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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Music: “Tam Lin” by Gian Castello
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.
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.
It was just a branch from an apple tree.
It lay there beside him on the ground, shining silver in the sea-washed sunlight.
Bran sat up, yawning. He stretched his arms, flexing his fingers.
What a dream that had been!
The music; sweet, unearthly. It had followed him as he walked alone on the sharp-grassed dunes. Yes, it was that strange and haunting music. It had always been behind him as he walked. He had been unable to see who was making those thrilling sounds, could not discover where it was coming from. It had entranced his senses, like an exotic perfume; made him dizzy, unsteady on his feet.
The air was bright, fresh; and he could hear the summer singing of birds above him. The dream was turning to mist in his head, yet fronds of its perfume still clung about his memory.
That music! It made the birdsong sound raucous and harsh.
Bran yawned again and stood up. What had he been doing lying down anyway? How had he come to fall asleep on the grass here? Hadn’t he been waiting for news? No time to sleep, surely?
A fresh wind blew and he shivered suddenly. His head cleared. It hadn’t been a dream. The music had been true, had been reality, sending him reeling into sleep.
Bran took a step forward and felt something move at his feet. There was an echo of music like distant bells, and a remembrance of subtle perfume. He looked down.
The apple branch from his dream was still there, lying on the ground. But it hadn’t been a dream.
Bran bent down and picked up the branch, turning it over in his hands. It had come from no tree in this world. The bark was silver, but so fine and finished that no smithcraft of his world could have honed it so. Bran gently probed the silver surface with his thumbnail. It yielded to his slow pressure, leaving the crescent of his nail marked on the curve of the twig. Curiously, he scratched at the dent. Flakes of silver bark fell to the ground. The wood was a soft dull silver beneath.
Carefully, he stroked one of the shining leaves. It flexed at his touch. He admired the veining patterning the spearhead shape, and allowed his finger to brush the edge serrations. Such making was beyond all craft of man.
And the blossoms! The branch had been taken from a tree in bloom. Gently, he pinched one of the blushing white flowers. It bruised beneath his fingers. Bran shook his head in disbelief. No crafter in silver, however talented, could have grafted living flowers onto metal.
Bran carefully shook the bright branch, wondering if the petals would fall. The haunting strains of the remembered music danced around him for a moment, and he felt the power of the perfume mazing his mind again, leaving him quiescent and wondering.
“It is a gift,” thought Bran to himself. “A great gift from the Otherworld.” He gently shook the branch again. This time, he thought he heard words sung to the rhythm of the silver leaf music…
“A branch of the apple-tree from Emain
I bring, like those one knows;
Twigs of white silver are on it,
Crystal brows with blossoms…”
Bran walked back to the fort, deep in thought. This gift from the Otherworld might be a two-edged sword. The Ever-Living Ones gave nothing without purpose. Such gifts heralded change, maybe even trouble.
Yet the silver branch he held in his hands was a wonder. It called to him, drew him towards its secrets. He knew that he could not cast it away.
Bran looked up and smiled, taking in the tang of the salt air on the breeze. There was a new spring to his stride. This was no dream.
He was ready, now, for the adventure that lay before him.