Trí Meic Ua gCorra

From the: Lectures on the Manuscript Materials of the Ancient Irish History by Eugene O’Curry .

The next and last class of the Historic Tales, of which  I shall give you an example at any length, is that of the Imramha, or Expeditions by Sea, which, as I have already explained to you, are to be distinguished from the Longeas in so far as the  Imramh was a navigation undertaken voluntarily, and generally in search of something, while the Longeas was a voyage entered  upon involuntarily, as in the case of banishment or escape from  pursuit. You have had a specimen of the Longeas in the story  of Labhraidh Loingseach. The example of an lmramh which I have selected is a story of a much later period, in the Christian  times—namely, about the sixth century; so that it is the last in the chronological order of my examples. It is the lmramh Ua Corra, or the Navigation (or Expedition) of the sons of Ua Corra into the Atlantic Ocean.

Of this class of our ancient tales, the number that have come down to us is but small, but they are very ancient; and though indefinite in their results, and burdened with much matter of a poetic or other romantic character, still there can be no rational doubt that they are founded on facts, the recital of which, in the original form, would have been probably found singularly valu­able, though, in the lapse of ages, and after passing through the hands of story-tellers, whose minds were full of imagination, these tales lost, in a great measure, their original simplicity and truthful character, and became more and more fanciful and ex­travagant.

That such tales as these were numerous in the ancient history of Erinn may be very clearly seen from the Litany of Aengus Ceile Dé, where several of them are mentioned. At present, I know of but four such pieces remaining in our ancient manu­scripts, of all of which, however, we have copies of considerable antiquity and detail. These are the Navigation of Saint Bren­dan; the Navigation of the sons of Ua Corra; the Navigation of Snedgus and Mac Riaghla; and the Navigation of Maelduin. (One of these pieces, the Navigation of Saint Brendan, has been introduced to the world in full detail and in beautiful verse, by my distinguished friend, our Professor of Poetry, Denis Florence MacCarthy. In theDublin University Maga­zine for January, 1848).

Saint Brendan's voyages, for he made two, were performed about the year 560; the voyage of the sons of Ua Corra, about the year 540; the voyage of Snedgus and Mac Riaghla (two priests of the island of Iona), about the middle of the seventh; and that of Maelduin, in the eighth century. As the early history of the sons of Ua Corra, and the cause of their wanderings at sea, are more circumstantial and curious (though their story, too, is tinged with a little of the fabulous) than any of the rest, excepting Saint Brendan's, I have selected this tale as an example of which to give you a short sketch.

Conall Dearg Ua Corra was an opulent landholder and farmer of the provinceof Connacht.   He had to wife the daughter of the Airchinnech, or lay impropriator of the church lands, of Clothar; with whom he lived happily for some years, keeping a house of hospitable entertainment for all visitors and strangers. Not being blessed with children, however, though praying ardently to the Lord for them, they became, but  particularly  the  husband,  impatient  and  discontented; and, so far did his despair carry him, that at last he renounced God, and persuaded his wife to join him in prayer and a three days' fast to the Devil, to favour them with an heir to their large inheritance.

It would seem that the evil spirit heard their petition, for, in due time after, the wife brought forth three sons at one birth. These sons grew up to be brave and able men, and, having heard that they had been consecrated to the Devil at their birth, they re­solved to dedicate their lives to his service. As if for that special end. they appear to have collected a few desperate villains about them, and to have commenced an indiscriminate war of plunder and destruction against the Christian churches of Connacht and their priests, beginning with the church of Tuaim da Ghualann [Tuam], and not ceasing till they had pillaged or destroyed more than half the churches in the province

At last they determined to visit also the churchof Clothar to destroy it and kill their grandfather the Airchinnech of the place. When they came to the church they found the old man on the green in front of it, distributing with bountiful hand meat and drink to his tenants and to benefactors of the church. Seeing this, his persecutors altered their plans, and put off the execution of their murderous purpose till the more favourable time of night.

