27th October 2010: Osheen and St Patrick

(A blessing on all those who hear this story, and a blessing on all those who tell it.)

One of my favourite subgenres of Celtic stuff is the stories (recorded by Irish monks between the 7th and the 9th century) of how people from Celtic stories met St Patrick and were either converted or not. I just adore them. There’s something about their worldview that gets something nothing else does. There are ones about the children of Lir, the ones who got turned to swans, and just generally lots of ones about people coming out of magic hills and meeting St Patrick.

My favourite one is about Osheen (Osian, Ossian, Oissan, Oisan, etc, it’s Irish spelling, but “Osheen” is how you say it) the son of Finn, and it’s the end of his story. He’s been in the Otherworld with this woman, and it’s all exactly like any fairy queen and heroic mortal story you ever heard. They met, they fell in love, he went home with her, all was lovely. Only after a while he wants to go home and visit Ireland, and she says, “Well, but though it doesn’t feel that way it’s been hundreds of years, and if your feet touch the soil of mortal lands then those years will fall on you and you’ll die. But if you really want to go, you can go on this magic horse, but mind you don’t get off it.”

So off Osheen goes on her magic horse, and he rides around Ireland and he finds that Finn and his friends are dead or gone, and after a while he meets St. Patrick. And St Patrick tells him about Jesus and asks him to be baptised so he can have eternal life in heaven. And Osheen says “Well, but what about my father Finn then? I don’t dispute the truth of what you’re saying, but Finn died before you got here, so where is he now?”

So St Patrick sighs and he says”I’m sorry to tell you, but Finn is in hell.”

And at that Osheen says “I’d rather be in hell with Finn than in heaven without him,” and he gets off the horse, and all the years fall on him and he crumbles to dust at St Patrick’s feet.

One of the things I very much like about this story is that it was written down by monks, Christian monks, who were probably converted themselves and had to deal with these kinds of questions. And they didn’t write “Oh, all the old heroes coming out of faerie? Yes, they met St Patrick and were baptised, because we want to hit you over the head with how awesome Christianity is!” They wrote Osheen making that difficult choice — and it’s a threefold choice, like the one in Thomas the Rhymer. He could go to heaven, or to hell, or stay on the horse and go back under the hill.

Posted in Human culture, Whimsy