There was a king in Tir na n-Og (the land of Youth) who held the throne and crown for many a year against all comers; and the law of the kingdom was that every seventh year the champions and best men of the country should run for the office of king.
Once in seven years they all met at the front of the palace and ran to the top of a hill two miles distant. On the top of that hill was a chair and the man that sat first in the chair was king of Tir na n-Og for the next seven years. After he had ruled for ages, the king became anxious; he was afraid that some one might sit in the chair before him, and take the crown off his head. So he called up his Druid one day and asked: "How long shall I keep the chair to rule this land, and will any man sit in it before me and take the crown off my head?"
"You will keep the chair and the crown forever," said the Druid, "unless your own son-in-law takes them from you."
The king had no sons and but one daughter, the finest woman in Tir na n-Og; and the like of her could not be found in Erin or any kingdom in the world. When the king heard the words of the Druid, he said, "I'll have no son-in-law, for I'll put the daughter in a way no man will marry her."
Then he took a rod of Druidic spells, and calling the daughter up before him, he struck her with the rod, and put a pig's head on her in place of her own. Then he sent the daughter away to her own place in the castle, and turning to the Druid said: "There is no man that will marry her now."
When the Druid saw the face that was on the princess with the pig's head that the father gave her, he grew very sorry that he had given such information to the king; and some time after he went to see the princess.
"Must I be in this way forever?" asked she of the Druid.
"You must," said he, "till you marry one of the sons of Fin MacCumhail in Erin. If you marry one of Fin's sons, you'll be freed from the blot that is on you now, and get back your own head and countenance."
When she heard this she was impatient in her mind, and could never rest till she left Tir na n-Og and came to Erin. When she had inquired she heard that Fin and the Fenians of Erin were at that time living on Knock an Ar, and she made her way to the place without delay and lived there a while; and when she saw Oisin, he pleased her; and when she found out that he was a son of Fin MacCumhail, she was always making up to him and coming towards him. And it was usual for the Fenians in those days to go out hunting on the hills and mountains and in the woods of Erin, and when one of them went he always took five or six men with him to bring home the game.
On a day Oisin set out with his men and dogs to the woods; and he went so far and killed so much game that when it was brought together, the men were so tired, weak, and hungry that they couldn't carry it, but went away home and left him with the three dogs, Bran, Sciolán, and Buglén, to shift for himself.
Now the daughter of the king of Tir na n-Og, who was herself the queen of Youth, followed closely in the hunt all that day, and when the men left Oisin she came up to him; and as he stood looking at the great pile of game and said, "I am very sorry to leave behind anything that I've had the trouble of killing," she looked at him and said, "Tie up a bundle for me, and I'll carry it to lighten the load off you."
Oisin gave her a bundle of the game to carry, and took the remainder himself. The evening was very warm and the game heavy, and after they had gone some distance, Oisin said, "Let us rest a while." Both threw down their burdens, and put their backs against a great stone that was by the roadside. The woman was heated and out of breath, and opened her dress to cool herself. Then Oisin looked at her and saw her beautiful form and her white bosom.
"Oh, then," said he, "it's a pity you have the pig's head on you; for I have never seen such an appearance on a woman in all my life before."
"Well," said she, "my father is the king of Tir na n-Og, and I was the finest woman in his kingdom and the most beautiful of all, till he put me under a Druidic spell and gave me the pig's head that's on me now in place of my own. And the Druid of Tir na n-Og came to me afterwards, and told me that if one of the sons of Fin MacCumhail would marry me, the pig's head would vanish, and I should get back my face in the same form as it was before my father struck me with the Druid's wand. When I heard this I never stopped till I came to Erin, where I found your father and picked you out among the sons of Fin MacCumhail, and followed you to see would you marry me and set me free."
"If that is the state you are in, and if marriage with me will free you from the spell, I'll not leave the pig's head on you long."
So they got married without delay, not waiting to take home the game or to lift it from the ground. That moment the pig's head was gone, and the king's daughter had the same face and beauty that she had before her father struck her with the Druidic wand.
