The Voyage of Bran
“We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it is not meant that we should voyage far.”
Bran son of Febal once held a gathering of chiefs in his dún. They had gathered to celebrate the feast of Bealtaine, which heralded the beginning of summer. They ate and drank their fill and together with the musicians the party atmosphere was complete. Bran left the dún to get some piece and quiet. Glad to have this he wandered along the plain enjoying the silence. He suddenly heard music, though instinct told him that it was not the music of mortals or it was much too sweet. He turned to see where the music was coming from, but it suddenly ceased. This was indeed strange and when his back was turned the music started again. He turned swiftly hoping to be quicker but their was again neither sight nor sound of the musicians. Realising that was among the Other World he became slightly afraid but drowsiness overcame his fear and he lay on the grass and before he knew it sleep had overcome him. When he awoke things were normal again. He did however; notice the branch of an apple tree in the grass beside him. This had not been there previously. He gazed upon it with a certain fascination. It appeared to be sliver in colour and the fruit gleamed as if it were made of glass. Taking the branch in his hand he rejoined his friends and when he recalled what he had just experienced they all listened intently. While he was recounting what he had experienced a woman suddenly appeared in the room. Her beauty and strange clothes immediately drew attention. The fact that she had also appeared out of nowhere made the assembled company realise that she was not of this world. She announced to the crowd gathered around that she was indeed one of the sí and sang to Bran:
The branch you hold is from a distant isle,
the playground of the horses of Manannán Mac Lir
On this isle music pleases the ear and colour delights the eye,
A hard and rough life here is unknown,
No sorrow and no treachery
Nor weakness nor illness
And no death
A group of strangers from over the wave will visit the isle
They too shall hear the sweet music
And shall suffer no death
The isle is called the Isle of women
Do not waste time
But hurry and prepare your voyage across the sea!
As the song drew to a close the branch in Bran’s hand started to move and although he tightened his grip flew into the mysterious woman’s outstretched hand, who disappeared as suddenly as she had come.
Bran was fixated by her and told his friends that he must visit this island. He soon assembled a group of twenty-seven and the next day they set sail in two currachs. They rowed westwards for two days and nights. In this time they met no other boat, nor did they get a glimpse of any land. Heir fortunes changed however when they spotted a chariot coming over the waves to them. Inside the chariot was none other that the sea God Manannán Mac Lir and he sang to them:
Bran your boat skims the flatness of the sea
For me you ride along a grassy plain.
The waved you see are flowers
And the salmon are my animals
I am Manannán the son of Lir.
I appear to you in human shape.
Row steadily over my country Bran
And before the sun has set
You shall reach the isle of women!
When his song was finished he disappeared under the waves. Bran heeded his advice and not long after this they caught sight of land. Approaching the island Bran called out to the natives who had gathered on the shore.
“We’re looking for the isle of women,“ he shouted out.
The natives however did not answer his question but merely laughed at him and their laughter gradually got louder. Bran decided to send a man ashore to see if he could any sense of them but once he landed he too joined in their laughter and pointed at those in the boat. Despite all attempts to call him back on board the man stayed on the island, which they called The Island of laughter. They had no choice but to leave him and sailed on. Towards evening just as the sun was setting they reached another island and were greeted by a woman. This they took to be the Isle of women.
“You’re very welcome Bran, son of Febal,“ she announced. Bran did not ask her how she knew his name but it was obvious that he and his crew had been expected. Bran considered the possibility of danger but after days at sea their supplies had been greatly diminished and he and his crew urgently needed supplies. They would have to take the risk and followed the lady then. They came to a splendid building and inside a feast was prepared for them. They ate their fill that night and when they could not manage any more food most beautiful women who kept them company that night brought them to their beds. The following morning another feast awaited them and again they ate a very hearty meal. They amused themselves with sport and music after that and the evening was a repeat performance of the previous day. Time passed in this way and it was not long before they forgot their troubles and indeed that the land that gave them birth. All that mattered to them were the pleasures that they enjoyed on the Isle of women. A man called Nechtan however, suddenly felt homesick one day and expressed his desire to return home. The issue was discussed among Bran and the rest of the expedition. Not everyone was happy with Nechtan’s whinging.
“Are you mad?” some of the crew cried out, “haven’t we got everything we want here. What would you want to go back for?”
“We’ll have to go back sometime” Nechtan countered, “This can’t last forever. We can’t stay abroad forever.”
They saw certain logic to this and having discussed the matter amongst themselves they decided to return home. If they were not happy they could always return here. The women however convinced them that they should stay a little longer and their feminine charm won the day and so they stayed on. Homesickness however, is a very strong emotion that does not go away that easily and after some days had passed Nechtan expressed his wish to return once more. After all, how long was Bran planning on staying here? Bran saw the logic of this argument and in the end it was decided that they would return once more. They had seen what was to be seen and now it was time to move on.
On the eve of their return journey the queen approached Bran and begged him to reconsider his decision to return. If he returned to Ireland he would regret it for the rest of his life.
“Don’t go back to that place. There’s nothing there for you anymore. Can’t you stay here with me? This is your home!”
Bran was adamant however and he dragged himself away from the queen. If nothing else it was time for a break from her. She had become far too possessive and now her hysterical pleadings disturbed him. The sooner he got away from her the better. As the boat moved out she shouted out to him that whatever he did he was not to touch Irish soil. An odd thing to say he thought, if not a tad melodramatic and he dismissed it from his mind as he gave orders to set sail. They departed the island then and collected their friend from the Isle of Laughter. For his part he was glad to see them and seemed to have pulled himself together. After three days of rowing they finally reached Ireland at a place, which has since, been called Srub Brain. The homesick Nechtan was the first to jump ashore but as soon as his feet touched Irish soil he turned to dust. The others, visibly shocked did not follow suit but remained frozen in horror. The natives having seen the boat approach land now approached it and hailed to the crew asking them who they were. Bran responded to them by saying:
“I am Bran son of Febal and I have been at sea for one year!”
The people on land gasped at this. Looking at their astonished faces he addressed them further.
“Is there something wrong with that? Have you never been at sea yourselves?”
They looked at each other then, not knowing what to say and one of them spoke up,
“We have heard of Bran, son of Febal. He is part of our oldest stories. He left Ireland hundreds of years ago to seek the Isle of Women and was never seen again.”
When Bran heard this it was his turn to be shocked. Were they telling the truth? What had just happened to Nechtan advised him not to doubt their word and it was then that he recalled what the queen had told him. Nothing could have prepared him for this and she was right- he now regretted his decision to ever return. Had he stayed with her Ireland would still be a pleasant memory instead the nightmare reality had now unfolded before him. The home he had left would now be no more. The people dear to him and his crew were long since dead. He could never go home. He had lost everything!
A feeling of despair started to set it, which was echoed by the crew who let out shouts of pain as they too realised they could never return. They were damned to sail the seas for all eternity.
Eventually gathering himself together and accepting the situation he and his crew now had to face Bran told the people on the shore what had happened to them and their anguish was shared by all who heard him speak. A man who could write was present and he wrote Bran’s story down in ogham. When the story had come to an end with sadness in his voice Bran gave the order to row out to sea. The people watched them until they disappeared into the horizon and they have never been seen or heard of since.