Tír na nÓg: An Irish Invitation to Paradise
Paradise sounds wonderful, doesn’t it? Haven’t we all wished we could escape to a place where all worries vanished, a land where our every desire was fulfilled? Humans seem to yearn for this. Another human desire is to stay forever young. I come from Florida where Ponce de Leon purported to have found the Fountain of Youth. The fountain exists. I’ve been there. The water smells like rotten eggs. Does it grant eternal youth? Spoiler alert: Ponce de Leon is dead.
Still, we humans go on seeking eternal youth and dreaming of paradises. Today’s post is about the mythical Irish paradise of Tir na nÓg. The name translates to Land of the Young. It is located in the Otherworld, the faerie realm beyond the veil. And, as the Irish hero, Oisín, can tell you, humans shouldn’t go there. Or, at least, they should plan never to return home.
I got thinking about Tir na nÓg this past week after watching a YouTube reaction video of the Celtic Woman song, “Tir na nÓg.” I already knew the song. In fact, it’s on my Spotify “Liked Songs” list. Written by Hartmut Krech, Mark Nissen, Lukas Hainer, and Johannes Braun, it’s a contemporary Irish song with a lively melody and engaging lyrics written mostly in English. I was interested in hearing what the husband and wife who did the reaction video thought of it. It wasn’t the husband’s cup of tea. The wife, whose grandmother is from Ireland, loved “the Irish stuff” in the chorus. I was disappointed that neither seemed to take any notice of the wonderful and clever “stuff” going on in the English verses.
So, for today’s post, I want to share with you a bit about Tir na nÓg the place then discuss the song’s lyrics and why the narrator’s human lover should avoid her invitation to “come with me to Tir na nÓg.
An Otherworldly Paradise
Located to the west of the human realm, Tir na nÓg is a place where time doesn’t exist. It is exquisitely beautiful with deep forests, flower-filled meadows, and a plain filled with bees. In addition, there are cities with buildings made of precious metals. In the center of Tir na n’Óg stands a large, ancient tree. Some say it is the Tree of Life. Birds fill its branches and sing enchanting melodies.
In another area of this paradise is a fountain or sacred pool filled with salmon. The water is encircled by hazel trees. The salmon eat nuts that fall from the trees and, according to Irish folklore, anyone who eats a salmon from this pool will be filled with wisdom. The legendary Irish hero, Fionn MacCumhaill (aka Finn McCool), is said to have gained his greatness this way. To read his story, see my post, “Celtic Tree Signs: The Wise Hazel.” Tir na nÓg is inhabited by the graceful, beautiful, and eternally young Tuatha de Danann whom humans call faeries. They are magical and—be warned—capricious.
Although it is on the other side of the veil between the worlds, humans can reach Tir na nÓg through one of a few different ways. In Celtic folklore, the Otherworld is said to co-exist with the human realm, but in another plane. It is hidden from human sight by a veil. There are areas where that veil is thin and can be passed through. One such place is caves.
So, humans can travel to (or accidentally wander into) the Otherworld by going through a waterfall at the opening of a cave. They also can stumble into Tir na nÓg by walking through fog or mist, especially in dim, wooded areas. Folklore also tells of humans sailing there in an enchanted boat or riding there on a faerie’s horse (sometimes the horse is a faerie). The Irish hero, Oisín, whom I mentioned early reached Tir na nÓg, this last way, on the back of a horse ridden by Niamh, daughter of the king of Tir na nÓg.
Niamh and Oisín
The story of these two lovers is one of the great love stories of Irish mythology. Unfortunately, although they run off to fairyland together, they don’t get a happy-ever-ever ending. The short version is that one day, while on patrol for the Fianna, the elite guard of the High King of Ireland, Oisín encounters Niamh, who entreats him to help her. She promises him wonderful things in return. Persuaded, he gets on her horse and rides with her to Tir na nÓg. He helps her, gets the promised reward, and they fall in love.
After about three years with her (from Oisín’s point of view), he decides he wants to visit his family and friends back in Ireland. Niamh doesn’t want him to go, but he promises to return. Upon entering the human world, he discovers centuries have passed and he dies of old age. He should have listened to Niamh—or never have gone with her in the first place. To read a fuller version of the story, click here.