"Now," said the queen of Youth to Oisin, "I cannot stay here long, and unless you come with me to Tir na n-Og we must part."
"Oh," said Oisin, "wherever you go I'll go, and wherever you turn I'll follow."
Then she turned and Oisin went with her, not going back to Knock an Ar to see his father or his son. That very day they set out for Tir na n-Og and never stopped till they came to her father's castle; and when they came, there was a welcome before them, for the king thought his daughter was lost. That same year there was to be a choice of a king, and when the appointed day came at the end of the seventh year all the great men and the champions, and the king himself, met together at the front of the castle to run and see who should be first in the chair on the hill; but before a man of them was halfway to the hill, Oisin was sitting above in the chair before them. After that time no one stood up to run for the office against Oisin, and he spent many a happy year as king in Tir na n-Og. At last he said to his wife: "I wish I could be in Erin to-day to see my father and his men."
"If you go," said his wife, "and set foot on the land of Erin, you'll never come back here to me, and you'll become a blind old man. How long do you think it is since you came here?"
"About three years," said Oisin. "It is three hundred years," said she, "since you came to this kingdom with me. If you must go to Erin, I'll give you this white steed to carry you; but if you come down from the steed or touch the soil of Erin with your foot, the steed will come back that minute, and you'll be where he left you, a poor old man."
"I'll come back, never fear," said Oisin. "Have I not good reason to come back? But I must see my father and my son and my friends in Erin once more; I must have even one look at them."
She prepared the steed for Oisin and said, "This steed will carry you wherever you wish to go."
Oisin never stopped till the steed touched the soil of Erin; and he went on till he came to Knock Patrick in Munster, where he saw a man herding cows. In the field, where the cows were grazing there was a broad flat stone.
"Will you come here," said Oisin to the herdsman, "and turn over this stone?"
"Indeed, then, I will not," said the herdsman; "for I could not lift it, nor twenty men more like me."
Oisin rode up to the stone, and, reaching down, caught it with his hand and turned it over. Underneath the stone was the great horn of the Fenians (borabu), which circled round like a seashell, and it was the rule that when any of the Fenians of Erin blew the borabu, the others would assemble at once from whatever part of the country they might be in at the time.
"Will you bring this horn to me!" asked Oisin of the herdsman.
"I will not," said the herdsman; "for neither I nor many more like me could raise it from the ground." With that Oisin moved near the horn, and reaching down took it in his hand; but so eager was he to blow it, that he forgot everything, and slipped in reaching till one foot touched the earth. In an instant the steed was gone, and Oisin lay on the ground a blind old man. The herdsman went to Saint Patrick, who lived near by, and told him what had happened.
Saint Patrick sent a man and a horse for Oisin, brought him to his own house, gave him a room by himself, and sent a boy to stay with him to serve and take care of him. And Saint Patrick commanded his cook to send Oisin plenty of meat and drink, to give him bread and beef and butter every day.
Now Oisin lived a while in this way. The cook sent him provisions each day, and Saint Patrick himself asked him all kinds of questions about the old times of the Fenians of Erin. Oisin told him about his father, Fin MacCumhail, about himself, his son Osgar, Goll MacMorna, Conan Maol, Diarmuid, and all the Fenian heroes; how they fought, feasted, and hunted, how they came under Druidic spells, and how they were freed from them.
At the same time, Saint Patrick was putting up a great building; but what his men used to put up in the daytime was levelled at night, and Saint Patrick lamented over his losses in the hearing of Oisin. Then Oisin said in the hearing of Saint Patrick, "If I had my strength and my sight, I'd put a stop to the power that is levelling your work."
"Do you think you'd be able to do that," said Saint Patrick, "and let my building go on?"
"I do, indeed," said Oisin. So Saint Patrick prayed to the Lord, and the sight and strength came back to Oisin. He went to the woods and got a great club and stood at the building on guard.
