The life of St. Patrick is more story than history, with myths and legends weaving and twisting their way through his deeds like Celtic knotwork through the Book of Kells, intersecting fact and fantastical and the truthful with the truth. One of these tales features an extraordinary debate between the holy patron of Ireland and an ancient hero of Ireland, where the pagan past comes into sharp contact and contrast with the Christian present. It is a Rip-Van-Winkle-ish episode of Irish folklore that weighs what has been lost against what has been gained and gives the old voices of times long gone an enduring chance to challenge the theology St. Patrick brought to Erin’s Isle.
The tale begins long, long ago when Fionn mac Cumhail, the giant, ruled over his mighty band of hunter-soldiers, the Fianna, keeping the peace in Ireland against evil fairies and wicked kings. His son was named Oisín, as great a poet as he was a warrior, who had golden hair like his father’s and eyes like a deer’s. His reputation spread throughout Ireland and beyond as the bravest among the Fianna.
One day, Oisín was hunting in the forest when he came across a startling creature—a woman with the head of a pig. When he commanded the monster to speak, she cried that a druid spell had cursed her, and that her redemption could only be secured if a man would agree to marry her. Oisín, being of noble heart and the most generous of all the Fianna, proclaimed at once that he would be her husband just to free her from such anguish.
At his word, the girl’s ugliness melted away and she became exceedingly beautiful. Oisín rejoiced in wonder as she told him that her name was Niamh, daughter of the king of Tír na nÓg, the land of everlasting youth. Oisín vowed to make his home with her, his shimmering bride, in that land though it lay far from his home.
Though warned by Fionn mac Cumhail that should he go to Tír na nÓg he would never see the Fianna again, Oisín assured his father that he would not be gone long. He went with Naimh on her magical horse over the ocean to the land of youth, where Oisín was given a royal welcome by the king.
So began life for Oisín in Tír na nÓg where time stood still: fruit always hung from the trees, no rain fell but softly at night when all were asleep, the rivers ran with fish, and the woods were alive with game. Oisín and Niamh lived in peace, had three children, and were completely happy and hale. The memory of Fionn mac Cumhail and the Fianna and Ireland herself slipped from Oisín in his easy life at Tír na nÓg.
But then, one day, he suddenly remembered it all, and wondered how long it was since he went away. Oisín told his wife that he would return home to see his father and brother warriors, and though Niamh initially dissuaded him, she finally relented, but gave Oisín a new warning. He was to travel on her white horse back to Ireland, but if ever he set foot upon the soil there, he would never be able to return to her. Oisín gave his promise never to dismount and flew off across the sea back to Ireland.
A New Ireland and an Old Oisín
Oisín returned to Ireland only to find Ireland changed. The forests were gone. The people were strange, small, and more numerous. The buildings were stark and straggling. The old pagan shrines were broken, and new ones stood tall at the crossroads. The adventures and feastings of olden days had shifted to industry and piety.
Oisín asked after his father and the Fianna, only to be called a madman for seeking after old legends. Oisín lamented to find his people forgotten and his ancestral home nothing more than ruined stones with grass growing between them. He understood that the Ireland he knew was lost to him and that he had been in Tír na nÓg far longer than he had realized.
As he rode along despondently, he saw a group of farmers struggling to move a boulder from a field. Generosity was the badge of the Fianna, and Oisín rode where the men were to help, astonished at their weakness. He reached down and tossed the stone aside, but, as he did so, the girth of the saddle broke and Oisín fell to the ground. Instantly, the hero’s body withered and twisted as all the years gone by seized upon him. Niamh’s horse reared and ran away, leaving Oisín alone in all the world.
Oisín Meets St. Patrick
Having seen the strange young hero shrivel before their eyes into a feeble old man, the farmers brought Oisín to a monastery where lived the wisest man in Ireland, a man named Patrick. Patrick had brought the Roman religion to Ireland, and under his guidance and teaching, the land had changed its aspect and the people had converted from darkness to light, turning chieftains into monks and druids into priests.
Patrick welcomed the wizened Oisín warmly according to the rule of his order. After questioning him, Patrick knew him to be the ancient son of Fionn mac Cumhail, the warrior poet, and the last of the Fianna. He wondered greatly at such a guest from the mists of the past and cared for Oisín with utmost kindness and honor.
Seeing the old man lost in sadness that his world was gone, Patrick invited him to convert to the Faith in Christ, where Oisín might find freedom from sin and the salvation of eternal life. Oisín countered roughly with the views he yet held from the pagan days, even as he succumbed to the weakness of age, and entered into a debate with the saint that the poets have sung of for ages.
