Cleveland Comhrá: Oisín and St. Patrick

By Bob Carney

For most Americans, the history of this place we call America begins with the arrival of the Europeans. The rich history and mythology of the native Americans that were here prior to that is largely ignored, except for the descendants of those early peoples.

Ireland however, is a different story. History and mythology are intertwined, and the lines that would normally define are shrouded in a type of fog that weaves the two together crossing between historical fact and folklore. (Tá siad fite fuaite ina chéile) – an Irish phrase that means just that.

Manchán Magan reminds us of that in his book “Listen to the Land Speak” when he talks about placenames that have endured in modern times based upon the exploits of “gods and fighting men” from mythology. Mountains, lakes and rivers all have stories that have been passed down over the centuries, that often chroicle their beginnings.

St. Brigid and Imbolg
In many cases, characters from mythology blend with real life people, and the stories and actions from the folklore become attributed to the person. On the first of February, the Feast of St. Brigid is celebrated on the festival of Imbolg, a celebration of the coming of spring. Imbolg is closely associated with the goddess Brigid and the tales told are so interwoven that the goddess and the saint coud be the same person.

The symbol we recognize as Brigid’s Cross has it’s roots in the pagan celebration of Imbolg. Solar crosses were woven with four arms, equal in length, symbolizing the goddess Brigid’s control over the changing of the seasons.

There is a story told of a chieftan in Kildare that was dying. Christians in the house sent for Brigid to talk to the dying king about Christ.

By the time she arrived he was delirious with fever. She sat at his bedside and began to console him. As was the custom, the dirt floor was covered with rushes for warmth and cleanliness.

Brigid stooped down and picked some up and began weaving them into a cross with the points together as she spoke. The king asked what she was doing and as she weaved, she explained the significance of the cross as it pertained to her Christian faith.

As she talked, his  delirium subsided, and he questioned her deeply about Christ and her faith. He was baptized before his death, and the cross of rushes continues in Ireland, but with a different purpose.

St. Patrick
Maewyn Succat was born either in Wales or Scotland, the facts are not certain, nor are the dates of his birth and death. According to tradition, he was abducted by an Irish raiding party and taken to Ireland to work as a slave.

He was a teenager at the time and spent the next six years enslaved. One night he had a vision and was shown his means of escape. He made his way home and began his studies, later to become a missionary and a bishop on the island of his imprisonment.

Patrick, as he was now called, was not the first to bring the message of Christ to Ireland, that distinction goes to Palladius, a frenchman. He was the first bishop of the Christian faith in Ireland. Scholars believe that some elements of their individual stories have become interchanged with one another.

Oisín and the Bishop
Oisín was a warrior of the Fianna, the son of the mighty Fionn Mac Cumhaill. Oisín’s exploits were many and his fame among the Fianna and all the people of Ireland grew. One day when he was out hunting, he heard a lovely voice calling to him from the sea. Soon he laid eyes on the most beautiful woman he had  ever seen.

Tír na nÓg
Niamh was from the Otherworld land of Tír na nÓg, the land of youth, where you never age or want for anything. She tells the warrior she loves him and wishes to marry him.

He returns across the waves with her to Tír na nÓg and together they raise a family and live a life of happiness and bliss. Oisín and Niamh are much in love, but one day she can tell he is troubled. He tells her he misses his home and his comrades and longs for a visit home.

She tells him she will give him her finest horse to journey across the waves, but warns him that as long as he remains on the animal’s back he will be able to return to her in Tír na nÓg. If his feet touch the ground, he will age the three hundred years that have passed since he left Ireland and returning will be impossible. He promises to return and embarks on his journey.

He finds nothing as he remembers it. The people are changed, the Fianna are nothing but old stories the very old barely remember, passed down to them. As he travels looking for something familiar, he comes across a group of men struggling to build a wall.

They are barely able to move the stone and he reaches down to help. The saddle strap breaks, and he tumbles from his mount, hitting the ground, aging instantly.

Gods and Fighting Men
In Lady Gregory’s 1904 book, she relates how the men take the now frail old man to the only person who might be able to help him, Bishop Patrick. Patrick takes the man to his monastery, where he his cared for and fed like any of the resident clergy.

Later Patrick visits Oisín and asks him about himself, why has he never seen him in his “flock”? Oisín tells him tales of his father, Fionn Mac Cumhaill, and the Fianna, of the great battles and raids he and his mates undertook.

He spoke of the great feasting, of songs and drink. He told Patrick of his wife and sons and of Tír na nÓg.

Patrick finds himself enjoying the tales Oisín tells him and returns every evening so that Oisín can regale him with more. Patrick does become concerned that he might be enjoying them too much and prays for guidance. God tells him it is good and the stories should be told, but that he must also work to save the soul of the old warrior.

Patrick’s attempts to speak of the Christian faith are met with a resistance stronger than Patrick has ever encountered. The two trade barbs back and forth, both extolling their own beliefs day after day, until one day Patrick becomes exasperated and says, “Leave off old man, leave your foolishness; let what you have done be enough for you from this out. Think on the pains that are before you; the Fianna are gone and you yourself will be going.”

Oisín responds, “If I go, may yourself not be left after me, Patrick of the hindering heart; if Conan, the least of the Fianna, were living, your buzzing would not be left long to you.”

Banishing the Snakes
How do you interpret this story? Is it a symbolic way of saying Ireland’s pagan past is gone, or is it a longing for the way things used to be? Patrick’s banishment of snakes from the Emerald Isle was symbolic of the banishment of the old ways. There have not been snakes there since the last ice age, but it was a good story making the case for Patrick’s power. No matter how you celebrate your Irishness this month, be safe and be proud of all that is part of it.

Beannachtaí na Féile Padraig!

See more of Bob’s Cleveland Comhrá columns HERE

Bob Carney

Bob Carney

*Bob Carney is a student of Irish language and history and teaches the Speak Irish Cleveland class held every Tuesday at PJ McIntyre’s. He is also active in the Irish Wolfhound and Irish dogs organizations in and around Cleveland. Wife Mary, hounds Rían, Aisling and Draoi and terrier Doolin keep the house jumping. He can be reached at [email protected]


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