Story Archaeology

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

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.

730px-St._Brendan_celebrating_a_mass-300x246 Series four of Story Achaeology, has been exploring the tale type, Immráma,  that is ‘Voyages’.  Immráma  appear in the tale list which sets out the curriculum for the  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  second, fifty stories allotted to the higher grades.

The class “Immrám” 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 O’ 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 Imram 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 Isle 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 a 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 Riagla, as well as the Uí Corra, enter on the voyage as a form of penance, and Máel Dúin is seeking vengeance, as is Tadhg O’ 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 Immrám, 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.


When we first planned to undertake a Story Archaeology series on Immráma  I was keen to explore the guises  in which the ‘Immráma’ tale  type might appear in a wider world mythology.

The ‘journey’ story may be regarded as a universal metaphor for life. The mortal human sets out on an unknown sea of possibility , helped, or hindered, by external agency, alone or with companions who have their own destinies to follow,  The voyagers will experience marvels along the way and may choose to profit from these encounters or to repeat mistakes made by themselves, or a companion. They may also hope for a future homecoming in this world, or another, making a good end. They will be changed, in some way, by the voyage.

The journey story tale may also be regarded as a story-tellers’ dream ticket. It is episodic, easily contained but not location specific and anything may happen, however bizarre. It is a rollicking good story type. Therefore, it is hardly surprising that some of the oldest stories in the history of the world share factors in common with  the Immráma.

The ark tablet translated by Irving Finkal,

The ark tablet translated by Irving Finkal,

Let us examine one of the oldest stories ever to have been committed to the written form, that of the flood narrative. The story is probably best known in its Hebrew form, possibly compiled from Babylonian sources during or after the exile period. However the oldest Sumerian documentation on cuneiform tablets is the best part of 4000 years old. Atrahasis (Exceedingly wise) or Ziusudra, who later became Utnapishtim the Faraway  (He who has life) and, of course, the familiar Noah are all selected by the outside agency, Ea, Yahweh, etc.  to save humans and animals from extinction.  It is noteworthy that, in the pre-Hebrew versions, there is no suggestion that humans are to be punished for wickedness. It is merely that they are making too much noise. Ea (or Enki) sets out to save mankind in spite of the divine decision. The over all story is familiar to most people but there are some general connections to Imramma.

  • It is an undirected voyage
  • It is brought about by external agency
  • It has prophetic birds, in that their sending out from the ark, predicts dry land
  • The destination is a re-born and promised land. Both Sumerian and biblical king lists divide their histories into ante and post-diluvium ages.
  • There are no on-voyage islands and wonders, however  unless you try to imagine how ‘Noah- accommodates animals as divergent as lions and woodworm!”

In his book, ‘The Ark Before Noah’ – a story archaeological exploration  if ever I read one – Irving Finkal, assistant curator of Assyriology  at the British museum, has some interesting comments on the ‘arks’. He is convinced that the original descriptions given in Sumerian and Babylonian versions of the story including a the recently translated ‘ark’ tablet, , show that that the boat was thought of as round. What was being described was a coracle. It was an extremely large one, certainly, but in other respects, similar to those used in Iraq from ancient times until the middle of the last century. They were either built from plaited palm leaf fibre rope on a willow, or similar frame or covered in tanned hides, waterproofed with pitch and lard.  So they were not so different from our Immráma boats then, just much larger. Of course, I am not suggesting that there is any link, what so ever, between the Immráma texts and ancient Akkadian cuneiform, although our monks would have been familiar with the Hebrew story and would have recognised its applicability. I can imagine them keeping an eye out for rainbows, on their travels between rocky island monasteries, just in case.

There are, of course, other Classical Immráma style voyages.  Whereas the epic poem ‘ Argonautia’, the voyage of Jason and his ship companions, created in the 3rd century BCE  by Apollonius of Rhodes, is strictly a quest tale, it does share  the Imram like encounters with strange islands and wonders. On the other hand, the earlier ‘Oddesey’ by Homer,  has more in common with the Immráma.  Odysseus’ random travels begin after the commands of a god have been disobeyed by one of his companions. Aoelus gives Odysseus a bag holding back all the world’s winds except the favourable west wind. One of his men opens the bag thinking it containing treasure.

On his undirected journey, the hero encounters more than one ‘Isle of Women’ and experiences many marvels. However, there is no specific final ‘Otherworld’ destination. His goal is his long lost home and wife.

