Oct/Nov 2020  •   Fiction

The Imram of Donegal

by Peter Bridges

Public domain street art

Public domain street art

In the name of God, amen. Here the unworthy monk Cormac begins the book of an imram: the account of the Christian men and women who sailed forth from Desertegney on the River Crana in Donegal, into Lough Swilly and to the open seas, in the year of our Lord 682, seeking a new world in which to settle.

Over a century had then passed since the voyages of the blessed saints Barinthus and Brendan. Brendan and 14 monks, many years after Barinthus, had sailed west from Ireland in a stout wooden ship, after first embarking in a large curragh, which proved unfit for the Ocean.

They called at strange islands and saw a fearsome mountain that belched smoke and rocks, and then turned south and came finally, Brendan said, to "the Land of the Promise of the Saints." There they found a great river, fine forests, and fruits in abundance. They stayed there, it seemed, only briefly, and after calling briefly at an "Island of Delights" sailed home swiftly and easily to Ireland.

Brendan lived for many more years at his monastery of Clonfert, telling all who would listen about his amazing voyage. He was still telling his story after he reached the age of 80, but he never wrote it down. In his old age, the mind of the holy man no longer remembered accurately all that had befallen him and his fellows. As a result the accounts of those who had heard the good saint varied widely, and over time they were embellished. So it was that we ourselves were perplexed, when we began to consider leaving cold rainy Donegal for a brighter, better land, just how and where we might go voyaging. Still we were sure that even if fantasy had been added to the stories of the old voyagers, they must tell of real places.

We were over 400 Irish men, women and children at the monastery of Desertegney, which dated from the time of St. Patrick. We were prosperous, with much gold accumulated over the centuries. Our flocks were large and healthy, and our weavers produced both ordinary and fine garments. We made a woolen cloak, a brat, excellent for cold and rainy weather, and we sold many of them in Ireland and across the water in Cornwall, a country still rich on the export of tin. We were known for our great wolfhounds, exported to Cornwall and elsewhere in Britain, even to Gaul. We also grew much flax, to produce Irish people's main garment, the linen leinte or tunic. Our finest tunics, dyed in blues and greens to show the owners' high station, clothed kings and nobles across Ireland. Yet all was not well with us.

Most of us men at Desertegney were manaig, monks with wives and, most often, children. Our abbot, however, who was called Maol-Iosa, the Servant of Jesus, was celibate, as were a hundred other monks. There was continuing friction, and often fighting—brawls, sometimes lethal—between our two groups.

It was not pleasant to be told by the abbot that our sinful ways were leading us toward Hell. He had visited Rome, and as he often told us, Pope Vitalian was not married and wanted priests to be celibate.

We knew we were not being sinful. Other Popes had had wives. In our library was the ecclesiastical history of Eusebius—who wrote that Paul and Philip, if not other Apostles as well, were married men.

"Yes," said our abbot, "But Jesus was not married, and it is Jesus whose ways we must follow."

It did no good to tell him—for he well knew—there was more than one Christian practice. Indeed, in more than one abbey in Ireland, women were not just married to priests but were themselves actually ordained as priests.

A number of manaig, including the writer of this account, began to discuss the possibility of leaving our place of endless dispute and seeking a new land. It was clear from the varied accounts of Barinthus's and Brendan's voyages, there were fertile and fruitful islands far to the south and west. To reach them we would need stout vessels, good provisions and tools, skilled sailors and artisans—and stout hearts. We knew we were possessed of all that.

Brendan had made clear he had sailed northwest into the ocean, from Kerry in the West. Were the good lands he reached on the far side of the ocean? He had come home again, it seemed, by sailing straight and then ever leftward, as if in or around a great bowl. Our fishermen said Brendan had been foolish in his outward journey. The sea currents and the sea winds come to Ireland from the west, and on his outward voyage the blessed saint had sailed against them, not with them, lengthening his voyage.

What else could one make of these accounts? They agreed in saying the saint and his companions had encountered other humans on islands along their way. Had monks before Brendan populated those places? That seemed doubtful; but what was noteworthy was the people he had met on the islands had been friendly. Surely if he had encountered hostility, he would have said so. Perhaps we, too, could find a friendly reception in far places. We began to plan a great voyage.

We would number, we decided, 300 people, men and women and young folk aged 15 or more. Younger children must be placed with foster parents—a wrenching decision for many families, but we must have strong hands.

