Oisin and Patrick

For Saint Patrick’s Day, I thought I would share a reprint of a favorite post, relating 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


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?


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

4 thoughts on “Oisin and Patrick

  1. This is an amazing poem. It speaks to me of mystery, a hidden history and a possible future golden time when our mouths speak pearls. I wish that was true now.
    It also takes me back to our trip to Ireland where we wondered and entered passage caves which may be the fodder for recent dreams and imaginal journeys of revelation. Or maybe it’s just in the collective imagination. Thank you. Can’t believe I missed this one earlier.

    1. Thanks so much, Nancy! I wrote several poems about Irish mythology right after I went to Ireland with my mother, my Aunt Eleanore, and my cousin Joanne, way back in 1985. We found cousins in Donegal. When were you and Paul there?

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