What should come in the night but a great beast in the form of a bull, which began to uproot and destroy the work. But if he did Oisin faced him, and the battle began hot and heavy between the two; but in the course of the night Oisin got the upper hand of the bull and left him dead before the building. Then he stretched out on the ground himself and fell asleep.
Now Saint Patrick was waiting at home to know how would the battle come out, and thinking Oisin too long away he sent a messenger to the building; and when the messenger came he saw the ground torn up, a hill in one place and a hollow in the next. The bull was dead and Oisin sleeping after the desperate battle. He went back and told what he saw.
"Oh," said Saint Patrick, "it's better to knock the strength out of him again; for he'll kill us all if he gets vexed."
Saint Patrick took the strength out of him, and when Oisin woke up he was a blind old man and the messenger went out and brought him home.
Oisin lived on for a time as before. The cook sent him his food, the boy served him, and Saint Patrick listened to the stories of the Fenians of Erin.
Saint Patrick had a neighbor, a Jew, a very rich man but the greatest miser in the kingdom, and he had the finest haggart of corn in Erin. Well, the Jew and Saint Patrick got very intimate with one another and so great became the friendship of the Jew for Saint Patrick at last, that he said he'd give him, for the support of his house, as much corn as one man could thrash out of the haggart in a day.
When Saint Patrick went home after getting the promise of the corn, he told in the hearing of Oisin about what the Jew had said.
"Oh, then," said Oisin, "if I had my sight and strength, I'd thrash as much corn in one day as would do your whole house for a twelvemonth and more."
"Will you do that for me?" said Saint Patrick.
"I will," said Oisin.
Saint Patrick prayed again to the Lord, and the sight and strength came back to Oisin. He went to the woods next morning at daybreak, Oisin did, pulled up two fine ash-trees and made a flail of them. After eating his breakfast he left the house and never stopped till he faced the haggart of the Jew. Standing before one of the stacks of wheat he hit it a wallop of his flail and broke it asunder. He kept on in this way till he slashed the whole haggart to and fro,—and the Jew running like mad up and down the highroad in front of the haggart, tearing the hair from his head when he saw what was doing to his wheat, and the face gone from him entirely he was so in dread of Oisin.
When the haggart was thrashed clean, Oisin went to Saint Patrick and told him to send his men for the wheat; for he had thrashed out the whole haggart. When Saint Patrick saw the countenance that was on Oisin, and heard what he had done he was greatly in dread of him, and knocked the strength out of him again, and Oisin became an old, blind man as before.
Saint Patrick's men went to the haggart and there was so much wheat they didn't bring the half of it away with them and they didn't want it.
Oisin again lived for a while as before and then he was vexed because the cook didn't give him what he wanted. He told Saint Patrick that he wasn't getting enough to eat. Then Saint Patrick called up the cook before himself and Oisin and asked her what she was giving Oisin to eat. She said: "I give him at every meal what bread is baked on a large griddle and all the butter I make in one churn, and a quarter of beef besides."
"That ought to be enough for you," said Saint Patrick.
"Oh, then," said Oisin, turning to the cook, "I have often seen the leg of a blackbird bigger than the quarter of beef you give me, I have often seen an ivy leaf bigger than the griddle on which you bake the bread for me, and I have often seen a single rowan berry [the mountain ash berry] bigger than the bit of butter you give me to eat."
"You lie!" said the cook, "you never did."
Oisin said not a word in answer.
Now there was a hound in the place that was going to have her first whelps, and Oisin said to the boy who was tending him: "Do you mind and get the first whelp she'll have and drown the others."
Next morning the boy found three whelps, and coming back to Oisin, said: "There are three whelps and 'tis unknown which of them is the first."
At Saint Patrick's house they had slaughtered an ox the day before, and Oisin said: "Go now and bring the hide of the ox and hang it up in this room." When the hide was hung up Oisin said, "Bring here the three whelps and throw them up against the hide." The boy threw up one of the whelps against the oxhide. "What did he do?" asked Oisin.
