This is the story of Bran, son of Febal. The story is told by a woman, some would call her ‘otherworldly’ and this is her encounter with Bran.
So Bran was a High King of Ireland and he was having a great feast but he wanted to be alone so he went out for a walk and slipped out of the feast. And as he was walking around he heard this beautiful sweet music and he wanted to find out where it was coming from, it sounded like it was coming from behind him so he turned around to see where it was, but every time he turned around, the music still sounded like it was coming from behind him. He couldn’t find its source. And as he listened to this music in all its beauty, it kind of lulled him to sleep and he did fall asleep and some time passed and when he woke up he found, lying beside him in his arms, a branch. This was not just any branch it was a silver branch with blossoms on it. It was extraordinary.
So Bran knew he had to go and show it to everyone who was at Court. And that’s what he did. And he returned to the feast holding the branch. As he entered the feast what did he see but this mysterious woman who no-one knew who she was, or even how she got there, because the ramparts were closed. No one should be able to get in or out. But here she was. And then she was about to sing to the Court and this is what she said:
3. ‘A branch of the apple-tree from Emain
I bring, like those one knows;
Twigs of white silver are on it,
Crystal brows with blossoms.
4. ‘There is a distant isle,
around which sea-horses glisten:
A fair course against the white-swelling surge,
Four feet uphold it.
5. ‘A delight of the eyes, a glorious range,
Is the plain on which the hosts hold games:
Coracle contends against chariot
In southern Mag Findargat.
6. ‘Feet of white bronze under it
Glittering through beautiful ages . .
Lovely land throughout the world’s age,
On which the many blossoms drop.
7. ‘An ancient tree there is with blossoms,
On which birds call to the Hours.
‘Tis in harmony it is their wont
To call together every Hour.
8. ‘Splendours of every colour glisten
throughout the gentle-voiced plains.
Joy is known, ranked around music,
In southern Mag Argatnél.
9. ‘Unknown is wailing or treachery
In the familiar cultivated land,
There is nothing rough or harsh,
But sweet music striking on the ear.
10. ‘Without grief, without sorrow, without death,
Without any sickness, without debility,
That is the sign of Emain
Uncommon is an equal marvel.
Thereupon the woman went from them, while they knew not whither she went. And she took her branch with her. The branch sprang from Bran’s hand into the hand of the woman, nor was there strength in Bran’s hand to hold the branch.
Then on the morrow Bran went upon the sea to find the otherworld. The number of his men was three companies of nine. One of his foster-brothers and mates was set over each of the companies of nine. When he had been at sea two days and two nights, he saw a man in a chariot coming towards him over the sea. The man also sang thirty other quatrains to him, and made himself known to him and said that he was Manannan the son of Ler, and said that it was upon him to go to Ireland after long ages, and that a son would be born to him, even Mongan son of Fiachra – that was the name which would be upon him.
So he sang these thirty quatrains to him:
34. ‘What is a clear sea
For the prowed skiff in which Bran is,
That is a happy plain with profusion of flowers
To me from the chariot of two wheels.
35. ‘Bran sees
The number of waves beating across the clear sea:
I myself see in Mag Mon
Red-headed flowers without fault.
36. ‘Sea-horses glisten in summer
As far as Bran has stretched his glance:
Rivers pour forth a stream of honey
In the land of Manannan son of Ler.
37. ‘The sheen of the main, on which thou art,
The white hue of the sea on which thou rowest about,
yellow and azure are spread out,
It is Iand, and is not rough.
38. ‘Speckled salmon leap from the womb
Of the white sea, on which thou lookest:
They are calves, they are coloured lambs
With friendliness, without mutual slaughter.
40. ‘The size of the plain, the number of the host,
Colours glisten with pure glory,
A fair stream of silver, cloths of gold,
Afford a welcome with all abundance.
41. ‘A beautiful game, most delightful,
They play (sitting) at the luxurious wine,
Men and gentle women under a bush,
Without sin, without crime.
42. ‘Along the top of a wood has swum
Thy coracle across ridges
There is a wood beautiful fruit
Under the prow of thy little skiff.
43. ‘A wood with blossom and fruit,
On which is the vine’s veritable fragrance,
A wood without decay, without defect,
On which are leaves of golden hue.
44. ‘We are from the beginning of creation
Without old age, without consummation of earth,
Hence we expect not that there should be frailty,
The sin has not come to us.
