Story Archaeology

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Rowing Around Immráma 02: Immrám Snedgussa ocus Mac Ríagla


Cat and Mouse decoration from the Book of Kells

Cat and Mouse decoration from the Book of Kells

In the aftermath of the Battle of Mag Rath, the Men of Ross endure a harsh sentence: to be set adrift in the Atlantic Ocean. Inspired by this, Snedgus and Mac Ríagla, two of St. Colmcille’s monks, decide to try it out for themselves.

Hop aboard with the Story Archaeologists to explore another trench of watery wonders.

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by The Story Archaeologists

Music: “Tam Lin” by Gian Castello

Attention Subscribers! We’re moving…

Dear subscribers, listeners, readers, followers, commentators and hangers-on…


You may have noticed a seeming silence from the Story Archaeologists for the last wee while. There are several reasons for this: Chris is exploring a 10,000 year old city in Turkey, Isolde has started rehearsals for her play, and we’re getting ready to move our site onto new hosting.

The Big Changeoever will happen between the 29th April and the 1st May. Our web address will still be, but there may be some changes affecting how you get our updates.  To test this, we will put up a post on 1st May. If this doesn’t come through via your usual subscription, you may have to re-subscribe.

  • If you subscribe via iTunes, there shouldn’t be any changes to your subscription. In fact, it was recent problems with our iTunes feed that woke us up to the need for the change. Thanks to our listeners who brought our attention to this!
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  • If you “Follow” us via WordPress, you may or may not need to re-subscribe after the 1st May. We’re moving our hosting, but we’ll still be using WordPress. Again, we just don’t know whether you will automatically keep following us.

We hope this doesn’t cause too much disruption, but we feel it will be worth it in the long run! As we said, you should get a post on the 1st May, and if it doesn’t come through, you may need to visit and re-subscribe.  If you’re still experiencing problems after that, please, please please get in touch! It was thanks to listener feedback that we finally worked out the problems with the iTunes feed, so it’s really important that you let us know of any problems.


Deep breath, here goes! See you on the flipside…

Isolde and Chris

The Island of the Salmon

Leaping Salmon

To travel in the hands of God.
To put away the boat’s oars and let the undulating waves breathe them where they would.
To watch the world’s sun light up the broad plain of the sea into molten gold, glittering with sudden sparks of silver like drowned stars.
There was a great peace in this voyage. The monk had found a calmness of spirit, even when the wind rose and stung the waves to roughness.
He rested, rocked in simple contemplation.

Snedgus’s stomach rumbled loudly and Mac Ríagla looked up, torn from his spiritual musings.
Snedgus shrugged apologetically.
“I can’t help it,” he mumbled. “I’m hungry.”
“The Lord God will provide,” answered Mac Ríagla piously, glancing heavenward. He noticed, in passing, that clouds were covering the late afternoon sun, and that the golden light was changing to grey. A fresh breeze ruffled his robe. Repressing a shiver, he continued his argument.
“Were we not led to find a well of pure water, so wondrous that it seemed to taste of new milk?”
“But milk is not a meal, and that was yesterday.”
“Then pray that the Lord provides you with something more.” Mac Ríagla’s tone was stern as he returned to his meditations.

The light faded, and the sea grew dim. At twilight it was hard to keep fancies at bay. The dying light patterned the ever-moving sea surface with dappled shadows. Could he be sure that Manannán’s marvelous land did not lie hidden in its depths? Did golden apples still dance on silver boughs to the motion of forgotten currents?

He dragged his eyes heavenward again, to where a gibbous moon, pale and watery, was attempting to tear herself loose from ragged clouds. It would rain this night.

Mac Ríagla went to join his companion under the hide covers that made up all the shelter this small vessel had to offer. Two stomachs rumbled, loud and long, from out of the darkness.

The wonder was there for them with the rising of the sun. It was an island, tree-bearded and edged in golden sand. A fast-flowing river rushed joyfully down a forested hill, disgorging its noisy waters into the sea-foam. The boat bobbed and bounced as the two monks guided in the small boat, beaching it comfortably.

