(Sometimes:) Is fearr rith maith ná drochsheasamh. A good run is better than a bad stand. – Irish Proverb
When Aoife returned from school to the coast where she grew up, she decided to reconnect as much as possible with a source of spiritual guidance. The barren and lonely desert, with its moaning winds and haunting separatism, favored only those living things who could bottle up and hide away anything valuable to them, whether that be life sustaining water, little green shoots, or happiness and tears. Before graduate school, Aoife had decided to follow the spirituality of her ancestors and joined a modern group of druids. She had begun to study as a bard for only a few months when her parents died, and anything that she might have loved or enjoyed seemed to languish then.
Now that she was healing from what she had been through, she no longer needed the thorns and spines and thick hard shell that protected her so well in the desert. She felt it was finally safe to return to her bardic studies. She considered that it would be wise to learn many of her ancestors’ stories, just as the bards of old sang the lives of those who had gone before, weaving the strands of long ago into the pattern of everyday living. Now, Aoife sat at her laptop PC, the internet just a keystroke away, thinking about her commitment to remember Oisin and Caoilte, and the rest of the fianna. Despite their words of caution that she would not gain much insight into who they truly were from reading stories of who others thought they should be, she thought the best place to start was to learn the stories written about them anyway. After all, the only story about them with which she was familiar was the one about the cave and that had nothing to do with what happened while they were alive.
So, with excitement, Aoife began a rudimentary google search. Once she started reading, she got lost for hours in the retelling of all their countless adventures and otherworldly encounters and exploits and nearly thwarted escapes from captivity, battles, and nomadic hunting excursions. She read about how Oisin was purportedly born. How, the first time Fionn came to that forlorn dreary stretch of woods, he found a deer which neither of his dogs would harm. When he brought the deer inside his house, she turned into a beautiful otherworldly woman. She was Sadbh of the Sidhe, transfigured by an evil doer, and Fionn was the only human being whose protection kept her in her true form. Sadbh was Fionn’s truest love, but tragically he could not forever stay indoors with her – this no one could do, surely—and so she was found and taken as a deer back to the woods. The last time Fionn came upon those same woods, he found a boy, naked and surely frightfully cold, whom he recognized to be his son. For this reason he named the boy Oisin, which means “Little Faun.”
Aoife then read about the time when Fionn was captured and Caoilte burned a great number of fields and killed hundreds of men, women, and children in his grief and then (not unlike Noah from a very different place and time) had to gather two of every kind of wild creature and bring them all to the king before Fionn was set free. The majority of this story listed all the manner of wild thing Caoilte captured but didn’t give many details about why Fionn was imprisoned. Aoife was struck by how oddly similar the tale was, besides it’s apparent Noah connection, to the story of Demeter who in her grief on losing her daughter to the underworld, refuses to allow anything to grow, any crops to survive, or any patch of earth to be fertile or green. Less seriously the list of animals made her recall the scene in a Monte Python movie in which a character extolls the various animals, objects, birds, and all other plethora of items on which the people “feasted and were glad” upon receiving the Holy Hand Grenade. She had a terrifically fun moment with this image before, inevitably, considering just how many innocent people died in many stories, but this one especially.
Although all the accounts about the fianna were fascinating and full of adventure and would probably make a very successful action movie, Aoife was greatly disturbed by all the seemingly useless violence. It didn’t surprise her that they’d killed so many people, sometimes in the name of war, other times just because they could. She knew she didn’t share the same value system so central to a time when classes and hierarchies were taken for granted, a time fraught with warring tribes, a time defined through standards and a quality of life that she could never know or ever completely understand. She tried, sometimes more successfully than at other times, , to withhold judgment about the decisions people made in the past even while she searched through and weighed the consequences of their actions almost unconsciously, attempting to piece together lessons she might learn in order to find the joy in life they knew and avoid the hardships and pitfalls they did not see coming.
