The most popular post in Ferrebeekeeper’s history was about leprechauns. Thanks to popular folklore (and marketing shenanigans), leprechauns are currently imagined as small drunk men in Kelly green frockcoats who sell sweetened cereal. Yet the silly little men come from a deep dark well of legends which reaches far into the pre-Christian era. The really ancient stories of Irish myth are ineffable and haunting: they stab into the heart like cold bronze knives.
Once there was a hero-bard, Oisín, who performed numerous deeds of valor and fought in many savage battles. Oisín was mortal and he lived in Ireland long before Christianity came with its doctrine of a blissful fantasy afterlife. To Oisín’s mind, to die was to cease being forever–except perhaps in songs and ambiguous stories. Yet some things are more important than death, and Oisín was always brave and loyal (although since he was also a poet he did tend to play moving laments upon his harp).
One day, as he hunted in the greenwood, Oisín was spied by Niamh. Some say she was the daughter of the queen of the ocean and others claim she was a fairy princess. Whatever the case, she was one of the Aes Sidhe, an immortal being who was merely passing through Ireland. When she saw Oisín, she recognized the endless sadness of mortalkind and the doom all men bear, but she also saw his noble heart, his loyalty, and his courage. Unlike the deathless men of fairykind his bravery was real. After all, what meaning does bravery have when there are no stakes?
Niamh revealed herself to Oisín: she was the most beautiful woman he had ever laid eyes on. She had hair like dancing fire and eyes like emeralds and the stain of age was nowhere upon her since she was from a land beyond the shadow of decay. Niamh offered Oisín an apple and then she offered him more. The two fell in love.
Niamh had a white stallion who could gallop upon the waves of the Western Sea. Together the two mounted the horse and they rode upon the whitecaps into the sunset until they came to her homeland, Tír na nÓg, the land of the forever young. There among the perfumed gardens and unearthly music, the lovers lived forever afterwards in perfect happiness…
Except that Oisín was not perfectly happy. His heart was loyal and even among the wonders of fairyland he began to pine for his family. For three years he stayed in Niamh’s lovely arms, but more and more he begged her to be allowed one last trip home. In the thrall of love’s enchantment he had left his family and his knights behind. He needed to say his farewells so that he could stay forever with Niamh without regrets.
Reluctantly Niamh lent her stallion to Oisín. As she bathed her lover in kisses, she made him promise that no matter what, he would not step off the horse. One day only would he tarry ahorse in Ireland to say his valedictions and explain himself, then he would ride the tireless steed back across the sea to Otherland and Niamh. Oisín rode east, but when he reached Eire, everything was strange: new villages had grown on the coast and peculiar priests passed among the people waving crosses. His town was alien and he knew no one. Among a field of hoary lichstones he remembered an ancient myth and realized the terrible truth—for every year he spent Tír na nÓg, a hundred had passed in the mortal realm. Everyone he knew was dead and gone. In a fit of horror and grief he tumbled from the white horse. As he hit the ground he immediately began to wither from the long years. The village folk were amazed at the howling old man who stumbled crying among them. As they watched, Oisín aged before their eyes into a wizened corpse and then into dust which blew away to the sea.