On this bright morning, Snedgus and Mac Ríagla gratefully made their morning devotions on dry land. Then they set out to explore this God-gift wonder. There was clean, fresh water to be had. They would not go thirsty. There was dead wood, dry and fire-ready. It would be an easy task to make a blaze to warm their salted bones and to dry their damp clothes. It would be good to cook a hot meal, if there was just… something to cook. Surely, God would reward their devotions with… something.

The two men, warmed but hungry, made their way inland, following the tumbling river uphill to where the land was open and unwooded. The terrain grew more rocky as they climbed, but the river remained rapid.

They were coming to the highest point of the island, almost at its centre. The land rose suddenly steeper, climbing in a grey-green escarpment that almost seemed to border the hill. The sun was higher now, and it was becoming hard to see, to pick out details as they peered up to the top of this sharp slope, sunwards.

Something was glinting silver in the sunshine. The water tumbled down the rock-face – not in one sudden waterfall, but in a series of terraced slopes; a weir. There were clear signs that it had been man-shaped, altered to contain and regulate the flow of the water. Yes, the glinting that had caught their eyes was a fence built to cross the escarpment, almost dividing the island into two halves. But this was a fence of silver – all of silver. Who could have built such a marvel?

Then they perceived the true wonder of the island; for, glinting silver in the morning sun, came salmon dancing up the river in rippling strength, leaping against the current. The two monks watched in amazement as fish after fish began a miraculous journey up the tumbling weir, fighting wave after wave of water in the desire to return to the source. As for the size of these magnificent fish, the hungry monks were certain that each must be as big as a bull-calf.

They watched, admiring the determination and power of the creatures as they leaped to their destiny. As a symbol for faith, it was humbling. The two monks looked at each other. They briefly raised their hands to heaven in grateful thanks. Then,.as one, they stepped into the foaming waters.

Two stomachs growled in unison, already anticipating a satisfying meal.

Reflections On The Skelligs

The Skelligs, Kerry,

In our first episode on the  Imramma, ‘The Voyage of Bran Mac Febul,  we discussed the monastic preference for settling in lonely and out of the way places. We referred to the practice as ‘extreme monasticism’. One of the best examples of this must be early monastic complex on a lonely rock, you can hardly call it an island, known as Skellig Michael. off the coast of Kerry.

Even today, voyaging in a modern motor boat, it is still something of an adventure to visit this World Heritage site. Even in summer, there is no guarantee of landing on the island.  A visit certainly aids appreciation of  the determination of these hardy voyagers,

I have visited the Skelligs twice  Both voyages were in the month of September, nine years apart.  I have reprinted below, a couple of extracts from my own notes. The journeys were something of an Imram for me, although I am glad to say, the skipper of the boat was not ‘rowing around’ but seemed to know exactly where he was going!

Skellig MichaelFirst visit: 

We slide down Coomanaspic and into the harbour at Port Magee. We find our boat quickly, a small motor boat, licensed for twelve passengers. While we are waiting for our skipper, we get chatting to a Scottish woman, Sarah.  Her brother works in a local hotel. He has been here for three years and has never once been able to land on the Skelligs. He has advised her that we are unlikely to land today. This is the first time the boats have been out in ten days and the season’s storms have been aggressive. We will be travelling in hope.

It feels exhilarating to be underway, cutting our path through the green glass of the waves, but I am aware that we have not yet left the shelter of Valentia. When we do, we are rocked and plummeted into fairground laughter as the sea heaves and breathes beneath us.

The mainland is far behind now, but I still cannot see the Skelligs. Then, as we turn into the waves, I understand that we have been heading straight for them and that the view has been blocked by the boat.

Skellig beagSkellig Beag is impressive. Sheer rocks pile up into a crazy, pinacled Gothic edifice, stark against the blue grey sky. The bare rock is white with nesting gulls and iced with crashing foam.

Beyond it lies Skellig Michael itself, black spikes piercing the moss-turfed and impossible slopes. We can already identify the distant, stone hummocks that make up the monastic eerie of those long departed dwellers on the edge of the world. You have to wonder what those hawkish Viking invaders imagined that they would find in this indomitable fortress of spirit.

But it seems that we are less hardy than those Valhalla bound Sea-farers. There are hurried conversations on mobile phones, discussions and shaking heads. Even before our guide leaves the cabin, thumbs down, we know we questing pilgrims are to be repelled.  We cannot land.

