The Voyage of Mael Duin
Mael Duin was the son of a nun, and there aren't many who can say as much. In the turbulent eras of historical Ireland it was not uncommon for the pagan and Christian to come into conflict, as had happened with Mael Duin's father and mother. His father was the fearsome warrior chieftain Ailill Ochair Aghra, and he ravished his mother in one of his raids. After she gave birth to Mael, she handed the babe over to her sister to raise.
Her sister was the Queen of Eoganacht, with three strong sons of her own, but she raised Mael as one of them and he grew to be a fine strapping young man. He was victorious over everyone in every game they used to play, both in running and leaping and spear casting and casting stones and racing horses. His success attracted jealousy though and one day another lad said to him that he was the bastard child of unknown parents!
Well of course this rocked Mael back on his heels a bit, so he went to what he thought were his parents and demanded to know the truth of it, refusing to sit at their table until they came clean. And so they eventually did, and he went to visit his real mother in the nunnery, who told him his father had been trapped by his enemies in a church, and they'd burned him alive and the church along with him.
Distraught and vengeful at the ruination of his life and the discovery of his true lineage, he went to visit his father's tomb at the church of Dubcluain where he ran into Briccne, a monk who meant no good. Briccne told him then that he had to go forth and find his father's killers, and make certain they died as they had lived, by the sword.
And so Mael vowed vengeance on the curs who had done away with his father by blood, for blood is thicker than water as they say. He went from that place and pondered, for he had no notion where to begin his hunt. Taking counsel with an ancient Druidess named Nuca at Corcomroe, he learned that these men were pirates, and their cackling band could be found a short sail off the west coast of Ireland. But, she warned him, his geas (that is magical duty) was to bring with him only seventeen companions.
He picked his men with care and had his currach well stocked with provisions, weapons and all the needs of his voyage when he heard behind him his foster brothers shouting from the shore, crying out to join him on his adventure. Mael Duin was careful to heed the advice of the Druidess and told them "Get you home, for even though we should return, only the number we have here shall go with me!"
And his foster brothers wept to hear it, leaping into the waves, shouting "We will go after thee into the sea and be drowned therein, unless thou come unto us!" Being left with no choice in the matter, Mael Duin turned about and took them aboard.
After a day and a night of wild voyaging across storm-kissed seas, they came hard up on a dark island with bright bonefires ablaze on the cliffs. The sounds of merriment and rough drunken carousing echoed down to them and Mael Duin heard on man boast of trapping Ailill in a church and burning it down around his ears. Before they could cast a line to land however the storm picked up and grew violent, driving them far from the island where destiny awaited, and Mael Duin regretted deeply ignoring the words of the Druidess.
Lost now at sea they flew across the waves, seeking in vain for land under a sky of slate and grey clouds, with no sun nor stars nor rising moon to guide them, and they came to a strange island ahead. "Is this the home of those blackguard pirates?" yelled Mael, but the keenest-eyed of his crew turned white as a sheet and said it was not, for giant ants were swarming to meet them!
Looking upon the giant snapping mandibles, Mael Duin thought better of landing and said "Away, away!" So they turned about and sailed on. It was becoming clear to them now that they no longer sailed on the mortal waters of the world.
Three days after, their food was running short, for no fish would take a line and they hadn't planned on being away for so long, but thankfully they came to an island of great trees and terraces aflutter with birds. No sign of the farmers was to be seen so they climbed ashore and took as many of the birds as their slings and arrows could catch, and that was many, for they knew not how long they'd have to travel. On they sailed, freshly provisioned.
There was a hungry monster living on the next island, with the legs of a dog and the body of a horse, but they didn't land and so it couldn't feast on them, having to content itself with throwing pebbles instead. They came to an island after with an enormous racetrack, marked with hoof prints of great size, and upon seeing them Mael Duin declared it was best to make off in a hurry. As they sailed away, they looked over their shoulders to see tall demonic riders on fiendish looking horses beginning a race, and were glad they hadn't been seen.
