If myth is an ocean, there is practically an archipelago of paradisal islands out there, and among them is an idyllic Otherworld inhabited by the ancient Irish gods. It has been known by many titles: the‘Land of Promise’ (Tir Tairngiré), the ‘Plain of Happiness’ (Mag Mell), the ‘Land of the Living’ (Tir-nam-beo), but the best known name is the ‘Land of the Young’ (‘Tir-nan-õg).
Charles Squire calls it as ‘a paradise overseas…some unknown, and, except for favoured mortals, unknowable island of the west, the counterpart in Gaelic myth to the British Avalon…a land of perpetual pleasure and feasting’. It has also been paralleled with Elysium and Hy Brasil. Mythology: Myths, Legends, & Fantasies describes it as ‘breathtakingly beautiful, alive with birds, colour and music, and where love was always fresh and new. Its inhabitants were blessed with eternal youth, oblivious to such concepts as time, rules, or work’. In The Lay of Oisin in the Land of Youth, translated by Brian O’Looney, Tir-nan-õg is said to be ‘the most delightful country to be found/ Of greatest repute under the sun;/Trees drooping with fruit and blossom,/…Abundant, there, are honey and wine,/And everything that eye has beheld, There will not come decline on thee with lapse of time./Death or decay thou wilt not see.’ It was said to always be spring in Tir-nan-õg – the people there did not age or grow sick, they did not die – labour was unnecessary because the land itself provided in easy abundance. Warriors could fight one another to the ground and rise up again in the morning.
Of the gods who left Ireland for Tir-nan-õg, Manannán son of Lêr was the most powerful. His daughter, Niamh of the Golden Hair, took a trip back to the mother country to claim the husband of her choice, a man she had literally only ever heard about in stories and decided, based on that, would be her perfect life partner. Not that his decision-making process was any better than hers. When she rose out of Lough Leane, a lake in Killarney, to seduce him, Oisin was only too happy to follow where she led. Even his father Fionn mac Cumhaill, a legendary warrior and leader of the Fianna, was unable to convince Oisin to stay.
With her mortal lover swung up on the back of her horse, Niamh returned home, riding across the waves of the sea because roads are apparently for losers. As they travelled, white palaces rose above the water and Niamh stopped at one of these for Oisin to prove himself with a spot of heroism. A woman of the Tuatha De Danann had been captured by a Formor and held in this palace; Oisin did indeed prove himself by setting the prisoner free. As the lovers journeyed on together, Oisin saw a fawn running across the waves, pursued by a white hound with red ears. This may have been particularly significant due to Oisin’s own unusual origins – his mother Sadhbh was cursed to become a deer while she was pregnant with him, and he was born a fawn before transforming into a human boy.
Oisin stayed with Niamh for three hundred years. That is a pretty solid marriage by most people’s standards, but eventually a surge of homesickness came over Oisin and he asked Niamh for leave to see Ireland again. She gave him a horse and in return he gave her a promise: he would not touch earthly soil. In due time he reached Ireland, but it had changed almost beyond his recognition, his friends and family now no more than names in history books. People no longer possessed the powers that had been common in Oisin’s youth. He watched three hundred men try and fail to lift a marble slab, then rode up and raised it one-handed.
The effort, slight as it may have been to him, broke his saddle-girth and his foot touched the ground. Instantly, the horse vanished and the years caught up to Oisin with a vengeance. There are ballads in which the blinded and dying Oisin, withered by unnatural age, was taken in by Saint Patrick – yes, that Saint Patrick – who tried to convert him to Christianity. Oisin, having listened to all of the saint’s arguments, refused to believe that any heaven would be closed to his friends if they chose to go there, or that any god would not claim friendship with his father. Oisin declared that he would go to the Fianna, his beloved companions, in whatever afterlife he found them – and died true to his word.
There are other fairy islands in Irish myth and legend. One is Tir Inna mBan, the Isle of Women, which was supported on four bronze pillars and – as you may have guessed based on the name – was inhabited entirely by women, a kind of Celtic Themiscyra. Manannan once summoned the hero Bran and his warriors to this island, where they were entertained for a year. Much as Niamh did, the women of Tir Inna mBan warned their departing guests not to set foot on Irish soil. As their ship neared land, Bran’s men called out to the people on the shore, telling of their adventures…only to learn that they had been gone far longer than they had realised, long enough to fade into the stuff of old stories. One sailor was so alarmed that he leapt off the ship and swam to land, but as soon as he reached it, he was reduced to dust. Bran and his warriors turned their ship around and sailed away, back into the unknowable mists from which they had come, and were not seen again.
These stories vary wildly depending on time and teller. If you know an alternative version, I would love to hear it!
References: Celtic Myth and Legend – Charles Squire (Newcastle Publishing Co., Inc., 1975), https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/tir-na-nog, The Illustrated Encyclopaedia of Fairies – Anna Franklin (Vega, 2002), Mythology: Myths, Legends, & Fantasies – [chief consultant] Dr. Alice Mills (Hodder, 2003)