For St. Patrick's day - a story. I've told it here before
, but now I have the aid of no less than William Butler Yeats. All the poetry excerpts are from his poem, The Wanderings of Oisin
In ancient Ireland, before the coming of Christianity, in the time of fairies, gods, and kings, there roamed a band of fierce and noble warriors the likes of which has never been seen before or since. They were called the Fianna, or Fenians, after their leader, Finn MacCool, and their feats were legendary - it was said that a warrior of the Fianna could best nine men at once, buried to his knees in dirt and wielding only a sprig of hazel. Finn MacCool's son Oisin was fast, strong, and brave, like any Fenian ought to be, but he was also the most beautiful, and the best poet. One day, they were riding over the Firbolgs when a goddess appeared, one of the ageless fairies, a Tuatha de Danaan. Her name was Niamh. Struck by her beauty, Finn MacCool asked why she had come. She replied:'I loved no man, though kings besought,
Until the Danaan poets brought
Rhyme that rhymed upon Oisin's name,
And now I am dizzy with the thought
Of all that wisdom and the fame
Of battles broken by his hands,
Of stories builded by his words
Hearing this, Oisin fell to his knees. 'You only will I wed,' I cried,
'And I will make a thousand songs,
And set your name all names above,
And captives bound with leathern thongs
Shall kneel and praise you, one by one,
At evening in my western dun.'
His father and his comrades wept and begged him to stay, but though Oisin was a brave fighter, he loved beauty more than war, and gladly followed Niamh into the land of the Tuatha de Danaan:They led us by long and shadowy ways
Where drops of dew in myriads fall,
And tangled creepers every hour
Blossom in some new crimson flower,
And once a sudden laughter sprang
From all their lips, and once they sang
Together, while the dark woods rang,
And made in all their distant parts,
With boom of bees in honey-marts,
A rumour of delighted hearts.
There, the Tuatha de Danaan were much enchanted with him, and showed him all the wonders of their realm. Yet, when Oisin attempted to tell them of the land he'd left behind, of his mortal life, they were overcome:And once a lady by my side
Gave me a harp, and bid me sing,
And touch the laughing silver string;
But when I sang of human joy
A sorrow wrapped each merry face,
And, Patrick! by your beard, they wept,
Until one came, a tearful boy;
'A sadder creature never stept
Than this strange human bard,' he cried;
And caught the silver harp away,
And, weeping over the white strings, hurled
It down in a leaf-hid, hollow place
That kept dim waters from the sky;
And each one said, with a long, long sigh,
'O saddest harp in all the world,
Sleep there till the moon and the stars die!'
Oisin lived for three hundred years with the Tuatha de Danaan, delighting in Niamh's love, and in his own immortality.But here there is nor law nor rule,
Nor have hands held a weary tool;
And here there is nor Change nor Death,
But only kind and merry breath
For joy is God and God is joy.'
With one long glance for girl and boy
And the pale blossom of the moon,
He fell into a Druid swoon.
And in a wild and sudden dance
We mocked at Time and Fate and Chance.
At night, they cried out to the sky:'You stars,
Across your wandering ruby cars
Shake the loose reins: you slaves of God.
He rules you with an iron rod,
He holds you with an iron bond,
Each one woven to the other,
Each one woven to his brother
Like bubbles in a frozen pond;
But we in a lonely land abide
Unchainable as the dim tide,
With hearts that know nor law nor rule,
And hands that hold no wearisome tool,
Folded in love that fears no morrow,
Nor the grey wandering osprey Sorrow.'
Oisin spent one hundred years like this, and another hundred battling the demons of the fairy realm, and another hundred deep in sleep, resting from his battle. When he awoke from his hundred year sleep, he told Niamh that he had dreamed of Finn and the Fianna, and that he must return to see them, if only briefly:I cried, 'O Niamh! O white one! if only a twelve-houred day,
I must gaze on the beard of Finn, and move where the old men and young
In the Fenians' dwellings of wattle lean on the chess-boards and play,
Ah, sweet to me now were even bald Conan's slanderous tongue!
Niamh agreed to give him a horse and show him the way, but warned him that if his feet touched mortal soil again, he would be unable to return. Oisin confidently assured her that he would be gone for but a day. Returning home, he found the world much changed - three hundred years passed, his companions gone:And I rode by the plains of the sea's edge, where all is barren and grey,
Grey sand on the green of the grasses and over the dripping trees,
Dripping and doubling landward, as though they would hasten away',
Like an army of old men longing for rest from the moan of the seas.
Making way from the kindling surges, I rode on a bridle-path
Much wondering to see upon all hands, of wattles and woodwork made,
Your bell-mounted churches, and guardless the sacred cairn and the rath,
And a small and a feeble populace stooping with mattock and spade,
And because I went by them so huge and so speedy with eyes so bright,
Came after the hard gaze of youth, or an old man lifted his head:
And I rode and I rode, and I cried out, 'The Fenians hunt wolves in the night,
So sleep thee by daytime.' A voice cried, 'The Fenians a long time are dead.'
Overcome with sorrow, Oisin wept - not just for his father and friends long dead, but at how men themselves had changed - how they had become weakened and miserable, with a new god to replace the old ones. Longing for Niamh, he turned to go, but as he did he glimpsed two men struggling to lift a large sack of sand:And there at the foot of the mountain, two carried a sack full of sand,
They bore it with staggering and sweating, but fell with their burden at length.
Leaning down from the gem-studded saddle, I flung it five yards with my hand,
With a sob for men waxing so weakly, a sob for the Fenians' old strength.
But as he did, the girth of his saddle broke, and he fell to the ground. As his feet touched the soil, he transformed into an old man, three hundred years old in an instant, unable to return to Niamh and the fairy lands. Dying, he was tended to in his last days by St. Patrick. The rest you have heard of, O croziered man; how, when divided the girth,
I fell on the path, and the horse went away like a summer fly;
And my years three hundred fell on me, and I rose, and walked on the earth,
A creeping old man, full of sleep, with the spittle on his beard never dry'.
As St. Patrick tended to him, he attempted to convert him to Christianity, as he had converted so many in Ireland:The skies are choked with thunder, lightning, and fierce wind,
For God has heard, and speaks His angry mind;
Go cast your body on the stones and pray,
For He has wrought midnight and dawn and day.
But Oisin refused to heed him, instead lamenting:In what far kingdom do you go
Ah Fenians, with the shield and bow?
Or are you phantoms white as snow,
Whose lips had life's most prosperous glow?
O you, with whom in sloping valleys,
Or down the dewy forest alleys,
I chased at morn the flying deer,
With whom I hurled the hurrying spear,
And heard the foemen's bucklers rattle,
And broke the heaving ranks of battle!
And Bran, Sceolan, and Lomair,
Where are you with your long rough hair?
You go not where the red deer feeds,
Nor tear the foemen from their steeds.
St. Patrick replied:On the flaming stones, without refuge, the limbs of the Fenians are tost;
None war on the masters of Hell, who could break up the world in their rage;
But kneel and wear out the flags and pray for your soul that is lost
Through the demon love of its youth and its godless and passionate age.
St. Patrick begged Oisin to forget the past, Ireland's past, and save his own soul. But Oisin refused, vowing to follow the Fenians into heaven or hell:It were sad to gaze on the blessed and no man I loved of old there;
I throw down the chain of small stones! when life in my body has ceased,
I will go to Caoilte, and Conan, and Bran, Sceolan, Lomair,
And dwell in the house of the Fenians, be they in flames or at feast.
Happy St. Patrick's Day.