Mythical Isles of the West

The fine map, above, was drawn in 1375 and is attributed to Abraham Cresques (courtesy  Library of Congress, Geography and Map Division). it is known generally as the Atlas Catalan. What interests us is that it depicts two islands off the west and south-west coasts of Ireland (see detail below): Hy-Brasil and Demar. These landfalls are shown on maps since then through the centuries, the last depiction being in 1865.

We look out to the hundred Carbery Islands in Roaringwater bay. The view (above) is always changing as sun, rain and wind stir up the surface of the sea and the sky and clouds create wonderful panoramas. But, generally, the view is predictable: we know that Horse island will be across from us, and Cape Clear will always be on the distant horizon, while the smaller islets break up the surface of the ocean in-between, and help calm down its wildness when the storms come.

But, suppose it wasn’t always predictable? What if those islands changed, moved around or appeared and disappeared? It seems that such things do happen, here in Ireland. At least, they do according to some of the recorded evidence. ‘Mythical Islands’ have been mentioned by mariners and storytellers through the centuries.

Our best source of information for Ireland’s ‘transcendent’ islands is our old friend Thomas Westropp (above, kitted out for an expedition) who was an archaeologist and folklorist living between 1860 and 1922. He was active in Counties Clare and Limerick and wrote a paper for The Royal Academy in 1912 – Brasil and the Legendary Islands of the North Atlantic: Their History and Fable. This comprehensive paper includes a list of evanescent islands, a new map drawn by Westropp, and a summary of historic maps which have located them:

Westropp’s exploration of the subject is remarkably comprehensive. Here are some extracts:

. . . Bran son of Febal, sleeping near his fort, hears sweet music, and awakes to seize a magic apple branch. An unknown woman sings of “a glorious island round which sea-horses glisten – a fair course against the white swelling surge.” In it dwells no wailing, treachery, death, or sickness; it glows many-coloured in incomparable haze, with snowy cliff’s and strands of dragon-stones and crystals. She vanishes, and Bran, with twenty-seven followers, embarks. They meet the sea-god Mananann mac Lir in his chariot, visit Magh Mell, the Isle of Laughter, and the Isle of Women, whose queen draws Bran to it by a magic clue. Entranced by love, the visitors do not note the flight of time; in apparently undiminished youth and strength they return to Ireland; it is only when the first to step ashore falls to ashes, as if centuries dead, that they know the truth. The survivors tell their tale without landing, and sail out into the deep, never to be seen again . . .

Thomas WESTROPP – Brasil and the Legendary Islands of the North Atlantic, 1912

Image above courtesy of the Worksop Bestiary.

. . . The Sunken Land. I found no name for this in north Mayo save when it was confused with Manister Ladra. Belief in it prevailed in north Erris and Tirawley from Dunminulla to Downpatrick. In 1839 it was said to extend from near Teelin to the Stags of Broadhaven and thence half way to America. A boatman knew a woman named Lavelle who saw from the shore (when gathering Carrigeen moss) a delightful country of hills and valleys, with sheep browsing on the slopes, cattle in green pastures, and clothes drying on the hedges. A Ballycastle boatman, a native of Co. Sligo, corroborated this, adding that he had seen it twice at intervals of seven years, and if he lived to see it a third time he would be able to disenchant it. He could talk of nothing else, became idle and useless, and died, worn out and miserable, on the very eve of the expected third appearance . . .

Thomas WESTROPP – Brasil and the Legendary Islands of the North Atlantic, 1912

. . . Owen Gallagher, Lieutenant Henri’s servant, heard of one Biddy Took, who, when gathering dillish (seaweed), asked some passing boatmen to put her out to an islet and fetch her back on their return : amused by her talk they brought her fishing, and soon got a ” tremendous bite.” They landed a green, fishy-looking child, quite human in shape, and in their fright let him escape and dive. The man who hooked him died suddenly within a year. Gallagher also said that he had fired at and wounded a seal; soon after, when far out to sea in his currach, he got lost in a fog-bank and reached an unknown island. An old man, moaning, with one eye blinded, stood on the shore and proved to be the seal. With more than human forgiveness, he warned his enemy to fly from the land of the seal men, lest his (the seal’s) sons and friends should avenge the cruelty . . .