The grandfather, though suspecting their evil design, received  them with kindness, and assigned them a comfortable resting-place; and, after having fared heartily, they retired to bed in order to lull suspicion, at the usual time. Lochan, the eldest of the three brothers, had, however, during his sleep, a strange vision, which ended by seriously affecting their design. He was shown in a dream, in vivid colours, the glories and joys of Heaven, and the torments and horrors of Hell; and he awoke deeply affected by what was thus disclosed to him.

When the three brothers, then, arose at the hour of night appointed to execute their purpose, Lochan addressed himself to the other two, related to them his vision, told them of his newly-born fears, and, in fine, persuaded them that they had been hitherto serving an evil power and making war on a good master. The brothers were powerfully struck with what they heard; and so complete was the transformation of mind suddenly wrought in them by it, that at last they all agreed to repair in the morning, in a spirit of sorrow and penitence, to their grandfather, to seek his prayers and pardon, and to ask his advice as to what they should do to amend their lives, and make reparation for the past.                                                                    |

When the morning came, accordingly, they presented them-selves before the Airchinnech, acknowledged their wicked inten­tions, and took counsel with him as to their future conduct. The course he advised them to take, and on which they deter­mined, was, that they should repair at once to Saint Finnen of Clonard, who was then the great teacher, and, as it were, the head of all the schools of divinity in Erinn, and submit them-selves to his spiritual direction.

For this purpose they took leave of their friends, put off their habiliments of warfare and offence, turned their spears into pil­grims' staffs, and repaired to Clonard.

When the people of Clonard perceived them coming, being well acquainted with their wickedness, they fled for their lives in all directions, with the exception of Saint Finnen himself, who went out calmly to meet them. Seeing this, they hastened to meet the holy priest, and throwing themselves on their knees before him, they besought his pardon and spiritual friendship.

" What do you want?" said the priest " We want", said they, " to take upon us the habit of religion and penitence, and hence­forth to serve God",  Your determination is a good one", said the priest; "let us come into the town where my people are".

They entered the town with him, and the saint having taken counsel of the people respecting the penitents, what they decided on was, to place them for a year under the sole care and instruc­tion of a certain divinity student, with whom exclusively they were to hold any conversation during that period.

Having finished their year in this manner, in the solitary prac­tice of religious exercises, and the study of the Christian doc­trines, to the satisfaction and edification of their instructor and the entire congregation, the three brothers again presented them­selves before Saint Finnen, and besought his benediction and his penitential sentence for their former crimes.

The saint gave them his benediction, and then said: "You cannot restore to life those innocent ecclesiastics whom you have slain, but you can go and repair and restore, as far as it is in your power, the many churches and other buildings which you have desecrated and ruined".

The sons of Ua Corra at once rose up and took an affectionate leave of Saint Finnen and his pious and learned flock; and as the church of Tuaim da Ghualann [Tuam] was the first that suffered from their wicked depredations, they determined that itshould be the first to receive the benefit of their altered dispositons.

Thither accordingly they went, and they repaired the ruined church, and restored it to its original perfection.  And thus they proceeded on, from place to place, until at last they had repaired and restored all the ruined churches but one, after which they returned to Saint Finnen.

The saint asked them if they had finished their work. They answered that they had repaired all the churches but one "Which is that?" said Finnen. " The church of Ceann Mara”  [Kinvara, at the head of the bay of Galway], said they. "Alas !" said the saint, "that was the first church which you ought to have repaired,—the church of the holy old man, Coman of Kinvara; and return now", said he, “and repair every damage that you have done in that place".

The brothers obeyed. they went back and repaired the church and after this, taking counsel with Saint Coman they built themselves a great currach or canoe, covered with hides three deep, and capable of carrying nine persons, in which they determined to go out on a pilgrimage upon the great Atlantic Ocean.

