As I was trying to gather more information about my persona I realised that it has been a very long time since I paid any serious attention to the Irish stories I loved as a child. The kids have heard the more obvious ones (Cú Chulainn, the Children of Lir, Tir n nÓg etc), but I really need to gather up the other ones too. I have half a notion that a Household storytelling night in the dead of winter with a big fire and hot drinks would be a marvelous thing, so I should at least show willing by gathering up a tale or two? In Ireland we tend to take one anothers stories and tell them in our way, keeping the essentials but changing one or two things. I’m not changing anything major in this retelling, taken from “Leabhar na hUidre” (the “Book of the Dun Cow” which dates to around 1100 when Aed Finn wrote it down) though the ending could use some work I feel, and a wicked part of me is tempted to change Mael Dúin to Cernac the Navigator and there’s a queen in this story seems to need a name beginning with S.
TL;DR – this is a long story about strange things that happened on a cursed voyage which I read before I read the Odyssey, so it grabbed my loyalty first. You can drop islands as you need to to shorten the tale or embellish madly where you want to fill it out, but these are the core islands from the recorded version in Leabhar na hUidre in the same order, with just a few changes here and there.
Much seem is put on the beginnings of a man or woman, so we too will begin our tale with the making of this man, Mael Dúin. Some might take dark things from this beginning, for there was a man, a famous man, of the Owens of Aran in Thomond, named Ailill Ochair Aghra who, while away fighting with his king, was camped one night near a convent of nuns. The men boasted long into the night about their bloody achievements. Their names, as cheers, rang off the walls of the convent where the nuns closed themselves away, anxious that trouble pass quickly by with the morning. It happened that one of the nuns had to leave the safety of her walls to ring the bell for prayers, and Ailill seized his opportunity for company, however unwilling, and made sure she would long remember Ailill Ochair Aghra of the Owens of Aran.
The baby was born in the allotted time, as such things will have their way, she named him Mael Dúin and fostered him secretly to the Queen. Oh and such a child and to become such a man! A beautiful man in form and face, skilled in weapons, fast of foot, long of arm, true of aim and the secret wish of many a heart in that place. It is true that his brightness charmed wherever he went, but dark murmurs of jealousy often bloomed in his wake.
One day, when the youth of the village were gathered at the burned ruins of the church at Doocloone, making a sport of tossing rocks, the heart of one turned sour and poisonous and loudly declared “It would suit you much better to avenge the man who was burnt there than to play about like a wastrel casting stones over his burnt bones.” Mael Dúin turned in confused consternation, “What man, what do you mean?” The jealous youth, his lip high with disdain, laughed the scornful, hollow laugh he was long too fond of. Onlookers began to shuffle uncomfortably about and stare at their feet. “Oh, only your father, Ailill, Edge-of-Battle” Mael Dúin stared, but knew by the discomfort of the crowd that there was a horrible truth emerging. He tossed the stone he had been about to throw (which happened, by happy chance, to land on the feet of his tormentor) and raced to his foster mother to discover the truth.
Nothing could appease his hunger for the truth. His father, he was told, had met his bloody end at the hands of Reavers from Leix, at the church of Dooclune, which had indeed been burnt over his head. There followed many nights of sharing his troubled brow with the stars in the deepest of night. No food could tempt him, no sweet voice distract him from his dark thoughts. He travelled with three of his foster brothers to his father’s kin and still could find no comfort in their welcomes and the pleasures of their hospitality.
One night, soul sick of the crashing voices behind his burning eyelids, he found himself hammering at the door of Nuca, the druid at Corcomroe, who opened the creaking door to him with merely a raised bushy eyebrow and shuffled back inside. Fire shadows licked around Mael Dúin as Nuca pronounced from his table of curiosities that he must build a coracle of skins lapped threefold one over the other, that seventeen men, not one man more, not one man less, must accompany him, and on what day he must begin the boat and on what day he must put out to sea. It seemed that demons possessed the heart of Mael Dúin as he ignored sleep, food and good company to complete his task. He invited his crew and only on the eve of his great undertaking did he finally allow strong drink to pass his lips and song to gladden his heart.
