THE YOUTH OF OISIN

From Legendary Fictions of the Irish Celts by Patrick Kennedy

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Students of Homer and Ovid are not ignorant of the transformations their unedifying divinities spontaneously underwent, and for what purposes. Events of a similar but much less revolting character are gleaned among the dim traditions of our Celtic mythology. In a former legend is recorded how Tuirrean, Fion's aunt, having been changed into a female stag-hound by the Lianan Sighe of her husband, her nephew's celebrated hounds, Brann and Sceoluing, were born while she was enduring the transformation. In the tale which follows is recorded the double existence of Oisin and his mother as deer and human beings.

THE YOUTH OF OISIN

As the Fianna were one day returning from the chase, a beautiful fawn was started, which fled towards their own dun. At last all had fallen back, both men and dogs, except Fion and his two favourite hounds. Sweeping along a valley-side the animal suddenly ceased her flight, and lay down on the smooth grass. Fion was amazed at this, but much more when he saw the hounds frolic round her, and lick her face and neck and limbs. To kill so beautiful and gentle a beast under the circumstances was out of the question. She followed him home, playing with the hounds, and was housed in Almuin that night.

When Fion was left alone late on that evening, a woman of fair features and rich dress presented herself before him, and declared herself the hunted fawn of that day. "For refusing the love of the Danaan Druid, Fear Doirche," said she, "I have for three years endured the nature and the dangers of a wild deer's life in a far district of Erinn, which dread 'Geasach' prevents me from naming. A pitying slave of the Druid at last revealed to me, that if I were once within any fortress owned by the Fians of Erinn, his power over me would be at an end. I flew with untiring limbs for a day, until I came into the territory of the chief of Almuin, and ceased not my flight till Brann and Sceoluing of human intellect were the only pursuers on my track. With them my life was safe; they knew me to be of a nature like to their own."

Some months passed away, during which Fion went forth neither to the fight nor to the chase, so lost was he to all his former amusements and pursuits, through his deep love for the rescued princess. But at last the Loch-Leannach (the Scandinavians) were in the bay of the Hill of Oaks (Howth). Seven days were the Fians absent, and on the eighth the chief was crossing the plain of Almuin with rapid strides, and wondering that his sweet flower was not looking towards him from the top of the mound. The dwellers of the fort rushed out in joy to greet their chief; but sadness sat on their faces. "Where is the flower of Almuin, the beauteous, the tender Saav?" "Blame not her nor us, O father of your people! While the white strangers were falling beneath your axe of war, your likeness and the likenesses of Brann and Sceoluing appeared before the dun, and we thought we heard the sweet-sounding Dord Fionn blow from your lips the music that makes wounded men and women in travail forget their pains. Saav the good, the beautiful, came forth; she flew down the pass; she issued through the gates; she would not listen to entreaty or command. 'I must go and meet my protector, my love, the father of my unborn infant,' she cried, and in a few moments she was rushing into the arms of the phantom. Alas! we saw her start back with a scream, and the form strike her with a hazel wand. A gentle, slender doe was on the plain, where she stood a moment since, and with wild yelpings the two hounds chased her from the dun. Thrice, four times, she sprang towards the moat, but every time she was seized by the throat and pulled away. By your hand, O Fion, we were not idle. What we have told passed while ten could scarcely be counted twice, and by that time we were on the plain with glaive, lance, and javelin. Mo chuma! (my sorrow) neither was woman, nor hind, nor sorcerer, nor dog to be seen, but we still could hear the beating of rapid feet on the hard plain, and the howling of dogs. If you were to ask every four of us in which quarter the noise was heard, each would name a different one."

Fion looked upwards in anguish, and repeatedly struck the mail that guarded his breast with his clenched hands. Word he spoke none, but retired to his private apartment, and did not show himself to his people for the rest of that day, nor till the sun rose over the plain of the Liffey next morning. For seven years from that time, whenever he was not called with his Fianna to make head against the white strangers, he continued to explore every remote corner of the land for the beloved Saav; and, except in the excitement of the chase or battle, an unchanging sadness had possession of him. Nor for seven years more did he forget the matchless princess who had shed such happiness, fleet as it was, on his life. He never during that time took to the chase more than his five favourite hounds--Brann, Sceoluing, Lomaire, Brod, and Lomluath--lest he should endanger the life of Saav if his good destiny led him upon her track.