Such a group would need three sizable vessels, larger than anything previously built on Lough Swilly. And we would need leaders. Cormac who writes this was chosen as the overall captain; he confessed himself unworthy, but before joining the monastery he had sailed the northern seas as a mate and captain for six years. After some days' discussion, for there were many strong and capable men among us, Ardgal and Fergus were chosen as the other two captains. Both, like Cormac, had commanded seagoing vessels.

The abbot and his henchmen harried us, but we held the majority and would not be rushed. Over a long winter we spent our evenings planning. We must anticipate meeting up with enemy peoples, and so would equip ourselves well with weapons, as well as tools, looms, and fishing gear. We would have capable smiths and carpenters on each vessel, and would bring plenty of iron ingots as ballast. We would bring plenty of extra garments for both men and women, and plenty of provisions—and seeds—and many tons of fresh water. All these good things we would store in cabinets and lockers on the deck and in the hull below.

We were not shipwrights. We learned how Brendan had found in Connacht skilled shipwrights who could do the job. We hired a number of their descendants, who said they would not just build for us but sail with us—a guarantee they would do good work. We bought, seriously depleting our treasury, and brought overland to Desertegney from Connacht, many great tree trunks, mainly oak. As overall supervisor we hired the famous shipwright Sigurd, from the Nordfjord in Norway.

In two years, with most of our manaig contributing their labor and what skills we had, we completed three ships with hulls of oak, each 120 feet long and 25 feet in breadth. They were the biggest ships ever built in Ireland, and as big as any Sigurd had known of in Norway. The ship to be captained by Cormac we named Holy Trinity. Ardgal would have St. Peter, and Fergus the St. Paul.

These ships would not be as swift as other, slimmer vessels, but more than speed, we needed space for people, supplies—and our animals. The ships would have two dozen oars to a side, each to be handled by one or two men. There would be a single mast and a large square sail.

Our forefathers had brought domestic animals to Ireland on boats smaller than ours, but they had not had so long a voyage as we intended. Each vessel of ours would carry a stallion and mare, a ram and several ewes. Cormac's ship would carry a bull and young bull calf, and the other two ships would each have two cows. Each vessel would also carry some pigs and cages of poultry. And we would bring our great dogs, a dozen or more.

Finally, it was agreed the three ships would sail together. We would point not northwest as Brendan had done, but south, hoping to find before long what Brendan called the Island of Delights.

We manaig fought among ourselves, but we did avoid involvement in the wars of our local kings. Early in the year 681, however, Cenn Fáelad, king of Cianachta Glenn Geimin, was killed by the O'Cathaíns. Cenn was the nephew of our abbot, who swore vengeance. We did not want to find ourselves in the middle of battles. We sped up our preparations for departure.

We set sail from Buncrana on a rainy morning in March after the acrimonious abbot had relented and offered us his blessing. With a good wind from the north, we passed the western tip of Britain, sailed out into the Ocean, and turned south, and came in a week to the coast of what we judged to be Iberia—but we did not land there, for fear of unfriendly Goths.

For a thousand miles beyond Iberia our three ships sailed south in soft weather, with no more sight of land. There was just a gentle wind out of the north, so we rowed, during daylight hours. An oar could be rowed by a single man, but that was soon tiring. We set two men to an oar, and after an hour a third man would replace one of the two. If speed was necessary, three men could ply a long oar together.

As we sailed, we fished, too, men and women both. The fishing was good. We were not overly worried about food or drink. Still we looked out for islands, for Brendan's Island of Delights. We wondered whether the island existed.

We sailed the three ships abreast of one another and a half-mile apart, to increase the chance of sighting land ahead. Early one afternoon the lookout at the bow of St. Peter, sailing farthest left, called out to his captain he saw an island ahead. Ardgal hoisted the agreed green banner to inform the other vessels, which soon closed with St. Peter. Soon other islands came in view, stretching east and west. We decided to land at the one we had first espied, which had a peak with snow still clinging to its sides. As we came near, we saw there was a seaside village. Brendan had not spoken of people on his island, but of great trees bearing rich fruits, rivers of fresh water, and many birds.