The Great Debate
Patrick urged his friend Oisín to rouse himself and learn to sing the Psalms. Oisín replied that his strength was gone not due to lack of singing, but lack of the companionship of his brethren, the Fianna. Patrick countered that such music was better than any Oisín ever shared with an army on a hill, for it was the music of heaven.
“Will I see my hound in heaven?” Oisín asked. “Or any of my father’s good hounds?”
“No,” Patrick answered, “animals have no immortal souls and so do not go to God’s house.”
Oisín said he could not think much of a God who would not abide the hounds of the heroes. He asked if Fionn mac Cumhail and the rest of the Fianna would be in heaven waiting for him. Patrick shook his head grimly, saying that they were men who knew not the Lord and who gloried in battle and blood, and, for the harm they did to others in the darkness of disbelief, could not be in heaven.
“If they are not in heaven,” said Oisín, “Where are my father and the Fianna?”
“They are in hell,” said Patrick, “and Oisín, it is there you will go, too, if you do not convert.”
And Patrick told Oisín about the fiery lake, about the torments, about the demons, and about the worm that never dies—a terrible place to languish for all eternity, and Oisín must do all in his power to escape those fires. But Oisín did not agree. He said to Patrick that no devil or demon could keep Fionn mac Cumhail and the Fianna under bonds. As his sadness and spirit rose, Oisín demanded to know how any God could excel Fionn mac Cumhail for goodness.
“How could it be that God or his priests could be better men thin Finn, the King of the Fianna, a generous man without crookedness. If there was a place above or below better than the Heaven of God, it is there Finn would go, and all that are with him of his people. You say that a generous man never goes to the hell of pain; there was not one among the Fianna that was not generous to all. Ask of God, Patrick, does He remember when the Fianna were alive, or has He seen east or west any man better than themselves in their fighting. The Fianna used not to be saying treachery; we never had the name of telling lies. By truth and the strength of our hands we came safe out of every battle. There never sat a priest in a church, though you think it sweet to be singing psalms, was better to his word than the Fianna, or more generous than Finn himself…”
“Stop your talk, you withered, witless old man; it is my King that made the Heavens, it is He that gives blossom to the trees, it is He made the moon and the sun, the fields and the grass.”
“If it is true what you say,” Oisín continued, “that your God is so unfriendly that He does not offer hospitality to any but those who obey His rules and would turn out great and good men like my father and the Fianna, then my father and the Fianna are certainly in hell. But I tell you now, they have either overthrown the devil and are ruling there themselves or have escaped long since and are elsewhere. And it is there, wherever they may be, that I am bound. I will go to no house where my father is not welcome.”
And Oisín of the Fianna thanked Patrick for his benevolence and breathed his last and went to find his friends.
The Debate Goes On
The argument of Oisín and St. Patrick is one that shows the fall of the pagan world even as it embodies an indomitable Celtic spirit that paved the way for the fullness of truth, a spirit nurtured and admired by Ireland’s Christian conqueror, St. Patrick. Their storied debate stands as a reminder that “it is only Christian men guard even heathen things,” as Chesterton said. The compassion of the Church can heed the pagan wisdoms and honor their heroes as a strange race of pagan saints, even as Oisín came back to Ireland from the strange pagan heaven of Tír na nÓg.
These broken heathenish fragments can shake folks to face fairy miracles in the context of a truth wilder than any myth, and thus corroborate the mysteries of faith. The fabric of reality is comprised by the upright human warps that walk the earth and the interweaving phantasmal wefts that float and flit through and throughout, binding all together—and few legends bind this mystery of beings and their tensions together as strikingly as the tale of the dialogue between the hero Oisín and St. Patrick. The world may be made new again in Christ, but the old world will ever retain its lingering, lusty heroes and their testy objections.
The legend of Oisín and his refusal to convert to the faith of St. Patrick is one that defies the tests of time even as its hero did because it presents a wide and independent worldview. It is a story that conjures up one of the many ghosts of Ireland, giving its hearers a sense of the old heroes of Erin’s Isle and for the new hero who, at long last, drove the snakes from her shores, even as the echoes of ancient arguments rang from the rocks, and ring even to this day in mutual rejection and respect.
Author’s note: The principal source for the story Oisín and St. Patrick comes from Lady Augusta Gregory [trans.], “Oisin and St. Patrick”, in Gods and Fighting Men , London: Slaney Press 1994), pp.293-309. You can find the text by clicking here.