The morning of his journey dawned bright and clear, the crew were aboard and had sailed a little way when his three foster-brothers rushed down the beach, begging to come along. Their shouts shamed him, but he hardened his heart to their entreaties, to heed the druid’s warning. They were still youths and he sought to save them the uncomfortable journey with the unknown future, for love of them and his foster parents. Still they tumbled and rushed in haste over the dunes and finally flung themselves into the sea. Mael Dúin turned back, lest they be drowned. There should have been a mighty crack or the clouds should have boiled in the sky but they did not, and the voyage, now cursed, began.
Land was spotted not long after. The sailors marvelled at their progress, slapped each other heartily, having rowed only that one day and night and already found land – two small bare islands, each with a fort. They favoured the larger island, and the beach ahead was easily accessible, smooth with pale sand. Seagulls wheeled sedately in the sky above, and the fort stood proud against a miraculously clear, blue sky. The sea breeze carried the sound of quarrelling men, their tempers punctuated with the sound of swords on metal, of swearing and fierce boasts of former conquests exchanged.
“Stand down, you fool, I am the better man, wasn’t it me that killed Ailill of the Edge-of-Battle, me that burned the church of Doocloone over him? See how no one has come to avenge his death on me? Too afraid, those mewling men, and you think you can take me? Stand down!”
Mael Dúin’s friends German and Diuran the Rhymer loudly surmised that god was with them. Hadn’t He guided them so that blood would flow that very day? Barely had the last word escaped their lips when a great wind arose and howled about their craft, tearing horrible creaks and protests from the boat timbers and panicked yells from the men. Hours later, exhausted and lost in the boundless ocean, Mael Dúin could only look sadly at his foster-brothers and shake a worried head.
Three days and three nights passed, drifting aimlessly with no idea where to row, too exhausted and lost even to bicker. At the dawn of the third day the sound of waves woke them. They looked excitedly around for the welcoming curve of beach that promised them rest, sweet fresh water and maybe some fresh caught meat. Their cheering faltered as strange bodies flashed in the sunlight, moving with particular purpose towards them along the shoreline. Strange bodies with strange movements, with too many marching legs – an uncomfortable itching feeling swarmed over their spine as each man realised they were looking a huge colony of ants. No ordinary ants, each was the size of a foal, all twitching with purpose. Each luckless sailor imagined their heads lost to those alien mouths. In a frenzy and a scramble they reversed their course, and saw no land for three days more.
It appeared their luck had changed some when next they sighted land, there was no hellish landing party waiting for them, only the sweet sound of bird song and whispering leaves. They landed and cautiously explored the island, pushing slowly through the undergrowth, staring open mouthed at the strange and vast birds in the gently swaying trees, marvelously coloured and sweet of song. They rested a while and killed and ate some of the birds, but their size and strangeness made them uneasy. All the sailors began to imagine danger in the slightest whisper of wind, so they took some of the birds and soon returned to their boat to sail once more.
Their next island was a sandy heap perched on top of the sea. They had thought it empty and landed to stretch their legs and take a break from the sea, idly flicking stones in contests amoung themselves to raise flagging spirits. A noise alerted them, and turning stones in hand caught sight of a snarling beast, as big as a horse, with clawed feet like a hound flicking up storm flurries of the sand in its haste to reach them. Each man loosed his arsenal of gathered stones at the creature as they pelted their retreat, bodies complaining for only seconds as they resumed their seats and began to row once more onto the wide sea.
Their next landing was a larger, green, flat place. The sailors drew lots to choose who amoung them should explore. With some small curses and much bravado, German and Diuran began to explore. Having turned an ankle too many times in the great ruts on the flat, closely cropped green grass, they paused to consider what they might be, and were horrified to realise they were tripping in the giant tracks of horses’ hoofs, each as big as the sail of a ship. Next they came upon great nut shells, larger than men and mountains of goods and treasures. Terrified that the inhabitants of this island should appear so monstrously big, they hurried back to the sea again. A distance from shore the roars of an appreciative crowd in the distance gave them pause. Looking back they could see a great horse race. They whiled away their slow retreat betting amoungst themselves on these giant horses running swifter than the wind for sport, but they were not tempted to return and were grateful that the cheering populace were distracted from their presence.
A full week passed before a curious house on a great, high island caught their attention. The men, sore sick of their boat, all decided to brave the exploration. Crunching across the beach stones they approached the house and found a door with a valve of stone opened into the sea. Marvelously, the sea-waves kept helpfully hurling salmon through it into the house. Determined at least to retrieve some salmon for themselves the party went inside. The house was completely empty of people, but laid out in a state of readiness for the return of the house owner and some company. Great beds were laid prepared with meat and drink beside each. The crew ate and drank their fill, and then sailed off again before their unknowing hosts might return to discover them.