So long was it until they saw the next land that their stomachs thought their mouths had been sewn up, but there was a house ahead on a deserted island - within they found food, and shortly after an island with a tremendous apple tree. For three days they sailed around it until Mael Duin managed to knock a cluster of apples from one of its branches. This gave them food and drink for forty days and nights.
More horselike beasts awaited on the next island, but the place was red and slippery with blood, for the creatures were constantly tearing at one another. They sailed on.
Coming then to an island surrounded by large stone walls, they spied upon the shore a strange monster performing its exercises. It would twist its whole body around without ever moving its skin, and upon occasion it would run the length of the island. When it caught sight of them getting away it flung large and heavy stones after them, one of which smashed right through Mael Duin's shield and lodged itself in the keel of his boat.
For more than a month they sailed the trackless ocean, where no signpost nor map would do any good, and again their food and provisions began to run short. Ahead loomed another strange island which was overun with pigs and dotted with apple trees. As they watched though, the pig-beasts burst into flame and ran at the apple trees, eating the fallen fruit. In consternation they considered their dilemma, but they watched sea birds fly over the place at night when the demonic pigs were asleep, eating the apples in safety, and they did the very same themselves.
Coming next to a palace on the ocean, they beheld a wonder for the eyes - it was filled with gold and silver necklaces and brooches studded with the rarest gems, while against one wall was hung an array of fabulous weapons fit for princes. Cats prowled all over the place but they paid no heed as Mael Duin and his men explored deeper, finding at the heart of the palace a vast banquet hall and a table creaking with all sorts of good things to eat and drink.
They ate their fill and slept well that night, but as they made ready to leave the next day some of the men wanted to take the treasures with them. Mael Duin forbade it, not wanting to repay the kindness of the cats with theft, but one of his foster brothers lagged behind and lifted a brooch into his pocket. All of a sudden the cats began to glow with an eldritch light, leaping on him and tearing him apart! From his ashes Mael Duin took the necklace and brought it back, apologising through his grief to the cats, and on they sailed.
A shimmering brass wall divided the next island in two, on one side of which were white sheep, and on the other black. A shepherd threw sheep over the wall, and when they crossed over the white sheep turned black and the black turned white. Amazed, Mael Duin and his crew tested this by throwing a rock over the wall, and indeed it turned black. They decided to keep sailing.
They arrived at an island upon which stood a tall mill with a tall miller. He'd grind corn and meal for the people about, but further he ground gems and jewels as well. When Mael Duin asked him why he did that, he replied that he was hell's own miller, and was grinding the treasures of those wealthy and unsatisfied.
Then they reached an isle of black people wearing black clothes, but before they reached it they heard afar weeping and wailing. All on that island was a lament, but Mael Duin's foster brother went ashore to find the cause of their sorrows. He wandered into the place and started crying inconsolably himself, overcome with grief, and disappeared. Mael Duin sent four more to get him and bring him back, but the same fate befell them. Wiser now, he told the next expedition to cover their faces with wet cloth so that the sorrowful airs of the island wouldn't touch them - they found the first four but not his foster brother, so that was another gone.
Four walls divided the next island, one of gold, one of silver, one of copper and the fourth of crystal. Kings, queens, maidens and youths lived one in each quarter, and the maidens made them welcome. They rested there and slept for three days, awakening on their boat with no sign of the island to be seen.
Coming now to the Isle of Women, they found a great Queen, lady of an enormous crystal palace and many fair maidens. She asked them to stay, telling them they would never age or become sick on the island, and they stayed for a while. But the time came when Mael Duin decided it was time to resume their journey, although in truth he'd become the Queen's lover so it was his men who grew restless and pulled him away. The Queen was furious and cast a magic ball of yarn after the departing boat - Mael caught it and couldn't let it go, and so he was pulled back to shore along with the boat.
The Queen cast a magic geis upon them that if they ever tried to leave, one of them would catch her ball of yarn and be pulled back in. Nine months they had to stay there, and nine tiems they tried to escape, until one of the crew other than Mael volunteered to catch the ball of yarn. When he did so, stout Diurán cut the hand from his arm, and so they made good their escape.
