DIFFICULT RETURNS: A thousand of miles away from Dublin, in a research station in Costa Rica, a Japanese anthropologist and I – an Irish ecologist – sat in the station's dining hall. It was shortly after the birth of my second son who had been encumbered with the name Oisín Odysseus, reflecting the migratory Irish and Greek tendencies of his parents. The caterwauling of howler monkey’s announced the onset of the afternoon rains, and we exchanged these folk stories.
I offered this one:
After being vanquished at the battle of Gabhra, several of the legendary warriors of the Fianna were hunting together along the shore of Lough Lena. The company saw a beautiful woman galloping upon the waves towards them. Niamh of the Golden Hair chooses Oisín, the bardic son of Finn, as a husband. Oisín, enchanted, mounts the horse and she carries him back across the waves to Tir na nÓg, the Land of Perpetual Youth. Oisín meets there with many adventures. Alas, there is no paradise conceivable that maintains our attention eternally, so after the passage of time he expresses a desire to visit home. Seeing his sorrow and pointing out that many centuries had passed since he came, Niamh relents and lends him her horse to return to Ireland. She instructs him that he must not dismount the horse and that he should return when he understands that what she tells him is true. He rides off across the foamy waves. He sees for himself the truth that everything is changed – his family and his friends are long dead. He turns the horse to return to his bride. As he does so he notices an elderly woman struggling with a cord of wood. Bending down from his saddle to assist her with this task he falls off the horse to the ground. Back on native soil he ages all of those years that he has magically evaded.
My colleague shares the following:
Urashima rescues a turtle from the taunting of children. The rescued turtle turns out to be Oto, the beautiful daughter of the God of the Sea. He marries her and they return to the palace beneath the waves. Time passes by and though Urashima loves his wife he dreams of his parents, and frets that they will die alone. The princess learns of his sadness and bids him return home. On parting she gives him a gift, wrapped in a beautiful lacquered box, though she instructs him that it is a gift better left uninspected. If he should open it he will never be able to return to her. Urashima returns home, and discovers that the three years spent beneath the waves were in fact three centuries, and that he has become a legend, and his people long dead. He has no instructions on how to return to his bride, and thinking that the gift may contain these vital instructions he unwraps the gift. A mist arises from the box and he hears the voice of his beloved receding. Urashima aged three centuries in an instant.
Are there lessons to be learned from the stories of Oisín and Urishima?
Two island nations, one clear message: returning home after a foreign sojourn is difficult. In both of these stories the young men are lured away by a princess – the thrall of tupping royalty must be universal. They return – no doubt the prospect of recounting their feats abroad is integral to home’s gravitational pull. However, nothing is as it was before. In the case of Oisín the people are of a diminished stature compared to former times, and alas for both travelers their families are now dead. Yes, you may leave, but do not expect home to remain unchanged. When the migrant returns it is not just he who instantaneously ages: he must witness the tumult of change in his native land telescoped into the moments of the return. In the earliest version of the Oisín story that had been narrated to us at National School we learned that after toppling from Niamh’s magical horse Oisín withered and was turned to dust. In this more emphatic version a return is thus precluded.
This piece of mine was on 3quarksdaily earlier this week.