Friday, August 19, 2011

An Ascetic Encounter: Oisín the bard and Saint Patrick at the source of the Dodder

For Oisín Heneghan, an exemplary contemporary Oisín

The River Dodder, a significant stretch of water that arises at Kippure in the valley of Glenasmole, Co. Wicklow, travels twenty-six kilometers through the Dublin suburbs before joining its more significant cousin, the River Liffey, at Ringsend.  Together these rivers, along with other lesser streams and brooks, move Dublin’s detritus out to sea.  On its way, the Dodder passes through Templeogue Village, where I grew up, a town which the suburban expansion of Dublin caught up to and washed over in the 1950’s as the city surged in the opposite direction towards Tallaght, and on towards Wicklow, leaving behind alluvial deposits in the form of barely distinguishable estates of semi-detached houses banked up against the cottages, churches, and the forgotten antiquities of much earlier times.  Some mornings queuing for a bus into the city center the sweet smell of pig-shite would catch in the throat, emanating from the little piggery down near the river, down where the village seems a little older, more primordial. 
A seemingly benign and even-tempered river, the Dodder recouped some of its old boisterousness on the 25th of August 1986, when Hurricane Charley (called Charlie in  Dublin) dumped several inches of rain into the catchment.  It was the night of my younger brother Padraic’s twenty-first birthday and our family, along with many others from the village, stood close to the bridge over the Dodder that connected us to the rest of South Dublin, watching the water rise close to the roof of the new bridge.  The Dodder has never been kind to its bridges.  Whole trees were swept along that night.  And over the years the river has carried many an unwary traveler to their watery end during such unexpected swells.

Those turbulent waters that we viewed that night traveled the same course as did the waters where, legend has it, St Patrick Christianized one of the last great Irish pagans, Oisín the bard.  Indeed, many of the tales of the Ossianic cycle, that is, the tales of Finn mac Cumhaill and of his son Oisín, after whom the tales are named, (after whom, indeed, my youngest son is named), take place in Glenasmole.  These are also called the Fenian Cycle after the Fianna, the legendary warriors that Finn led.  The events associated with these stories supposedly took place in the Third Century A.D.  T.W. Rolleston in his influential account in Celtic Myths and Legends (1917) suggested that the modern critical reader “will soon see that it would be idle to seek any basis of fact in this glittering mirage.” [i] Even if one concedes the point to Rolleston, one must also concede that the tales remain instructive to that same critical reader; the folk memory of the Fianna remains strong.


The tale of Oisín’s dialogue with Ireland’s patron saint, St Patrick, is not recorded in all the accounts of the life of that hero.  In sparer retellings of the exploits of Oisín, our hero returned on horseback from Tír na nÓg, the Land of Perpetual Youth, to which he had been led by the fairy Niamh, and found that three hundred years had passed since first he left Ireland.  In the consternation of discovering that all had changed in the homeland, he turned his horse, from which Naimh has cautioned him not to dismount, to return to Tír na nÓg, but, alas, he paused to help some men shift a boulder (he was moved to pity by the puniness of the men of Erin at the time of his return) and in stooping to help them his saddle strap broke and he fell.  On hitting the soil of Ireland he turned to dust.  In more embellished versions, such as Rolleston’s, Oisín’s demise was not so swift.  After falling, Oisín rapidly ages, catching up with his absent centuries, and the mystified throng tell him that Finn and the Fianna, those legendary warriors, his former brethren, “with their feasting and hunting and songs of war and of love, have no such reverence among us as the monks and virgins of Holy Patrick” (p275). They bring Oisín to Patrick, and yet the patron saint of the land is pleasant enough to him, bidding his scribes write down the “memories of the heroes that Oisín has known, and of the joyous and free life they had led in the woods and glens of Erin, [so that they] should never be forgotten among men.” (p276).    Oisin

