Imram Brain

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Irish title for the 7th- or 8th-century narrative known in English as The Voyage of Bran Son of Febal, or Bran's Voyage to the Land of Women; also Echtrae Brain Maic Fhebail. Several extant texts are found in Ireland, including the 11th-century Book of the Dun Cow, and the Book of Leinster, both thought to be derived from a lost manuscript compiled at the monastery of Druim Snechta (Co. Monaghan). One of the oldest Irish narratives, Imram Brain is quite long and contains many digressions; at its core is the familiar European story (international folk motifs: F111; F112) of the mortal lured to the Otherworld by a beautiful, divine woman.

One day Bran [raven] mac Febail is walking near his dún [stronghold] when he hears sweet music coming behind him that lulls him to sleep. When he awakes he has a silver branch in his hand covered with silver-white apple blossom, which he carries back with him to the stronghold. As he shows the wondrous branch to his people, a beautiful woman in strange clothing appears before him, singing of Emne (i.e. Emain Ablach), the island where there is no grieving, winter, or want, where the golden horses of Manannán mac Lir prance, and where games and sport continue without cease. (Emne/ Emain Ablach is known in English under different names, the Land of Promise and the Isle of Women.) She bids Bran seek out that island, and when the song is done she disappears, the apple branch falling into Bran's hands, which cannot hold it.

The next morning Bran sets out with a fleet of currachs, three foster-brothers, and twenty-seven warriors. They row far across the sea until they come upon a warrior driving his chariot as if he were on land. Greeting them, he identifies himself as Manannán and sings further of Emain Ablach, urging Bran and his men to visit it. Though Bran feels he is rowing over the sea, it is for Manannán the flowery land of Mag Mell [Delightful Plain], where leaping salmon are calves and lambs. Then, in a sudden Christian interpolation, the sin of Adam is recalled and the death of Christ is foretold. Returning to the pre-Christian milieu, Manannán tells that he will become the lover of Caíntigern who will bear him the son Mongán, how the son will live and how he will die. And he tells Bran that if he keeps rowing he will reach Emain Ablach before sunset. Bran and his men follow this advice, but before reaching their goal they pass the Island of Merriment or Delight, whose inhabitants are so given to giddy shouting and laughter they will not answer enquiries. When Bran puts one of his men ashore, he too joins in the hilarity.

Finally arrived at Emain Ablach, Bran is greeted by the leader of the women but is reluctant to go ashore. She throws a ball of thread that entangles his hands and draws him towards the great hall on the many-coloured island. Each of the men is given a bed, a female companion, and an endless supply of food until they begin to lose any sense of time. Eventually one of the shipmates, Nechtan mac Collbrain, speaks of his home-sickness for Ireland, and urges Bran to leave with him. Bran's lover warns against this, telling him that only sorrow will come of it. When it is clear that he will leave with all his men, she counsels him to retrieve the man left on the Island of Merriment so that his company will be complete, and that when they all return to Ireland they should look at it and call out to friends but that no one should actually touch the land. The first point they see is called Srub Brain, usually identified with Stroove Point on Lough Foyle, Co. Donegal, although Kuno Meyer (1895–7) thought it should be in south-western Ireland. Bran calls out his name, ‘Bran son of Febal’, to people on the shore; they answer that they do not know him, only that the tale of his voyage is one of their ancient stories. Nechtan, who has longed to return to Ireland, then jumps from the currach and wades through the surf; but as soon as his foot touches land his entire body crumbles into dust as if he has been in his grave 500 years. Bran stays long enough to tell his countrymen of his adventures by writing them in ogham on wooden sticks and casting them, and then he sails away with his companions, never to be seen again.


Subjects: Religion.

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