On the Irish Immrama

  The Celtic legends had been handed down through the oral tradition held by the fili or druid order before the Christianity arrived at Ireland; however, it was the Irish Christian monks who recorded them as literal documents first. Ireland is known for its successful conversion without any bloodshed, as the monks fused their own legendary into the new Good News, instead of kicking it out as paganism.

  Now, the matter is how much the original 'Celtic' source or original thoughts in them is left behind within their documents, wide ranging from the myths to religious writings or poems.

  To the scribes, it matterd significantly that they tried to demonstrate their assertion that they truely came from the descendants of Adam, not a 'barbaric' pagan, more than sticking to each exemplar(see for instance, Lebor Gabala Erenn [The Book of the Taking of Ireland]). So they were willingly blending their oral tradition with Christian flavour. The problem is, the proportion of the scribe's blending of the Celtic tradition with the Christian tradition; or rather, it could possibly have been a 'creation' by the scribes themselves, intertwining the Celtic myths with other sources that they gleaned from the Classical literatures or other northern origins, such as the Scandinavian myths. This issue has been much discussed and huge accumulation of the studies, and yet it is left further behind from any settlement.

  Now I take a note of my observations about the Celtic voyage tales written by the hands of the Irish scribes, in consideration of such complicated matter above.

  The so-called Irish Mythology tells us many of the heroic tales or adventures, and the voyage tales within it, all of which were written by the Irish monks; in the adventure story or echtrae(echtrai in plural form), there have been handed down to us Echtrae Conlae , Echtra Nerai or Echtra Cormaic Maic Airt, for example. These echtrai stories mainly described how 'the heroes' were going to 'the other world' and coming back through various 'adventures'. According to a Celticist Dorothy Ann Bray, echtrai are more focused upon 'the otherworldly goal', than Irish voyaging tales called immrama.

  The immram(immrama in plural form), on the other hand, is a unique fusion of 'voyage' tale, which has features reflecting the Irish terrain characters, and takes on its obvious colour of Christianity, interwoven with 'sea-faring yarns'. In the same fashion as echtrai, this immrama genre take protagonists to 'the other world' cued by a kind of revelation, and then return home. Except for Navigatio, the exisiting immrama are Immram curaig Máele Dúin, Immram Snédgusa ocus Maic Riagla, with a variant called Merugud cléirech Choluim Chille, Immram curaig Ua Corra, and Immram Brain(which has been categarised by some scholars as echtrae). Also Immram Brain has been considered the oldest immram survived, which probably goes back to the late 600 to early 700's. Some of the Celtic scholars regard all of the extant immrama as a way of elevation to a monastical literature from the voyage tales based on the real experiences of the Irish seafaring monks aboard their leather-hulled curraghs(on this unique survivor of the 'skin boat', see below).

  Immram(immrama) means 'rowing about', referring to the tales on 'voyaging' into the ocean written in Irish or Hiberno Latin. They would have been conveyed by word of mouth of the surviving filid, with Christian overtone added and recorded in the form of literature by the monks, but some of them might have been created by the Chriatian monks. The Latin Navigatio would seem likely to have been based on an unknown prototype, which also might have sporned other stories. Anyway each of 'stemma' or interrelationships among them have not been revealed altogether as yet.

  In 1765, a Scottish writer and politician James Macpherson 'discovered' The Works of Ossian, which later evolved into an epic by W.B.Yeats. Its chief motif, the Thír na nÓg, is also a time-honoured leitmotif in their monastic literature, making up one of its major elements. This 'Earthly Pradise' in Irish Mythology is an immortal realm, contains none of the sufferings such as illness or aging, just like a tradition of 'Pure Heaven lying somewhere in the ocean of far West' in Japanese Buddhism. However, a seemingly Celtic monopolistic view of another world like this also can be seen many other cultures around the world(Atlantis, El Dorado, the Garden of Eden, for example. Around 50 BC, Strabo mentioned that 'the Isle of the Blessed' were located near what we call now the Canaries), So I have my doubts on 'Earthly Paradise' found in Celtic mythology would have been an original concept among the Irish people.

