The Voyage of Maeldun
Literature has many tales of early exploration that have, luckily, survived through the ages. This particular tale, The Voyage of Maeldun, is said to originate in the 8th or 9th century, depending on your source. It was first written in an 11th century manuscript, “Book of the Dun Cow” and few parts of that manuscript have survived. The Voyage of Maeldun was again put on paper in the 14th century manuscript of “Yellow Book of Lecan.” Steve McDonald did a marvelous job turning the story into a song for others to enjoy. Here is a video of the song to enjoy before, during or after the reading of this essay, or watch it below.
The Voyage of Maeldun is a rather lengthy story, as many ancient tales are, so I will only give a brief retelling of it. Clicking the title will take you to one version of the story, clicking here will take you to a second, or a third.
Ailill Ochair Aga (or Ailill Edge-of-Battle) was a chieftain of the Owenacht tribe from the Aran Islands. He also had a nun as a lover, whom became pregnant. One day pirate raiders attacked and burned down the church and Ailill was killed. The nun gave birth to a son and named him Maeldun (or Mael Duin or Máel Dúin). Her sister agreed to raise the child alongside her own 3 sons; she didn’t tell him of his parentage.
One day Maeldun found out she wasn’t his real mother and demanded answers. After he found out about his father’s murder, he was furious. Maeldun decided to seek revenge. He found out the name of the murderer and that he lived on a nearby island. Before leaving on his voyage Maeldun (a Christian) consulted a Druid. The Druid warned him to take only 17 companions or suffer the consequences, so he selected that many men. As he set sail his 3 brothers forced him to take them with him. Maeldun’s accepting his brothers as companions went against the Druid’s warning and made the voyage much longer and harder than it would have been.
As they approached the island the killer was on they heard someone talking about the murder of Ailill. As they sailed closer, a storm came up and blew them out into the ocean; otherwise it would be a really short story. This was punishment for Maeldun’s ignoring the Druid’s warning.
From this point Maeldun’s adventures lasted years and he sailed past 33 islands. I will briefly describe the adventures surrounding some of those islands.
The Island of the Stone Door was the 5th island the travelers encountered. While there they saw a beautiful house on the beach, whose entryway was made of stone. This just hasn’t door, but a magical one. The stone door allowed salmon to enter the house straight through it, a delightful sight to behold for the ravenous men. They went into the house and gathered all the salmon they could.
After many islands, the weary men found an undersea island. By this time two of Maeldun’s foster-brothers were no longer travelling with them. His oldest brother had tried to steal a cat’s treasure and was killed. Another brother had disappeared on the island of mourners. The undersea island was the 22nd island, and by this time they thought they had seen everything. The water of the sea was thin enough that they thought it was a mist. Below the mist they saw a beast and a warrior that didn’t try to stop the beast from attacking. To protect themselves from possible death, the men sailed the ship around the island.
They didn’t land on the next island, but the starving men collected the nuts the islanders threw at them to keep them from landing. The people on the island were afraid of the prophecy that said strangers would cast them from their homeland.
The Island of Women was the 27th island encountered. As the song says this was Maeldun’s favorite island; and what hot-blooded male wouldn’t be happy on it. Before their first night Maeldun and all of his men were wed to the queen and her daughters. Maeldun showed he was a love ‘em and leave ‘em kind of guy the next morning when he tried to leave with his men. The queen wouldn’t have it, and for 3 months the guys stayed and kept company with the women. After those months the guys (except Maeldun) were feeling trapped and wanted to leave, and Maeldun refused to be left behind so they set sail. The queen used a magic clew and caught her escaping husband, and a happy Maeldun spent 3 more months pleasing the queen. The unhappy men waited 3 more months, and then tried to escape with Maeldun again. The queen stopped them again, and again, and again before Maeldun’s remaining brother found a way to stop the clew. After one year the men were sailing again. (This Isle of Women also can be found in the “Voyage of Bran.”
The Island of the Eagle (#29) was home to a monk from St. Brennan of Birr. It was also home to a blood red lake. Elderly eagles came to the island to have their youth restored. “Thy youth is renewed like the eagle’s” (Psalms 103:5) explains the monk.
The 32nd island is a very important one to Maeldun. On this island lived the Monk from Torach (an island near Donegal). The monk told Maeldun that he would soon find his father’s killer, but he should forgive the man. Maeldun should offer forgiveness because God had saved Maeldun from great perils even though he himself was deserving of death.
Island #33, is the Island of the Falcon. Here Maeldun recognizes the type of falcon as a kind from Erin (Ireland). He sails the boat in the direction the bird flies. He is home-free. But has one last stop to make.
Maeldun and his companions travel to the island of his fathers’ killer. As they entered the house of the murderer Maeldun and his companions overhear a conversation in which one man says “What should we do if Maeldun ever shows up here?” The reply from the chief (and murderer) was that they would welcome him with open arms, for to have survived such a long time at sea was enough of an ordeal for one man to have suffered in a lifetime. Maeldun forgave the man, which saved his soul, as well as those of his companions.
You can draw your own conclusions about the tale of Maeldun, based on what I described or after reading the entire tale. I enjoyed reading it and learning about the adventures Maeldun took. The symbolism throughout is amazing and I’m sure I haven’t deciphered a quarter of them. I have the singer/songwriter Steve McDonald to thank for introducing me to The Voyage of Maeldun. For years I have listened to his wonderful music and have learned many things from it. I hope you are able to learn from the music you enjoy, not just listen to it and ignore the meanings behind the words. If the songwriter is any good, the song will be full of meaning or symbolism.
For more information on Irish Literature please visit Library Ireland.