Their contented bellies soon fell flat, and a terrible expanse of time passed. Day melted into night and into day again unreckonable, and the men lolled in a dead calm, their wits and food having failed them. They skirted around a island with cliffs instead of beaches, hoping to find a landing space. They were met only with the grey unyielding face of the cliffs, occasionally overhung with tree branches. Mael Dúin idly broke off a small branch, twirling it between his fingers seeking sensation to distract him from his discomforts. Three days and nights they coasted the cliff and found no entrance, but in those three days he was astonished to witness the rapid flourish of bud, blossom, leaves and finally a cluster of three apples on his broken branch. The apples were crisp and refreshing, and miraculously regrew after each bite, the exposed flesh swelling back to whole, unblemished skin. For forty days the crew dined on those three apples and felt light, refreshed and curiously at peace.
At the end of those forty days they came across an island ringed with a stone fence of stone round it. They approached the wall cautiously, soft stepping and muffling their weapons so as not to alert whatever might lurk within. Inside the fence was a huge beast which seemed to amuse itself by racing around the inside of the wall. Tiring of that, the creature wandered to the centre of the pen, scratching itself idly. The creature shuddered a little, and then began to spin it’s entire body around and around within its skin, the skin staying stock still and rigid while the innards roiled about as if it were chasing its tail from the inside. It snapped to a halt, apparently internally reversed to its outside and reversed the process, spinning its husk on a solid core of the flesh within. So revolting and surprising was this that one of the men involuntarily gasped in astonishment – the creature’s skin shuddered to rights again and it began to snarl and rush towards them, kicking up a flurry of stone which it pelted the party with. The men made it to the ship and fell into it even as stones pinged off shields and studded all around them into the keel of the ship. As they sailed away Mael Dúin watched the retreating shoreline through the new gaping hole in his shield.
Yet more horses awaited them on the next island, but these were savage beasts that tore chunks from one another with hellish teeth. The soil on the island was sticky with gore and blackened with old blood, and black, buzzing flies swarmed everywhere. They moved quickly on. The tenth island was full of apple trees under which fiery swine squealed and grunted their way daily through a feast of golden apples which they caused to fall from the tree by kicking the trunks every morning. Every morning there would be a dreadful cacophony with piggish squeals as they chased the birds away and began to hammer and kick the trees. Every night the birds would swoop back in to eat their fill. Taking the birds’ example, the men chanced their luck one night, lurching across the ember hot soil, heated by the swine that slept in caverns beneath them. The apples were good against hunger and thirst, and they loaded their boat with them and put to sea once more, refreshed.
Their next island appeared just as their store of apples had been depleted. The island was faced on one side by a great chalk cliff, shining white like a beacon, and on top of it were great houses, white as snow. Entering the largest house they found none within but a little ginger cat playing, jumping between four stone pillars in the centre of the room with the contemptuous ease that is the way of cats. It seemed but mildly interested in the crew, not stopping its leaping but watching intently. On the walls of the houses there were three rows of precious things, a row of glinting brooches of gold and silver, another of neck-torques, large and gleaming, and another of fine great swords with gold and silver hilts. Bright cloth and threads glistened from every corner of the room, indeed everywhere the eye could rest there was colour and wealth and splendour. Almost as an afterthought was a beautifully laid out table, laden with a roasted beef, large hunks of bacon and abundance of liquor. Mael Dúin bade his men wait, hoping to enjoy some company and hospitality, but still no one came. After some time he asked the cat, hoping for some response, “May we eat? Is this intended for us?” The cat sat on a column, peering down at him for some moments, then simply resumed the jumping. They eat and drank, and slept a wonderful and comfortable night. The next day he thanked the cat and warned his companions to touch nothing but the food and drink. He was not to know that the youngest of his foster brothers had not resisted the gleam of gold and had hidden a necklace in his clothes. The company made to leave the hall, the cat paying them no attention until the foolish youth passed over the step – then it leaped from its pedestal with a yowl, flashing into flame and streaking through the hapless youth like an arrow. There was a bright flare and then nothing remained of but a sad little heap of ashes on the floor and a cat pacing, tail twitching before the rest of the company. Mael Duin, heavy of heart, moved to sooth the cat and replace the unscathed necklace. Once restored the cat returned to its leaping games, ignoring the sad party now forced to strew the ashes of their dead companion on the sea-shore, and silently put to sea once more.