Aoife was at heart a progressive, almost socialist pacifist and believed fervently in the maxim “We are all some mother’s child,” rather than in the efficacy of war. She believed that race, color, gender, disability, sexual orientation, or religious creed were all aspects of identity that had no bearing on the respect and consideration of human dignity which everyone deserved and was worthy of. She believed class shouldn’t even exist. She was determined to have a lively philosophical discussion with Oisin and Caoilte about the use of violence and whether it was ever morally justified when the right time presented itself. Although she knew they would probably have to agree to disagree on some points, she was more than curious to find out what the fianna would think about modern values and she might even change her mind about some of her opinions. It was fantastic that she could simply just ask them, she thought, grinning like a mystified child.
It was then that Aoife came across one of the most told stories about Oisin that exists: the story of Niamh and Oisin in the land of the young, tír na nóg. She read about how Oisin had been out hunting, and wasn’t having much luck, when he saw the most beautiful woman he’d ever seen riding across the white capped waves of the sea on a horse that had no equal in all of Éirinn. The woman had long flowing golden hair, and her eyes shown with unfathomable depth and piercing clarity, and were so like the pearls found in the shells of oysters that cling to the rocks at low tide that it was impossible to tell their milky white hue from that of the foamy crests of water that held her reflection. Oisin asked her for her name once she came ashore, for he was already so in love with her that he could think of nothing else but to be with her. The woman replied that she was Niamh, daughter of Manannon Mac Lír, the god of the sea and one of the Tuatha de Danann, no less. She told Oisin that she had come seeking him and was so in love with him that she wished to take him with her to her country, tír na nóg, and there be married and live happily. She was adamant and persuasive, and came across as one who had always gotten her way. She told Oisin that Tír na nóg as a land of flowers and fields and forests, a land without strife or toilsome striving, where no one grew old and no one died.
Oisin knew that, if he accepted Niamh’s offer, he would never see his father or the rest of the fianna again. He asked for one night to think it over. On the next dawn, he knew he must go with her to this strange land. He had to see this place for himself, and more importantly, Niamh’s fairy charm was irresistible and he knew he could never be happy again without her. In Tír na nóg, Oisin had three children and lived very happily with Niamh, but after three years he missed his homeland of Ireland sorely, and longed to see his own people again. Niamh did not tell him that while three years had passed in her country, three hundred years had passed in his. She did try to persuade him not to return home, but Oisin’s mind was set and it was impossible for another person, even his true love, to unmake his mind. And so, Oisin went to Éirinn on Niamh’s only condition, that he not set foot on the ground, for then the years would catch up with him and he would be very old. Oisin meant to keep his promise, but it was not to be.
When he got to Ireland he was overcome with grief at not finding any trace of his family or companions. Just before returning sorrowfully to Niamh, he saw several men trying to lift a large and heavy boulder. Being always an empathic soul who wished more than anything else to help those in need, Oisin began to lift the rock for them and it was then that the saddle slipped from the horse and he fell to the ground. He became an old, blind, withered, wrinkled man, dependent on others to survive (which must have been quite a change as he never went through the stages of growing old as most folk do.) He died belonging neither to the land he was born to nor the land in which he raised his children, neither in the arms of his love nor among friends. It was presumably only once he died, that Oisin gained some semblance of peace.
Aoife sat staring at her computer screen, stunned. It was not occurring to her to ask whether the story was accurate. It was not occurring to her to start reading another story, or indeed do anything at all. Somewhat numbly, she covered her face with her hands and squinted, hoping, praying to whomever she could think of—a rock, the god Lugh, her dog—that she would not feel, that she would not think, that she would not remember. But she did remember. She began to sob. She was not just crying for Oisin, she knew all too well, she was crying for herself, and for Conn, or perhaps despite Conn.
