Tuesday, February 26, 2019

The Return of Oisin

The old man with the stick hobbled around the room. 'Mother Bridget's cell,' they had called it, but the old man neither knew nor cared who that woman was. He heard a low, continuous chant of female voices from somewhere nearby, but was too preoccupied with his spectacular fall from grace to listen or admire.

It was a round, stone-walled room, with a fire burning steadily in the middle of the floor. Two wooden chairs faced each other across the hearth. A square window, opposite the door, looked out onto the monastery grounds. Above it was an image of this strange new god - this 'Christ' - who had banished so successfully it seemed, all the honour and respect due to the old man's father, Finn MacCool, and the mighty men of the Fianna, who had rescued Ireland from savages and bandits on countless occasions.

The new god's big brown eyes were intolerable to the old man. He flung his stick at the picture. It cracked against the paintwork and clattered to the floor. Then the door clicked open behind him. He turned and saw a tall woman in a grey alb and red mantle. She shut the door and gazed at the old man with luminous, sea-green eyes. "Oisin," she said in a voice like rushing waves. "Sit down for me please."

Oisn picked up his stick and sat on the chair closest by him. Something deep inside him told him straightaway that this woman had seen into his heart and knew and understood the pain that tore him apart there. Now she sat facing him on the other side of the fire, between Oisin and the picture of Christ. "You are Mother Bridget?" he asked.

"I am," she replied. "And you are Oisin, the son of Finn MacCool, and I believe you when you say that, no matter how many hundreds of years it has been since the Fianna fell. For I can tell by the light in your eyes and the radiance on your brow that you are a poet and a warrior with a profound respect and reverence for holy things and places."

Oisin sighed, leant forward and warmed his hands to the fire, feeling the yearning and the loss well up like a wave within him again. "Tell me your story," Mother Bridget whispered. And Oisin began.

"I am, as you say, Oisin, the son of Finn MacCool, who was Captain of the Fianna and the mighty right arm of the High King of Ireland. I have been told that Finn and the Fianna, including my beloved son Osca, fell four hundred years ago at the Battle of Gavra. Oh how I wish I had fallen there with them and crossed into the Otherworld alongside them instead of with Niamh of the Golden Glory as, in my blindness and infatuation, I did three years ago. At least I thought it was three years ago. But I see now, Mother Bridget, that I was wrong. I am learning the hard way that time flows differently in the Otherworld.

"It was a May morning when I saw her first, on the beach close by my father's stronghold, Almu of the White Walls. We were out hunting, all the chief men of the Fianna, the white hart darting through the trees, and the pack, led by Finn's beloved hunting dogs, Bran and Skolawn, snapping at its heels. Then it was as if the dogs were deceived or took a wrong turn. All of us, men and hounds alike, crashed out of the wood and onto the sands, with the hart gone from sight and a woman of indescribable beauty and light sat astride a magnificent white charger at the point where the sand meets the sea.

"She had long dark hair in waves and eyes like burnished bronze. She was clad in gold and purple and red, and shone from top to toe with a light seven times brighter than that of the sun.

'Greetings, Finn MacCool,' she said in a voice like pealing bells. 'I am Niamh of the Golden Glory, daughter of Bres, King of Tir-na-Nog. The renown of your son, Oisin - his prowess as a fighter and potency as a bard - has reached the shores of the Blessed Realm, and I will have no other for my husband. I am here to take him to be my man and share my bed forever in the Land of the Young.'

"My heart leapt and I felt the call of the Otherworld on me, and knew in that instant that I would go. I must have said something back, but I can't recall what. Doubtless I said I'd go with her, because I remember my father laying his hand on my shoulder and spinning me around so I couldn't see Niamh any more, but only his own face - that craggy, king-like, kind, courageous face. Finn begged, implored, and even commanded me to stay. 'I will never see you again if you go,' he cried. But I paid no heed.

'Surely I will come back,' I said. 'Often and often will I visit.' But I didn't mean it. I didn't care. Finn, Osca and the rest were shadows to me now. Wraiths and ghosts. Only Niamh of the Golden Glory was real.

"So I mounted the horse, who reared, turned, and sped off in one movement, and soon we were airborne, high above the waves and the little green isles of the Western Sea. I lost all track of time, conscious only of the air in my ears, my hands on the horse's neck, and my arms around Niamh's shoulders. Many a strange sight I saw, or thought I saw, as we raced across the sky - palaces of silver and blue, a maiden clutching a bright green apple, children playing shinty in the air. Eventually the sky grew dark and it was night, then grew bright and it was day again. 'Look below,' said Niamh. 'Behold the coast of Tir-na-Nog.'

