Where, or even what, is Tir na nÓg? Being a Fortean writer who happens to be Irish, as opposed to being an invested scholar or advocate for a particular position gives me a certain freedom with respect to my own speculations regarding these questions.
The initial default Wikipedia-type answer is that Tír na nÓg is the Celtic Otherworld, or some part of it, anyway. Tir na nÓg has also been known as the ‘Land under the Wave’ and the ‘Isle of Apple Trees.’ Interestingly, the mythical island of Avalon also translates as ‘Isle of the Apples (fruit) Trees’ and many myths and accounts from around the world also tell of a strange eternal realm beneath the sea.
So, are we talking about a physical island and place in Irish tradition, or is there something more mystical at the heart of this question?
Well, lets place one more important point on the table: the nuance that it is very important to remember that Tir na nÓg also has a specifically *Irish* translation and understanding, both psychologically and through our culture, but also within Irish folklore as a physical and metaphysical entry point.
That said, the evidence of ancestor veneration and the found offerings at pre-Celtic Irish ancient sites tells us that the indigenous Irish megalith builders envisioned an Otherworld and a spiritual realm long before it was named as, or connected to, Tir na nÓg. This piece by Seo Helrune is an excellent companion to my points here.
The permanent dwellers of Tír na nÓg are sometimes considered gods and immortals, but other comparative narratives certainly align it to being another understanding of a fairy realm. Yes, there is a difference here. And yet...as with all things fairy, that does not preclude a living relationship. Connected to this is perhaps the most difficult aspect of Tír na nÓg to fathom, and that is its link to ancestors and to the dead.
One example of this type of relationship is the discovery of hazelnuts at many 5'000 year old Irish megalithic sites. Archaeological and anthropological interpretation conclude that this was seen as an offering to spirits and sustenance for the newly deceased on their journey to the Otherworld. The significance of hazelnuts being a sacred food of the gods also appears in Irish myths related to wisdom and the otherworldly as well as earlier Eastern European spiritual systems such as the interpretations of Scythian burial remains.
(I say this merely to note a possible continuance of ancestor beliefs which also appear in Eastern and Northern Europe and with people who were to make their way to Ireland and, eventually, tell some of these stories.)
But back to Tir na nÓg. Some who find their way to this place fall in love and spend what they believe to be a few years in this supernatural land. When they eventually return they discover that centuries have passed and all of their earthly loved ones are gone.
The Japanese legend of Urashima Taro is a good example of this. In this story a fisherman visits the supernatural undersea kingdom of Ryugu-jo and discovers that the three days he spent there had been three hundred years in his homeland.
This, of course, echoes the most famous Irish legend of Tír na nÓg, the tale of Oisín and Niamh.
In this tragic story Oisín, who is a human, falls in love with an immortal or fairy called Niamh who brings him with her to the land of Tír na nÓg. After a time-span that Oisín believes to be only three years he yearns to see Ireland again. Niamh reluctantly agrees and allows Oisín to travel across the sea on a magic horse called Embarr. However, Niamh warns Oisín that if he dismounts and touches Irish soil he will not be able to return to her. Unfortunately, when he arrives in Ireland Oisín tries to help some men by lifting a stone onto a cart. He falls to the ground, instantly aging three hundred years, and the magic horse returns alone to Tir na nÓg.
In the living Irish folk tradition this type of timelessness is one aspect of fairy understanding which recurs again and again. I have documented many examples of fairy abductions where the person taken believes only a short amount of time has passed in the realm of fairy only to discover upon their earthly return that entire generations of their family have passed away in their absence.
While many accounts tell us that the Otherworld is across the Western sea, often it is also accessed through fairy mounds and ancient monuments. There are even examples of meditating under certain magical trees at auspicious times of the year in order to travel to these spiritual realms.
I feel that one reason for the contemporary trend to mix Tír na nÓg with other indigenous otherworld's is, in fact, very much to do with the common trait of how time passes much more slowly within them.
One Asian shamanic interpretation of this phenomenon is that the otherworld lies outside of time altogether.
In this context the research of Kevin Turner in his recent work, Sky Shamans of Mongolia , tells us that the three worlds or realms of the Mongolian Darkhad shaman don’t consist of a traditional upper, middle and lower world but are instead overlapping dimensional realities, more in line with a holographic outlook.
The Otherworld or worlds exist on different frequency levels as opposed to being some far away place.
Why I mention this in relation to Ireland is because in the Mongolian shamanic view our ancestral otherworld's are the precursor to a further unimaginable higher realm where all is connected.
As I wrote at the start of this piece, from the perspective of a Fortean mindset it is useful to note these things and not propagate them as either 'true' nor as a 'belief'. Recently, in various popular interpretations, Tir na nÓg has become a type of heaven or paradise a person should strive to discover. However, as we can see by some of the examples earlier listed, this is not really borne out by both the mythological accounts and within Irish folklore.
In actual fact, Tir na nÓg is often a realm of hostages and those taken against their will. In many cases, such as those referred to as changelings, a persons mind may be altered or their memory erased while in the Otherworld. Some, who accept food or drink, are compelled to stay forever, against their previous wishes. In even darker comparable examples, human beings are simply food for the beings who dwell in the Otherworld. Heaven, indeed!
The concept of Tir na nÓg is complicated and incorporates myriad nuances regarding how we may be affected by both its denizens and ecology. As well as abductions, there are also many accounts of inadvertent trespass which for the most part end with either injury, madness or death. This aspect parallels many esoteric traditions which state that the spirit world is all around us but we are unaware of it. The common link between this view and many Irish instances of encounters with Tír na nÓg is that visiting a sacred site at a certain time can instigate a state of consciousness which allows or forces someone to enter this place.
Robert Kirk, the 17th century folklorist wrote about how the good people move from sacred site to sacred site in a cyclical parade in accordance with the turn of the seasons and stars. With this in mind, it is interesting to contemplate how a fairy fort which is safe to visit in the spring may become much more dangerous in the summer. The Amadán comes to mind in this respect. So, be careful what you wish for when visiting sites connected to the fair folk.
All that glitters is not gold, as they say, and sometimes that gleam of an approaching fairy wand may in fact be a sharpened spear tip aimed squarely for your liver! © David Halpin.
Art by Patrick Lynch