Connell, hence Conn for short, had been her only, her true love. Well, she thought he had been her true love. There were too many similarities between her story she gave the world about her relationship and the one told about Oisin to not wonder if it was more than likely that Niamh, who at first came across as flawless, beautiful, loving, and kind, in the end turned out to be a waking nightmare. For Aoife had, for a long time, told her siblings and friends that she was happy, more than happy, couldn’t imagine her life without her love, and wished they could spend an eternity together even though this was a big, blunt lie. She persisted in keeping up the facade of contentment and joy even while Conn slowly and steadily kept her more and more to himself, until she hardly saw her friends or spoke with her family. In truth, Conn would often cling to Aoife like a vulnerable toddler and whine that if she truly loved him, she would go away with him to share a little world of their own and only have each other. In truth she was as terrified to be with Conn as to be without him, and he made sure of that.
When she first met Conn on that infernal August morning, a mere 104 degrees, Aoife felt as though she was a weary lost and bedraggled traveler who, upon the brink of death, suddenly stumbles on an oasis and eagerly revives herself with the water she thought she’d never find. Aoife had been promised the world, in fact more than the world. Somehow Conn knew all of her weaknesses, all of her insecurities, and all of her places where she was too vulnerable to fight, but it was over a year before Aoife questioned whether his having such knowledge about her was anything other than safe and genuine intimacy. She had nothing to compare her experience to. . When he found out about the death of her parents, he had assured Aoife that she would be accepted into his large family and would never be abandoned again. He wrote her long romantic love letters. He held her for hours. He told her there was something special about her and that most men wouldn’t see it, but he did. He told her that she was the only person he could be himself with, that he’d found the one, that he couldn’t live without her.
He had been so loving that she felt comfortable sharing her ability to see the spirit world with him. He swore he understood, and assured her that she was strange and exotic and other men would make fun of her for her differences, but that he, Conn, cherished and valued her. Sometimes he got angry with her for wearing clothes that he felt made her look like Lolita and would insist that she change into something less revealing when they went out, even if it was otherwise completely appropriate. He would then cajole her with a pout in his voice that he loved her so much that he couldn’t bear to have another man look at her. To please him, Aoife would go change, happy to have found someone who was so brutally honest and loyal. She also knew not to make new friends, especially guy friends, because Conn would get jealous and start calling her incessantly to check her whereabouts and even threaten to track her, but he earnestly explained holding her hand and looking deep into her eyes, that he only acted this way out of love and because he had had some traumatic event happen to him as a child. So Aoife did exactly what Conn wished her to do. If Conn was hurt, she knew how that felt, and she would not hurt him further.
Conn hated technology and disliked living near too many people. He told Aoife his dreams of living off grid with her in a remote part of Wyoming, where their nearest neighbor would be at least a mile away. He lovingly insisted that Aoife was selfish for wanting the amenities of an apartment, and promised that she could always depend on him to survive. If and when Aoife ever challenged his opinions or thought differently, he would go into a fit and break things, important things, and he’d put her down for her education and remind her that he had gotten where he was in life with nothing. It didn’t matter that he had no degree himself, he was intelligent and smart and the education system was corrupt and bureaucratic. Aoife would worry that something was wrong with her and promise to try to love him better, do more for him, cease being judgmental and listen more, whatever it took to calm him down until the love of her life returned. Then he would gather her up in his arms and kiss her and tell her he wanted to be her life partner.
This went on and on. Aoife found Conn more and more unbearable to be around, but the tenacity and power she once had in abundance continued to slowly ebb out of her bones as if the tide in her only knew how to recede. What was more frightening than Conn, however, was the absence of the light inside her. She would sometimes, very cautiously, peer within herself and more often than not come up empty handed. When she saw no light at all, though, something shifted. Despite the fear and her grief which was so palpable she thought for sure it might drown her, she knew better than to never, ever let anyone take all the light that burned inside her, that made her her own. That light kept keening so persistently, though now quiescently, to shine, always shine, that she could not ignore it’s calling to her, the call to return and belong to the only one she would ever be in this world.
On one of the rare occasions when Conn went back to visit his family, Aoife knew what she had to do. Her heart was a stone, but the neurons in her brain were on fire. She would live, she must. She shipped back his things and changed the locks. She called her brother and he had stayed with her a week, until she had stopped shaking, until they knew Conn would not return to try and hurt her.