And that is when Manannan rode past Bran and his men.
Not long after they came across an island and the men rode and rode around it trying to find a place to land and to see who inhabited this island and then they did see who inhabited the island. There was people gathered around the shore but they looked strange. They were not talking and they didn’t seem to recognise the men in the boat as people, merely looked at them and laughed. And that’s all they seemed to do was be laughing. One of the men of the company decided that they were going to venture onto the island and see what it was about, who these people were and when he got to the shore he looked at the people on the island and then looked back at the people on the boat he had just left but when he looked at the people on the boat it was as if he no longer recognised them. He looked back at the people on shore around him and he started to laugh just like them. This unnerved Bran and his people and they decided to row away as fast as they could lest they fall to the same fate as the man who had gone towards the island. They rode away with a heavy heart leaving their man behind and so they rode on.
And then another island came. This land was the land of women and they saw the leader of these women in the port but after the experience of the last island, Bran and his men were hesitant to go ashore, not sure what fate would befall them. But the leader of these women had a ball of twine which she threw out to the coracle. She threw it up and over Bran’s head. Bran didn’t want to reach it but as she pulled the ball of twine back towards her, it wrapped around Bran’s hand and nearly gripped it in a way and in this way she was able to pull the coracle to port. And when they left the boats and came on to the island all the men saw these beautiful women and they were intrigued and just as intrigued as the women were with these strange men and then they went up to a great hall and in this hall there was a bed for every couple and at the end of every bed was a plate of food that no matter how much they ate it was always replenished. They wanted for nothing. And they lived here happily for a time.
Once they had been there for about a year one of the men, Nechtan came to Bran because he was very homesick and wanted to return to Ireland but every time this conversation came up the men were somehow distracted and never ended up leaving. But here’s the thing about the otherworld, time moves differently there. Yes it had felt like a year to them but in actual fact it had been many hundreds in our world. And then one day Nechtan’s pestering of Bran worked and they did leave and as the men got back into the boats the women left them with one final warning. They said whatever you do, do not touch your feet on the land of Ireland. And that was it. And then an afterthought, you are going home, return to the island of joy, pick up the man you have left there and that is exactly what they did. They rowed to the island of joy, picked up their man and continued home to Ireland.
As they were approaching the shores of Ireland, a crowd had gathered on the beach to see who was coming in this mysterious boat. They were expecting no one. Bran called out and said “I am Bran, I am back from my great voyage”. The men on Ireland looked between themselves and then one of them shouted “we know of no Bran who has been out on a journey out at sea. The only Bran we know is from the ancient stories. This perplexed Bran for a while, but Nechtan, having been so homesick, jumped out of the boat and ran towards the shore. As soon as his feet touched the island of Ireland he turned to dust as if he had been buried for many, many hundreds of years. Seeing this, the warning of the women came back to them, and Bran and his men knew they could not set foot on Ireland but Bran wanted to recount his tale of all he had seen, all he had experienced, his meeting with Manannan son of Ler, so he wrote them down on tablets of stone in Emhain and sent them back to the shore and then they bid the men farewell and rode away and from that hour his wonderings are not known
For the full text of the Quatrains:
The Connections and insights from Participants on the Brendan Voyage
For those who attended Immersion 1, our Wave 1 was the Voyage of Bran. This was on April 18th 2020. This telling this time focused more centrally on the two quatrains of Verses: one by the otherworld woman who visit with Bran and calls him to the adventure, the other is what Manannan says to Bran when they meet.
Here are some of the of the insights and connections from participants following the telling of the Bran story from Emma. In addition Sandy introduced and read a piece from our late friend, John Moriarty and his book ‘Invoking Ireland’. This was his telling of the encounter of Bran with Manannan.
The chapter was entitled:
“Ireland’s Bhagavad Gita as a pagan might be happy to sing it”
Connection 1 – The Divine Encounter
Again, as last telling April 2020, the participants were very struck by how different is the encounter of Bran with Manannan to the Moses/Yahweh encounter. The Moses encounter was described as transactional whereas the Manannan encounter was described as transformational.
Connection 2 – Silver Branch
The branch was discussed. Firstly branches are usually brown, so there is surely a significance of the silver and it showing the branch in a different light. In addition, branches are also organic, growing, flexible and don’t boast of their strength – all in contrast to the hard, rigid, fixed, head bashing stone of the Ten Commandments.
