Niamh (mythology)

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For other persons named Niamh, see Niamh (disambiguation).
Oisín and Niamh on their way to Tír na nÓg, illustration by Albert Herter, 1899

Niamh or Niam (/ˈnv/), in the Irish Fenian Cycle, is the lover or spouse of Oisín, son of Finn mac Cumhail.

In the story of Golden-headed Niamh or Golden-haired Niamh (Irish: Niaṁ Cinn-Óir, Niamh Cinn-Óir), an otherworldly woman who carried away Oisín to live with her in her domain of Tír na nÓg, the Land of Youth. She had two sons and a daughter with Oisín. After more than 300 years of living together, Niamh reluctantly allowed Oisín to visit Ireland, imposing on him a taboo not to touch the ground there, and once he did, he turned old and was unable to go back to see Niamh ever again.

In the medieval version, Niamh was a mortal princess of Munster who eloped with Oisín to Ulster but committed suicide when her father's army arrived in pursuit.


The familiar story of Niamh of Tír na nÓg was described in a poem around 1750 attributed to Mícheál Coimín (1676–1760), and summarized as follows:[1][2]

Niamh came from beyond the sea westwards, riding a white steed, and found the Fianna on a deer hunt near Loch Léin (in Co. Kerry).[a][4]
She identified herself as Niamh the Golden-headed, daughter of the King of the Land of Youth,[7][8] and declared her love for Oisín son of Finn. She intended to take him to the Land of Youth (Tír na nÓg), and described the promises it held.[9]
Oisín, already in love, consented to the proposition and the two rode off together on the white steed. When they witnessed the maiden of the Land of the Living (Tír na mBeo) being violently pursued by a giant (Fomhor Builleach of Dromloghach),[10] they made a detour to the Land of Virtues, where Oisín championed the maiden and slew the giant.[11]
Niamh and Oisín reached the Land of Youth, met the king and queen, and were married. The couple had three children (two sons they named Oscar and Finn, and the girl Plor na mBan "Flower of Women"). When he had spent 300 years or more, Oisín developed homesickness and wished to see his father and the Fianna back in Ireland.[12] (It is reckoned that the 300 years only seemed like 3 years to him, in some retold versions).[14]
Niamh reluctantly agreed to let him visit his home, riding the white steed, but cautioned him not to touch Irish soil, lest he be unable to return. She feared the worst outcome. She told him the trip would be for naught since the Fianna were long gone from Ireland, and Christians now inhabited the land. Oisín returned to Ireland, and searched for the Fianna in vain. At a place called Gleann-an-Smoil (glen of the thrushes), Oisín was asked to help lift a marble flagstone, as the men holding it up underneath were being overcome by the weight. Oisín moved the stone, but in the effort, the horse's belt broke and he fell to ground, turning him into a feeble and blind old man. The horse fled.[15]

This entire story of Niamh is told within the frame story of Oisín's dialogue with Saint Patrick.[16]

Modern text

The only Irish text preserved from the past which contains the story of Oisín and Niamh in Tír na nÓg is the poem Laoi[] Oisín A[i]r Ṫír Na N-Óg "The Lay of Oisin in the Land of the Youth", composed around 1750 and attributed to Mícheál Coimín (Michael Comyn, 1676–1760).[b][18][19] The poem may have been based on lost traditional material,[18][20] although the opposite may be true, and the poet may have largely invented the story working from very basic hints about Oisin and Caílte's journeys to the fairy mounds (sídhe), as described in the Acallam na Senórach.[c][21] It has even been suggested that the folktale the poet borrowed from may not necessarily be Irish, since foreign tales of the same theme are numerous and widespread.[22]

The story of Oisín's disappearance to Niamh's fairyland is regarded as one of several tales told to explain why Oisín was not killed in the Battle of Gabhra in which the Fianna were annihilated, and how he lived to tell his tale many centuries later.[18][23]

Medieval version

In the oldest text, Niamh, daughter of Aengus Tírech, king of Munster, eloped with Oisín to Ulster, spending six weeks there, until the king arrived in pursuit with a great host.[24] She thereby killed herself by burying her face in the ground, alongside thirty women. The spot was named the Well of the Women (tipra an bhantrachta), and it was on the edge of the Lake of the Red Stag (loch and daimh dheirg). The account is given in the Acallam na Senórach.[d][26][27]

Explanatory notes

  1. ^ Annotated as being the Lakes of Killarney, County Kerry).[3]
  2. ^ Dáithí Ó hÓgáin [ga] is critical that Mackillop (1986), p. 32 is oblivious to other pieces of literature that allude to Niamh, but Ó hÓgáin does not specify which works he meant.[17]
  3. ^ Alan Bruford says he himself is willing to accept this idea, but notes that Gerard Murphy would have disagreed with him.
  4. ^ Mackillop lists Niamh daughter of Aed Donn of Ulster as another telling of this.[24] However he incorrectly identifies Oisín as fighting for her. In the actual Acallam na Senórach, it is Oscar who fights.[25]


