Oisin and Patrick: an Irish Tale

For Saint Patrick’s Day, I thought I would share a bit of Irish history (sometimes called mythology).  This poem tells the story of Patrick’s encounter with a poet named Oisin.  Oisin (pronounced O-sheen) was the son of Finn MacUail (pronounced M’Cool) who was a great warrior.  Oisin was the poet who recorded his father’s great triumphs.

Oisin fell in love with a woman of the Tuatha de Dannan, also called the Shi—whom we would call fairies.  He journeyed with her and they were married in the land of Shi.  There he lived an idyllic existence for three weeks.  Then he told his beloved wife he wanted to return to the land of Mortals where he might create a poem for his family and friends so they might know of the wonders of the Shi.  She gave him a horse to ride and bade him not to get off of it, lest he be unable to return to her.  They parted and Oisin returned to his homeland.

The poet was surprised to find nothing familiar.  Here the story becomes unclear.  Some say he got off the horse to help someone in need; others say he fell off the horse.  As soon as his foot touched the ground, Oisin aged 300 years.  For each week in the land of the Shi, a century had passed in the land of the Mortals.  In that time many changes had been wrought in Ireland.  Patrick had arrived with his new God.  But unlike many other Christians, Patrick was eager to learn of Irish history and urged Oisin to tell him his poems and stories.

By the way, Saint Patrick is the patron saint of the Sacramento diocese where I live here in California.  But that’s another story.

Dialogue:  Oisin and Patrick


One:  Oisin

Look at my hands.

This morning my fist

was powerful and strong.

now it is a withering knot

like the crisp dry balls

that fall in autumn

from the plane tree.

My skin is loose

heavy and thick;

it hangs on these claw-like

fingers, brittle they are

like the hollow bones of birds

that once I carved

into a whistle or a flute.

On cool May evenings after battle

we would sit at our camp

scent of peat as it caught spark

tickling our nostrils.

One would bring out the harp,

another the flute.

I would speak the rhymes:

the history of our Mothers and Fathers.


Three hundred years, they tell me

and men have learned new ways

to fight the land.

Stones, stones

dug, wedged, pried loose

flung into the lakes of Connemara

stacked into walls

that crisscross the Burren.

But will they stop your horse

if he decides to wander?


And who is this man

this British man

who speaks of a new god?

He gives me boiled potatoes

grilled salmon

urges me to remember

to remember and to speak.

But will my words live on

in another language?


Two:  Patrick

On sunny July afternoons

when a warm and rainy spring

has already coaxed thirsty seed

to sprout a velvet cape

of tall green barley,

then we will have our leisure

to stretch on the banks

of a brown trout river

to watch a silver line

bobbing in the water,

then we will have time

to teach the children

to write and to paint

to remember the stories

you tell me today.


Later in yellow fields

quick fingers will break hard grain

into an upturned drum.

We will hum a song

of your God

and of mine

(who are really the same)

and offer bread

for the blessings

of memory.


But a June may come when the sky is dark,

cold winds may weigh the barley down

in the fields of Boyne

and delicate stalks will be crushed.

Even rock wears away:

the walls of our stone cottage may chip and crack;

the sea spray may leave our table

gritty with salt.

Then we must whisper your rhymes

in the darkness of secret caves

and like a grain of sand

planted in a blue gray shell

your words will form pearls

in the ears of dejected people

your poems will be emeralds

in the palm

of a sorrowing land.


Photo by Iswanto Arif on Unsplash.

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