Voyage of Mael Duin

For other people named Máel Dúin, see Máel Dúin (disambiguation).

Máel Dúin is the protagonist of Immram Maele Dúin or the Voyage of Máel Dúin, a Christian tale written in Old Irish around the end of the first millennium. He is the son of Ailill Edge-of-Battle, whose murder provides the initial impetus for the tale.

Máel Dúin is the son of a warrior and chieftain. His mother is a nun. She was raped by Máel Dúin's father, symbolizing the defilement of the church and Christian values. Shortly after Ailill Edge-of-Battle, Máel's father, was killed by marauders of Leix who ironically burnt a church upon him. His mother had given him to the queen of Eoganacht to be raised as a foster son. Máel Dúin grew up as an attractive warrior who was "victorious over everyone in every game they used to play, both in running and leaping and spear casting and casting stones and racing horses." A jealous youth exposed him to the truth of his unknown kindred, while talking to Máel "whose clan and kindred no one knows, whose mother and father no one knows, vanquish us in every game." Prior to this knowledge he thought he was the son of the king and queen. He inquired this information from the queen. He refused to eat or drink with the king and queen until he was told who his birth mother was. She gave him to his biological mother who told him about the death of his father, Ailill Ochair Aghra of the Eugnacht of Ninuss.

He travels to the graveyard of the church of Dubcluain where Briccne, a poison-tongued man of the community of the church, tells him that it is Máel's duty to go out and avenge his father's murder. Máel Dúin seeks the advice of a druid named Nuca at Corcomroe who tells him how to get there and in what manner. From her instructions he was told to only take 17 men. The day Máel Dúin is supposed to leave his 3 step-brothers and his step-mother came to see him off. The step-brothers fought to accompany Máel on his journey but he would not allow it for he was worried about exceeding the number of people the druid stipulated should be allowed to accompany him on his immram. After Máel refused to let them on board the 3 step-brothers swim after the boat. Upon Máel noticing this he turned the boat around to go back and picks them up. Obviously this adds too many people to the boat causing consequences later on. Once Máel Dúin begins his journey he is blown off course and into a great voyage where he has a number of peculiar experiences both from within his boat, where generally he sees fantastic things, and on a series of islands he and his crewmen elect to visit.

Mael Duin and his Foster Brothers

Shortly after Mael Duin and his crew set off on their voyage, they came across the harbor of his three step-brothers. His called out to Mael Duin, in hopes that Mael Duin would allow them to enter his boat. Knowing he could exceed the number of people on his boat per the druid’s advice, Mael Duin called out to them, “Get you home, for even though we should return (to land), only the number we have here shall go with me.” Upon hearing Mael Duin’s call, his foster brothers cried out, "We will go after thee into the sea and be drowned therein, unless thou come unto us.” Suddenly the foster brothers jumped out into the sea and began swimming far from land. Mael Duin, (having his hand forced by his step brothers) turned his boat around and allowed them on board, to save their lives. And in the process violating the number allotted people on his boat thus blowing him off course. This begins the journey. He first encounters two bare islands with forts on them. From the forts could be heard, "noise and the outcry of drunkenness." Máel Dúin then hears one man say, "It was I who slew Ailill Ochair of Agha and burned Dubcluain on him and no evil has been done to mefor it yet by his kindred..." Máel Dúin and his crew cannot venture to the island due to wind. Máel Dúin suggested that God will bring the boat where it needs to go.However, the boats sails to the limitless ocean. Blame is to be held on the foster brothers as well for joining the crew after the druid gave specific orders for the allotted crewmen.

Máel Dúin and his crewmen encounter many various islands as follows:

  • 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 ate, drank, and gave thanks to 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 cast 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 colors as they cross the fence; the crewmen do not go aboard this island in fear of changing color
  • The island of the pigherd, which contained an acidic river and hornless oxen
  • The island of the ugly mill and miller who were "wrinkled, rude, and bareheaded"
  • The island of lamenting men and wailing sorrows, where they had to retrieve a crewmen 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 colorful 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 (Blacksmiths)

The crew voyaged on and came across a sea like a green crystal. Here, there were no monster 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

They find a man in the sea from Tory. He was cast there as punishment. He asks them to throw their wealth into the ocean. He prophesizes that they will "reach their country, it will be sage thus; though you will meet your enemies, you will not slay them."

  • The island of cattle, oxen, and sheep

They finally make it back to the original island they were on where there was talk of murdering Ailill. Máel Dúin expresses the marvels that God has revealed to them on their journey. They all make peace.

During his immram, Máel Dúin has a Christian conversion experience. He also loses his three foster brothers at different points along the way, allowing him to finally reach the marauders who killed his father and whom he initially set out to kill in revenge. However, as he has incorporated a new, Christian element into his personality he does not kill them but instead forgives them before returning home.