When their vessel was ready to be launched, several persons besought permission to accompany them and among others a bishop, a priest, and a deacon, as well as the man who built the canoe, and also (the story tells us) a certain, musician. These five they received of the party.

With this company then the three sons of Ua Corra went out upon the waters in the Bay of Galway; and having cleared the islands and headlands of the bay, deeming it useless to attempt to steer their course in any particular direction, they drew their oars on board, and committed themselves passively to the mercy of the waves and the direction of God.

The adventurers were driven by the wind from the land  into the solitudes of the great Atlantic Ocean; and the story goes an to describe how, after forty days and forty nnights they came to an island which was full of people all of whom were moaning and lamenting. One of the wanderers went on shore for the purpose of learning the name of the island and the character of its inhabitants, but no sooner had he joined these strange people, than he too began to moan and lament like the rest; and this induced his companions to depart without him.

After this the tale becomes altogether wild and fabulous, al­ways, however, tending to a certain moral conclusion. The wanderers pass occasionally into the region of spirits, and are brought into contact with the living and the dead; and the incidents of their voyage are made to tell, negatively, on some of the immoralities and irregularities of Christian life.    On one island, for instance, they found a solitary ecclesiastic, who told  them that he had been expelled from the community to which he belonged for neglecting his matins; that he set out on the sea in a boat, and so was cast ashore on this island alone.    On another island they found a man digging with a spade, the handle of which was on fire: and on asking him the cause of so strange a circumstance, he told them that when on earth he was accustomed to dig on Sundays; and this was the punishment awarded to him.    On another island they found a burly miller feeding his mill with all the perishable things of which people are so choice and niggardly in this world.    On another they found a man riding a horse of fire, who told them that he had taken his brother's horse, and ridden it on a Sunday.    An­other island they found peopled with smiths, and artificers in the precious metals, and men of every trade, all shrieking and moaning under the incessant attacks of huge black birds, which tore the flesh from their bones with their bills and talons; and they learned that these people were thus made to suffer for all the falsehoods and frauds which they had been guilty of in this world.

At length the voyagers approached a land which they learned from some fishermen on its coast was Spain. Here they landed, and the bishop built a church, which, however, he soon after­wards resigned to the priest, and went on himself to Rome, ac­companied by a certain youth, who was one of the wandering party. This bishop subsequently returned to Erinn from Rome, accompanied by the same youth, who is said to have related the whole adventure, under the bishop's correction, to Bishop Saerbhreathach [a name Latinized Justinus, and now called Justin]; Bishop Justin related it to Saint Colman, of Arann Island; and upon this relation Saint Mocholmóg  wrote the poem [see original in Appendix, No. XCI~. which begins:—

The Ua Corras of Connacht. Undismayed by mountain waves,
Over the profound howling ocean. Sought the lands of the marvellous.

From the conclusion of this tale we may fairly infer that its composition belonged originally to the great island of Arann, on the coast of the county of Clare, and in the bay of Galway; and, although the narrative, in the latter part of it, is wild and fabulous, there is little doubt that this and many similar voyages were actually undertaken by several parties of Christian pilgrims, in the early ages of the Church in Ireland. And this fact, as I have already stated, is fully borne ou by the litany of Aengus Ceile De, written about the year 780 (of which more on a future occasion), in which he invokes the intercession of  the sons of Ua Corra and of their company, as well of  several other companies of pilgrim navigators.

At the time of the delivery of this lecture I was acquainted but with two copies of this curious tract, both on paper, one in the Royal Irish Academy, and the other in my own possession. Since then, however, a copy of it, somewhat damaged indeed. but full and valuable, has come under my observation; one, namely, which is preserved in the old vellum “Book of Fermoy", before referred to as having been purchased by the Rev. Dr. Todd, at the sale of the books of the late William Monk Mason, in London, in 1858. The copy in my possession  ap­pears to have been transcribed from the same original.