Hours passed in silence, the stars of the heavens wheeled over the heads of the mourning crew, each alone with his fears and bleak hopes. The next day revealed another island, this time with a brazen palisade dividing it in two. On one side black sheep tottered and bleated, white sheep on the other. Between them was a big man, the shepherd who tended the flocks calmly, almost idly, passing the time by sometimes putting a white sheep among the black or a black amoung the white. The moment the sheep was introduced to its opposite side it would instantly take on that colour. Amazed by this Mael Dúin peeled the bark off a plucked twig til it shone white in the morning light, then he flung it in among the black sheep. Seeing it at once turn black, a terrible fear of magic overcome them so they moved on once more.
The empty rumblings of their bellies brought them to their next island where they had spied huge swine. They killed the smallest of the pigs they found there and still there was too much meats on its bones for them to eat. Sated, Diuran and German went to climb a large mountain at the island’s centre, hoping to find some way to discover where they were or where they should be headed. A river blocked their path, and thinking to measure its depth, German dipped in the haft of his spear. It glowed and flowed as if consumed with liquid fire as they stared, each relieved this simple test had been performed and they had not simply pushed into the innocent looking waters themselves. A voice boomed from the other bank, startling them horribly, and a huge man stepped into view to warn them against disturbing the enormous calves he was guarding. The sun blinded them as they looked up into his enormous face and they decided in that moment to find a vantage point on some other island instead.
When next they came to land the sound of the grinding trundling of a mill attracted them. They were giddy with hope that maybe this time they had found something of home. Approaching the great, grey mill their hopes were sobered by the grim, set face of the giant miller grinding corn in it. The miller did not pause in his task, only glanced at them and acknowledged their presence with a gloomy pronouncement. “I should thank you, little men, for fully half the corn of your country, is ground here. All that men begrudge to each other – even in the silent halls of their hearts – is sent here to this place and lost to you”. The company were dismayed to see the heavy lost loads of corn, they blessed themselves quickly and sailed away once more.
The sound of lamenting met them next, and they thought to offer help if help was needed. The shores of this island were thronged with black people, men, women and children, weeping and lamenting with no hope of solace. In a desire to find out what was wrong, one of the foster brothers rushed out of the boat, but as he reached them his clothes seemed to rush with night, his skin darkened, his eyes gleamed black, and he too fell to weeping like the rest. When two more men went to pull him back the same fate befell them. The boat erupted with fierce arguement, shouts that they should leave the cursed place, but finally four others, their heads wrapped in cloths to protect them from seeing the land or breathing its air, managed to seize the two would be rescuers and brought them away. The foster brother by this time was lost, indistinguishable in the mass of grieving people, and they were forced to abandon him.
On the next island there were wonders! The island was quartered with four fences of gold, silver, brass, and crystal. In one quarter there were kings, queens in another, warriors in a third and maidens in the fourth. It perhaps surprises none that the weary travellers sought the pleasant company of the maidens before all others, and indeed a maiden greeted them as they landed with bright smiles and warm greetings, and encouraged them to eat of a cake not unlike a wheel of cheese, which tasted to each man as the food he had been longing for in the secret parts of his soul. She smiled still more warmly at their enthusiastic responses and gave them strong drink. They cheered and sang a little time, then fell asleep. They slept the sleep of the dead for three days and three nights and awoke once more in their boat, far from land and wondering if they had somehow simply shared a dream.
