Long ago in Ireland, there was a High King named Bran. He was not much interested in being High King, and one day, during a feast, Bran slipped away to get some peace and quiet.
As he was walking, all alone, he began to hear this beautiful music. It was haunting and like nothing he had ever heard before. Bran hunted high and low to see where it was coming from, but no matter what way he turned, the music always seemed to be coming from just behind him. At last, the sweet music lulled him, and he fell asleep. While he slept, he saw a vision: a beautiful woman of the Otherworld, who sang to him about the Land of Women, where everything was pleasant and joyful, and there was never any grief or treachery.
When he woke, Bran found in his had a silver branch with golden apples on it. Not really knowing what this meant, Bran brought it back to the fort with him. That evening, at the feast, the same woman from his dream appeared, but this time, all those present in the hall could see her. She spoke to Bran, and told him to come and find her in the Island of Women. Then the silver branch leaped out of Bran’s hand and into hers, and she was gone.
Bran wasted no time in building a ship. His three foster brothers came with him, and each of them brought nine men. They set sail out west into uncharted waters that no one had ever been to before. As they were sailing, Mananan Mac Lir, the god of the ocean, came riding towards them in his chariot. Bran and his men watched, dumbstruck, as the god reined up beside them and stopped to talk. He told Bran that their skiff was sailing, not through waves, but through an orchard, and that where they saw sea-horses and sea foam, he could see a grassy plain, covered in flowers, with warriors going to and fro across it. He sang to them about all the wonders of the Land Under Wave that he ruled over, and then he took his leave, telling them that he was on his way to meet the wife of a king, to father a child that would be called Mongan.
Bran and his men rowed on, and before long they came to an island, called Moy Meall, or the Island of Joy. There were a great number of people on the shore, but when Bran and his men called out to them, to ask if they were near to the Island of Women, the people only laughed and gaped at them. So one of Bran’s men jumped out of the boat, and waded to shore to see if he could get any answers out of them. But as soon as he landed, he started to laugh like a fool and gape at them, as if he didn’t know them. Bran and his men circled the island, over and over, calling out to their companion to come back to them, but he ignored their calls, and only laughed witlessly.
Downhearted, Bran and his men continued on their way. They came to the Island of Women, and saw the woman from Bran’s vision. But Bran and his men were wary, because of what had happened to their friend, and they kept their distance. Then the woman threw a ball of yarn at Bran’s head, and he put up his hand to stop it. The ball of yarn stuck fast to his hand, and the woman on the shore started to reel the boat, with all of the men in it, in to shore.
When they landed, the men were taken to a beautiful house, and a plate was put before each one. No matter how much they ate and drank, their plates always remained full, and their cups never emptied. When they had eaten and drunk their fill, a woman led each man to his own room, richly appointed, and let them sleep there.
The men stayed on the Island of Women for what seemed to them to be a year. Every day was restful, and easy. All they had to do was to play sports and games, to eat and drink and enjoy themselves, and the women took care of all their wants. But one of Bran’s men, Nechtan, began to feel homesick. He started to pester Bran about going home. The other men shushed him, but he spoke to each of them in turn, reminding them of home, and the people they had left there, until at last Bran relented, and they prepared to go back to Ireland.
The Queen of the Island took Bran aside and warned him that if he returned, he would get only grief. But Bran could see no other option. So the Queen told him that if he must go, he should pick up his companion from the Island of Joy on his way, and when he got to Ireland, he must make sure not to set foot on the land. Bran agreed to this, and off they went.
When they came to the Island of Joy, they called their companion’s name, and he ran straight out to the boat, and recovered his wits as soon as they had him on board. Then they sailed over the sea to Ireland. But when they came near, they could see that the whole coastline had changed. The countryside looked completely different, all the forests were gone, and the people seemed small and grey and weak. They called out to the people on the shore, and no one had ever heard of them. Then one old man came forward, and said that when he was a young boy, he had heard the story of King Bran, an ancient tale that was almost lost.
Nechtan, the man who had been homesick, could not accept this. He flung himself from the deck of the boat, and landed on the shore. But as soon as his feet touched the ground, he turned to dust. Bran realized then that he and his men had been gone for hundreds and hundreds of years, and they could never return home.
Bran carved an account of his voyage on stone tablets, in Ogham writing, and threw the stones to the people on the shore. Then he and his men turned their ship around, and sailed off to the three times fifty Islands of the Otherworld. And as to what adventures befell them after that… nobody knows!