Many of the versions of the Oisín story are told from the perspective of this dialogue with St Patrick.  For instance, in the 12th or 13th century Acallam an Senórach (The Colloquy of the Ancients) the encounter is featured, though the more loquacious old Fenian, Caílte, dominates that text.  An influential version of the encounter, this time starring Oisín, is W B Yeat’s The Wanderings of Oisín (1889).  Drawing upon older material, such as Mícheál Coimín’s Irish-language version Laoi Oisín i dTír na nÓg (The Lay of Oisín in the Land of Youth), composed in 1750 or thereabouts, and perhaps Aubrey de Vere’s 1884 Oisín the Bard, and St Patrick, Yeats heightens the tension between the old pagan order and the new Christian dispensation in the land[ii].  This tension is not just between apparently incommensurable metaphysical beliefs, but between two ways of being in the world.  St Patrick and his entourage expected their rewards in an afterlife, nevertheless Oisín’s world abuts against the world of the Sidhe – associated with the dwelling of fairy-like beings, a hidden world into which the Tuatha Dé Danann are said to have withdrawn after their defeat by mortals, and from which they can influence the affairs of people (recall, for example, the Banshee – woman of the Sídhe who comes foretelling Death).  This is a world apart, terrifying and spellbinding at once, in the way the heaven and hell might also be. Ascetics0001

Much more can be said about the commonalities and differences implicated in the metaphysical commitments of our conversation partners; what is clear is that the manner in which they conducted their affairs was dramatically at odds with one another.  Oisín opens his account with the memory that on the day he meets Naimh: “Caoilte, and Conan, and Finn were there,/When we followed a deer with our baying hounds.”  Friends and father, out on the hunt.  The Fianna were no mere nature contemplatives, they are intimately, one might say ecologically, involved with the wild world: killing, eating, and celebrating nature.  Though these were agricultural times the Fianna seemed to have been more hunters than farmers in their sensibilities.  With his bride Naimh in Tír na nÓg, Oisín dances with the Sídhe: “The dance wound through the windless woods;/The ever-summered solitudes;/Until the tossing arms grew still/Upon the woody central hill…”  In their post-frenzy exhaustion, and presumably to cast a barb at St Patrick, Oisín reports that “…gathered in a panting band,/We flung on high each waving hand,/And sang unto the starry broods./… 'You stars,/Across your wandering ruby cars/Shake the loose reins: you slaves of God./He rules you with an iron rod,/He holds you with an iron bond,/Each one woven to the other,/Each one woven to his brother/Like bubbles in a frozen pond…”  In contrast to the God’s iron bond, Oisín says “But we in a lonely land abide/Unchainable as the dim tide,/With hearts that know nor law nor rule,/And hands that hold no wearisome tool,/Folded in love that fears no morrow,/Nor the grey wandering osprey Sorrow.”

In other accounts of Oisín and the Fianna the alignment between the old Irish pagans and nature is even more emphatically expressed.   Traditionally, Oisín’s mother is the deer Saeve.  This explains the meaning of the name Ois-in, translated as little fawn.  James Stephens gives my favorite version of the story of Oisín’s remarkable origins in his Irish Fairy Tales, where the telling is a beautiful love story of Finn (Fionn) and Saeve, a celebration of the hunt, an evocation of Irish natural history, and of the bond between an Irish hero and his deer-son[iii].  In the order of Finn’s affections Caelte mac Ronán and the other Fenian champions came in third; before them came his beloved dogs Bran and Sceólan and their whelps, the lords of the chase.  First in Finn’s affection is the boy Oisín – that’s how much this hunter, this ecological hero, loved his son, placing him above the hounds.  In Stephens’ version of the story the boy Oisín has but hazy memories of his earliest days; he reminisces to Fionn, his father, and Caelte (Caílte) (who later, as we have seen, becomes, along with Oisín, the last living Fenian). “I used to live” he says “in a wide, beautiful place.  There were hills and valleys there, and woods and streams, but in whatever direction I went I came always to a cliff, so tall it seemed to learn against the sky, and so straight that even a goat would not have imagined to climb it.”

Though Yeat’s Patrick is amiable enough, there is nevertheless some testiness when it comes to considering the matter of the Fianna’s ultimate fate.  St Patrick counted them among the condemned.  Utilizing the frequent rumblings of the Irish skies St Patrick breaks into Oisín’s reminiscences of his licentious times with the Sídhe claiming that “the skies/Are choked with thunder, lightning, and fierce wind,/For God has heard, and speaks His angry mind..”  Oisín tartly retorts, “Saint, do you weep? I hear amid the thunder/The Fenian horses; armour torn asunder;/Laughter and cries.”  Oisín saves his most biting comments for the way of life chosen by Patrick and his monks.  Here’s the contrast: “O Patrick! for a hundred years/The gentle Niamh was my wife;/But now two things devour my life;/The things that most of all I hate:/Fasting and prayers.”
It is precisely on the question of Christianity’s ascetic practice that Oisín diverges most pronouncedly from the new ways.  Aubrey de Vere’s Oisín the Bard, and St Patrick (1884) illustrates Oisín’s contempt” “Patrick, thy brethren's songs are naught!/Thin wails from breasts ill-fed:/Nor valour yet, nor kindness throve/On lentils and hard bread./"Their songs rouse none to gen'rous rage:/All Lent they seemed to flow/From hearts of hapless men that sinned/Some great sin long ago.”  The cure that Oisín suggested for the pinched lives of the monks is this: "Patrick, I give thee counsel good,/Since good thou art:-Each day/Feed thrice thy saints with flesh and wine:/Then lock them up to pray!”  What could be better than a well-fed and well-liquored monk at prayer!  