One of the defining qualities of the Immrám, as stated above, is the unexpected undertaking of a guided tour of the worlds beyond our own. This journey is both dangerous and life altering. The traveller’s viewpoint can never be the same again. However, other cultures have not always thought of setting their ‘afterlife destinations’ on off-shore islands. They were, instead, traditionally located deep underground. An Immrám, it would have to be to directed to an ‘Underworld’ rather than a ‘Otherworld’.

At least one of these, ‘dry land’, Immráma could well  have been known to our vergileducated monks, who were familiar with Latin. A copy of the  Aeneid exists among the early medieval Irish texts.

Book six of the Aeneid  involves Aeneus in a  a trip to the Underworld.  He is  guided by a woman, the Sybil, and must carry a golden leaved branch if he is to gain entry.  It is of interest, although there is no definable connection, that Bran and Cormac’s apple branch have leaves of silver.  He is guided through the world of the shades,observes the Elysium Fields, and has the horrors of Tartarus described to him. His dearest wish of meeting his father is achieved.

Now it is worth noting that before Aeneus’s trip to the Underworld, he, also experiences a time of wandering on the sea. In fact, his relationship with and abandonment of Dido of Carthage has some resonance with the story of Máel Dúin and his encounter with the Queen of the island.

When we discussed the voyage  of the Uí Corra in Episode three, we compared their dark journey of the soul and their search for forgiveness with Dante Alighieri’s Inferno, written in the early fourteenth century. This first section of ‘The Divine comedy’, is a voyage downward, deep into a pit, rather than across an unknown sea. Dante’s journey, guided by the poet Vergil is as much a product of its time as the text of the Hui Corra with its contemporary Ceile De influence. It is also to be remembered that Inferno represents only one third of the poem. Dante balances his vision with Purgetorio and Paradiso as the monks balance their encounters with the heavenly and the hellish

From the fifteenth Century allegorical morality play, ‘Everyman’ to John Bunyan’s evocative ’The Pilgrim’s Progress’, published in 1678 the ‘dry land’ Immrám story type continued in popularity (without the rowing around, of course). I have always been fond of Pilgrim. I was brought up with the book. As a child I valued the idiosyncratic characters and dramatic locations, the Slough of Despond, the Interpreter’s house, the Delectable Hills and the fight with Appollyon. It is not sophisticated but  it does have an engaging and robust  quality which renders the story memorable. I always thought of it a prototype fantasy novel but it certainly shares similarities with the class of Immráma  A summary of The Pilgrim’s Progress might be given as follows.

A group of like minded travellers cut themselves off from the world-we-know and encounter challenges and wonders along an unknown and winding path. They are directed by an external agency, in their journey to another world. Friends are lost along the way and they frequently miss their direction or become diverted. Some reach their destination. They do not return.

It lacks only the boat!

What about the Immrám in the 21st century?

cover lifeofpiIn episodes four and five, we explored the story of the Voyage of Máel Dúin. We compared his journey to the book ‘The Life of Pi’. This book, by Yann Martel, published in 2001 won the Booker prize the following year.  Since the film was released, the narrative of the novel has become relatively well known. The protagonist is a young boy of sixteen years who adopts the name PI to avoid an unfortunate given name. His unusual childhood involves his father’s zoo in Pondecherry. After his father sells the zoo and is shipping the animals out. He is involved in a shipwreck where his family are lost but which he survives and travels for two hundred and seventy seven days in a small boat with a ferocious tiger who has eaten the other surviving animals. He encounters many marvels, including an island with carnivorous plants. Later in the novel he answers accusations that his story is unbelievable by offering a version where he has been terrorised by an evil cook who cannibalised his own mother. Pi is saying that if life is a story, then the way you tell it is part of its truth.

This novel has very close ties with the Immráma. Pi  is cast out into the unknown and swept away on an undirected journey.  Without doubt,he  experiences wonder and terror. His destination is safety, the ‘Promised Land’ where the hideous nature of his ordeal can become a transformative story. In Episode five, while discussing the Brendan narrative we also considered that the journey might, in part be a parable of monastic life. It is just  not the story, it is the way you choose to tell it. Yann Martell, said at  an interview he gave in 2002,

 “I was sort of looking for a story, not only with a small ‘s’ but sort of with a capital ‘S’ – something that would direct my life.”[1]

His response suggests that the act of writing the novel was something of an Immrám for him.

The most natural home for current Immráma style stories may be   Science Fiction. Instead of a small ship cast adrift onto the limitless sea, a craft may find itself lost and isolated in the endlessness of space, Sci-Fi depends on tales of wonder and terror which abound on imagined alien planets. The genre is able  to offer a location which is immediately ‘Other’. A   wide range of social and ethical issues may be addressed within this ‘otherness’ cut off from the mundane world, in the same manner as the voyage of Máel Dúin, for instance.

