Story Archaeology

Uncovering the layers of Irish Mythology through a regular podcast and related articles

Reflections On The Skelligs

The Skelligs, Kerry,

In our first episode on the  Imramma, ‘The Voyage of Bran Mac Febul,  we discussed the monastic preference for settling in lonely and out of the way places. We referred to the practice as ‘extreme monasticism’. One of the best examples of this must be early monastic complex on a lonely rock, you can hardly call it an island, known as Skellig Michael. off the coast of Kerry.

Even today, voyaging in a modern motor boat, it is still something of an adventure to visit this World Heritage site. Even in summer, there is no guarantee of landing on the island.  A visit certainly aids appreciation of  the determination of these hardy voyagers,

I have visited the Skelligs twice  Both voyages were in the month of September, nine years apart.  I have reprinted below, a couple of extracts from my own notes. The journeys were something of an Imram for me, although I am glad to say, the skipper of the boat was not ‘rowing around’ but seemed to know exactly where he was going!

Skellig MichaelFirst visit: 

We slide down Coomanaspic and into the harbour at Port Magee. We find our boat quickly, a small motor boat, licensed for twelve passengers. While we are waiting for our skipper, we get chatting to a Scottish woman, Sarah.  Her brother works in a local hotel. He has been here for three years and has never once been able to land on the Skelligs. He has advised her that we are unlikely to land today. This is the first time the boats have been out in ten days and the season’s storms have been aggressive. We will be travelling in hope.

It feels exhilarating to be underway, cutting our path through the green glass of the waves, but I am aware that we have not yet left the shelter of Valentia. When we do, we are rocked and plummeted into fairground laughter as the sea heaves and breathes beneath us.

The mainland is far behind now, but I still cannot see the Skelligs. Then, as we turn into the waves, I understand that we have been heading straight for them and that the view has been blocked by the boat.

Skellig beagSkellig Beag is impressive. Sheer rocks pile up into a crazy, pinacled Gothic edifice, stark against the blue grey sky. The bare rock is white with nesting gulls and iced with crashing foam.

Beyond it lies Skellig Michael itself, black spikes piercing the moss-turfed and impossible slopes. We can already identify the distant, stone hummocks that make up the monastic eerie of those long departed dwellers on the edge of the world. You have to wonder what those hawkish Viking invaders imagined that they would find in this indomitable fortress of spirit.

But it seems that we are less hardy than those Valhalla bound Sea-farers. There are hurried conversations on mobile phones, discussions and shaking heads. Even before our guide leaves the cabin, thumbs down, we know we questing pilgrims are to be repelled.  We cannot land.

The sea is rising again, the wind stronger. The   boat flies, seal swift, waves parting as we plough a path. The sea concedes our return, but the wild salt spray constrains our vision to a narrow channel and the islands on the edge of the world are lost to us, this time.

Skellig MichaelSecond visit: 9 years later

The extravagant cone of Skellig Michael bobs and bounces in the white waved water, like a grey inflated iceberg. It looks somehow, unstable as we hang over the boat’s rails taking angular photos. It is disconcerting. We are the ones who are rising and falling on our fragile floating platform, but as the boat stills its engines, it is hard to appreciate this.

We have passed by the great rock’s sharp bird clad sister and are waiting to see if it will be safe to land on Skellig Michael itself. Raising our eyes, we can see uneven stone steps, carved out by the monks all those centuries ago. There is also the one , unexpected, and recent  addition to the rock; a circular helicopter pad.

Our gaze is drawn back to the landing site. The rungs look impossibly small, a slender ladder rising to a paved path. Our sightings of it are in constant motion as the sea rearranges our point of view.

But we are landing. Slowly, carefully, our skipper, eases us in and the boat is tied securely. One by one we gingerly climb the ladder onto the solid, monastic rock.

We are all still wearing motorcycle wet weather ‘onesies’.   We have been grateful for their cover on the way over.

“Keep them on”, calls out the skipper, grinning. But I am familiar with these uncomfortable garments, on my daily bike journeys. I strip  off the damp cover’all and send it back down to the boat. The skipper shrugs and waves.

Skellig MichaelIt is finally time to ascend the steps we viewed from the bobbing boat. There are more than two hundred of them, cut into the landscaped slope, leading up to the monks’ ancient settlement of beehive stone huts. The sun comes out as we climb, and it becomes warm as we move into the shelter of the rocky peaks. Imagine the monks having to pass this way every day. Imagine this path in the depths of winter!