Through storm and surge they hauled rope and line for days to come with the weeping of the women still in their ears, until out of the ocean ahead rose a place with strange trees and stranger fruits. They landed and Mael Duin drew the short straw to try out the fruits - after one bite he fell into a deep trance from which he couldn't be awakened! The crew were fearful but after a time he came to, refreshed and merry, and instructed them all to gather as many of the fruit as they could, and press some into wine. So potent was the stuff that even the vapours would knock a man flat at ten paces, so they watered it down considerably.
Their next stop was the island of an old hermit, who told them he followed in the footsteps of Brendan of Birra, but his companions had all died. he bade them take what they will, and coming to a clear pool nestled in the hills they saw an old stork with its feathers being pulled by younger storks. Having done this, the bird dived into the pool and emerged fresh and young again. Diurán the bold thought it would be a great idea to try it for himself, but the others warned against such brash actions. Paying them no heed he leapt in, and remained young and strong for the rest of his life.
They came next to a land of laughter and joy, and by lot Mael Duin's third foster brother was elected to go and investigate. When he reached the crowds he himself began chortling and carrying on, and Mael Duin decided it best to leave him there rather than risk the lives of anyone else to rescue him.
A strange island awaited them next, with a rampart that revolved around a small town, and a gate that revolved around the rampart. When the two lined up they could see the whole town and all seemed content within, but Mael Duin suspected they had reached a place of the dead, one of the heavens of the underworld, and kept sailing.
The intrepid adventurers wandered on, coming then to a great tall sharp pinnacle fo rock, upon which lived a naked hermit, clad only in his beard. They landed and the hermit told them he'd been a a cook at a monastery on the island of Tory, given over to thieving treasures and selling them or keeping them for himself. One day he was given the task of burying a sinner, but a voice rose from the spot where he meant to dig and told him this was the resting place of a saint, asking him not to bury the sinner alongside him, in exchange for which the saint would show him the path to everlasting life.
The cook did as he was bid, deeming it a fair bargain, and buried the sinner elsewhere. Later he bought himself a fine boat and lived on it for a while, enjoying the views of the beautiful island and generally taking his leisure. Then an evil storm arose, whipping him away deep into the ocean, and he was lost until he saw to his astonishment a man walking across the water towards him. It was none other than the saint, who told him he was beign punished for his thievery, vice, greed and other sins.
Telling the man to cast his treasures overboard, the saint then gave him seven pieces of cake and cup of watery old whey to drink. Then the boat drifted along for some time, eventually coming to a stop at a humble rock. The hermit set foot on the rock and his boat drifted away, and he knew this was where he must do his penance. For seven years he ate only of those cakes and drank only the watery whey, praying as he did so.
When they ran out, an otter brought him salmon and firewood for seven more years, and when that stopped he received a half a cake and a cup of ale each day. And each day he prayed, and the rock grew taller and taller, until it was a small island. Although he had little to give he shared his food and drink with Mael Duin and the crew and prophecised that the end of their voyage was near, and that it wouldn't end in blood.
Thanking the hermit, Mael Duin and his men, now with the appointed number of crew, took their leave and raised sail before a brisk, clean wind. In the distance they caught sight of a falcon flying high, and knew this was a bird of Ireland calling them home. They rowed to the south east for a full day, reaching at last that island where they had overheard the pirates jeering and shouting.
The man who had boasted of killing Mael Duin's father had heard tales of the great hardships himself and his crew had suffered at sea, and resolved to welcome them warmly should they ever find him again. He begged forgiveness from Mael Duin and the two clasped hands as friends, feasting and sharing stories of adventure, before Mael Duin returned home to the joyful cries of his mother and foster father.
On the map below is, some would say, the embarkation point of Mael Duin from what is now Galway city. If you'd like to visit you can find a good list of hotels, B&Bs and other accommodation here. While you're enjoying this site you might also enjoy a little Celtic and Irish music to set the mood, or just the one or two songs if you're not interested in the whole albums. Don't forget you can get some very nice Irish jewelry for yourself or someone else as well, or for the craftier maybe make your own!
Mael Duin's voyages are told in great detail in this book here.