"What did he do," said the boy, "but fall to the ground."
"Throw up another," said Oisin. The boy threw another. "What did he do?" asked Oisin.
"What did he do but to fall the same as the first."
The third whelp was thrown and he held fast to the hide,—didn't fall. "What did he do?" asked Oisin.
"Oh," said the boy, "he kept his hold."
"Take him down," said Oisin; "give him to the mother: bring both in here; feed the mother well and drown the other two."
The boy did as he was commanded, and fed the two well, and when the whelp grew up the mother was banished, the whelp chained up and fed for a year and a day. And when the year and a day were spent, Oisin said, "We'll go hunting to-morrow, and we'll take the dog with us."
They went next day, the boy guiding Oisin, holding the dog by a chain. They went first to the place where Oisin had touched earth and lost the magic steed from Tir na n-Og. The borabu of the Fenians of Erin was lying on the ground there still. Oisin took it up and they went on to Glen na Smuil (Thrush's Glen). When at the edge of the glen Oisin began to sound the borabu. Birds and beasts of every kind came hurrying forward. He blew the horn till the glen was full of them from end to end.
"What do you see now?" asked he of the boy.
"The glen is full of living things."
"What is the dog doing?" "He is looking ahead and his hair is on end."
"Do you see anything else?"
"I see a great bird all black settling down on the north side of the glen."
"That's what I want," said Oisin; "what is the dog doing now?"
"Oh, the eyes are coming out of his head, and there isn't a rib of hair on his body that isn't standing up."
"Let him go now," said Oisin. The boy let slip the chain and the dog rushed through the glen killing everything before him. When all the others were dead he turned to the great blackbird and killed that. Then he faced Oisin and the boy and came bounding toward them with venom and fierceness. Oisin drew out of his bosom a brass ball and said: "If you don't throw this into the dog's mouth he'll destroy us both; knock the dog with the ball or he'll tear us to pieces."
"Oh," said the boy, "I'll never be able to throw the ball, I'm so in dread of the dog."
"Come here at my back, then," said Oisin, "and straighten my hand towards the dog." The boy directed the hand and Oisin threw the ball into the dog's mouth and killed him on the spot.
"What have we done?" asked Oisin.
"Oh, the dog is knocked," said the boy.
"We are all right then," said Oisin, "and do you lead me now to the blackbird of the carn, I don't care for the others."
They went to the great bird, kindled a fire and cooked all except one of its legs. Then Oisin ate as much as he wanted and said; "I've had a good meal of my own hunting and it's many and many a day since I have had one. Now let us go on farther." They went into the woods, and soon Oisin asked the boy; "Do you see anything wonderful?"
"I see an ivy with the largest leaves I have ever set eyes on."
"Take one leaf of that ivy," said Oisin.
The boy took the leaf. Near the ivy they found a rowan berry, and then went home taking the three things with them,—the blackbird's leg, the ivy leaf, and the rowan berry. When they reached the house Oisin called for the cook, and Saint Patrick made her come to the fore. When she came Oisin pointed to the blackbird's leg and asked, "Which is larger, that leg or the quarter of beef you give me?"
"Oh, that is a deal larger," said the cook.
"You were right in that case," said Saint Patrick to Oisin.
Then Oisin drew out the ivy leaf and asked, "Which is larger, this or the griddle on which you made bread for me?"
"That is larger than the griddle and the bread together," said the cook.
"Right again," said Saint Patrick.
Oisin now took out the rowan berry and asked: "Which is larger, this berry or the butter of one churning which you give me?"
"Oh, that is bigger," said the cook, "than both the churn and the butter."
"Right, every time," said Saint Patrick.
Then Oisin raised his arm and swept the head off the cook with a stroke from the edge of his hand, saying, "You'll never give the lie to an honest man again."
Notes: Contains 20 Irish folktales.
Author: Jeremiah Curtin
Publisher: Sampson Low, Martson, Searle & Rivington, London