Tir na nOg - The Irish Legend of Tir na nOg

Irish Castle
Irish myths tell of a land called Tir na nOg. Michael Interisano / Design Pics Perspectives / Getty Images

In the Irish myth cycles, the land of Tir na nOg is the realm of the Otherworld, the place where the Fae lived and heroes visited on quests. It was a place just outside the realm of man, off to the west, where there was no illness or death or time, but only happiness and beauty.

It is important to note that Tir na nOg was not so much an “afterlife” as it was a an earthly place, a land of eternal youth, that could only be reached by way of magic. In many of the Celtic legends, Tir na nOg plays an important role in the forming of both heroes and mystics. The very name, Tir na nOg, means the "land of youth" in the Irish language.

The Warrior Oisin

The best known tale of Tir na nOg is the story of the young Irish warrior Oisin, who fell in love with the flame-haired maiden Niamh, whose father was the king of Tir na nOg. They crossed the sea on Niamh’s white mare together to reach the magical land, where they lived happily for three hundred years. Despite the eternal joy of Tir na nOg, there was a part of Oisin that missed his homeland, and he occasionally felt a strange longing to return to Ireland. Finally, Niamh knew she could hold him back no longer, and sent him back to Ireland, and his tribe, the Fianna.

Oisin traveled back to his home on the magical white mare, but when he arrived, he found that all of his friends and family were long dead, and his castle overgrown with weeds. After all, he had been gone for three hundred years. Oisin turned the mare back to the west, sadly preparing to go back to Tir na nOg. On the way, the mare’s hoof caught a stone, and Oisin thought to himself that if he carried the rock back with him to Tir na nOg, it would be like taking a bit of Ireland back with him.

As he learned down to pick up the stone, he stumbled and fell, and instantly aged three hundred years. The mare panicked and ran into the sea, heading back to Tir na nOg without him. However, some fishermen had been watching on the shore, and they were astonished to see a man age so fast. Naturally they assumed magic was afoot, so they gathered up Oisin and took him to see Saint Patrick.

When Oisin came before Saint Patrick, he told him the story of his red-headed love, Niamh, and his journey, and the magical land of Tir na nOg. Once he was finished, Oisin crossed out of this lifetime, and he was at last at peace.

William Butler Yeats wrote his epic poem, The Wanderings of Oisin, about this very myth. He wrote: 

O Patrick! for a hundred years
I chased upon that woody shore
The deer, the badger, and the boar.
O Patrick! for a hundred years
At evening on the glimmering sands,
Beside the piled-up hunting spears,
These now outworn and withered hands
Wrestled among the island bands.
O Patrick! for a hundred years
We went a-fishing in long boats
With bending sterns and bending bows,
And carven figures on their prows
Of bitterns and fish-eating stoats.
O Patrick! for a hundred years
The gentle Niamh was my wife;
But now two things devour my life;
The things that most of all I hate:
Fasting and prayers.

The Arrival of the Tuatha de Danaan

In some legends, one of the early races of Ireland’s conquerors was known as the Tuatha de Danaan, and they were considered mighty and powerful. It was believed that once the next wave of invaders arrived, the Tuatha went into hiding. Some tales hold that the Tuatha moved on to Tir na nOg and became the race known as the Fae.

Said to be the children of the goddess Danu, the Tuatha appeared in Tir na nOg and burned their own ships so that they could never leave. In Gods and Fighting Men, Lady Augusta Gregory says, "It was in a mist the Tuatha de Danann, the people of the gods of Dana, or as some called them, the Men of Dea, came through the air and the high air to Ireland."

Related Myths and Legends

The story of a hero's journey to the underworld, and his subsequent return, is found in a number of different cultural mythologies. In Japanese legend, for instance, there is the tale of Urashima Taro, a fisherman, which dates back to around the eight century. Urashima rescued a turtle, and as a reward for his good deed was permitted to visit the Dragon Palace under the sea. After three days as a guest there, he returned home to find himself three centuries in the future, with all of the people of his village long dead and gone.

There is also the folktale of King Herla, an ancient king of the Britons. The medieval writer Walter Map describes Herla's adventures in De Nugis CurialiumHerla was out hunting one day and encountered a dwarven king, who agreed to attend Herla's wedding, if Herla would come to the dwarf king's wedding a year later. The dwarf king arrived at Herla's marriage ceremony with a huge retinue and lavish gifts. One year later, as promised, Herla and his host attended the dwarf king's wedding, and stayed for three days - you may notice a recurring theme here. Once they got home, though, no one knew them or understood their language, because three hundred years had passed, and Britain was now Saxon. Walter Map then goes on to describe King Herla as the leader of the Wild Hunt, racing endlessly through the night.

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Wigington, Patti. "Tir na nOg - The Irish Legend of Tir na nOg." Learn Religions, Aug. 26, 2020, learnreligions.com/the-irish-legend-of-tir-na-nog-2561709. Wigington, Patti. (2020, August 26). Tir na nOg - The Irish Legend of Tir na nOg. Retrieved from https://www.learnreligions.com/the-irish-legend-of-tir-na-nog-2561709 Wigington, Patti. "Tir na nOg - The Irish Legend of Tir na nOg." Learn Religions. https://www.learnreligions.com/the-irish-legend-of-tir-na-nog-2561709 (accessed June 2, 2023).