Story Archaeology

Uncovering the layers of Irish Mythology through a regular podcast and related articles

Story Archaeology needs you!

Greetings all diggers and scrapers and fragment-collectors…

To The Skelligs - by Éamonn O'Doherty

If you read “The Trials and Tribulations of a pair of Story Archaeologists”, you’ll know that we at Story Archaeology have been on our own technological Immrám for some time now. It certainly can feel very much like “rowing around” when trying to select, construct and set up new computers.

We have conquered one of those islands on our journey. Isolde now has a new PC which is much less terrified of the internet than her previous model. Chris has finally installed the wonders of wi-fi in her own home. So we are ready to strike out on the next leg.

This is where you come in. Please take a listen to this short-cast, which explains why we need your help to continue on our journey. We would be nothing without our wonderful audience. Indeed, we’re starting to get the sense that this audience is in fact a community. So please help tug on the oars, and let’s keep Story Archaeology on this extraordinary immrám of discovery!

Rowing Around Immrama 7 – Echtrae Tadhg Mac Cein – The Adventures of Tadhg son of Cian

Passage of the Wisdom Keeper by Paul Bond

Passage of the Wisdom Keeper by Paul Bond

The Adventures of Tadhg Mac Céin may seem like a Middle Irish vision of Theme Park Ireland, but this rollocking sea adventure has real surprises up its sleeve. Exactly what kind of Otherworld is it that our Jack-the-Lad hero has discovered?

Join the Story Archaeologists as they plumb the unexpected depths of this hidden Immrám gem.

Don’t forget to subscribe to get the latest posts! Related Articles will be posted in the days to come…

Story Archaeology is run on a voluntary not-for-profit basis. If you can afford a donation towards our running costs, we would be very grateful. The “Donate” button is on the right-hand-side of each page.

Check our Reading List for further reading and resources.

by The Story Archaeologists

Music: “Tam Lin” by Gian Castello

The Island of Sheep

ramThey had been two weeks away from land now, fourteen days and fourteen nights on the undulating, heaving, breathing waves.

They were here together, in a vessel that had appeared so strong and stalwart on the good earth. It now seemed no more than a fragile cockle shell adrift on the lucid illimitable sea.

Tadhg smiled wryly to himself. The boat had proved sufficient, so far. It had carried him and his forty brave warriors, along with his sea-reaver prisoner guide, safely, so far.

He had wondered how great this vast wind rippled watery plain really was. How far was it to this enemy land of Fresen that had, so completely, stolen away his wife and his brothers. The Almarach had been vague on this part of the rescue plan.

But, this realm of Manannan was, by no means, an empty land.  They had marvelled as shoals of iridescent salmon danced, dizzily in the sun spattered waters. The cattle and kine of the Water Lord had been varied indeed. Great grey Bull seals dove beneath their boat like javelin shadows and there were others, huge sea beasts, fountain flowing streams into the misty air. It was a diverse and beautiful world, but Tadhg realised that he was longing for the green of grass and earth beneath his feet.

Then, as if his thought had taken shape and substance, there it was. It was a fair green isle, flat and wide, and solid.

And now he stood on the welcome island while his warriors hunted for fresh food, glad to be active. Idly, he kicked at a smooth, grey pebble, lying, immobile, at his feet. It skittered along the surface of the velvet grass.

“It didn’t sink”, he thought with a mental grin.

There was a shout, followed by replying calls from within the trees.

“The hunt is up”, he thought to himself and turned to reach for his great throwing spear. His stomach rumbled. A joint of roasted meat would make a pleasant change

Yes,  they were, emerging from the wooded cover, a group of his best fighters, but there was no sign of any prey? Surelyhis fighters were not running away.

And then, the great beast broke cover. It was a ram. But what a creature! It was the size of a stallion, if not larger, and its magnificent fleece curled and flowed around it. Its horns crowned its head like a coronet of curved knives.

The warriors fanned out warily, seeking to bar its path, and momentarily, the beast slowed, until it stood at bay before them, eyes blazing and nostrils flaring with rage. Tadhg raced to join his men.

“I am sorry sir, we couldn’t hold it”, yelled his lieutenant, “We tried to take down one of the ewes. The ram just went for us”.

The beast was reading itself to charge. It tossed its wild horns, and pawed the ground with huge hooves, sparking the stone.

Tadhg nodded and five javelins flew in unison. The beast did no more than toss his head and five broken shafts fell, shattered around it

Tadhg took a wary step, and then another. Slowly, stealthily he started to flank the huge animal. The ram ignored him, staring with baleful eyes, at the warrior line and the second wave of javelins ranged against it, waiting to fly.