"The horse touched down on the golden sands and there to greet us were the King and Queen of Tir-na-Nog and a vast retinue of ladies in waiting and men at arms. We were married that night and lived together for three years - as I say, I thought it was three years - in a state of unbounded bliss. My mind and body fizzed with energy and vitality all the time I was there. Everything felt more real, everything meant more - every rock, every stone, every blade of grass. They were harder and truer, more solid and substantial than they had ever been in Ireland. Tir-na-Nog, I was in no doubt, was the real and objective world - tangible and firm - whereas Ireland, where I had lived all the thirty-five years of my life, was like the memory of a dream in my mind, a vague, uncertain realm of shadows and phantoms.

"Then there was Niamh herself. No married couple - past, present or future - could ever have been or could ever be as happy as we were during those years. Which makes it all the stranger then that for no reason I can think of, towards the end of my third year in Tir-na-Nog, the image and remembrance of my father, Finn MacCool, and my brethren in the Fianna began to beat upon my mind and heart. At odd times of day or night I would start to wonder where they were and what they were doing. Now and again, while walking through the woods with Niamh, I imagined I could hear the Fian hunting horn and the baying of Bran and Skolawn.

"The feeling persisted, and at length I asked Niamh if I could visit Ireland for a short while to see my father and friends. She begged and implored me to stay, saying she was sure she would never see me again if I went, but though I loved her deeply the spell of my old life was on me and I was astounded at how deep those Irish roots were in me and how mightily they had returned and how unbreakable my bond was with Finn and the Fianna.

"Eventually Niamh relented and gave me permission to go, saying only that I must promise not to dismount from the white horse at any time during my stay. That seemed an easy enough thing to agree to, so I did. Then I kissed her for the last time, though I did not know that then, before the horse reared and turned, and we were on our way again, over the sea and into the air, the palaces, children and maiden passing us by once more, the horse alighting on the shingly sands of Connaught, and my heart swelling with joy at the knowledge that soon I would drink once more from the great Fian bowl with my father and friends.

"My exaltation was short-lived, however. I led the horse inland, and everything seemed changed. Familiar tracks had vanished and new ones appeared in their stead, but I had no idea where they went, and it took me many days and nights to find my way. The fields were wild and unkempt and the few people I saw seemed small and puny compared to what I recalled of Irish men and women.

"I grew bewildered and perplexed, and desperately so when I came at last to Almu of the White Walls and saw all the stones of that high and noble place lying scattered on the ground and moss and weeds running riot everywhere.

"Something snapped in my mind and I felt like I was going mad. Horror descended on me and I cried out in my desperation, as loudly as I could, for my father, Finn, my son, Osca, and for all the old brotherhood - Keeltan, Connor, Derig, Dearmid and the rest. I even called out to Bran and Skolawn, but neither man nor dog answered and I was left to continue my weary trek around the island, all baffled, bewildered and lost.

"So it was at last that I came here to Kildare and saw a group of men struggling to move a large boulder in the middle of a field. I asked them if they would like a hand and they said yes, even though they looked at me with gaping mouths and amazed expressions like I was one of the Sidhe or the Tuatha de Danaan.

"So I leant forward in the saddle and shifted the boulder with my right hand. But as I did so, the stirrup around my left foot snapped and I tumbled head over heels, fell from the horse and landed flat on my back on the turf.

"In that moment, Mother Bridget, I felt myself as a very old man in mind and body, more ancient by far than anyone who had ever lived before. The horse reared, turned, and sped off towards the coast. He was gone in a flash and I knew then that I had lost everything in an instant - my bride in Tir-na-Nog, my father, my son, and my brothers in arms.

"The villagers crowded around me and helped me to my feet. 'Why it's only an old man,' I heard one say. 'It must have been the sun on that bald pate of his that made us take him for one of the Sidhe.'

"They asked me who I was and I told them the truth. 'I am Oisin, the son of Finn MacCool', and they laughed and told me that the long ride and the sun on my head must have addled my wits, for Finn and his men had fallen more than four hundred years ago. 'How did they die?' I asked.

'Defending the King at the Battle of Gavra', replied an old man with a long white beard. Then a younger fellow with a round, red face spoke up.

'But nowadays,' he said, 'there are many who say that Finn, Oisin and Osca and the rest never existed except in the minds of storytellers and bards. For now Patrick, Columba and Bridget have brought the good news of Jesus Christ to this green isle, and the old gods and heroes no longer hold sway over men's minds.'