Thomas WESTROPP – Brasil and the Legendary Islands of the North Atlantic, 1912

Image Carta Marina (1539) courtesy Bone + Sickle

. . . The Aran people now believe that Brasil is seen only once in seven years. They call it the Great Land. In Clare, I have heard from several fishermen at Kilkee and elsewhere that they had seen it ; they also told legends of people lost when trying to reach it. I myself have seen the illusion some three times in my boyhood, and even made a rough coloured sketch after the last event, in the summer of 1872. It was a clear evening, with a fine golden sunset, when, just as the sun went down, a dark island suddenly appeared far out to sea, but not on the horizon. It had two hills, one wooded ; between these, from a low plain, rose towers and curls of smoke. My mother, brother, Ralph Hugh Westropp, and several friends saw it at the same time; one person cried that he could “see New York ” ! With such realistic appearance (and I have since seen apparent islands in 1887 in Clare, and in 1910 in Mayo), it is not wonderful that the belief should have been so strong, probably from the time when Neolithic man first looked across the Atlantic from our western coast. It coloured Irish thought ; stood for the pagan Elysium and the Christian Paradise of the Saints ; affected the early map-makers ; and sent Columbus over the trackless deep to see wonders greater than Maelduin and Brendan were fabled to have seen, till Antilha, Verde, and Brazil became replaced by real islands and countries ; and the birds, flowers, and fruit of the Imrama by those of the gorgeous forests of the Amazon in the real Brazil. ” Admiration is the first step leading up to knowledge, for he that wondereth shall reign.” . . .

Thomas WESTROPP – Brasil and the Legendary Islands of the North Atlantic, 1912

Above is the view from our house – Nead an Iolair – a day or two ago, when a strong sea mist was coming across from the south-west, enveloping Cape Clear and making it float ethereally like one of the mythical islands. Other writers have tackled the subject of the vanishing lands, including Joseph Jacobs, who put together a collection of stories in 1919. The subject is ‘Wonder Voyages’, and the book (available online here) covers some of Ireland’s adventurers, including Máel Dúin – a predecessor of Brendan the Voyager.

Máel Dúin sets out ‘into the limitless ocean’, suggesting that ‘God will bring the boat where it needs to go’. He and his crew encounter a large number of strange islands, including:

The island of ants, from which the men flee because the ants’ intention is to eat their boat

The island of tame birds

The island of the horse-like beast who pelts the crew with the beach

The island of horses and demons

The island of salmon, where they find an empty house filled with a feast and they all eat, drink, and give thanks to Almighty God.

The island with the branch of an apple tree, where they are fed with apples for 40 nights

The island of the “Revolving Beast”, a creature that would shift its form by manipulating its bones, muscles, and loose skin; it casts stones at the escaping crew and one pierces the keel of the boat

The island where animals bite each other and blood is everywhere

The island of apples, pigs, and birds

The island with the great fort/pillars/cats where one of the foster brothers steals a necklet and is burned to ashes by the cat

The island of black and white sheep, where sheep change colours as they cross the fence; the crewmen do not go aboard this island for fear of changing colour

The island of the swineherd, which contained an acidic river and hornless oxen

The island of the ugly mill and miller, who was “wrinkled, rude, and bareheaded”

The island of lamenting men and wailing sorrows, where they had to retrieve a crewman who entered the island and became one of the lamenting men; they saved him by grabbing him while holding their breath

The island with maidens and intoxicating drink

The island with forts and the crystal bridge, where there is a maiden who is propositioned to sleep with Máel Dúin

The island of colourful birds singing like psalms

The island with the psalm-singing old man with noble monastic words

The island with the golden wall around it

The island of angry smiths

The crew voyaged on and came across a sea like a green crystal. Here, there were no monsters but only rocks. They continued on and came to a sea of clouds with underwater fortresses and monsters.