At the end of the second period, as he and some of his knights were hunting on the side of Bengulban, in Sligo, they heard a terrible clamour among the dogs, who had got before them into a defile. On coming up they found the five hounds of Fion in a sort of circle, opposing the furious efforts of their companions to seize on a stripling of noble features, but entirely naked, except for the long hair which covered him from head to foot. He stood within the circle with no sign of fear on his countenance, and, forgetful of his own peril, did nothing but gaze on the stately forms of the curai as they surrounded the dogs. As soon as the fight was stopped, Brann and Sceoluing came to the wild youth, and whined and fawned on him, and licked him, and seemed as if for the moment they had forgotten their master. Fion and the others approached, and laid their hands on his head and caressed him, and his wild nature began from that hour to be changed. They brought him to their hunting sheds, and he ate and drank with them, and soon became as one of themselves. Fion, considering his features, and seeing in them some reflexion of the sweet countenance of Saav, and comparing his apparent age with her disappearance, hoped that he was her child, and kept him continually at his side. The youth fully returned his affection, and Brann and Sceoluing seemed never tired of bounding round him and receiving his caresses. His long hair soon disappeared with the use of clothes, and as soon as he acquired the gift of speech he gave this account of what he remembered:--

He and a hind whom he tenderly loved, and who sheltered him and tended him, inhabited a wide park, in which were hills, deep valleys, streams, rocks, and dark woods. He lived on fruits and roots in summer, and in winter he found provisions left in a sheltered cavern. A dark-visaged man came at times, and spoke sometimes in soft and tender, sometimes in loud and threatening tones, to the hind, but she ever shrunk away, and looked at him with fear expressed in face, and limb, and attitude. He always departed in great anger. All this time there was no way of escaping from this park; where high steep cliffs were wanting, there were straight descents of such depth as could not be passed with life. The last time he beheld his mother, the Fear Doirche had been speaking in soft and in harsh tones alternately for a long time; but still the hind kept aloof from him trembling. At last he struck her with a hazel wand, and she was obliged to follow him, still looking back at her son and bleating piteously. He made violent efforts to follow her. He cried out in rage and sorrow, but had not power to move. He fell on the ground insensible, just as he was listening to what he supposed the expiring cries of the deer, and when he awoke he found himself on the side of the hill where some days after the dogs discovered him. He had searched days and days for the inclosure where he had so happily lived, but could discover no appearance of cliffs springing up or descending, such as had long been so familiar to his eyes.

This youth received the name of Oisin, and in time he became the sweet singer of the Fianna of Erinn.

End of this Story

In the Book of Leinster are preserved some poetic pieces attributed to Oisin, the son of Fion. Oisin and Oisin's poetry may have belonged to the real world, but if so, succeeding poets so carefully surrounded his remains with their own compositions imposed on the world as his, that they became lost to sight and hearing, and are now either extinct or dispersed in very small portions through the inferior productions of his imitators. Subjoined is a literal translation of a' poetical answer given by Fion to Conane of the hill ridge, on his asking him what kind of music he preferred:--

THE FAVOURITE MUSIC OF FION MAC CUMHAIL

"When my seven battalions gather on the plain,
And hold aloft the standards of war,
And the dry cold wind whistles through the silk,--
That to me is sweetest music!

"When the drinking-hall is furnished in Almuin,
And the pages hand the carved cups to the chiefs,
And the musicians touch the wires with their fingers,
And the drained cups ring on the hard polished table,---
Sweet to my ears is that music!

"Sweet is the scream of the sea-gull and heron,
And the waves resounding on the Fair Strand (Ventry);
Sweet is the song of the three sons of Meardha,
Mac Luacha's whistle, the Dord [1] of Fear-Scara,
The cuckoo's note in early summer,
And the echo of loud laughter in the wood."

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NOTES

[1] A war-bugle.


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