The sea is rising again, the wind stronger. The   boat flies, seal swift, waves parting as we plough a path. The sea concedes our return, but the wild salt spray constrains our vision to a narrow channel and the islands on the edge of the world are lost to us, this time.

Skellig MichaelSecond visit: 9 years later

The extravagant cone of Skellig Michael bobs and bounces in the white waved water, like a grey inflated iceberg. It looks somehow, unstable as we hang over the boat’s rails taking angular photos. It is disconcerting. We are the ones who are rising and falling on our fragile floating platform, but as the boat stills its engines, it is hard to appreciate this.

We have passed by the great rock’s sharp bird clad sister and are waiting to see if it will be safe to land on Skellig Michael itself. Raising our eyes, we can see uneven stone steps, carved out by the monks all those centuries ago. There is also the one , unexpected, and recent  addition to the rock; a circular helicopter pad.

Our gaze is drawn back to the landing site. The rungs look impossibly small, a slender ladder rising to a paved path. Our sightings of it are in constant motion as the sea rearranges our point of view.

But we are landing. Slowly, carefully, our skipper, eases us in and the boat is tied securely. One by one we gingerly climb the ladder onto the solid, monastic rock.

We are all still wearing motorcycle wet weather ‘onesies’.   We have been grateful for their cover on the way over.

“Keep them on”, calls out the skipper, grinning. But I am familiar with these uncomfortable garments, on my daily bike journeys. I strip  off the damp cover’all and send it back down to the boat. The skipper shrugs and waves.

Skellig MichaelIt is finally time to ascend the steps we viewed from the bobbing boat. There are more than two hundred of them, cut into the landscaped slope, leading up to the monks’ ancient settlement of beehive stone huts. The sun comes out as we climb, and it becomes warm as we move into the shelter of the rocky peaks. Imagine the monks having to pass this way every day. Imagine this path in the depths of winter!

I am shivering in my fleece, in spite of the sun,  as I contemplate this thought, but at that Skellig Michaelmoment, the path opens out. We stand in the centre of the settlement The beehive huts cluster austere, domed, like monumental mole hills in a grassy clearing. A giant cross of ragged stone dominates, a rugged grey ghost of monastic memory. It is startling, the tones of the rock seeming to glow against the suddenly blue sky.

There are more visitors in this constrained space but I am able to enter one of the beehive structures alone. There are no windows, of course and the low door allows in little light. Yet, the interior space feels open, limitless, dim and calm. The corbelling is so fine and precise, that each stone, surely, would fit alongside no other.

Skellig Michael

Later, I relax in the sunshine looking out towards the narrow terraces thatwere once gardens of precious vegetables. I listen in to a guide who offers information on these hardy aesthetics who had traveled as far as they could go, out into the sunset, out into the Western ocean.

My mobile rings. I answer it almost absentmindedly.

“I am not at home”, I tell my friend

“Where am I? Why, I am standing on the edge of the world.”

Skellig Michael

For further informatio go to:

A monastery may have been founded as early as the sixth century, reputedly by Saint Fionán, but the first definite reference to monks on the Skelligs dates to the eighth century when the death of ‘Suibhni of Scelig’ is recorded. Skellig is referred to in the annals of the ninth and tenth centuries and its dedication to Saint Michael the Archangel appears to have happened some time before 1044 when the death of ‘Aedh of Scelic-Mhichíl’ is recorded. It is probable that this dedication to Saint Michael was celebrated by the building of Saint Michael’s church in the monastery.

Some time between the sixth and eight centuries, a monastery was constructed on the broad northeastern summit of the island. During the lifetime of the monastery a hermitage, one of the most daring architectural expressions of early Irish monasticism, was also created on the narrow ledges just below the summit of the South Peak (218 m, above sea level), the highest point on the island.

The Text of Immram Brain Part 1: The Woman’s Poem

Here is the first part of the text of Immram Brain, as edited by Séamus Mac Mathúna.  The translation is based on that of Kuno Meyer, although where my translation differs significantly from his, I have included his translation in brackets.

I have also marked the scribe’s glosses with brackets, introduced with .i. in the text and i.e. in the translation. I think many of these glosses highlight the cross-referencing of Christian with non-Christian material, as we discussed in the episode.

Points of interest, such as the names for various Otherworld places, are marked in bold.

Isolde Carmody

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