One, readily found,  example might be ‘Star Trek, Voyager’ which plunges a ship and its crew off course, whether with external agency or not is uncertain, and leaves them wandering on the stormy seas of an unknown sector of the galaxy. Their destination is the Promised Land of home and they experience wonders and horrors on the islands in space that they encounter. Having watched as many episodes as I can handle, I am not convinced that they learn much wisdom from their unexpected interactions with other beings. I suspect, that, in any case, the creators of Voyager might acknowledge a possible debt to Homer’s Odyssey but would not be aware of any resonance with the Irish Immráma!

However, if I were to choose one example of a modern Immrám, I would select, Douglas Adams’, inspired radio series, ‘The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy’. hitchhikers_guide_tvWhen you have, like Arthur Dent, been cast out into an uncaring universe because your planet has just been disintegrated to make way for an intergalactic by pass and you have had to hitch a lift on a passing spaceship without having time to even pack a towel and your only guide is an electronic book that describes earth as mostly harmless, well, that’s a definite start to  an  Immrám. When you have encountered a talking drinks machine that offers something that is almost, but not exactly, entirely unlike tea or the heaven of a ‘Pan-galactic Gargle-blaster’ served in the ‘restaurant at the End of the Universe’: When you have encountered wonders and horrors such as  surviving the ‘Total Perspective Vortex or a space liner delayed for one thousand years waiting for a delivery of lemon soaked napkins: When you have reached the ultimate destination and met the ‘ruler of the Universe’ who inquires whether you have come to sing to his cat: then you have been experiencing an Immrám .

It is a bizarre vision and yet offers a wonderfully wry look at the human condition. I think those adventurous and hardy monks might have enjoyed it. During one of Arthur Dent’s happiest interludes he discovers, or remembers, how to fly.

There is an art” he said, “or rather, a knack to flying. The knack lies in learning how to throw yourself at the ground and miss”.

Maybe those trees of singing birds  had another message for our monastic voyagers.

A final thought

I  hear that Skellig Michael will  feature in the next Star Wars film, episode seven (or is it three and a half? ) So,  the Jedi will be on, what could have been, Mernoc’s isle.

Immráma and Science Fiction ? Hmm!


[1]Martel, Yann (11 November 2002). Interview with Ray Suarez. PBS Newshour.

Vergil: Aeneid book vi

Date’s Inferno

this book is hugely enjoyable and extremely informative. If you enjoy archaeology through texctual excavation and love a good story as much as we do then read this book. Preferably listen to the audio book. The experience is  greatly enhanced by the author’s enthusiasm and scholarship as he reads his own work.  Highly recommended.Irving-Finkal

If you haven’t encounteded Hitchhiker, it is never too late. Go for the radio versions as well as the books. They are different.  SHUN the film!

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.


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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.


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by The Story Archaeologists

Music: “Tam Lin” by Gian Castello

Trials and tribulations of a pair of Story Archaeologists

Over the last few months we have been exploring the wild watery wonders and terrors of the Immráma. We have reached out for the delicately blossomed branch and healing apples of Manannán ,  and glimpsed the scintillating orchards below the waves. We have witnessed the salmon’s leap over a brazen weir, wondered at milk -running rainbows and pillared isles. We have been to hell and back with the Uí Corra and sailed away from bewildering monsters like Máel Dúin himself.

It has been illuminating and full time fun.  I am afraid the podcast episode covering the most part of Máeldύin’s voyage came out at over two hours! We hope you enjoyed it and enjoyed it in manageable pieces.

While we have been out there delving into our watery story-archaeological trenches we have been undertaking a bit of ‘rowing around’ ourselves.  We have spent the last month or so changing the hosting on the Story Archaeology site. This should, of course, have been simple, the matter of a few days disruption. We had our ‘tech-guy’ my knowledgeable and qualified son who is generally fairly patient with a couple of literary types who originally tried to organise, and number  podcast episodes like a book, frequently  lose or forget passwords (me not Isolde) and strongly object to file names being unable to handle Irish words (Isolde rather than me).

No. It should have been straightforward. It never works out like that, does it? So, I thought I would describe some of the islands of wonder and terror that have delayed the last couple of podcast episodes.

skellig The Island of the Crashing Jaws

Isolde has a great memory but her computer does not. Either that, or it is beginning to demonstrate the first signs of Alzheimer’s. Do computers get senile? Of course her machine has a lot to do. It has to be prepared to talk to her at all times, using the Jaws programme and has to be taught to handle all the idiosyncratic Irish pronunciations, under Isolde’s careful tuition. It equally has to be able to blow up texts to a massive size to allow her to read text at all. Recently it has been more likely to blow up, its own software.!