I am shivering in my fleece, in spite of the sun,  as I contemplate this thought, but at that Skellig Michaelmoment, the path opens out. We stand in the centre of the settlement The beehive huts cluster austere, domed, like monumental mole hills in a grassy clearing. A giant cross of ragged stone dominates, a rugged grey ghost of monastic memory. It is startling, the tones of the rock seeming to glow against the suddenly blue sky.

There are more visitors in this constrained space but I am able to enter one of the beehive structures alone. There are no windows, of course and the low door allows in little light. Yet, the interior space feels open, limitless, dim and calm. The corbelling is so fine and precise, that each stone, surely, would fit alongside no other.

Skellig Michael

Later, I relax in the sunshine looking out towards the narrow terraces thatwere once gardens of precious vegetables. I listen in to a guide who offers information on these hardy aesthetics who had traveled as far as they could go, out into the sunset, out into the Western ocean.

My mobile rings. I answer it almost absentmindedly.

“I am not at home”, I tell my friend

“Where am I? Why, I am standing on the edge of the world.”

Skellig Michael

For further informatio go to:

A monastery may have been founded as early as the sixth century, reputedly by Saint Fionán, but the first definite reference to monks on the Skelligs dates to the eighth century when the death of ‘Suibhni of Scelig’ is recorded. Skellig is referred to in the annals of the ninth and tenth centuries and its dedication to Saint Michael the Archangel appears to have happened some time before 1044 when the death of ‘Aedh of Scelic-Mhichíl’ is recorded. It is probable that this dedication to Saint Michael was celebrated by the building of Saint Michael’s church in the monastery.

Some time between the sixth and eight centuries, a monastery was constructed on the broad northeastern summit of the island. During the lifetime of the monastery a hermitage, one of the most daring architectural expressions of early Irish monasticism, was also created on the narrow ledges just below the summit of the South Peak (218 m, above sea level), the highest point on the island.

The Text of Immram Brain Part 1: The Woman’s Poem

Here is the first part of the text of Immram Brain, as edited by Séamus Mac Mathúna.  The translation is based on that of Kuno Meyer, although where my translation differs significantly from his, I have included his translation in brackets.

I have also marked the scribe’s glosses with brackets, introduced with .i. in the text and i.e. in the translation. I think many of these glosses highlight the cross-referencing of Christian with non-Christian material, as we discussed in the episode.

Points of interest, such as the names for various Otherworld places, are marked in bold.

Isolde Carmody

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The Otherworld Apple Branch

An illustration of the Otherworld apple branch

It was just a branch from an apple tree.

It lay there beside him on the ground, shining silver in the sea-washed sunlight.

Bran sat up, yawning. He stretched his arms, flexing his fingers.

What a dream that had been!

The music; sweet, unearthly.  It had followed him as he walked alone on the sharp-grassed dunes. Yes, it was that strange and haunting music. It had always been behind him as he walked. He had been unable to see who was making those thrilling sounds, could not discover where it was coming from. It had entranced his senses, like an exotic perfume; made him dizzy, unsteady on his feet.

The air was bright, fresh; and he could hear the summer singing of birds above him. The dream was turning to mist in his head, yet fronds of its perfume still clung about his memory.

That music!  It made the birdsong sound raucous and harsh.

Bran yawned again and stood up.  What had he been doing lying down anyway?  How had he come to fall asleep on the grass here? Hadn’t he been waiting for news? No time to sleep, surely?

A fresh wind blew and he shivered suddenly. His head cleared. It hadn’t been a dream. The music had been true, had been reality, sending him reeling into sleep.

Bran took a step forward and felt something move at his feet. There was an echo of music like distant bells, and a remembrance of subtle perfume. He looked down.

The apple branch from his dream was still there, lying on the ground.  But it hadn’t been a dream.

Bran bent down and picked up the branch, turning it over in his hands. It  had come from no tree in this world.  The bark was silver, but so fine and finished that no smithcraft of his world could have honed it so.  Bran gently probed the silver surface with his thumbnail. It yielded to his slow pressure, leaving the crescent of his nail marked on the curve of the twig. Curiously, he scratched at the dent. Flakes of silver bark fell to the ground. The wood was a soft dull silver beneath.

Carefully, he stroked one of the shining leaves. It flexed at his touch. He admired the veining patterning the spearhead shape, and allowed his finger to brush the edge serrations. Such making was beyond all craft of man.

