The Voyage of Bran
Immram Brain (maic Febail) (The Voyage of Bran (son of Febail)) is a medieval Irish narrative. The content derives from Irish mythology, but was written in the 8th century. Some Irish tale-lists categorise the tale as an Echtra ("Adventure"), but it contains the essential elements of an Immram, or "Voyage". It may have influenced the later story of Saint Brendan's voyage.
Bran mac Febail (modern spelling: Bran mac Feabhail) embarks upon a quest to the Otherworld. One day while Bran is walking, he hears beautiful music, so beautiful, in fact, that it lulls him to sleep. Upon awakening, he sees a beautiful silver branch in front of him. He returns to his royal house, and while his company is there, an Otherworld woman appears, and sings to him a poem about the land where the branch had grown. In this Otherworld, it is always summer, there is no want of food or water, and no sickness or despair ever touches the perfect people. She tells Bran to voyage to the Land of Women across the sea, and the next day he gathers a company of men to do so.
After two days, he sees a man on a chariot speeding towards him. The man is Manannan mac Lir, and he tells Bran that he is not sailing upon the ocean, but upon a flowery plain. He also reveals to Bran that there are many men riding in chariots, but that they are invisible. He tells Bran of how he is to beget his son in Ireland, and that his son will become a great warrior.
Bran leaves Manannan mac Lir, and comes to the Isle of Joy. All the people upon the Isle of Joy laugh and stare at him, but will not answer his calls. When Bran sends a man ashore to see what the matter is, the man starts to laugh and gape just like the others. Bran leaves him and sails farther.
He then reaches the Land of Women, but is hesitant to go ashore. However, the leader of the women throws a magical clew (ball of yarn) at him which sticks to his hand. She then pulls the boat to shore, and each man pairs off with a woman, Bran with the leader.
For what seems to be one year, although it is in actuality many more, the men feast happily in the Land of Women until Nechtan Mac Collbran feels homesickness stir within him. The leader of the women is reluctant to let them go, and warns them not to step upon the shores of Ireland.
Bran and his company sail back to Ireland. The people that have gathered on the shores to meet him do not recognise his name except in their legends. Nechtan Mac Collbran, upset, jumps off the boat onto the land. Immediately, Nechtan Mac Collbran turns to ashes.
Bran and his company relate the rest of their story to the Irish, and then sail across the sea, never to be seen again.
The Voyage of Bran was first written down in the late 7th century to early 8th century.
The poem shares similar themes and elements with other Irish immrama, such as The Voyage of Brendan and The Voyage of Mael Duin, both written in early to mid-900. For example, Bran, Brendan and Mael Duin each encounter a holy island where the inhabitants live quiet, blissful lives. Bran is told of a tree with holy birds that all sing at the same time, which is similar to what Brendan encounters in his voyage. The stories are also similar in that at one point, one of the travellers is exorcised or left behind on an island, either by free will or as punishment for a sin.
The Voyage of Bran may also be compared to the Welsh text Branwen Daughter of Llŷr from the Mabinogi. The parallels are not along the lines of plot, as with The Voyage of Brendan and The Voyage of Mael Duin, but rather in the names of characters. As Patrick K. Ford writes, both the title character Branwen and her brother Bendigeidfran’s names include the element bran (the -fran of Bendigeidfran is a mutated form), connecting them with the Bran from The Voyage of Bran. Along with their brother Manawydan, Branwen and Bendigeidfran are the children of Llŷr, the Welsh word for ‘sea,’ and cognate with the Irish word lir in Manannan mac Lir.
Structurally, The Voyage of Bran is a combination of poetry and prose, with many short stanzas punctuated by longer, prose narration. These prose narrations are known as Narrative Envelopes.
Parallels with The Voyage of Mael Duin
The Voyage of Bran has many parallels to the Voyage of Mael Duin. In the Voyage of Mael Duin, Mael Duin reached an Island of Women where the Queen also threw a ball of thread to the boat. The difference in this story is that when Mael Duin caught the ball of thread, he was unable to let go of it, which let the Queen easily pull them back to shore where they were forced to stay on the island. In Bran’s story, the Queen let them leave the island, but she warned that it would be a mistake to step on dry land and that the men would regret it if they left. Also, in the Voyage of Bran the time goes very slowly and they find out that they have been gone for hundreds of years but in the Voyage of Mael Duin the time speeds by quickly.
- Dublin, RIA, Lebor na hUidre, pp. 121a-24 (originally, f. 78). Diplomatic edition: 10088-10112.
- Oxford, Bodleian Library, Rawlinson B 512, f. 119al-120b2 (originally, f. 71–72).
- Dublin, RIA MS 23 N 10, pp. 56–61.
- London, British Museum, MS Egerton 88, f. 11b (col. 2) – 12a and f. 13a (cols. 1–2).
- London, British Museum, MS Harleian 5280, f. 43a-44b.
- Stockholm, Royal Library, MS Vitterhet Engelsk II, f. 1b-4.
- London, British Museum, Add. 35090.
- Dublin, TCD, MS H 4.22, f. 48b17-50a6 and f. 40–53. Incomplete.
- Dublin, TCD, Yellow Book of Lecan (=H 2.16, MS 1318). Cols. 395–398.
Editions and translations
- Mac Mathúna, Séamus (ed. and tr.). Bran's Journey to the Land of Women. Tübingen: Niemeyer, 1985. Edition (html) available from CELT.
- Murphy, Gerard (ed.). "Manannán, God of the Sea, Describes his Kingdom to Bran and Predicts the Birth of Mongán." In Early Irish lyrics, eighth to twelfth century, ed. Gerard Murphy. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1956. pp. 92–100. The poem "Caíni amra laisin m-Bran" as preserved in MS 23 N 10. Edition available from CELT.
- Hamel, A.G. van (ed.). Immrama. Mediaeval and Modern Irish 10. Dublin, 1941.
- Meyer, Kuno and Alfred Nutt (ed. and tr.). The Voyage of Bran son of Febal to the land of the living. 2 vols. London, 1895–1897. PDFs available at Internet Archive.
- Ford, Patrick K. (ed. and tr.). "Branwen Daughter of Llŷr." The Mabinogi and Other Medieval Welsh Tales. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008. 57–59.
- Carey, John. "Bran son of Febal and Brân son of Llyr." In Ireland and Wales in the Middle Ages, ed. Karen Jankulak and Jonathan M. Wooding. Dublin: Four Courts Press, 2007. 168-79.
- Carney, James. "The earliest Bran material." In Latin Script and Letters AD 400–900. Festschrift presented to Ludwig Bieler on the occasion of his 70th birthday, ed. J.J. O'Meara and Bernd Naumann. Leiden, 1976. 174-93. Reproduced in The otherworld voyage in early Irish literature. An anthology of criticism, ed. Jonathan M. Wooding. Dublin: Four Courts Press, 2000. 73–90.
- Hull, Vernam E. "A passage in Imram Brain." ZCP 28 (1960–61): 256–7.
- Hull, Vernam E. "An incomplete version of the Imram Brain and four stories concerning Mongan." ZCP 18 (1930): 409–19.
- Mac Cana, Proinsias. "The sinless otherworld of Immram Brain." In The otherworld voyage in early Irish literature. An anthology of criticism, ed. Jonathan M. Wooding. Dublin: Four Courts Press, 2000. 52–72.
- Mac Cana, Proinsias. "On the 'prehistory' of Immram Brain." Ériu 26 (1975): 33–52.
- Mac Cana, Proinsias. "Mongán Mac Fiachna and Immram Brain." Ériu 23 (1972): 104–42.