Myths and Legends of the Celtic Race

Page: 147

192 said to him: “It were better for thee to avenge the man who was burnt there than to cast stones over his burnt bones.”

“Who was that?” asked Maeldūn.

“Ailill, thy father,” they told him.

“Who slew him?” said he.

“Reavers from Leix,” they said, “and they destroyed him on this spot.”

Then Maeldūn threw down the stone he was about to cast, and put his mantle round him and went home; and he asked the way to Leix. They told him he could only go there by sea.

[pg 312]

At the advice of a Druid he then built him a boat, or coracle, of skins lapped threefold one over the other; and the wizard also told him that seventeen men only must accompany him, and on what day he must begin the boat and on what day he must put out to sea.

So when his company was ready he put out and hoisted the sail, but had gone only a little way when his three foster-brothers came down to the beach and entreated him to take them. “Get you home,” said Maeldūn, “for none but the number I have may go with me.” But the three youths would not be separated from Maeldūn, and they flung themselves into the sea. He turned back, lest they should be drowned, and brought them into his boat. All, as we shall see, were punished for this transgression, and Maeldūn condemned to wandering until expiation had been made.

Irish bardic tales excel in their openings. In this case, as usual, the mise-en-scène is admirably contrived. The narrative which follows tells how, after seeing his father's slayer on an island, but being unable to land there, Maeldūn and his party are blown out to sea, where they visit a great number of islands and have many strange adventures on them. The tale becomes, in fact, a cento of stories and incidents, some not very interesting, while in others, as in the adventure of the Island of the Silver Pillar, or the Island of the Flaming Rampart, or that where the episode of the eagle takes place, the Celtic sense of beauty, romance, and mystery find an expression unsurpassed, perhaps, in literature.

In the following rendering I have omitted the verses given by Joyce at the end of each adventure. They merely recapitulate the prose narrative, and are not found in the earliest manuscript authorities.

[pg 313]

The Island of the Slaves

Maeldūn and his crew had rowed all day and half the night when they came to two small bare islands with two forts in them, and a noise was heard from them of armed men quarrelling. “Stand off from me,” cried one of them, “for I am a better man than thou. 'Twas I slew Ailill of the Edge-of-Battle and burned the church of Doocloone over him, and no kinsman has avenged his death on me. And thou hast never done the like of that.”

Then Maeldūn was about to land, and Germān and Diuran the Rhymer cried that God had guided them to the spot where they would be. But a great wind arose suddenly and blew them off into the boundless ocean, and Maeldūn said to his foster-brothers: “Ye have caused this to be, casting yourselves on board in spite of the words of the Druid.” And they had no answer, save only to be silent for a little space.

The Island of the Ants

They drifted three days and three nights, not knowing whither to row, when at the dawn of the third day they heard the noise of breakers, and came to an island as soon as the sun was up. Here, ere they could land, they met a swarm of ferocious ants, each the size of a foal, that came down the strand and into the sea to get at them; so they made off quickly, and saw no land for three days more.

The Island of the Great Birds

This was a terraced island, with trees all round it, and great birds sitting on the trees. Maeldūn landed first alone, and carefully searched the island for any [pg 314] evil thing, but finding none, the rest followed him, and killed and ate many of the birds, bringing others on board their boat.

The Island of the Fierce Beast

A great sandy island was this, and on it a beast like a horse, but with clawed feet like a hound's. He flew at them to devour them, but they put off in time, and were pelted by the beast with pebbles from the shore as they rowed away.

The Island of the Giant Horses

A great, flat island, which it fell by lot to Germān and Diuran to explore first. They found a vast green racecourse, on which were the marks of horses' hoofs, each as big as the sail of a ship, and the shells of nuts of monstrous size were lying about, and much plunder. So they were afraid, and took ship hastily again, and from the sea they saw a horse-race in progress and heard the shouting of a great multitude cheering on the white horse or the brown, and saw the giant horses running swifter than the wind. So they rowed away with all their might, thinking they had come upon an assembly of demons.

The Island of the Stone Door

A full week passed, and then they found a great, high island with a house standing on the shore. A door with a valve of stone opened into the sea, and through it the sea-waves kept hurling salmon into the house. Maeldūn and his party entered, and found the house [pg 315] empty of folk, but a great bed lay ready for the chief to whom it belonged, and a bed for each three of his company, and meat and drink beside each bed. Maeldūn and his party ate and drank their fill, and then sailed off again.

The Island of the Apples

By the time they had come here they had been a long time voyaging, and food had failed them, and they were hungry.