The island with a woman pelting them with nuts

The island with a river sky that was raining salmon

The island on a pedestal

The island with eternal youth/women (17 maidens)

The island with red fruits that were made as a sleeping elixir

The island with monks of Brendan Birr, where they were blessed

The island with eternal laughter, where they lost a crewman

The island of the fire people

The island of cattle, oxen, and sheep

The most well-known voyager of all – in Irish tradition – is Saint Brendan. The image above is from the Finola Window, which was crafted by George Walsh. We all know that Brendan was a real character, who discovered America back in the sixth century. On the way he also encountered many islands – which we cannot locate today (that doesn’t mean they are not there) – and had hair-raising adventures on them. This post will take you through some of his journeyings.

It’s clear that, in the shared Irish psyche, we are aware of places that we can’t always see, or visit. it’s all part of a folk knowledge that’s largely hidden away, except in the memories of older generations, that relates to the sea, and the idea that there are races of people who live on ‘lost’ islands – or even in the sea. In some of the stories about the islands it is suggested that, when they vanish, it’s because they have submerged under the ocean – perhaps temporarily.

There’s a great collection of stories readily available in a series of podcasts known as Blúiríní Béaloidis / Folklore Fragments. Look out for the one titled Blúiríní Béaloidis 16 – Otherworld Islands In Folk Tradition. I have transcribed one of my favourite pieces from this podcast, and will finish this post with it. It summarises, very neatly, the tradition that other worlds are out there, and – at times – our world and theirs meet, providing solid evidence for there being human life under the sea! The tale was collected by Dr McCarthy of Kerry.

. . . People from Dingle Harbour used to sail to Kilrush in Limerick long ago. There was a boat leaving the harbour to Limerick one day with a load of salt. There were 8 men in the boat. They had prepared the boat. There was no quay in Dingle in those days, just a slipway. A fine, strapping young man approached them carrying a pot and a pot-hook, The pot-hook looked as if it had come straight from the forge. He addressed the boat’s captain. Are you going to Limerick, my good man? I am, said the captain, we are just about to leave. Would you mind terribly, said the young man, taking me some of the way? I don’t mind, said the captain, if you wish to come all of the way. He placed his pot and pot-hook in the boat, and got in himself. They rowed away and raised the sail at the mouth of the harbour. They were halfway when the man with the pot and pot-hook roused himself. I’ll be leaving you now, he said to the captain, and I’m very grateful to you. He took hold of his pot and his pot-hook and he leapt into the sea. They never saw him again . . .


Blúiríní Béaloidis

There’s a rather nice postscript to this story:

. . . Some time later, a man with a line and hook was fishing in the sea in the same place, and a boiled potato came up on his hook . . .

Blúiríní Béaloidis

Brendan in Bronze

Do you know the story of St Brendan? He – ‘The Navigator’ – went to North America long before Columbus. Nearly a thousand years before, in fact: Brendan was born in the fifth century. The story of his voyage, and his remarkable adventures with his fellow monks, has inspired art, music and song ever since then. Here’s the beginning of Christy Moore’s version:

A boat sailed out of Brandon in the year of 501
’twas a damp and dirty mornin’ Brendan’s voyage it began.
Tired of thinnin’ turnips and cuttin’ curley kale
When he got back from the creamery he hoisted up the sail.
He ploughed a lonely furrow to the north, south, east and west
Of all the navigators, St Brendan was the best . . .

We went to Tralee, Co Kerry, to visit the Church of Our Lady and St Brendan: Finola was looking for windows by Murphy Devitt (which are spectacular) and I chanced upon a set of bronze roundels laid into the paving leading up to the main entrance (above). I felt I had to record them here, as they illustrate and tell the whole story of the Saint so wonderfully well. The large medallions were designed and made by Eithne Ring and Liam Lavery, and were installed in 2010. As far as I know this is a unique record of the voyage: well worth a visit – but don’t miss the windows!

St Brendan: part of a huge stained glass installation by Murphy Devitt in this Kerry church

I’m showing the roundels in the order in which you encounter them as you approach the main doors to the church, and giving a very brief description of the subject of each. At the end you will find a commentary provided by the designers, which gives more detail.

1 St Brendan visits St Enda prior to building his boat

2 On a rocky island, Brendan’s crew are led by a hound to a miraculous hall of food

3 The monks find an island inhabited by giant sheep

4 Brendan and his companions land on an island, light a fire and celebrate Mass; they discover that they are on the back of a whale!