And then, just as the beast began to charge, Tadhg let loose his javelin. It was a lucky cast, as he admitted later, but he watched , in astonishment, as the beast faltered and then sunk to its knees. Then he continued to watch in joyful relief as the ram’s head fell and the creature shuddered and died.

His men, already cheering, were  on the fallen beast, ready to strip it of its skin.

Tadhg took a deep breath and then called his warriors to order.

“Take care in the butchering, lads, he called. That fleece will see us snug on sea drenched nights.

As he walked back to the boat, he was smiling to himself. So, they would not go hungry. If they could take the ram, even one of such gigantic size, then they would feast on a fat wether or two while they were here leaving plenty to prepare for their journey.

They would not starve on the open sea. Where there was one island, there would be others. They would reach their goal and he would save Liban and his brothers from their imprisonment.

He thoughtfully regarded the boat, beached now, until the tide should return it to its element. Yes, they would reach their goal but what wonders might he encounter on the way?


Please be patient. Two new episodes are on their way

Young Humpback of Morton Island, QueenslandHi to all Story Archaeology friends. Chris here. I just wanted to apologise for the delay in publishing our next podcast episodes. Two were recorded in August and are awaiting editing. The first is the very exciting Immráma style journey of Tadhg, son of Cian. This, little known text proved to be an unexpected literary gem of a story with a great deal of humour stashed away in its tongue-in-cheek content. Researching and recording this text turned out to be great fun. The second podcast episode awaiting editing is one of my favourite ‘story-telling’ stalwarts, the story of Cormac’s Cup. We uncover some intriguing, perhaps even shocking, story-archaeological finds in this episode.. So why the delay? Well I am the other side of the world, in Brisbane, during September, visiting family but also taking time to explore the rich vein of stories to be found here with days off for such activities as whale watching and sampling the events of the Brisbane arts Festival. Meanwhile Isolde is struggling with a computer on its last legs (or final pixels) and is also occupied rehearsing her ‘One Woman’ play ‘Mamo’, which has its first performance at the Dock, Arts Centre in Carrick next Friday (13th) Isolde will be publishing both episodes as soon as possible after the event.. So please be patient with us. There will be a satisfying double helping available very soon.

On the Seas of Time ~ Immráma in a Broader Mythological Context.

Illustration: St._Brendan_celebrating_a_mass

How to define an Immrám

Series Four of Acallam na nÉces has been exploring the tale type, Immráma,  that is ‘Voyages’.  Immráma appear in the tale list which sets out the curriculum for the qualification of poets. This list sets out the five times fifty prime stories that any self-respecting bard should have ready, as well as the twice fifty stories allotted to the higher grades.

The class Immráma contains four tales. We have covered them in recent episodes, but this doesn’t mean that series four has come to an end. Our difficulty has been that there are several stories which could have been included in the class.  First there was the voyage of Brendan the Navigator, which could not be excluded.  There is also the fascinating and little known journey of Tadhg Mac Céin. This text will be the focus of our next episode. It is just too good to miss. Further, if Bran’s call to the ‘Isle of Women’, is classified as an Immrám, then how can we ignore the tale of ‘Niamh and Oisín’, or one of my favourite stories, ‘Cormac’s Cup’.

Oh, and I nearly forgot. We did say that we would take a look at  the tales of Mongan, the ‘wonder  child’ prophesied by Manannán in his call to Bran. So the series continues.

It all depends on how you define the class of tale.  Immrám means ‘rowing around’. The journey must include an unexpected random quality that is undirected by the traveller himself. That does not imply that there is no outside agency involved. In our official Immráma, God, or Manannán, is a direct influence. The destination of the Immrám seems to be a place that is ‘other’, a quasi-geographical location only encountered outside every-day life. It is called by such names as Tír Tairngire, the ‘Land of Promise’, or Tír na nÓg, ‘The Land of the Young’, or even ‘The Land of Promise of the Saints’, a synthetic conflation of Christian and non-Christian ideals.

The Immrám is not a quest, as such. The hero  does not attempt an incursion into the ‘Otherworld’ in order to achieve a specific goal or bring back a ‘boon’ to save his people. Bran is drawn into the adventure by the wonderful apple branch. He is chosen and does not actively seek the journey himself.  Snedgus and Mac Ríagla, as well as the Uí Corra, enter on the voyage as a form of penance, and Máel Dúin is seeking vengeance, as is Tadhg Mac Céin. Only Brendan, an unofficial Immrám traveller, sets out deliberately to find the ‘Land of Promise of the Saints’. Even so, one version has Brendan setting out as a penance for destroying a ‘book of wonders’.

