not only do they never have to die, but they never have to experience the drudgery of work or the pain of loss.
In Irish storytelling, Tír na nÓg and its sister lands have occasionally been visited by lucky mortals. The most famous of these instances is detailed in the story of Oisín in Tír na nÓg, though we’ll have more on that in just a few minutes!
The traditional Irish names for stories which describe breaches of the interworld barriers are the echtra (“the adventure”) and immram (“the voyage”). In these stories, lands like Tír na nÓg are sometimes accessed by burrowing into the ground beneath ancient burial mounds and caves, or sometimes risking one’s life by swimming underwater. However, the most common (and certainly most pleasant) route used to reach the otherworld is the Mag Mell, or “Plain of Honey.” This is the name given to a stretch of calm water on the otherwise tumultuous sea, turned golden by the rays of the sun. On foot or on horseback, a courageous mortal could leave everything they knew behind by following this path — provided, of course, they knew how to find it in the first place. To this end, a guide was often needed.
The otherworldly guide of Oisín in Tír na nÓg went by the name of Niamh, or sometimes Niamh Cinn-Óir, a title which celebrated her beautiful golden hair. In a poem penned by Irish writer Mícheál Coimín around 1750 (the telling of the story most often referred to), Niamh was the princess of Tír na nÓg, which at the time was connected to Ireland by the Mag Mell across the western sea. In her homeland, a mystical druid made the prophecy that Niamh was destined to fall in love with a son of Fionn mac Cumhaill, the leader of the Fianna, who were a powerful band of warriors and poets who roamed the length and breadth of Ireland. Eager to fulfil this premonition, Niamh mounted her white horse and set off in search of her soon-to-be Irish love.
After some time spent travelling, Niamh eventually met the men of the Fianna on the shores of Loch Leane, or the “Lake of Learning,” in Killarney, Co. Kerry, where they were busy hunting deer. It was here that she first set eyes on Oisín, the son of Fionn, and a poet wise beyond his years. The pair fell deeply in love within moments. Oisín needed no convincing to return with Niamh to Tír na nÓg, where she assured him they would be happy forever, as young and beautiful as they ever were. They left Ireland on Niamh’s horse, riding west once more. They stopped only once, when Oisín rescued another supernatural maiden from the angry pursuit of a giant.
In Tír na nÓg, Oisín and Niamh were married at once, becoming king and queen of the land’s immortal people. Within three years, Niamh bore three children: two boys, named Oscar and Finn, and a girl, Plúr na mBan, or “The Flower of Women,” so named because her beauty was beyond compare.
Despite his seemingly-perfect new life in Tír na nÓg and growing family, however, Oisín began to grow homesick. He longed to see his father, as well as his brethren among the Fianna. When he first asked that Niamh help him arrange a short journey home, she curtly refused — but, as her husband’s unhappiness grew, she began to relent. Eventually, Niamh brought her beloved before her faithful white steed. She told him that he could ride back to Ireland on its back, across the Mag Mell, but must take care never to touch Irish soil, lest he never be able to return to his family.
Oisín returned to Ireland, and began to search high and low for his band of brothers. His efforts, however, were in vain. Soon, it became apparent that much had changed; what had been a quick three years in Tír na nÓg had passed as a sweeping 300 in Ireland. Oisín was devastated to learn that Fionn and the Fianna were no more.
In his grief, he began to wander the land on horseback, pausing only at a placed named Gleann-an-Smoil, or “Glen of the Thrushes.” There, a group of men were struggling to lift a marble flagstone, and asked the strong youth for his help. Perhaps their tenacity reminded him of the long-lost Fianna, for Oisín agreed. He was successful in moving the stone, but at the ultimate cost: all of the pulling and straining caused the white horse’s belt to snap, and Oisín tumbled from the saddle. The moment his skin made contact with the Irish soil, everything Niamh had fretted about came to pass. In a matter of seconds, Oisín grew old and feeble. Then, before the astonished men of Gleann-an-Smoil, he died.
The horse fled immediately after, galloping home across the Mag Mell. As soon as it arrived, riderless, back in Tír na nÓg, it was clear what had come to pass. Niamh, her children, and their subjects wept for their lost king.
The entirety of Mícheál Coimín’s poem is told using the framework of a story within a story. Specifically, this is a tale that’s supposedly being told by Oisín on his deathbed to St. Patrick, who had begun to convert the people of Ireland to Christianity in the time of his absence. In many variations on the primary text, Patrick absolves Oisín of his pagan beliefs and sinful consortium with fairy folk, baptizing him before his final breath is drawn to grant him access to the Kingdom of Heaven — the true Land of the Young, as per the Christian belief system discussed earlier.
There are other variations on the story of Oisín and Niamh, many of which are increasingly outlandish (even for a legend concerning immortal kingdoms and magical oceanic pathways). One version deals much more with Niamh’s father, the King of Tír na nÓg, a proud and power-driven tyrant who summoned a mystical druid to ascertain whether he would rule the land for all of his eternal life. The druid confirmed that he would, unless his daughter were ever to marry. In an effort to strike out this possibility, the king had the druid put a curse on Niamh, giving her the head of a pig so that no man would ever want her. Later, however, the druid told Niamh that there was one man so pure of soul that he could look past her snouted face to fall in love with her. This was the son of Fionn mac Cumhaill. Consequently, in this telling of the story, Niamh’s journey to Ireland and first meeting with Oisín went quite differently. However, they did marry, Niamh regained her beauty, and the couple returned to Tír na nÓg, where they overthrew the wicked king.
This most famous story of Tír na nÓg bears a powerful similarity to many other tales of old, both on a domestic and international scale — one, for example, is Urashima Tarō, from Japan (in which the otherworld is known as “The Dragon Place”). This is enough to make even the strictest of folklore purists begin to wonder: was all of the material inspired the narrative of Tír na nÓg Irish to begin with? For now, we can only speculate — but such a theory does bring considerable meat to our earlier notes on the universality of our human obsession with age.
The legend of Tír na nÓg — as well as the broader concept of the Land of the Young — captured creative imaginations both in Ireland and abroad for many years. The result of this is that it appears as both a setting and a plot device in countless pop culture mediums: in Terry Pratchett’s Discworld book series, for example, the witch Nanny Ogg refers to her home as Tir Nani Ogg, a pun on the Irish place name. In the 1997 James Cameron film Titanic, an Irish mother tells her two children the story of Oisín and Niamh as a distraction as the ship begins to sink. In music, “Tír na nÓg” is the name of a popular 1986 song by Northern Irish singer-songwriter Van Morrison. Perhaps most fascinating, however, is the 1974 Welsh rock opera, Nia Ben Aur. In this stage production, the Oisín-character is simply called the Prince of Ireland, and must choose between his fairy lover and the bonds which tie him to his country.
No matter which angle you choose to consider it from, the legendary Tír na nÓg provides an arresting and eye-opening insight into the lengths to which people have always been willing to go to escape old age and death, putting off the best of life until tomorrow, all because we assume that there will actually be one. In this light, we must admit that the tragic conclusion of Oisín and Niamh’s story could well be interpreted as a wake-up call. To steal a line from Thomas Kinsella, we are not young, and we are not renewable. Perhaps it’s time to be all the happier for it!