'Then shame on Patrick, Columba and Bridget,' I spat, 'and a curse on this Jesus Christ who has trampled over the memory of the finest brotherhood of all the ages. And a pox on every one of you, you litter of small-bodied, small-minded men.

"Their faces darkened and I thought for a moment they were about to hand out a beating, but then another man spoke, clad in grey, with a brown wooden cross around his neck. He looked like one of your men, Mother Bridget. 'It is a strange thing,' he said, 'but the legends tell us that Oisin did not die at the Battle of Gavra. They say that he rode off into the West some years before with a beautiful princess from Tir-na-Nog and never came back, though Finn, Osca, and all the men of the Fianna kept a constant watch for his return.'

'Yes,' I cried. 'That's exactly what happened. And now I have returned. But Finn and Osca are dead, and it's all too late." And I buried my head in my hands and wept.

"When I looked up again there was only the man in grey left. All the others had gone. 'Come, Oisin,' he said softly. 'It is time for you to be seeing Mother Bridget. She will hold your heart in her hands, by the grace which God has given her, and bring peace and healing to your soul.'


Mother Bridget and Oisin stayed silent for a long time. The fire's dancing flames held Oisin's attention, while Mother Bridget watched him carefully. Then he said, "What is that singing, Mother Bridget? This chanting? It has been going on the whole time we have been here."

"That," replied Mother Bridget, "is the perpetual chant, sung all through the day and night by the sisters of this Abbey over the Sacred Flame."

"The Sacred Flame?" said Oisin. "What is that?"

"This site, where we are now, has been a holy place since long before my time and long before yours, Oisin. No-one knows when or how the Sacred Flame came or who bestowed it on the holy men and women of this sanctuary. Some say it was a gift from the Most High Himself or from the Thuatha de Danaan at the very beginning of the world. Would you like to see it, Oisin? It would be good, I feel, for you to spend some time in the presence of something bigger than yourself, something ancient and mysterious which no-one can weigh or measure or explain."

"Yes," said Oisin. "I would like to see it." But he did not move. His eyes remained fixed on the fire. So Mother Bridget leant across the flames and laid her hand on his. Her voice was tender and imploring - imploring as his father's had been when he tried to stop him going to Tir-na-Nog, imploring as Niamh's had been when she begged him to stay in Tir-na-Nog, but where both those voices had called him back in different ways, this voice, Oisin felt, was somehow calling him forward - forward and on - further up and further in to the deep, underlying, still unexplored truth within him and without him - at the core of his being and at the heart of all things.

"Oisin," she said. "Christ is not your enemy. He is your friend, your brother, and the comrade and companion of Finn MacCool, of Osca, of all the Fianna, and of Niamh of the Golden Glory too. The Fianna have their place and Niamh has her place and you have your place and I have my place. Christ is the great Sun around whom we all revolve. This is a wide and spacious universe, Oisin, with many dimensions - wheels within wheels within wheels - all nourished and sustained by the grace and power of Our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the Communion of the Holy Spirit. Come now, my brother. Let us pray for the living and the dead before the Sacred Flame."

Oisin stood up, and his eyes met the picture of Christ he had thrown his stick at earlier.

"You forgot your stick," said Mother Bridget, pointing to the floor.

"I don't need it," said Oisin.

Thoughtfully, he studied the new god's face. It would be many years, if ever, he felt, before he could like that face, let alone love it and make it the centre of his life as Mother Bridget had done. Nothing and no-one could make up for his dreadful double loss, and yet there were clearly good people and good things in this house of the strange new god - the monk who had brought him here and believed in his story; Mother Bridget herself, who also believed in him; the holy women singing their sacred song; and this mysterious flame, of course, which Mother Bridget so very much wanted him to see.

The setting sun arrowed into the chamber, and for a moment all the objects in the room - the picture, the chairs, the stick, the window, the fire, the walls, the floor - glowed and shone with a sharpness and intensity which Oisin had never encountered before, neither in Ireland nor in Tir-na-Nog. It was as if they were on the brink of speech or poised to start moving of their own volition.

Oisin, as long as this revelation lasted, kept his eyes from Mother Bridget. He knew she would be transformed too - transfigured even - and that the sight would be more than he could bear in his current weakened state. Then the sun shifted and the glory passed, but something had changed for Oisin, both within him and without him. Things were different now and would be, he knew, for ever more. For the first time in a long time, he realised, he was looking forward, not back.

"Yes, my sister," he said. "Let us go to the Sacred Flame and pray for those who have gone before us, for those here now, and for those still to come."