Connection 3 – The Māori Silver Fern
A connection was made to the Māori Silver Fern, the national symbol of New Zealand and the symbolism of new beginnings and Koru. The Koru is used in Māori art as a symbol of creation. The shape conveys the idea of perpetual movement and the inward coil indicates a return to the point of origin – echoes of the spiral imagery of Newgrange. Silver would also have strong symbolic meanings in different societies.
Connection 4 – About Longing – The Call to Adventure
The Call to Adventure is what turns Bran’s life upside down. As Moriarty puts it “Bran MacFeabhail, the hard man, not foremost in battle, laid low not by a sword, but by a longing:
Bran hears music. He doesn’t know where it is coming from but he continues to hear it until he falls asleep. I heard music but I didn’t know what to do with it. It wasn’t calling me to Art or a Profession or to Religious life.
Early on in those years I was in Lough Derg where Bishop Whelan who was home on leave from Nigeria was inviting anyone he met who was a teacher to go out to one of the schools in his diocese. I overheard some of these conversations. The music had begun, but I couldn’t see how it could be played out since I wasn’t a teacher and had no intention of becoming a nun.
Two years later I was sharing a bungalow with two other Irish girls.
The music doesn’t let you go. It gives you a choice. You can either say Yes. Or you can say No. Fortunately I said Yes. It was a turning point in my life and set me on an interior journey which still continues.
Connection 5 – The Evocative Poetry
There was discussion of the ‘otherworld place’ evoked by both the woman and by Manannan. Some of this sort of vision can be and has been dismissed as being ‘away with the fairies and being taken by the fairies’. Others were speculating on this untouched beautiful realm as an experience of a ‘nirvana’ and could we find this within ourselves. In this sort of experience about becoming detached from reality and not living in the ‘here and now’. Can we find a balance between Nirvana and reality?
Connection 6 – Playing with Time
Other discussions were about the different experiences of time. How one can become so immersed especially in a joyful task that we completely lose track of time. And on how can we feel like on a day and how challenging it can be to adjust.
Connection 7 – The Pandemic as an Otherworld Journey
The experience of the pandemic has been of us all going to a place where we have changed and the world has changed. Yet as with Bran the world has changed and we are not coming back to the same reality.
Connection 8 – The Homecoming
When Bran’s party return to Ireland Neachtan ignores the warning and is turned to dust. This was related to someone going on a spiritual journey, having experience and finding the return very challenging. One participant shared a powerful personal story of a return from two transformative years working in Nigeria.
At the end of my two years in Nigeria I didn’t want to return home but I’d had my two years of adventure. It was time to get on with my life – a fact the said Bishop decisively pointed out to me.
Bran and his companions were warned when they set out on their return journey that they were not to stand on the soil of Ireland or they would be turned into dust.
Like Bran and his companions, I also had to learn that there’s no escape from reality. Africa gets into one’s system. It was wonderful. But it was also very unsettling. I knew people who kept going back, one tour after another because they couldn’t settle down at home. Leaving Ireland, my parents and friends had been hard, but it was nothing by comparison to the devastation of coming back. I didn’t turn into dust but I found building a new life extremely difficult. Most of my friends had married during my time away so I had no-one to socialise with. I was grieving the life, culture and country I had left behind and again there was no-one who could really understand and with whom I could share. Life would never be the same again and it took a long time for me to eventually shape my new life.
Those two years however were seminal. I wouldn’t be the woman I am today without them. In spite of the difficulties they are more precious to me than all the money in the world.
Connection 9 – About John Moriarty
Participants spoke of the incredible potency of Moriarty’s writing and how he was, in person, aa ‘otherworldy’ figure.
Connection 10 – The Poetry and the Irish
The evocativeness of the ancient poetry was mentioned and also the quatrains that were read (by Joni) in Irish. This was described as emotively impactful and how ‘it opens a veil between the worlds’. Also the closeness of the physical sensation of sound and touch (also relevant to his poetry) as literally deeply touching.
Connection 11 – Power of the Arts
The arts vs. politicians/academics and the way the arts speak to the emotions and make you live their content. The difference between red (emotional) and blue (rational) rhetoric. N.B. some recent politicians (Trump/Johnson) have used red rhetoric very effectively.