The destination is frequently less significant than the encountering of marvelous islands and wonders along the way. Many of these islands and wonders demonstrate the ubiquity of the Irish ‘Otherworld’. There are wonderful life-giving apples, rainbow rivers of salmon, glorious prophetic singing birds, knowledgeable women guides, as well as eternal summer and general immortality. However, the specifically Christian Immráma ‘balance’ these abundant isles with Isles of terror and punishment. For the monks, the reality of heaven cannot be visualised without the equivalence of hell. The wonders have become instructional and have to be paid for by piety.

Outcomes of Immráma are variable. It is only Bran, in the official Immráma, who is unable to return, owing to the Otherworld’s excessive time dilation.  All the monastic groups return home, excepting a few individuals who are lost. Tadhg  achieves the best of both worlds. He may return, after a human death, to his magical and immortal isle.

Read more »

The Monk who was late

volcanoesThe young monk stood in the boat staring out across the silver grey sea. There was something out there. He had been set to watch but he was not willing to alert his companions until he was sure. Yes, it was an island. He could make out the distant shape of it, the bare ragged rockiness of it, as it tore aside the mist fronds, appearing stark and clear.

The swell was high and the rolling waves made his stomach shudder. But the monk feared that it was not the uncertain sea that made him so queasy. It was not even the long watch or the griping hunger of a two day fast; not this time. It was what he saw in the Father’s face, each time he looked at him that set his guts to churning.

He knew that he was not imagining it. So often, throughout this strange voyage he had turned to  find the Man of God gazing at him as if looking right through him, deep in thought, Each time, the young monk had lowered his own eyes quickly but not before he had caught a glimpse of the abbot’s thoughts. It was implacable judgement he saw in those piercing eyes, or was it pity?

The nausea rose up from his stomach again and he turned away from the sea. Abbot Brendan was standing there, still as a stone pillar, in spite of the heaving of the curragh.  He might have been taking in the first view of that on-coming island but the young monk knew that this was not so. The holy man was looking directly at him with an expression of deep sadness, and compassion. The younger man tried to hold his gaze but he could not. It was too much for him. Averting his eyes he mumbled “I see  land Father.

“I know, my son”, the Abbot answered quietly.

There had been three of them at the start; three young men, three friends who had embarked on this adventure together. They had entered the monastery together, embracing the austere life with a glorious enthusiasm and fervour. It had offered such bright promise, such a clean clear vision and together, they had vowed to follow footsteps of their blessed abbot and ascend to the high paths of sainthood.

They had managed to keep to the rule most of the time, well as well as any of the others and there was always a way back, through confession and the purity of penance. Then the flame of fervour would burn harder than ever.

So when they discovered that the Man of God was selecting a group of companions to accompany him to the Land of Promise of the Saints, they were determined to be included. This would be the greatest of adventures. Why had they, his most promising pupils, been left out?

Maybe they had forced his hand, a little, given him no choice. They had threatened to fast against him. “O dearest father”, they had said. “Suffer us, for the love of Christ, to accompany you on your voyage, otherwise we will die of hunger and thirst, for we are resolved to travel with thee all the days of our lives.’”

It was then that he had first seen that ‘look’ on Brendan’s face; that blend of judgement and pity. It had been disturbing. It had troubled their spirits even more than his words to them.

‘Have your will, my children;’ he told them. “I know well why you have come hither. One of you has acted well, for God had provided for him an excellent place; but for the others, He has appointed harm and judgment.’’

It had not stopped them from joining the group. Father Abbot was always coming out with such cryptic sayings, but he could never quite forget what he had seen in Brendan’s eyes.

Now he was alone. His two friends were gone. One of them hadn’t got far. He was lost right at the beginning of the voyage when they were still keen for challenges and visions. They had found a rocky island and a landing place in a small gorge with high, dark  walls.  Then there was a dog, a friendly creature that came sniffing and snuffling, welcoming them as they landed. They had followed the animal to a well built and spacious house.  There were couches, enough for all to rest, water enough for washing and food enough to feed them all but no inhabitants to invite them in.

They hesitated until Father Abbot gave permission for them to refresh themselves. Then they began to look around. It was a fine house but most interesting were the many vessels, inlaid horns and horse harness made from silver and other precious metals. They touched them gingerly, admiring their beauty, but Brendan sternly forbade them to take nothing. To do so he told them would be to commit the sin of theft.