5 An island of white birds: one is ringing a bell

6 The monks take meat from a beast that has been slain by a monster

7 On the Island of Grapes the monks witness a battle between a gryphon and a bird: the bird is victorious

8 All the fish in the ocean come to listen to Brendan while he sings

9 Brendan finds a huge crystal pillar rising out of the sea

10 The sea is boiling like an erupting volcano

11 Brendan and his companions meet the unhappy Judas chained to a rocky island

12 The travellers find a hermit who has been fed by an otter for forty years

13 Brendan returns to Ireland to prepare for his death

So now you know the bones of Brendan’s story. Now listen to the music! Saun Davey’s Brendan Voyage, a suite for uillinn pipes and orchestra, is a masterpiece inspired partly by the Saint himself, but also by Tim Severin’s 1976/77 recreation of the journey across the Atlantic in a leather clad boat:

Tim Severin pictured with a model of the boat in which he recreated the Saint’s journey

Let’s give the last words to Christy Moore, and the chorus of his Brendan song (you can find all the lyrics here):

“Is it right or left for Gibraltar?”
“What tack do I take for Mizen Head?”
“I’d love to settle down near Ventry Harbour”,
St Brendan to his albatross he said . . .

Clonfert, St Brendan – and the Ghost of British Fascism

yew walk 2016

Clonfert, Yew Walk

The yew walk at Clonfert  – ‘a great cathedral of natural growth’ – which Tom and Angela Rolt found so impressive on their visit to Clonfert, Co Galway, in 1946, during their travels around the waterways of Ireland. Their photograph is above; 70 years later we followed in their footsteps and took the picture at the top of the page

We were following the Rolt’s journey described in the book Green & Silver – this post is the sixth instalment of the Travel by Water series. We would certainly have included Clonfert in our own itinerary, as we could not have missed the incredible 12th century doorway of Clonfert Cathedral, a high point of Hiberno Romanesque architecture – that deserves a future post of its own. The Rolts walked to Clonfert from their mooring on the Grand Canal at Shannon Harbour, a round journey of over a dozen miles; we drove to Clonfert and managed to get thoroughly lost in the maze of tiny roads in that part of rural County Galway.

st brendan's grave inscription

The twelfth century doorway to Clonfert Cathedral – a medieval architectural masterpiece – and the grave of St Brendan which it faces

…Close behind the cathedral and sheltering with it among the fine trees which make Clonfert an oasis in the bogland, stands the Bishops Palace, now a lay residence. Having been courteously granted permission to explore the grounds, we found Clonfert’s celebrated yew walk which is reputed to date back to early medieval times. The yews have attained unusual stature, and their interlacing branches curve outward and then upward towards the light to form a series of those ogee curved arches beloved of the Gothic revivalists of the Strawberry Hill period. As the main walk runs from east to west with two short transepts radiating from a central crossing, the effect is truly remarkable and represents nothing so much as a great cathedral of natural growth. Moreover, the light within was appropriately dim and religious, the dark foliage excluding most of the light from the overcast sky. We found the silent twilight of this great nave of ancient trees strangely impressive, more so, in fact than the man-made cathedral close by. In spite of the difficulty involved we decide to make this the subject of our pictorial record of Clonfert rather than the often-photographed west doorway… (LTC Rolt, Green & Silver, George Allen and Unwin 1949).

nuns walk sign

Tom Rolt, the navigator of canals, devotes several passages in his book to Saint Brendan ‘the navigator’ and his many voyages all over the world until …having completed ninety three years… Brendan set out fearfully and alone upon his last voyage while his body was brought home to Clonfert for burial… (Green & Silver): …There is much evidence to support the belief that Brendan reached America nearly a thousand years before Columbus, that Newfoundland was his first landfall, and that he sailed from thence down the coast to the Bahamas and the everglades of Florida… Rolt goes on to admire the conjectured boat which Brendan and his small party of monks would have used: …The hull of this vessel of AD 551 bears a remarkable resemblance to that of an ice-breaker boat which I saw re-timbered at the yard of an English canal company in AD 1943. She was massively built of oak, iron fastened to the ribs, with a high prow and a whaleboat stern equipped with a steering paddle (the rudder had not then been invented). She was decked fore and aft, while the mast stepped in the well amidships bore a single lug sail. Her timbers were possibly skin-covered as the wooden curraghs of Inishbofin are today covered with canvas. She had considerable freeboard, and she shipped no oars but depended on sail alone. In this small but stoutly built craft, of which the Galway Pookawn of to-day is probably the direct lineal descendant, Brendan set forth to sail into the sunset…