Within the Irish Voyage of Máel Dúin, Voyage of Bran and the Voyage of Saint Brendan, is prevalent. Intertextuality is the interrelationship between texts, where each text echoes one another creating connections between the texts. This is seen between the Irish Voyages of Máel Dúin, Bran, and Saint Brendan. The following is a specific example of intertextuality between all three voyages:

  • Chapter 11 of Máel Dúin: On the island the crew finds a great fort and tall white pillars. The crew goes into the largest of the houses and finds it empty except for a cat playing on four stone pillars, leaping from one pillar to the next. They see many gold artifacts in the house, including golden necklets. Then they see a feast, Máel Dúin realizes that the food was left for them, so him and his crew eat, drink, and sleep. Afterwards they put the leftover food and drink in pots to store and they start to depart the island. One of the three foster bother asks to take a golden necklet, to which Máel Dúin replies no. Nevertheless, he steals one anyways. “The cat followed them and leapt through him like a fiery arrow and burns him so that he became ashes.” The cat goes back to the pillars. Máel Dúin cleans up the ashes and casts them on the shore.
  • Chapter 65 of the Voyage of Bran: Nechtan leaps from the ship with rejoice because he sees the land of Ireland. As soon as he jumps over and touches the land he becomes ashes.
  • Chapter 7 of the Voyage of St. Brendan: Saint Brendan warns his crew not to take anything from the island but one of the latecomers steals a silver bridle anyways. When the Saint questions this brother he falls forward praying and asking for forgiveness. Saint Brendan performs an exorcism and a small Ethiopian jumps out of the brother’s bosom. After the Eucharist was received, the brother’s soul leaves his body and he dies peacefully in grace.

Christian Elements The numbers three and forty are most commonly used and are greatly associated with different Christian stories of importance. There was a three day and three night journey three times between islands 1(island with men who killed Máel Dúin's father), 2 (island of the ants), 3 (island of the tame birds), and 4 (Island of the horse-like beast). Then at island 6 the house with the salmon had provided a bed and food for every three of the household. Island 7 also has significant numbers in that Máel Dúin held the cut branch for three days and three nights and it provided sustenance for forty days. Then the journeys between island 11 (cat on the pillar) and 12 (island of the white and black sheep), as well as 12 and 13 (island with the oxen and acidic river) each took three days. At island 16 with the maiden, Máel Dúin and his crew had stayed there for 3 days and 3 nights before awaking in their boat. The same goes for the following island. I would add that at Island 19 (The island with the psalm singing old man with noble monastic words), the man says how he is “awaiting Doomsday” and that loaves, fish, and liquor are brought to him at “the service of angels”. Máel Dúin and his group did stay for three days here as well. And then took three days to get to the next island where they stayed a length of three days.

Three is a significant number because it is associated with the holy trinity, it was how many days before Jesus’ resurrection, it was how many times Peter denied Jesus which fulfilled a prophecy, etc. Then as for the correlation with the number 40, God’s great flood lasted for 40 days and forty nights, Moses led his people into the desert for 40 years, Jesus went into the desert and fasted for 40 days while resisting the temptation of the devil. The number 40 is slightly more vague in use but is used to elicit a Christian tone in underlying themes.

The text exists in an 11th-century redaction, by a certain Aed the Fair, described as the "chief sage of Ireland," but it may be gathered from internal evidence that the tale itself dates back to the 8th century. It belongs to the group of Irish romance, the Navigations (Imrama), the common type of which was possibly imitated from the classical tales of the wanderings of Jason, Ulysses, and Aeneas.

Imram Curaig Mailduin is preserved, in each case imperfectly, in the Lebor na hUidre, a manuscript in the Royal Irish Academy, Dublin; and in the Yellow Book of Lecan, MS. H. 216 in the Trinity College Library, Dublin; fragments are in Harleian MS. 5280 and Egerton MS. 1782 in the British Museum. There are translations by Patrick Joyce, Old Celtic Romances (1879), by Whitley Stokes (a more critical version, printed together with the text) in Revue celtique, vols. ix and x (1888–1889). See H. Zimmer, "Brendan's Meer-fahrt" in Zeitschrift für deutsches Altertum, vol. xxxiii (1889). Tennyson's Voyage of Maeldune, suggested by the Irish romance, borrows little more than its framework.

Oskamp, H. P. A. The Voyage of Mael Dunn Wolters-Noordhoff Publishing Compant Groningen. 1970. pp. 99–179.

The Immran Máel Dúin may be compared with a passage in the Rāma-ayana.[1]

Irish writer Patricia Aakhus wrote a novel recounting the story in 1990, entitled, The Voyage of Mael Duin's Curragh.[2]

A Celtic Odyssey by Michael Scott is a modern retelling of this story.[3]

The Voyage of Mael Duin [4]



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