She has been struggling with  an island of earthquakes where carefully constructed edifices will suddenly crumple like sandcastles when the tide comes in, without warning and quite indiscriminately. Fortunately, Isolde will be able to leave this annoying island behind soon when Colm builds her a new machine. She won’t regret moving on.

island4 The Islands of the Indomitable Hosts

Moving files from one location to another should be simple enough. They should be able to travel from one island to another across the cyber-sea without getting lost, shifting or otherwise undergoing transmogrification. But what do you do if one island sulks, removes cargo from the departing boat without informing the owner and the other demands fees for allowing the contents onto the destination island and then admits that its harbour is incompatible with the in-coming boat.  You need the powers of an early Irish saint to sort that one out; possibly not Collumcille, for choice. Our Colm has been doing his best and the new hosting now  seems to be behaving effectively.

 island 3The Island of Disappearing  Links

This island has nothing to do with golf, although there have been moments where I wouldn’t have minded having a large and heavy club to brandish. It wouldn’t have helped much. Checking links and re-tagging pictures takes time, especially after two years’ worth of posts. Undertaking the job is a labour of love. However, when an island shrugs and the links are lost, it becomes a labour of Heracles!

 Aerial views, Monoriki island, Mamanuca islands. Fiji Islands.The Island of the Silent Portal

An imram is a journey into the unknown. You can expect the unexpected, the sudden crisis, even being lost, now and again. However it can be very frustrating not to be able to launch the triple skinned boat out onto the cyber-sea at all.

And now I am going to indulge in a bit of a personal rant. I know places in northern Australia where electricity is provided by generators, but where internet coverage is reasonably good. I have sat in a minibus, way out in the featureless Egyptian desert and watched a fellow traveller instantly download a book I had recommended onto her kindle. Recently I was standing in a small remote  village in Eastern Turkey on the Syrian border. Was there Internet coverage to be had? Yes.

So, why is my internet speed and reliability so abysmal in the west Midlands of Ireland, no more than 150 km from Dublin? And don’t set me going on the iniquity of our National Broadband Scheme. My address allows me the choice of one provider only. My sole choice is well protected by having their only complaint line safely tucked away somewhere on the Indian continent protected by guardians whose prime function seems to be  to prevent escalation of complaints into action. It is not the fault of the answerers-on-the-line, I am sure. They do what they are told to do. However, this Island is fraught with monstrous frustration..

Forward to islands new.

So it seems, our personal journey has mirrored the fortunes of our sea-bourne heroes and we, like them, have eventually reached calm and familiar waters. Hopefully, podcast and blog are now on stable dry land and will become easily available and regular again. As we reach our second anniversary at the end of June, we hope to add some new downloadable  resources to the site.  Part of my role in schools is to provide some of the traditional Irish stories, often the lesser known ones, for older Primary age children in an entertaining and appropriate format. I am intending to add either audio or text versions of these stories as I tell them. I also have short plays for class size numbers based on Irish myth and legend. Other downloadable content from Isolde, or myself, will follow.

All content will be freely available but we will be adding a donation link for anyone of our listeners who cares to support a couple of technology impoverished story archaeologists.

Well, we may have reached dry land  for now but the Immrám goes on into a third year. So far, in spite of my rant, we have loved every minute and Story Archaeology has become a big part of our lives. We have made so many new friends and contacts across the world and are delighted that so many of you, out there, care about this rich treasure of Irish tales and texts. Thank you for joining us in our conversations on Irish mythology. Thank you too for so many engaging comments and kind compliments.

Here’s to the on-going journey.


The Isle of Women

ilseofwomenMáeldύin stood at the stern of the triple skinned boat, brooding moodily over the glassy waters.  His eyes remained fixed on the shadowed depths, almost as if he were searching for another of those uncanny underwater islands; a place to dream, a place to drown.

Behind him, was the clamoured activity of the boat. The voices sounded busy, cheerful, in spite of the muffled groans of the man who had been so badly mutilated in their flight from the island.

His men would need his support, his re-assurance. but he could not face them, not yet, not while the rocky island would still be visible, outlined in misted distance. He would not look up until the land, itself, was lost to memory.

Memory would not let him be. The sea was a mirror reflecting his thoughts back at him in sharp, sunlit little darts. He couldn’t be sure that they had not just sailed away from Paradise.

So many wonders, so many islands, had been laid in their sea path. They had seen so much unexpected beauty and, equally, much that was disturbing, un-natural; dangerous.