  1. ^ Coimín&O'Looney tr. (1859)
  2. ^ Coimín&Gaelic Union (1880)
  3. ^ Coimín&O'Looney tr. (1859), p. 200, note 1
  4. ^ Coimín&O'Looney tr. (1859), pp. 234–237; Coimín&Gaelic Union (1880), Str. 1–12
  5. ^ editor-O'Kearney, editor-Nicholas (1854). The Battle of Gabhra. 1. Ossianic Society. pp. 20–21.CS1 maint: Extra text: authors list (link)
  6. ^ Ó Briain, Máirtín (1999). 'Laoi Cholainn gan Cheann' Oisín's Headless Bride in Gaelic Tradition. Celtic Connections: Language, literature, history, culture. Tuckwell Press. p. 233.
  7. ^ The King's name being "Cailce (Brilliant)"[5] is a misreading of "inghean chailce Ríogh na nÓg"(the chalk-white daughter of the King of the Land of Youth') in Str. 15.[6]
  8. ^ Coimín&O'Looney tr. (1859), pp. 238/239; Coimín&Gaelic Union (1880), Str. 15
  9. ^ Coimín&O'Looney tr. (1859), pp. 238–245; Coimín&Gaelic Union (1880), Str. 17–36
  10. ^ Coimín&O'Looney tr. (1859), pp. 244–251; Coimín&Gaelic Union (1880), Str. 37–55
  11. ^ Coimín&O'Looney tr. (1859), pp. 250–257; Coimín&Gaelic Union (1880), Str. 58–79
  12. ^ Coimín&O'Looney tr. (1859), pp. 256–267; Coimín&Gaelic Union (1880), Str. 80–104
  13. ^ Joyce, P. W. (1894), "Oisin in Tirnanoge", Old Celtic Romances, pp. 386–399
  14. ^ "Oisin in Tirnanoge", retold by P. W. Joyce.[13]
  15. ^ Coimín&O'Looney tr. (1859), pp. 266–279; Coimín&Gaelic Union (1880), Str. 105–151
  16. ^ It is explained that the "pagan-saint dialogue" serve as frame, as in Acallam na Senórach, and that the Oisín and Niam story involved dialogue with St. Patrick, in: Mackillop, James (2006). Myths and Legends of the Celts. Penguin UK. p. 336.
  17. ^ Ó hÓgáin, Dáithí (1988). "Celtic Myth in English Literature". Béaloideas. 56: 46. JSTOR 20522280. will bear the brunt of these objections.. As examples.. that the name Niamh is not associated with Oisin outside of Micheál Coimín's poem (p. 32) (Review of Fionn Mac Cumhaill: Celtic Myth in English Literature by James MacKillop)
  18. ^ a b c Mackillop, James (1986). Fionn Mac Cumhaill: Celtic Myth in English Literature. Syracuse University Press. pp. 31–32.
  19. ^ Rolleston, T. W. (1911), Myths & Legends of the Celtic Race, Constable, p. 276
  20. ^ Shaw, John (1999), "The Loathly Lady among the Fein and her North Atlantic Travels", Islanders and water-dwellers: proceedings of the Celtic-Nordic-Baltic Folklore symposium held at University College Dublin, 16–19 June 1996, DBA Publications Ltd., p. 309
  21. ^ Bruford, Alan (1987). "Oral and Literary Fenian Tales". Béaloideas. 54/55: 46. Unlike [Gerard] Murphy, I am prepared to believe that Cuimin first simplified the Agallamh's vague account of Oisin and Caoilte spending unspecified numbers of years in various fairy hills in Ireland into a visit to an overseas otherworld. (JSTOR)
  22. ^ Ó Duilearga, Seamus (1942). "Irish Stories and Storytellers: Some Reflections and Memories". Studies: An Irish Quarterly Review. Irish Province of the Society of Jesus. 31 (121): 46. JSTOR 30098022. they may be loans from an oral Gaelic source or loans from outside..Oisin i dTir na n-Óg.. poem is based on a folk-tale of which there are many versions.. [possibly Irish but] the tale is known in countries as far removed as Corsica and Russia.
  23. ^ Ó Briain (1999), p. 234: "explanation of Oisin's longevity".
  24. ^ a b Mackillop, James (1998). "Niam (3)". Dictionary of Celtic Mythology. Oxford University Press. p. 346. ISBN 0192801201.
  25. ^ O'Grady (1892).
  26. ^ Harmon, Maurice (2009). The Dialogue of the Ancients of Ireland: A New Translation of Acallam na Senórach. Seán Ó Coileáin (preface). Dublin: Carysfort Press. pp. 74–75. ISBN 978-1-904505-39-6.
  27. ^ O'Grady, Standish (1892). XII. Colloquy with the Ancients. Silva Gadelica. London and Edinburgh: Williams and Norgate. pp. 176–178.
  • Coimín, Mícheál (1859), O'Looney, Bryan, ed., The Land of Youth Tír Na N-Óg, Dublin: Ossianic Society, pp. 227–
  • Coimín, Mícheál (1880). Comyn, David, ed. The Lay of Oisin on the Land of the Young Laoiḋ Oisín Air Ṫír Na N-Óg. Gaelic Union Publications. Dublin: A. E. Chamney.
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