Fascinating and curious juxtapositions in the offerings left at St Brendan’s Tree in Clonfert

The Rolts did not mention St Brendan’s Tree, which we encountered on our way to the yew walk. We don’t know how ancient or how recent this manifestation might be. It’s a horse chestnut and it is festooned with all the offerings one would find at a holy well – and more! In addition to statues, rosaries, cards, coins and ribbons there were toys, musical intruments, shoes – and underwear. We were guided to the yew walk by a forester working nearby: we expressed curiosity at the tree, wanting to know its history and efficacy but his response was pragmatic: “I’m Church of Ireland myself and wouldn’t be knowing anything about this sort of goings-on”.

Brendan made several voyages. Rolt continues the story: …It was upon Brendan’s return from his second voyage that he founded his monastery and college at Clonfert – Cluain Fearta Breannain or the meadow of Brendan’s Virtus. This was destined to become a great European University of three thousand students rivalled only by the similar institutions of Clonard and Bangor. Clear thinking was the liberal aim of education at this period… Fifteen years elapsed before Brendan once more set sail to Scotland, and Wales, visiting the great Welsh scholars Gildas the Wise and Cadoc of Llancarvan, and from thence to Brittany and the Cornwall of King Arthur… Where Brendan voyaged after this is uncertain, but rumour and legend associate the name of this indefatigable traveller with the Canary Islands, Teneriffe, Egypt, Palestine and the Isles of Greece. Yet the patron saint of seafarers returned to Ireland to die in the convent of his sister Brigh at Annaghduin…

Bishops Palace

Palace Interior

We found the Bishop’s Palace, which Rolt mentioned as being a ‘lay residence’ – presumably in good order – in 1946. 70 years later it is ruinous. We were intrigued and I determined to seek out its recent history. In doing so I chanced upon a whole section of Irish and British relationships which startled me, and seemed somehow to make entirely poignant the time span of 70 years which I have been observing in this series.

Discarded robin

A poignant moment – discarded robin and broken statue in Clonfert graveyard

I quote from an article in The Dublin Review, issue No 26, Spring 2007. This is an excellently written and comprehensive account of matters well beyond the remit of this little post, but I commend anyone who is interested in history – and the state of the world today – to read it. This extract continues the story of the Palace at Clonfert:

…In 1951, John Arthur Burdett Trench – obsessive huntsman since the age of eight, polo player and, in his mid sixties, possessor of a memory of having ridden home the winner of the Grand National at Fairyhouse at a time when English officers could still relax in the grandstand – sold Clonfert Palace near Eyrecourt in Co. Galway to an English family not long arrived in Ireland. The house had belonged to the Trenches for generations and had once been the residence of Church of Ireland bishops. It stood on the flood plain of the Shannon, a short walk from Clonfert Cathedral, hidden away behind its famous avenue of yew trees, an inconspicuous island of Ascendancy civility on the frontier of the vast bog. Like many other ancient mansions, its comforts and refinements had not survived the privations of the twentieth century and it was badly in need of restoration. Every day for months the new lady of the house would drive across the bogland roads from her temporary accommodation in Tipperary to supervise the installation of bathrooms, electricity and central heating, an Aga in the kitchen. Word spread that Clonfert Palace was being returned to its former glory and that there was work to be had from the new owners. They turned the ballroom into a drawing room and brought a carpenter from Banagher to build bookshelves that covered an entire wall. They filled the once-dilapidated rooms with fine furniture, replaced the broken sash cords on the windows, draped curtains made to measure in Dublin and hung paintings of their ancestors on the wall. They recruited a gardener, a housekeeper and a cook. Occasionally the lady’s husband would arrive in a large, exotic Buick driven by a French chauffeur.