  Nevertheless, you can never underestimate the historical, literal contribution of the Voyage of Saint Brendan, Navigatio Sancti Brendani Abbatis(henceforth the Navigatio); without this extraordinary travelogue in Hiberno-Latin, we might have forgotten absolutely every single trace of these unique tradition of Immrama recorded by the hands of the Irish seafaring monks.

  Lastly, the Latin Navigatio can be seen as a sibling of Immram curaig Máele Dúin. They have common motifs or episodes within them, as 'three supernumeraries who joined but not being able to be returned home', these episodes of 'Island of Smiths' or 'Crystal Pillar towering from the ocean', etc. According to some recent studies, the Navigatio and the Máele Dúin would have been born separately out of an unknown prototype of the latter. *

* ... See Clara Strijbosch, The Seafaring Saint, October 2000, Four Courts Press, Dublin, pp. 163-65

On the Irish traditional boat 'curragh'

  What is the exact kind of the 'boats' featured in these immrama, developed within the monasteries scattered in mediæval Ireland?   In general, these boats were curraghs or currachs(in Clare region, naomhóg[navis + 'small craft'; naomhóga in plural form]; in Dingle peninsula, simply called 'canoes').

  Curragh literally means 'a boat' in old Irish. They are a surviving species of the skin boats, one of the oldest types of sea crafts. Curragh is the Irish sibling of 'umiak' still used by Innuit people or 'kayak'; those boats are made out of wooden ribs and frames covered with animal hides, as if wearing clothes. Original Irish curraghs, however, used 'tanned' leather hull instead of mere raw hides of animal skin, just as used in Innuit's umiak boats, and its 'skin' had been made of oxhides. Irish leather curraghs were mentioned by Greek or Roman authors, such as Strabo, Caesar, Pliny, Solinus, and Lucanus. Caesar even ordered his troops to build an amphibious vessel made of oxhide leather, based on a leather boats he witnessed in Britannia; Pliny wrote about Irish crossed the Channel for tin trade, using by their leather curraghs. So, it can be said that curraghs would have been widely used in Ireland or the British Isles. Moreover, according to a discourse written by an English maritime historian Paul Johnston based upon his field research, these skin vessels go back to the megalithic, or further back to the mesolithic age.

  Curraghs are still in use along the western coast of Ireland and the Aran Islands off the Galway, known as Gaeltachtai. Their tough structure and seaworthiness betray their so-frail looking: indeed, curraghs once used to carry cattle or sheep. Nowadays, however, a stronger material of fiber glass is commonly used for the 'hide' of curraghs, taking the place of canvas hides which were widely used for their hull. Curraghs from old days are measured about 36 feet overall with a beam of about 8 feet, carrying sail(s). Now, the boats' lengths are shorter, about 15 feet, with a capacity for four - five crew, but curraghs have been remained consistent in its unique building method and main structure from the age of Saint Brendan.

  Saint Columba(Colum Cille)set out for his exile by curragh with twelve brothers, as in the same fashion Saint Brendan also may have sailed on to Wales, Brittany, Okney, Shetland, etc. Landnámabok, a major part of which may have been written by Ari the Wise(1067-1148), reports such Irish seafaring monks might have arrived at Iceland before the North Men settlers, from 'a Land of West'.

  However, in the Vita Brendani, which would have been written around 750 prior to the Navigatio(c. 780-800), Saint Brendan made two voyages rather than one attempt, and the Vita says the vessel he used for the latter one as 'a large wooden vessel' accommodating a crew of sixty. When his first quest came in vain and he returned home after seven years, Saint Ita, his nursing mother, told him that he should not reach his ultimate goal using such a 'bloodshedding' boat made from dead animals, for the Land has seen no blood of any kind. I have my doubts whether there would have been a plenty of 'woods' in mediæval Ireland. Curraghs have developed in parts with scarce resources in wood as Ireland, so I think the reference would have been used as a symbolic metaphor or rhetoric by the original author and/or copyists. In mediæval Ireland or the British Isles skin boats of curraghs or 'coracles' used in Wales were in popular use by means of transportation.

Furthur reading: Part III from The Curraghs of Ireland by James Hornell(PDF file)

a beached curragh, Connemara
A beached curragh, Connemara.

Courtesy of ©Tim Connor, Not Dot Com Pictures.

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