My birthday this week, and to adapt Housman slightly, now of my threescore years and ten, seventy will not come again. I’ve done the math and it doesn’t look good, nor am I entirely convinced by reassurances that seventy is the new twenty. So I thought I’d mark the occasion with one of my favourite poems by Robert Graves, which begins to take on a very personal note.
In case anyone is unfamiliar with the legend, Oisin was the son of the Irish hero Finn mac Cumhaill, leader of the Fianna. He was lured away to Tír na nÓg, the Land of the Young, by the beautiful Niamh, daughter of its king, but eventually wanted to see his own land and people again: he was given leave to do this, but warned he must on no account get down from his horse. But time passes differently in that country, and he returned to find a diminished Ireland and all the Fianna long dead.
The Broken Girth
Bravely from Fairyland he rode, on furlough,
Astride a tall bay given him by the Queen
From whose couch he had leaped not a half-hour since,
Whose lilies-of-the-valley shone from his helm.
But alas, as he paused to assist five Ulstermen
Sweating to raise a recumbent Ogham pillar,
Breach of a saddle-girth tumbled Oisin
To common Irish earth. And at once, it is said,
Old age came on him with grief and frailty.
St Patrick asked: would he not confess the Christ? –
Which for that Lady’s sake he loathed to do,
But northward loyally turned his eyes in death.
It was Fenians bore the unshriven corpse away
For burial, keening.
Curse me all squint-eyed monks
Who misconstrue the passing of Finn’s son:
Old age, not Fairyland, was his delusion.