At the end of Yeat’s account, Oisín defiantly declares: “I will go to Caoilte [Caílte], and Conan, and Bran, Sceolan, Lomair,/And dwell in the house of the Fenians, be they in flames or at feast.”  In more typical (though more implausible, or so it seems to me) retellings, the outcome of Oisín’s and Patrick’s colloquy is the conversion of the former by the latter. The dialogue takes place in Glenasmole and the baptism occurs, in at least one version I have heard, at the source of the River Dodder (though I have not been able to confirm a textual source for this).   A delicious further embellishment of the story comes from An Craoibhín (nom de plume of Douglas Hyde, Ireland’s first president), where he recounts a story he heard in Gort, Co. Galway, in 1898 where the teller reported that “St. Patrick had a long spear and an iron spike on the top of it, and when he was baptizing him the spike went down through Oisín’s foot. [gus nuair bhi se 'gha bhaisteadh chuaidh an spice sios tre chois Oisín.] And when St. Patrick observed it he asked him why he had not told him, Oisín said that he thought it was [part] of the baptism.”[iv]

We might say that by the time St Patrick was done with the old bard Oisín, he had accepted all aspects of the ascetic life: prayer, fasting, and harshest bodily mortification.  


This then was the river that surged tumultuously past us that August night: a river tinctured with blood, newly Christianized, flowing from the feet of an old pagan bard.  Rain poured upon the valley of Glenasmole during Hurricane Charley and swelled that stream till it roared downhill towards Dublin, through countryside and towns which bore all the evidence of the St Patrick’s victory.  Where our family stood, close by the old Austin Clarke Bridge over the Dodder (eponymously named for the poet whose house stood there on the banks), we were yards away from the piggery and from Templeogue Village center.  The village’s name in Irish is Teach Mealóg (the house or church of Mel), named after a church built there in the 13th century after one of Patrick’s contemporaries St Mel.  According to tradition, St Mel was St Patrick’s nephew.  Before this time the district around Dodder a little south of where we stood was “a hive of monasteries and hermitages.”[v]  Monks busy with the fasting, and prayer, anchored to one place.

There were eight of us, my parents and their six children.  Our daily habits, for the most part, bore the mark of being Patrick’s people, not Oisín’s.  A life of moderate prayer (daily Angelus and Rosary), of Friday fasting, of some mortification (at least that was part of the callous regimen provided at the local national school back then).  Though we had all as a family knelt down in the evening for the daily rosary, that time was passing.  I had shortly before stopped attending mass and, newly-minted Darwinian that I was, I declared no use for God, and no use for an afterlife.  That might have been the last time we were all together – months later I left for New York and though I came back again to the Dodder Valley for several years, by that time my brothers and sisters had started to move – we are now scattered around US, Europe, and other parts of Ireland.

A version of this piece originally appeared at

[i] T. W. Rolleston, Celtic Myths and Legends. Dover (1990)
[ii] Russell K. Alspach provides a fairly extensive collection of possible sources for Yeat’s poem (indicating in some cases where “Yeats has taken passage after passage…with but little change”), in his essay “Some Sources of Yeats's The Wanderings of Oisín”, PMLA, Vol. 58, No. 3 (Sep., 1943), pp. 849-866.
[iii] James Stephens. Irish Fairy Tales. London: Macmillan and Co., 1920.
[iv] An Craoibhín, Sgéal ar Oisín agus na Fiantaibh: Béaloideas, Iml. 1, Uimh 3 (Jun., 1928), pp. 219-222
[v] Myles V. Ronan, Tobar Moling and Templeogue; Dublin Historical Record, Vol. 5, No. 2 (Dec., 1942 - Feb., 1943), pp. 73-74

No comments:

Post a Comment