A fortress with a brazen door, afire against the evening sky next drew them in. They gathered themselves together on the beach, attempting to wash and present themselves as best they could, hoping to find some help within the fortress. The entry to the fort lay over a bridge of glass, but when they stepped on the bridge it slid them back, with a force proportional to the force with which they attempted to cross. AT first it was the source of embarrassed amusement as each watched the other try to outwit this strange guardian, but as the night brightened once more to day tempers were short. A beautiful woman, willowy and fair, emerged from the fortress gate on the other side, with a small bucket in her hand. She smiled in their direction but ignored their calls, instead lifting a section of glass from the bridge to fill her bucket with the water beneath. This task complete, she returned the glass and went back into the fortress, the portcullis clanking closed behind her. With the spell of her appearance broken, the men ran across the now passable bridge and struck on the brazen portcullis, calling to her, but striking the bars of the portcullis coaxed forth music and the men were plunged into dreaming right there. The same thing happened for two more days, but on the fourth day the lady, radiant in pale silks with a circlet of gold approached them, smiling and welcomed them, each by name. They were led instead, and shown to comfortable couches and an abundance of food. To each man she offered the bucket to drink from, and each man found in that bucket the drink he liked best. The men grew bold with drink, fine food and beautiful company and suggested that Mael Dúin should try to persuade her to marry him. At first there is just an occasional joke, but as the feasting continued to the next day the men grew bolder, singing the praises of Mael Dúin and imploring her to marry him. She smiles and is polite and insists that she will end her days knowing no sin. The men persist, their claims and boasts for Mael Dúin becoming more extravagant the deeper they reach into their cups, and finally the lady answers “Tomorrow, you shall have your answer.” The men cheer, confident of their success, but when the morning breaks on that tomorrow however, they are once more at sea, no trace of island, fortress or lady.
Their travels bring them next to an island of birds, a clamouring place of bird song and feather, an island grown by a man of God clothed only in his own hair. He twitters, bird like himself, recounting how God had chosen him, bade him to take a sod of Ireland under his feet and exile himself on just that sod. Each year he served God’s will a foot’s breadth was added to it and one tree. Birds, at the whispering of angels, have always nourished him and will til Doomsday, and even as he told his story they began to bring food for the travellers. He entertained them for three nights, and then they sailed away only to discover another living on an island with a golden rampart and a soft white soil like down and a miracolous fountain, which produced different drinks on different days and even ale and wine on the feasts of Apostles, of Mary, of John the Baptist, and on the high tides of the year.
Smithy sounds drew them closer to their next island, but a voice carrying on the wind along with the clanging sounds of beating metal made them turn away when they heard it think of them only as little boys of no consequence. They were glad of their caution when the huge blacksmith stomped out of the smithy and hurled glowing iron from his tongs at them. The sea boiled and it was only with enormous effort the men stopped themselves being tipped into the furiously pitching water beneath.
One morning they woke to find themselves in calm green waters that were so pure and clean they could see through to the green sand and the rocky outcrops beneath, they were splendid to behold and the men watched the unfolding sea bed beneath in awe for some time. This sea gave way to another, this time ghostly, ethereal they wondered had they somehow found the sky and sea reversed and were sailing instead in cloud. Beneath them there were lands, laid out like a tapestry, fair lands with cattle and fortresses dotted about it. In one place they spied a warrior, armed and armoured and trying to protect the lands against a monstrous beast lodged in a tree there. The beast ignored the warrior, idly picking off cattle as his whim dictated, tossing the bones in contempt as he finished.
The next island had a look of home about it and they approached. Even as they did water began to surge up the cliff faces surrounding the island. The inhabitants of that small place surged to the cliff tops and began to scream “It’s them, it’s as it was told!”, and to pelt the boat with large nuts. Somewhat unhappy with this treatment, but consoling themselves with the supply of nuts they set out away from the island once more. The water surging up the cliffs began to sink back and they guessed that perhaps the island inhabitants had been acting on a curse or prophecy that made them keep strangers at bay, lest their island be swallowed by the all consuming sea.
When next there was land it was wreathed in a great stream, which arched over the island like a rainbow. The men wandered beneath, staring in astonishment at the wriggling, powerful bodies of salmon swimming above them in their water bridge. They quickly speared more than they could eat from the abundance in the stream and set off with full stocks once more.
What they saw next they first thought was a trick of the sea on tired eyes, for from the water rose a silver column, smooth and bright on each of its sides, each side as as two oar-strokes of the boat. There was no earth beneath it and no end to it’s height, instead it was lost to the clouds. From it hung a huge silver net, draped into the sea, and their course took them through a gap in that net, but easily, so that they were not afraid of it, but awestruck. Diuran, with a puzzled look, pulled out a knife and hacked away a piece of the net, his face brightening in astonishment as he saw that the net was pure silver. The other men, exclaiming, made to do the same but Mael Dúin called them back with a powerful forbidding. “It is wonderous, and the work of something mighty, it should not be destroyed.” Turning his face upwards he continued “If we ever are to return to Ireland, and anyone ever believes this tale, I will offer this at the high alter in Armagh” There was an answer, a mighty voice from on high, but though the voice was clear and distinct, they could not understand the words that were spoken and they solemnly rowed away once more. They thought they might find some explanation at a nearby small island, which was curiously perched on a little column with a door in it. Nothing they could do would make that door open, so they sailed away again in frustration.