When Aoife left, she left knowing only that some part of her deserved more, was more. She felt more guilty and uncertain than she had ever thought possible, and was afraid that Conn was right and that she was inadequately prepared to live her own life, a life without him in it. When Aoife left, she continued for a while to hope that Conn would change, and they could live the life they had planned together. She told herself that Conn had only threatened to hit her once. He hadn’t actually hit her, just did things like yell at her to watch her jump and get angry when she went out with her friends. These were the excuses she would give herself as to why it wasn’t all that bad and she could live with it, but somehow she knew she was now lying to herself as well.
It was only after she left, a month or more after, that the word abuse ever came to mind. Who, besides someone skilled at manipulation, guilt, feigned neediness, and practiced apathy would make someone choose between their relationship and their friends and family? She had not waited until she was old and frail to leave. But those months in the beginning, when Conn was her world, when all good and meaningful things in life felt permanently eclipsed by his brilliance and undying love, when all she could see was him, him, him, filling every inch of her horizon, when he made her feel special and unique and loved beyond any love she had ever known: it was as if a fairy from another land had waltzed into her life. Within a year they were living together, and in the months before she left they were already talking about marriage. After that, once the relationship began to go downhill, Aoife had lived in the land of youth in yet another way. Conn, as it turned out, had the emotional capacity of a five-year-old. If he did not get his way, he threw a tantrum. Granted, it was a tantrum of emotional blackmail, fear, obligation and guilt, threats, rage, and sometimes desperate displays of tears which was more sophisticated than simply throwing yourself on the floor and pounding your fists, but it was just as ineffective. Aoife found herself unwittingly in the role of mother one moment, lover the next, and it was disconcerting and exhausting. Thank the gods they had not had children.
Aoife often hoped that, had Conn succeeded in isolating her completely, she still would have found the courage to walk away, but of that, she would fortunately never be sure. Now looking back at that time which she filed away under “relationship mistakes,” it was almost as if the time with Conn was a dream, a surreal blip on the timeline of her varied existence, as if she had spent more than a year sleep walking, as if she had moved in a waking coma, as if she had given her very heart and soul away not realizing she had surrendered, almost willingly, to become the play thing of a bangle tiger. She was not sure how she woke up before the tiger swallowed her whole, but she knew she was still mending the pieces of herself that had been so skillfully torn away. She knew, then, she was stronger than she had ever given herself credit for. She knew Conn had picked the wrong sort to mess with, and over time she learned her worth in this world. She knew she had almost missed her chance to wake up, but she was now wide awake and would never be lulled asleep again.
Once again Aoife surrendered, this time in safety, to the flashbacks and her tears. Perhaps if she cried enough she would learn to live with the experience, as a war veteran might learn to live with the shrapnel permanently embedded in his shoulder. She let herself cry until she was spent, and tired, and could resolve once again to no longer give away her power to this man and the wounds he inflicted on her already bruised and battered spirit. It was late, she realized, and so she ate some chocolate and went to bed.
But the next morning she couldn’t put the story of Tír na nóg out of her mind. It had been over a week since she saw Caoilte or Oisin, and she found she very much wanted Oisin to know that she understood what he might have gone through. She sat down and ate a bowl of cereal and then sat on the sofa to read her email, but behind her eyes were images of Oisin leaving his family, and never seeing them again, all for the sake of a girl. No human being could be worth such a sacrifice, Aoife thought adamantly, because it was such an insidious choice to force someone to make. Surely there were strong people in the world, like Oisin, who would never fall for such a trick as the one Niamh must have pulled. But if there was any truth at all to the story, even someone as strong as Oisin had fallen for it, for a longer time than she had.
Tears came unbidden into Aoife’s eyes again. This time she did cry just for Oisin, for the unnamed and incalculable parts of himself and people he loved that he had lost without any struggle or fight or last stand, just stolen in the name of love out from under his nose by a woman who was very probably damaged, and broken, even while stunningly beautiful. A woman who was hungry for all she could never have and, like Conn tried to do to Aoife, devoured everything he had. She cried. It was only when she finally looked up, after what seemed to her like a long time but might have merely been moments, that she realized she was not alone.