“And yet”, thought the young monk to himself had they not been left for us, as had the food and the water. Why should those beautiful things also not also have been  gifts dedicated to the further glory of God?”

He had not noticed his friend pocket, the small silver bridle bit but, clearly, Brendan had seen the theft although he said nothing until they were back in the boat and it was too late to restore the object.

The Man of God was terrible in his righteousness. His hand trembled with rage as he pointed towards the thief , denouncing the deed. The younger man, cried out in terror, pulling the stolen bit from his pocket and throwing it from him in horror. They watched him as he cried out his guilt, begging for forgiveness.

Brendan said nothing but raised the miserable man to his feet.

“Now it may have been the power of Father’s Abbot’s words”, thought the monk, to himself as he recalled the terrible scene. ” but I know what I saw.”

It seemed that a small black boy, an imp, leapt from his chest, howling that he had been expelled from his seven year home. Once the saint had banished   the demon he spoke to the repentant thief in a gentler tone.

“My son”, he told him “You must prepare your soul for death.

And that is what happened.  Once he had received the body and blood of Christ the man just dropped dead. His soul was carried to heaven by angels and his body was buried on the island. Father Abbot said no more to them.

I did not like to ask him, mused the young monk, bitterly. “But I wanted to know why my brother had to die. Does not our faith preach forgiveness? It was only a small bridle bit.”

And then there had been  two of them. They had had many adventures together. One day, they came to a beautiful island, wide and flat, treeless, but embroidered with flowers, white and purple.

There was a community of holy monks already there, the choir of boys in spotless white, the young men in violet and the elders in purple. The island resounded with the continuous chanting of psalms. They had  watched in awe as a marvelous, blindingly bright cloud, like liquid sun, covered the whole island.

It was the next day when two violet clad men had come  to them with gifts of grapes, huge and very juicy. The fruit was welcome, of course, their mouths had watered at the scent of it.

“But what they asked of us was not so welcome, at least to me”,  the young monk remembered “They were to take one brother, my friend, to go with them. He had been chosen, by God to be part of this holy community.”

Brendan had let him go, told him that this was his sacred destiny. They had bade him farewell and watched in wonder as he was carried away. His companions spoke, in hushed tones, of his special favour. The young monk sighed to himself.

“Why should I not be bitter at his loss? He was my friend, my brother.”

He had been one of three and now he was alone. Now he could, no longer, avoid recalling the words of Father Abbot ignored before they had  left dry land.  Only one of them would make a good end on this voyage and one of the three would be buried in hell. He thought about his two companions. One had turned out to be a thief and had died for his crime. But he had died repentant and carried to heaven. The other had been greatly favoured by God and allowed to join the Anchorite community. What fate did that leave for him?

The young monk turned back to the sea. The island was much closer now and it looked forbidding indeed. The massive cliffs were night black, and so high, that the tops were hidden. The island’s central mountain loomed darkly and at its peak, a plume of smoke shot into the sky. It was a terrifying sight and yet, the young man could not pull his eyes away. Was this truly the place of his fate?

He struggled with the thought and realised that he was holding his breath. Carefully, he forced himself to calmness.  He knew that he was a sinner. The monks were taught that all men were sinners. Yet, he had not committed any terrible crimes. He was not a murderer.  Surely, Father Abbot would save him He trusted the ‘Man of God.

The Island grew closer. He could see the little waves lapping on the black the foot of the cliff wall.

Yes, Father Abbot would save him.


Rowing Around Immrama 06: When is an Immram not an Immram? The Voyage of St Brendan

illustration of St Brendan and the Great Fish by Amber Coopr DaviesThere are some characters in Irish story who are just hard to ignore. St Brendan the Navigator is one of them. Although his voyage is not one of the Immrama from the tale lists, he confidently sets of with his crew of monks to sail to the Land of Promise of the Saints.

Join the Story Archaeologists as they follow in the wake of a saint.


Don’t forget to subscribe to get the latest posts! Related Articles will be posted in the days to come…

Story Archaeology is run on a voluntary not-for-profit basis. If you can afford a donation towards our running costs, we would be very grateful. The “Donate” button is on the right-hand-side of each page.

Check our Reading List for further reading and resources.

by The Story Archaeologists

Music: “Tam Lin” by Gian Castello

The Tabulated Immrama

The beautiful Broighter gold boat on a plain kitchen table While we were working on this series, Isolde thought that it might be helpful to create a table comparing all the islands and events of the four members of the set.  Not all the details of each story are present, but it is a useful aide memoire to use while listening to any episode in Series 4, We thought that it might be worth sharing, so here it is. It is a little cumbersome to  place directly into the blog but it can be readily downloaded or read on line as a PDF document. Just click on the link below.