Spying a dún on the next island, which was enclosing a mansion they eagerly set for land once more. They were approaching over a wild flowered hillock enjoying the mild breeze that played around them when they noticed women busy preparing a great bath. They were laughing and joking, moving unhurriedly, not in the least perturned when a rider thudded in though the gate on a fine horse. The rider slipped easily off the horse and one of the girls peeled away from her group to take the horse away while the rider went inside. The men thought to wait awhile, in case more riders should come. Instead the rider came back out through the door, shedding fine clothes in a careless manner on the way to the great bath. Jaws dropped as they realised the swift rider now sinking gratefully into the water was another woman, and they were arguing among themselves how best to approach the dún when another of the women approached them and invited them all in, at the invitation of the queen of that place. The Queen was a bright faced woman with shining fair hair and a voice to bring joy to any heart. She bade the men make themselves comfortable and to each had food and drink brought. As the evening went on she chose one of the women to entertain each one of the men, cleverly matching the womens’ great talents and conversations to the taste of each man, and all were happy and content in the very best of company. The next day they sorrowfully prepared to leave again but the Queen would not hear of it, and then men were happy to fall in with her plans for more merriment, stories and wine. The following day they once more made to depart but the Queen promised them that on that island in her company and of her consorts they would never feel the decay of time, the sadness of loss and would never more have to endure the blisters and hunger of endless sea faring. It was easy to be persuaded with such bright company, and so they remained there for three months of winter, or maybe it was three years. But one by one the men grew heart sick for their own homes and longed to leave. but at the end of that time it seemed they had been there three years, and the men wearied of it, and longed to set forth for their own country. Mael Dúin was not easily convinced, and the men grew impatient with his reluctance to leave the queen and decided they would leave without him. Greatly shamed, Mael Dúin decided to leave with them, feeling responsible for their separation from the homes they so clearly wished to return to, they put out to sea while the queen was away, but she arrived in a flurry of horsehooves to the shore and threw a clew of yarn after them. Thoughtlessly, Mael Dúin caught it in his hand, where it grew to encase his hand as if in spider silk and clung to his hand so that he could not free himself. The queen drew the little craft effortlessly cak to land and they stayed on the island another three months, finding themselves a little relieved they had not yet left. Twice again the same thing happened, and the men decided that Mael Dúin must be catching the clew on purpose. So the next time another man caught the clew, but was no more able to resist it. Diuran, in a sudden flash of frustration, pulled out his sword and cut off the unfortunate man’s hand, which tumbled and splashed into the sea while all stared dumbly on. There was silence and all turned to stare at the shore where the queen folded in shuddering grief. Mael Dúin steeled himself, turned away and they silently, finally, left the island of women.
They next found islands with great red berries the juice of which helped any man to a deep and intoxicated sleep, another large island with woods of oak and yew and another hermit who declared himself the fifteenth man of the monks of St. Brennan of Birr, with the tablet of the Holy Brennan. They stayed there a while eating good mutton and practicing their fighting til they were disturbed at the arrival of an enormous bird which alighted very wearily on a hill near the lake where they were camped. The bird carried an enormous tree branch, the size of a full-grown oak iin it’s talons, and on the branch hung huge red berries which it started to eat. Some torn berries fell as it ate, red staining the lake and each man gulped, imaging himself in those talons, throat torn by that questing beak, their blood reddening the lake and they quaked as they hid. Time passed and nothing changed, terror turned to boredom to inquisitiveness and that evening Mael Dúin went out to the foot of the hill. The bird was not disturbed by them, not even when one decided to try one of the red berries. It was old, and tired and rested. It was joined some time later by two eagles, the arrival of which set the men to scurry into hiding once more. They preened the great bird, working tirelessly to rid it of insects that infested its jaws and eyes and ears. They worked all evening, ate the berries, rested, and began again. On the following day the great bird plunged into the lake, and again the two eagles attended and preened it, and again for a third day the attention continued and the great bird was once more youthful, strong and bright feathered. It flew three times around the island and left. Diuran ran down the shore and dived into the waters, yelling to the others that maybe they too could be renewed once more, but the others were afraid that the bird had left his age and frailty in the waters behind him, so they did not bathe. It was Diuran had the right of it, for from then til he died a very old man his eyes were strong and keen, and not a tooth fell from his jaw nor a hair from his head, and he never knew illness or infirmity.