Oisin stood next to her, his hand, which she couldn’t actually feel, resting on her shoulder, his face full of concern. It was so odd, Aoife thought, that she didn’t shriek or pull away or do any of the other things she usually did when someone surprised her, especially if that person was of the opposite gender. She had generally been very afraid of people, particularly men, since she had left that terrifying relationship with Conn. Perhaps, she mused only momentarily, she really was healing from it.
“Please don’t cry,” Oisin said quietly.
“Sorry,” Aoife always felt a bit embarrassed when someone saw her cry, “I never meant for you to have to come comfort me for being upset about something that happened to you.” The whole scenario struck Aoife as being opposite what it should be. “I wanted to comfort you, let you know you are not alone. I just really empathized with what you went through, never seeing your family again. Was it like…” she stumbled on, trailing off unsure how to say what she wanted to say. He had so much more experience than she did, having been in the world so long ago. There must be something more important to ask someone so ancient.
“I don’t remember all the details of what it was like. But I do know that you’ve been through many struggles, and when you found your strength to actually walk away, learned what you were worth, and discovered that leaving doesn’t always mean giving up, I was very proud of you. It took me a much, much longer time to realize that I would give up everything by staying, and gain everything by leaving. It was almost too late when I learned that”
“Did you ever find your family after you left?” Aoife asked.
“Sometimes it’s possible to physically be with your family while being further away than you have ever been in your life. But I have had hundreds of your years in this world to be with my family. I’m no longer sad or angry or divided.”
“I understand,” Aoife replied, and she really did. Then after a while she asked, “I just wondered, how did you know I was with someone and left him? If you were there, then, why didn’t… I… see you?” She was going to ask why he hadn’t come to talk with her then to warn her to stay away, but decided it wasn’t good on her to ask that question.
Oisin smiled knowingly. “Well, you weren’t ready to hear a warning from anyone, not even your siblings and school friend who valiantly tried. Let’s say, your mind was made up and nothing would unmake it.” After a moment, he went on, “You were so defensive back then, that you were blind to the world beyond the physical world.”
Aoife nodded. He was right, of course. She was shut off from everything back then, including herself. “I didn’t read what actually happened to you, did I?” she asked almost as a statement. “Can you tell me everything you know that happened? Perhaps it might help someone else realize it’s time to open their eyes.”
Oisin sat down facing her. He truly did not know the details of all that happened, not anymore. “A long, long time ago,” he began, “I reconciled myself with Niamh, for I do recall her name was in fact Niamh. She was of noble birth, for sure, but not Manannon’s daughter. I never met Manannon or his daughter until my life was through, and they would very much like to clear up the misunderstanding. In the world beyond your world, after some time…if I can speak of something such as time happening in a place where time doesn’t mean the same thing as it does to you, I learned to forgive her. Most importantly, I forgave myself. After that, there was no need to remember the details. The lesson was, first, to find the good that can be saved from the experience. I cherish my children who I would not have had without her. I then learned to let go and move on, as you’re doing now.” He paused for a moment and then he thought of something and his eyes gleamed in the half-light of the room. “I will tell you a different story.” He said.
The Birth of Oisin:
Oisin in tír na nóg:
For a different version which I have not heard told anywhere else go here:
I don’t wish to write about the subject of unhealthy or abusive relationships without providing some information that might be helpful. In no way am I at all qualified to assist anyone in any official manner, beyond sharing my experience. In my experience, then, while anyone can do a google search, sometimes the people who are most in need are those who are too terrified, traumatized, overwhelmed, depressed, or too isolated and in danger to do a search themselves, and I hope this helps them.
The National Domestic Abuse Hot Line:
The Narcissistic Abuse Recovery Program, resources, articles, and community run by Melanie Tonia Evans:
The Verbal Abuse Site Run by Patricia Evans (no relation to Melanie, it is simply coincidence):
http://www.verbalabuse.com/. Many of her books can be found on Amazon or Audible.com.