The Voice of the Enchantress
After reading Oisín and Niamh’s story, you can see that following a Faerie to Tir na nÓg may be tempting, and even have initial benefits, but there’ll be a price to pay. Keeping that in mind, let’s look at the lyrics to the song Tir na nÓg. The refrain throughout the song is:
Tír na nÓg oh, come beyond the ancient fog
Tír na nÓg oh, come with me to Tír na nÓg.
“Come beyond the ancient fog” should be an immediate red flag for anyone who knows even a tiny bit about Celtic folklore. The narrator is inviting the human listener to cross through the veil into the Otherworld, the land of the Faerie, the land of the supernatural, and the place where humans go after they die.
But, during the verses, the narrator gives reason after reason to believe it’s all going to turn out well. She offers lots of reassurance and encouragement. In the first verse, she promises it’s all going to go well and that this journey of love may even be destined:
Come my love our worlds would part
The gods will guide us across the dark.
Come with me and be mine, my love
Stay and break my heart
How can he resist such a romantic and exciting proposition? She seems so desperately in love with him. Undoubtedly, she is exquisitely beautiful as well. Bear in mind, faeries can glamour (appear however they wish to be seen). Now to verse two.
Far away from the land you knew
The dawn of day reaches out to you
Though it feels like a fairy tale
All of this is true
“Far away from the land you knew.” This, again, may seem enticing. Isn’t that what most vacation commercials promise? That you’ll be able to “get away.” Which is fine—as long as you can return home again when you’re ready. But, as a writer and a former English teacher, I’m troubled by the last word of the verse’s first line: knew. She doesn’t say, “Far away from all you know.” The narrator uses the past tense knew. You might argue that’s just the songwriters wanting to rhyme the word with “you” and “true,” but regardless of the writers’ intentions, the past tense word is spot on. A human who visits Tir na nÓg can never really go home again, not to the world he or she knew.
In the next verse, the narrator promises, “We’ll be safe and sound.” She will, and he may be too. As long as he doesn’t leave. Remember what happened to Oisín? And he is not the only example. Irish folklore is filled with stories of humans who go off with the faeries and spend a bit of time, even just overnight, then return home to find their world changed and their friends and family old, dying, or dead. Time moves differently in the Otherworld, as the narrator admits in the next verse:
Time won't follow the path we came
The world you left, it forgot your name
Stay with me and be mine my love
Spare my heart the pain.
“Time won’t follow…[and] The world you left, it forgot your name.” Following her to Tir na nÓg is for keeps. There’s no going back.
Perhaps that seems attractive too? I’m reminded of the lyrics from the third verse of Paul Simon’s “You Can Call Me Al”:
A man walks down the street
It’s a street in a strange world
Maybe it’s the third world
Maybe it’s his first time around
Doesn’t speak the language
He holds no currency
He is a foreign man.
Lyrics quoted from https://www.paulsimon.com/track/you-can-call-me-al-6/
Can you hear how disjointed he is? Merriam-Webster Online defines “disjointed” as “being thrown out of orderly function.” I think that’s a good description not only of how “foreign” the man in Simon’s song feels but how foreign his environment feels. Think about the last time you were in a situation where you didn’t fit in or felt at a loss about what was going on and how to act. It’s not a comfortable feeling.
The narrator of Simon’s song and the listener who is invited to Tir na nÓg probably can adjust to their new environments after a time but throw in the idea that you can never go home again. You become Dorothy in “The Wizard of Oz.”
It was a fabulous and amazing place. She made friends and was pretty doggoned successful (she killed the Wicked Witch and put the Wizard in his place). But, in the end, the thing she most wanted was to go home. Going to Tir na nÓg may seem like a dream come true, but is it worth giving up friends, family, and all that is familiar, all that is home? I’ll leave that for you to decide.
If you’d like to hear “Tir na nÓg” by Celtic Woman on YouTube, click here.
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I will be taking time off for Christmas and New Year’s. The next post will be posted on January 6th. Slan go foil!
Happy Winter Solstice, Happy Hannukah, Merry Christmas, and Happy New Year!