We pulled down our sails and rowed in toward the shore, slowly, with Holy Trinity ahead and the other two ships behind. Cormac stood on the prow, holding a staff with a white banner to show we came in peace. There was a village pier, and we stopped with our prow just touching it. There were two curious vessels tied up there, long twin dugout canoes linked by decks of big timbers. There were many men on the pier, tall and light-skinned men, each armed with a long spear. Our own men stood by their oars, unarmed.

One of the tall islanders was clearly the chief, or king. Cormac had at his feet a fine linen mantle, a leinte dyed with bright red and blue stripes. He picked it up, walked onto the pier, and bowing deeply, offered it to the king—who took it and began addressing Cormac in a strange language. Amat, he said more than once, holding up three fingers. Why did we have three vessels, what did we want?

Cormac took a stick and scratched a map on the wood of the pier. He drew Ireland, our country—pointing to his heart—and traced our voyage here to this island, and then a long line west to a far bigger land. What did we want here? Cormac gesticulated: water, and food, and then we would go on.

Sign language is difficult, but the king seemed to be saying a vessel had come here long ago that, like ours, had a big sail and oarsmen. It had come peacefully and then gone on. Perhaps it had been Brendan and his men. And perhaps because this people still recalled how Brendan had come in peace, now in peace we filled our casks with fresh water and traded some of our better mantles for many baskets of fruits, kinds we had never seen in Ireland. We refreshed our animals' fodder. The people, we found, called themselves Guanche, but we could not understand their language. After a week we sailed, wondering whether we should have stayed, if the people might have offered to let us do so. What lay ahead?

The current was weak and flowed west, and we rowed with it. There was only a slight breeze, and that, too, blew west. In Ireland, storms come mainly in autumn, and it was now late April. We hoped for good weather, and we had it, but rowing all day was tiring even with two men pulling an oar and a third man for relief.

Three weeks passed. We estimated we were 2,000 miles west of the Island of Delights. One day a sudden storm with rain and high wind came on us from the south—and disaster struck: three great waves, nearly as high as our ships were long, certainly far bigger than any we had ever seen strike the coast of Ireland. Each of us clung to what we could. When the waves had passed, on Holy Trinity we found four men and a woman had been swept overboard and were nowhere in sight. St. Peter, we saw, was afloat—but St. Paul was... gone.

The sea quieted. For two hours the Holy Trinity and St. Peter rowed around looking, but there was no sign of Fergus or any people in the water, or even any spars, or St. Paul's mast or sail.

We brought our two remaining vessels together to take stock. St. Peter had lost a dozen people. We were now altogether 160 humans. Both vessels had lost animals, but fortunately we still had a bull, a stallion, a ram, and a boar, as well as a cow and some mares, ewes, and pigs. The masts and rigging had not been badly damaged on either ship. We had lost many oars, but fortunately we had stored spares in the holds.

Much saddened, we took again to the oars and continued west, hoping to avoid new waves and storms. Now sickness struck us, a strange plague causing vomiting and fever and death in a few hours. In just ten days, a fourth of our people died despite our prayers.

A strong western wind came up. We rowed against it. After many arduous days, we saw ahead a long coast of low wooded hills and the wide mouth of a great river. It must be the Land of the Promise of the Saints. We were saved.

But as we neared the mouth of the great river, a hundred boats came out from the land, each carrying eight or ten armed men. Our two captains each waved a white banner, but it did no good. As the boats neared us, arrows by the hundreds rained on us. We shot back, but there were too many of them. In ten minutes the savages had boarded St. Peter and she was afire. Cormac turned Holy Trinity out to sea. They followed us for a mile, then turned back, we saw, to kill whoever was still alive on St. Peter.

When we had gone far out from the land, Cormac ordered us to ship our oars, and we held a long discussion. This land held no Promise for us. We could sail up the coast northward, to seek a better place. But there were only two dozen humans left alive on our single ship, of the hundred that had sailed out of Lough Swilly. And the arrows of the savages had killed most of our animals.

The western wind strengthened further. It was a wind to take us home to Ireland, and to Ireland we sailed. We were 20 Irish people when we sailed into Lough Swilly on the fourth of September in the year of our Lord 682, just six months after we had left. Our monastic brothers and sisters at Desertegney welcomed us with good news: our abbot Maol-Iosa had gone to join the monastery of Bobbio in Italy. Soon the unworthy Cormac was named abbot of Desertegney. He continues his work to this day—in Ireland. We have mounted no more voyages.