And the blossoms! The branch had been taken from a tree in bloom. Gently, he pinched one of the blushing white flowers. It bruised beneath his fingers. Bran shook his head in disbelief. No crafter in silver, however talented, could have grafted living flowers onto metal.

Bran carefully shook the bright branch, wondering if the petals would fall. The haunting strains of the remembered music danced around him for a moment, and he felt the power of the perfume mazing his mind again, leaving him quiescent and wondering.

“It is a gift,” thought Bran to himself. “A great gift from the Otherworld.” He gently shook the branch again. This time, he thought he heard words sung to the rhythm of the silver leaf music…

“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…”

Bran walked back to the fort, deep in thought. This gift from the Otherworld might be a two-edged sword.  The Ever-Living Ones gave nothing without purpose.  Such gifts heralded change, maybe even  trouble.

Yet the silver branch he held in his hands was a wonder. It called to him, drew him towards its secrets. He knew that he could not cast it away.

Bran looked up and smiled, taking in the tang of the salt air on the breeze. There was a new spring to his stride. This was no dream.

He was ready, now, for the adventure that lay before him.

Rowing Around Immráma 01: Immrám Brain Mac Febul

Statue of Manannan overlooking Lough Foyle

Welcome to Series 4, “Rowing Around Immráma”, where we will be exploring a tale-type which straddles land and sea, conscious and unconscious, Christian and non-Christian.  In the first episode on these magical sea voyages, we follow Bran Mac Febul on his voyage to the Island of Women.

Join the Story Archaeologists as they dig the first of their somewhat watery trenches, and discover why Bran receives an offer he finds hard to refuse.

Don’t forget to subscribe to get the latest posts!  Related Articles will be posted in the days to come…

Check our Reading List for further reading and resources.

by The Story Archaeologists

Music: “Tam Lin” by Gian Castello

The Ulster Women’s War of Words 2: Lendabair

In “Fled Bricrenn 1: The Feasting Hall“, we discussed the so-called Ulster Women’s War of Words.  This is where the partners of the three contending heroes take turns to boast of their own greatness as well as that of their men-folk.

Here is the second of these poetic weapons, here weilded by Lendabair, partner to Conall Cernach.

The text is taken from the Codex Vossianius version of Fled Bricrenn. You can read George Henderson’s translation (based on the Lebor na hUidre version) here. It is marked as Section 23 in both versions.

You can listen to Isolde reading the Old Irish and her translation here:



§23 Isbert Lendubair ingen Eogain maic Derthacht, ben Connaill Cernaig maic Aimergin:

Lendabair, daughter of Eogan the son of Derthacht, wife of Conall the Victorious, the son of Amergin:


“Roscad” – marks a passage of non-syllabic alliterative poetry

Ar is mesi cruth cell congraim

For I am a body of intelligent bearing

coblethar ceimb crut cain curcastai

My shapely step celebrated, graceful as reeds,

a tech medrach Medquartai righ ria mnaib Ulad.

From the kingly, intoxicating Mead-Circling Hall, before the women of Ulster.

Ar is mo celi coem Conull coscurach credmaír

For victorious, great-chested Conall is my beloved partner,

coblethar cem n-ard nadguidhe

[whose] high inspiring stride is celebrated [lit. “feasted”]

i nuchtai ergal errind ria cach.

Pre-eminent in bursting breasts before all.

Cain tinnta cucum co cernaib co cennaib

Cleanly cut for me with warriors, with heads / cheifs,

con rucai calcae cruaidii comraicthi Ulad.

bearing hard lances, acclaimed [by the] Ulaid.

Arsaidh cech nath

He guards every ford

conid dia tul targlai

which is why he is [called] “head-most of hostings”.

arslaith a natha

He cuts down their fords

arfich a ngresae

He defeats their assaults

commaich laeich ar a bi lecht líac

Shattering heroes who [now] underlie grave-stones

laimethar mac ain Aimirgin acollaim.

This splendid son of Amergin dares a declaration.

Ar is Connall ar lin a cern

For it is Conall, with his compliment of warriors,

cingius ria cech laech.

Who strides before every hero.

Qid na budsi an Lendobair-si

Why should not this Lendabair,

li sulaie caich

The delight of every eye,

[NOTE: “lí súla”, “delight / lustre of the eye”, is one of the so-called kennings of the Ogam letter Luis.  It is a phrase often used in poetry.]

cichsid ria cech mnai a tech ricc?

Step before every woman into the kingly [?] house?

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