For ages past, the country people of Ireland derived great pleasure from gathering around the fireside at night and listening to the lays and prose stories of the Fianna. The Fianna were said to be a standing army under the High Kings, Conn Céadcathach, Art Aonair, and Cormac Mac Airt, but they were destroyed at the Battle of Gabhra in the reign of Cairbre Lifeachair. Fionn Mac Cumhaill was their most famous chief, and Oisín was one of his sons.
One day when the remnants of the Fianna, after the Battle of Gabhra, were hunting by Loch Léin in Kerry, it is claimed that there came, riding from the West on a magic horse (to which land and sea were alike), Niamh Cinn Óir, daughter of the King of Tír na nÓg (The Land of Youth). She had fallen in love with Oisín, and had come seeking him as her husband. Oisín consented to go with her, and they lived happily together in Tír na nÓg for two hundred years. Three hundred years are put in the mouth of Oisín in the poem “Oisín’s Lay on Tír na nÓg”, but that does not agree with the dates given in the Annals of the Kingdom of Ireland. Of course, one could forgive Oisín his confusion, as he was an old, addled man when he dictated his poems to Brógán, St Patrick’s scribe. Oisín eventually returned to
Ireland on a visit, had an accident in Gleann an Smóil near Dublin, fell off the magic horse and, on contact with the soil of Ireland was transformed into an ancient, spent, blind man. Patrick and his company came by in a short time, took the piteous old warrior into their care and got the lays from him before he died as a Christian.
I fell under the spell of the lore of the Fianna when I was in secondary school between 1952 and 1957. We had a little red book Filíocht Fiannaíochta (Educational Company of Ireland, 1954), edited by An Seabhac (Pádraig Ó Siochfhradha). I thought that the poems in it were beautiful beyond compare. I devoured them avidly and my love for them has endured ever since. A few years after I left school, graduated as an engineer and embarked on my career as lecturer and professor of engineering, I had the luck to come upon a large tome, Laoithe na Féinne, also under the editorship of An Seabhac, published by the Folklore Society of Ireland in 1941. In that book I found a rich harvest of additional poems, along with fuller versions of some which had been abbreviated in the schoolbook.
It is from the two books mentioned above that I took the poems in this collection. I have three other lovely volumes of lays of the Fianna, which were given to me as presents by my son, Niall, over the years. They are Duanaire Fhinn (Irish Texts Society, 1904, 1933 and 1954). This collection was put together for Captain Somhairle Mac Dónaill in Louvain in Belgium in the seventeenth century. Although I love that collection too, I did not take anything from it on this occasion.
Of course, we don’t really know if Oisín ever lived, although the Four Masters, who wrote the Annals of the Kingdom of Ireland, were in no doubt about his father, Fionn—Finn Ua Baisccne as they called him when recording his death in 283 a.d. If Oisín lived, we have no idea whether he was a poet. All we know for certain about the lays is that it was Mícheál Ó Coimín from County Clare who wrote “Oisín’s lay on Tír na nÓg” in the middle of the eighteenth century and it was myself who wrote “Fionn’s vision at Domhnach Broc” in 2004.
I did some light editing on the Irish versions of the lays in a few places, to
remove some archaisms, for example “úirlis ceoil” in place of “ábha ciúil”
in the lay “Ceolta na Féinne”. Then I made lyrical translations into English
(although that is treason, according to the Italians!), in an attempt to share
my joy with those who are not fluent in Irish. Tim Halpin, while he was
a PhD student in Engineering at University College Dublin, agreed to
illustrate the book for me. There are also a few photographs here of places
mentioned in the lays, or reputed to have been associated with Óisín.
I hope that the readers will enjoy these lays of Oisín and my attempts to bring them into English.
Annraoi de Paor