Soon, it became known that the family bringing Clonfert Palace back to life was Sir Oswald and Lady Diana Mosley and their two sons. On the fifteenth of February 1952, the Westmeath Independent carried a short item entitled ‘Distinguished Residents’, disclosing that the previous Friday the Mosley family had ‘moved into occupation’ of the palace. ‘Sir Oswald and Lady Mosley, who have a large staff, are charmed with Ireland, its people, the tempo of its life and its scenery,’ the paper related, dutifully informing readers in a final sentence that ‘Sir Oswald was the former leader of a political movement in England’…

Frightening reminders of a world in chaos – less than a lifetime ago. Left – a poster from 1939 (Oswald Mosley led the British Union of Fascists) and – right – Mussolini and Mosley meet in Italy in 1936 (image from http://www.panorama.it/)

After the war, the Mosleys were virtually outcasts from Britain. Neutral Ireland seemed to offer them a retreat and a measure of civility. The Dublin Review continues:

…Sir Oswald would take his breakfast in bed. The Irish Times and Financial Times would be delivered from Eyrecourt. Lady Mosley would give her orders for the day to Mrs Swan, the cook. When Sir Oswald surfaced he might go for a long walk along the Shannon, passing the barges hauling cargoes of porter, coal or flour. On return he would set to work in his study. Nicholas Mosley has written about his father’s attachment to ‘the hierarchical … classless patterns of life … in the semi-feudal grandeur’ of the estate where he grew up in Staffordshire; in Clonfert Mosley seems to have replicated this idyll. Just as his grandfather had produced wholemeal bread, Sir Oswald supervised the growing of vegetables and ploughed the paddock to plant lucerne, a clover-like plant used for fodder…

bishops palace from neswpaper

This newspaper photograph of the Bishop’s Palace at Clonfert could have been taken around the time of the Rolt’s visit (1946) or after restoration by the Mosleys

The ‘idyll’ did not last too long. The Dublin Review again:

…One foggy night a few weeks before Christmas 1954, while Diana was visiting London, the Mosleys’ neighbours the Blake-Kellys were woken just before two o’clock by the whinnying of a pony in their stables. From their window they could see flames and smoke billowing from the Palace next door. Mrs Blake-Kelly sent her son to bang on the Mosleys’ front door and within minutes Sir Oswald, Alexander and their servants were standing on the lawn watching the flames consume their house. A French maid, Mademoiselle Cerrecoundo, rushed back into the house to fetch some clothes and was trapped at an upstairs window. Sir Oswald, Alexander and the chauffeur, Monsieur Thevenon, held a blanket under the window and she leaped to safety, hurting her back and her hand. Monsieur Thevenon drove to the Garda station in Eyrecourt and from there fire brigades were summoned from Ballinasloe and Birr. It took an hour and a half for the engines to arrive and by then more than half the house was lost to the blaze. The firemen cut through the roof with their axes to create a barrier to the advancing flames…

The story does not quite end there: as if some sort of retribution of biblical proportions were needed, even the land was punished. The Dublin Review concludes:

…By morning, when the firemen had finished their work and stood gazing at the hole rent through the roof of the house, cold westerly winds were gathering strength. It was the beginning of the worst storm in the midlands for a hundred years. Rain, sleet and snow poured down on the smouldering ruins of Clonfert and the winds reached hurricane force, knocking trees across the roads and felling the electricity wires that had been strung only in the last few years. Within a few days thousands of acres of land by the Shannon were flooded. The army came to evacuate farmhouses which were under three or four feet of water and drive cattle to high ground. Stone outhouses were washed away, corn stooks submerged and the swollen bodies of cows and pigs that could not be saved were left bobbing in the water…

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I was born in 1946, just when Tom and Angela Rolt were planning their exploration of Ireland’s waterways, but also directly after the turbulence of an awful global war which caused the deaths of over seventy million people. One of the elements which led to that war was the rise of fascism in Europe. In my lifetime to date I have seen fascism largely invalidated and the creation of a European Union whose members have worked towards common and positive aims. For seventy years there has been ‘peace in Europe’. Now – in 2016 – I have reason to worry about our children’s future; some things which should have been buried forever in the pages of history seem to be stirring. I desperately hope my foreboding is misplaced.

brendan stamp