Table of Immráma

And here are the links to available English translations of the four texts:

 Immrám Brain / The Voyage of Bran

Translated by Kuno Meyer:

Immrám Snedgussa ocus Mac Ríagla / The Voyage of Snedgus and Mac Ríagla

Translated by Whitley Stokes:

Immrám Uí Corra / The Voyage of the Uí Corra

Translated by Whitley Stokes:

Immrám Curaig Máel Dúin / The Voyage of Mael Duin’s Boat

Translated by Whitley Stokes, published in Revue Celtique, Vol. 9:

The Isle of Intoxicating Berries

A photograph of some red berries

Slowly, oh, so slowly, Máel Dúin became aware of his surroundings. He could sense the sun’s warm brightness on the other side of his eyelids, but he did not want to open his eyes.

He felt relaxed, his limbs heavy, almost languorous, and very comfortable. He had no desire to move a muscle. But why should he move? There was no reason for him to move.

He had been dreaming; a deep peaceful dream, velvet dark and sensuous. Had he been dreaming of the Woman? If he had, he didn’t remember. The sudden pang of regret that this thought delivered was disturbing.

No. He was not sure that he had been dreaming – just sleeping deeply. It had been a satisfying sleep of pleasurable contentment. He was almost sorry to have to return at all from that quiet forgetfulness. He rested a while, hovering between consciousness and sleep. There was no hurry.

Voices, anxious voices, invaded his ears, troubling his lazy enjoyment.

“Is he dying?”

“He’s still breathing.”

“All that red foam around his mouth. Is it blood?”

“I don’t think so. It looks more like juice from those red berries he ate.”

“But he’s been like this for all of three days.”

“He must be dying. No-one could sleep that long.”

“You could.”

“We shouldn’t have let him test the berries.”

“Someone had to do it, and the lot fell to him.”

“What are we going to do with him?”

The words irritated Máel Dúin. They would not allow him to drift off to sleep again. In spite of himself, Máel Dúin’s memory set to work to piece together everything that had happened.

It had not been much of an island, not like the wide and welcoming Isle of Women. It wasn’t even inhabited. But it had been plentifully clothed in leafy trees, not tall but rich in ruby-berried fruit. The blood red globules seemed ripe and plump with juice, but none of them could put a name to this ready food. No-one knew whether it was palatable, wholesome to eat, or even safe.

Máel Dúin remembered, now, how they had cast lots, choosing one to risk his life and health in the eating. He had been happy to oblige them, not greatly caring what happened to him – not then, not at that time.

But the warm comfort of sleep was lost. The voices bothered him like biting insects. He shrugged his shoulders and opened his eyes, blinking in the sunshine. His crew were gathered around him as he lay on the grass under the shaded fruit tree. He watched the anxiety fade from their faces as he sat up.

“I know,” he assured them. “I have slept for three days. But there is nothing wrong with me. The fruit is good.”

Máel Dúin stood up, stretching like a cat.

“The fruit is more than good – It is excellent.” Máel Dúin smiled. He felt good. The sad weariness and exhaustion had fallen from him like a winter cloak in summer. He felt ready to go forward and complete his voyage of exploration.

“Gather all the berries you can,” he told his crew. “They are a great gift. Not only do they ease thirst, but they lift the spirits and cheer the heart. But,” he added with a grin, ”just ensure you dilute the juice with plenty of water. I don’t want to find you lot asleep for days and have to handle the boat alone.”

They all set to work with a will, filling every vessel they could find.

Rowing Around Immráma 05: Immrám Curaig Máel Dúin 2 – The Voyage of Mael Duin’s Boat Part 2

The Galway Hooker, Eyre Square, Galway City: by Éamonn O'Doherty

The Galway Hooker, Eyre Square, Galway City: by Éamonn O’Doherty

We are reaching the end of our voyage into “official” Immráma. As we turn for home with Mael Duin and his crew, we ask, “So what does it all mean?”

Journey into new waters with the Story Archaeologists as we begin to chart our Immrám adventures.


Don’t forget to subscribe to get the latest posts! Related Articles will be posted in the days to come…

Story Archaeology is run on a voluntary not-for-profit basis. If you can afford a donation towards our running costs, we would be very grateful. The “Donate” button is on the right-hand-side of each page.

Check our Reading List for further reading and resources.

by The Story Archaeologists

Music: “Tam Lin” by Gian Castello