The sea mirror reminded him of a bizarre menagerie, seething with huge and hungry ants, slavering cannibal horses and fiery pig creatures. These monsters were not the only threats to natural order that he and his crew had faced.  Things had warped and wavered even as they had watched. Sheep that could be colour changed by moving across a fence, a treasure warding cat that became a deadly weapon, these they had seen with their own eyes. Simple things, natural things, sorrow, joy and sleep, all had become terrors on this voyage into the unknown.

And then they had come, by chance to this Isle of Women. Here they had met with such courtesy, sumptuous hospitality, and warm welcome. Here they had been offered all a man could wish for; feasting, hunting, constant leisured wealth without work and the friendship of fine women, worthy wives. There had been one waiting for each of the weary mariners and the wisest and best for him, his Queen.

This was a land from the oldest tales It had been the long sought reward of many a brave hero, and here, like them, Máeldύin and his comrades could stay, free from sickness, grief and age, forever. If this was not paradise, he did not believe his imagination could encompass anything sweeter.

Then his men had become bored, had become sated with pleasure, until their arms ached for labour and the endeavour of the seas.

“For we have been here for only three months but it has seemed a full three years!” they told him.  “If you will not leave with us then we will depart without you!”

He had sighed, but could not, in conscience, abandon his companions,

And so, they had sought to depart in secret. It was a dishonourable escape to sneak away like thieves in the night. And, it had not even succeeded for his noble woman had brought them back with a ball of wool that held fast, glued to his hand as he stood on the boat. It had reeled them in, whether they would or no.

His companions grumbled openly now, turning against him, certain that he had chosen to catch the lure.

“For if you cannot let go, then we are trapped forever”, they complained.

Even Máeldύin began to believe that there might be a truth in their blame of him.

“If you do not trust me”, he retorted “then when a second chance of escape is put before us, let some other reach out for the wool.”

“And if it sticks to his hand?”

“Then cut it off!”

Máeldύin walked away in disgust.

For  another three times three months they remained in this paradise but the peace of the island had already left it.

Little waves licked at the hide coverings of the boat and Máeldύin looked up, adjusting his balance. The island had passed beyond view into sun-kissed mists. Yet, for a moment, he thought he could still hear the grief-filled voices of the women, crying for their lovers.

Now there was no land to be seen out here on the landless sea where all men were landless, homeless men.  Máeldύin felt his homelessness sink, like a weight, into the blood of his heart. It had been three years now, and he knew his companions yearned to turn for home. But where was home? After the dreadful storm had flung them beyond the known, they had laid the oars aside choosing, perhaps, to go deeper into the unknown where nothing was as it seemed.

And did he even have a home to go back to? In that world also, nothing had been as it seemed. He had given up the kindly court of his fostered childhood, on finding that the tale of his birth had been a lie, Now, only one of the three he had  then thought of as brothers was still alive in the boat. He had told them, begged them, not to come with him. Their place had been in that other, comfortable world,

No. he, Máeldύin, in arrogant search for unadorned truth, had uncovered the dishonour of his blood heritage. He had met his mother, a nun, raped by his father on a raid for plunder and glory. He had met his father’s people and heard the tale of his father’s death at the hand of sea raiders. And this glorious journey had begun as a simple quest for vengeance, for the killing of his father.

Máeldύin sighed deeply, and turned back into the boat, He had tried to be a true son to Aillil, Edge of Battle, a man he had never known, but this desire had led him far beyond his enemies, beyond the edge of the world. Here he had found wonders, terrors, and truths, if truths they were, beyond imagining.

Yet, he had also been given a new family. Máeldύin smiled, in spite of himself, and moved to help his friends, as they sought to save the man whose hand had been sacrificed in their sea escape,

He felt his spirits lifting as the silver mists fled before the strengthening sun.  Now, he knew who he was. Landless man or no, he was a man with a story, and such a tale that the best of bards would be weaving with its words for ever.




Rowing Around Immráma 04: Immrám Curaig Máel Dúin – The Voyage of Máel Dúin’s Boat

An illustration of a boat tossed at sea

When Máel Dúin sets out on a voyage to avenge the father he has never known, he encounters a seascape of wonders and terrors where nothing is what it seems.

Join the story Archaeologists as they follow in his wake, discovering some unexpected marvels.

This episode is only the first installment of this maratime epic, and it lasts over 2 hours. So get comfortable and enjoy the journey!

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

Check our Reading List for further reading and resources.

by The Story Archaeologists

Music: “Tam Lin” by Gian Castello