It is hard to think of many Celtic legends that don't have love as an integral theme running through them; some end well, others end in heartbreaking tragedy or betrayal. All are filled with passion, which is maybe why they have endured for so many generations. Here are two of the great love stories from Celtic mythology that have inspired some of our bronze sculptures, prints and cards.
Niamh and Oisin
As the evening approached, the Fianna went down to the shore to prepare their evening meal. Oisin had the keenest sight among them and it was he who first saw the commotion in the waves, the noise of splashing over the waters. But he was half blinded by the sun, and could see no detail. “It is an enemy attacking,” he shouted, and the Fianna armed themselves and prepared to do battle.
But it was no army of invaders that left the water, but a beautiful woman, who needed neither reins nor saddle to control the magnificent horse that she rode. She told them that she was Niamh, the daughter of the Kingdom of Youth and she had been told of the beauty of Oisin’s voice when he recited poetry and wanted to hear it for herself. She did not tell them that, now that she had seen Oisin, she had fallen in love with him.
When it was time for Niamh to return to the Land of Youth, she asked Oisin to come with her on her horse, which could easily carry both of them across the sea. Oisin could not refuse her, did not delay her, but jumped up behind her and the horse raced down the claddagh and leapt into the waves. It seemed to be so light that it passed over the water as if the water were sand, so fast that it was like a falcon after her prey, and they soon arrived at a beautiful island, where there was no pain or sorrow, where earth and sea fed the people, and where Niamh’s parents welcomed Oisin as a son. He married Niamh and they had a family together and for a long time they were happy.
As the years passed, however, Oisin began to think of his father and his friends and felt that he had to see them once more. Niamh was reluctant, but agreed to loan her horse to Oisin on condition that he did not put his foot upon the soil of Ireland.
So it happened, and Oisin rode ashore at the claddagh at Galway and went in search of the Fianna. His excitement was great as he approached the camp at Dun Aileen, but no-one was there, and the ground was covered in oak, ash and thorn. He realised that, while he had been at his ease in the Land of Youth, many years had passed by in Ireland. His only choice was to return to Niamh.
He rode slowly now, his heart so heavy that it seemed an extra burden on the horse. Distracted though he was, he saw two men trying to lift a heavy stone. Mindful of Niamh’s warning, he did not dismount, but reached down from the saddle to help. As he took the strain, the girth broke, and Oisin fell to the ground. The two labourers were horrified to see a warrior in the pride of his strength turned instantly to dust. The fairy horse reared and galloped into the breaking waves.
Naoise and Deirdre
Cathbad the druid warned the King of Ulster, Conor Mac Nessa that Phelim, the storyteller’s unborn child would be a beautiful girl, but that much blood would be shed over her. The child would be called Deirdre and Conor, intrigued, decided to keep her. Perhaps they would marry when she was grown. Deirdre was placed in the care of the old veiled one, Leabharcham.
Years later, Leabharcham arranged for Naoise, a warrior and poet in Conor’s court to meet Deirdre and, against Naoise’s better judgement, they fell in love. They eloped to Scotland accompanied by Naoise’s brothers.
For a time they were happy, but Conor tracked them down and persuaded them to return with promise of a pardon for abandoning Naoise’s duties. When they arrived at Conor’s court he sent Leabharcham to see whether Deirdre was still beautiful. Leabharcham returned telling the King that Deirdre could be mistaken for a cailleach, a veiled one, a hag. Conor did not believe her and sent Gelbann, who only glimpsed Deirdre before Naoise threw a gold chess-piece at him, blinding him in one eye. Gelbann told Conor that Deirdre was as beautiful as ever; 'Your majesty, Deirdre is still so very beautiful that I think it was worth losing an eye just to see her for a moment.'. Conor ordered his men to surround the hall, to kill the men and capture Deirdre. Some of the knights were so horrified at this betrayal of trust that they defended the fugitives, but still Naoise and his brothers were killed.
Deirdre was forced to marry Conor, but in time her grief overwhelmed her and she threw herself from a chariot and died. And when they buried her it is said there grew from her grave and from Naoise's two yew trees, whose tops, when they were full-grown, met each other and intertwined together, and none could part them.
This tragic legend has led to Deirdre becoming known as "Deirdre of the Sorrows". Our sculpture of Fiacc, was inspired by the raven who witnessed these tragic events.
One of the best known legends about Fionn MacCumhail depicts him as a giant and tells of a mighty battle with the Scottish giant, Benandonner, the result of which is the Giant's Causeway in County Antrim. However, another version claims that Fionn built the causeway in the name of love, not anger. The story goes that he had in fact fallen for a Scottish giantess who lived on the isle of Staffa. Fionn was desperate to see her and he longed to invite her to come back with him to Ireland so that they could marry. He created the series of stepping stones so that he could finally cross the sea and visit his love.