The next island was a bright, laughing place, but a brittle sort that made Mael Dúin uneasy. He watched the inhabitants laugh and play incessantly, with a sort of fever he mistrusted, so he instructed his party to draw lots as to who explore it. His unease heightened as it fell to his last remaining foster-brother who climbed out of their boat and waded to shore without incident. When his foot touched dry sand a burst of laughter erupted from him and he ran like a man possessed, falling in quickly to play a game, all the while giggling and laughing. He was deaf to the entreaties of the others and they would not risk setting foot on the island to retrieve him and so the crew now numbered the 17, not one more, not one less once again.
Flames on the horizon drew them to their next island, and as they approached they could see that a rampart of flame circled round it continually, only offering blief glimpses as the opening in the rampart flashed by. What they saw was wonderous and golden, beautiful men and women in very fine clothes at golden feast tables in golden flamelight, with dancing and music as golden on the ears as the vessels from which they ate and drank. They stayed, dumb struck and awed for some time, just to catch glimpses before sadly setting off again.
There are few things quite so strange as an old man prostrate on a rock in the middle of the sea, clad only in his own white hair. It bothered Mael Dúin a little that he was immune to the strangeness by now and was only mildly curious to hear how the man found himself there. The hermit professed himself to be from the monastery of St. Columba at Torach, where he was once cook but had been a thief, selling the food for his own profit. He told a tale of how he had been charged with burying a body, another thief, in the graveyard and as he dug a voice came from below where a holy man lay buried, which told him he should not bury a sinner on top of him, a pious man. The man was alarmed and buried the corpse elsewhere and was greedily pleased to hear he would be given an eternal reward for doing so. Unnerved by the experience he left the monastery not long after, taking his ill gotten money with him, intending to start a new life, hopefully aided by glorious eternal reward. A great and powerful wind took him out to sea instead, and he despaired until he came to a spot bathed in heavenly brightness. He realised there was a bright man sitting on the wave, who, with great politeness enquired where he was headed. The hermit replied that he thought he was headed to great things, but the bright man shook his head sadly and said “You would not think so if you could see what I can see, for your greed and thievery have summoned dark things around you, they have stopped your boat here and mean to drag you beneath to eternal suffering and drowning. Fling your ill gotten gains into the sea or they will have their way with you” The hermit was scared and agreed to do as he was bid and was only sorry that the money would now be lost in the sea and do no good. The bright man promised it would do someone some good again and bad the hermit stop wherever his boat came to land and there to live, giving him some whey and seven cakes. The boat came to rest at the rock, which grew just enough to accommodate the prostrations of the hermit. Cold, heat or wet have not affected him on his rock, and otters brought him salmon out of the sea, and flaming firewood on which to cook them, and his cup was filled with good liquor every day. Mael Dúin at first thought his isolation had driven the hermit mad, but at noon the whole crew were visited by the otters and their miraculous provisions. It meant that when the hermit advised him that they would soon reach home and find the man that killed his father he believed him completely and was given to listen and heed his advise that he should not kill the man, but forgive him instead, since there were none involved in the tale that were not also deserving of death in the eyes of God.
They left and sailed again, stopping to eat from a flock of sheep on an island notable now for its very ordinary appearance. Spotting a falcon, again an ordinary falcon, they decided it was a familiar sort from home, and decided to follow it on its path. At nightfall they sighted a land like the first island they had come to, and knew this to be the island that housed the man who had slain Ailill Ochair Aghra of the Owens of Aran. They landed quietly and approached the dún, listening to the feast noises and conversations inside. After all that had gone before it somehow didn’t surprise them that the talk inside was all speculation about the fate of Mael Duin and how after all that time and all his troubles they would welcome him as a great voyager and accept their fate at his hands. As a man possessed of another’s will he smote the door and called his name and asked to be accepted within. They were welcomed and dressed in fine clothes and given the best of food and drink and all there marvelled at the wonderous voyage of Mael Dúin.