Máel Dúin

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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 tale of a sea voyage 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.


The story belongs to the group of Irish romances, the Navigations (Imrama), the common type of which was possibly drawn in part from the classical tales of the wanderings of Jason, Ulysses, and Aeneas.

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. 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.


Early life[edit]

Máel Dúin was the son of warrior chieftain Ailill Ochair Aghra. His mother was a nun raped by Ailill. Shortly after, Ailill was killed by marauders from Leix who burned a church down on him. His mother then fostered Mael Dúin with the Queen of Eoganacht. He grew into 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 to him the truth of his unknown kindred, saying to Máel "whose clan and kindred no one knows, whose mother and father no one knows, vanquish us in every game." All this time Máel Dúin thought he was the son of the king and queen. He refused to eat or drink with the king and queen until he was told who his birth mother was. The queen sent him to his biological mother who told him about the death of his father.

He travelled 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 find the murderers. She instructs him to take only 17 companions.[1]

Mael Duin and his Foster Brothers[edit]

Shortly after Mael Duin and his crew set off on their voyage, they came across the harbor of his three stepbrothers. They call 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 responds, “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, turned his boat around and allowed them on board, violating the number allotted people on his boat. They first encounter two bare islands with forts on them. From the forts can 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 me for it yet by his kindred..." Máel Dúin and his crew cannot venture to the island due to wind. He suggests that God will bring the boat where it needs to go. However, the boats sails into the limitless ocean. The presence of the foster brothers are blamed for the unfavorable winds.

Islands encountered[edit]

  • The island of ants, from which the men flee because of 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

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 (Toraigh). 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 of the murderers. Máel Dúin recounts the marvels that God has revealed to them on their journey. They all make peace.


Intertextuality is the relationship between texts, in the way similar or related texts influence, reflect, or differ from each other. The Voyage of Máel Dúin, contains motifs elected in other immrama such as: the Voyage of Bran and the Voyage of Saint Brendan.

  • The Voyage of Bran may have inspired Mael Duin's Island of Uncontrollable Laughter.[2]
  • In both Mael Duin and the Voyage of Brendan three additional people join the crew. Mael Duin is joined by his foster brothers; Brendan by three extra monks. In both instances these additions upset the equilibrium of the voyage, and it is when the extra persons are no longer on board, can each voyage be completed.[2]
  • 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 bothers asks to take a golden necklet, to which Máel Dúin replies no. Nevertheless, he steals one anyway. “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.

Christian Elements[edit]

The numbers three (associated with the Holy Trinity), seven, and forty (is the number of days it rained during Noah's flood)appear throughout the voyage. It often takes three days for the ship to travel from one island to the next. They remain at some islands for three days.

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.

Hans Oskamp suggests that Mael Duin is the earliest imramm to use Christian and non-Christian elements indiscriminately.[3] Elva Johnston pointed out that the delay caused by the extra passengers gives Mael Duin time to reconsider his intended revenge, and is therefore instrumental in his salvation.[4] Mael Dúin's gratitude to God for preserving him in the face of the many dangers encountered on the voyage transcends his need for vengeance.[5]

"The mill of Grudging". Illustration by John D. Batten, in Joseph Jacobs' The Book of Wonder Voyages

Modern influence[edit]

Tennyson's Voyage of Maeldune, suggested by the Irish romance, borrows little more than its framework. Irish writer Patricia Aakhus wrote a novel recounting the story in 1989, entitled, The Voyage of Mael Duin's Curragh.[6] A Celtic Odyssey by Michael Scott is a modern retelling of this story.[7]


  1. ^ Higginson, Thomas Wentworth. Tales of the Enchanted Islands of the Atlantic, The Minerva Group, Inc., 2001, ISBN 9781589636583
  2. ^ a b Mackley, Jude S. "The Legend of St. Brendan: A Comparative Study of the Latin and Anglo-Norman Versions", BRILL, 2008, ISBN 9789004166622
  3. ^ Oskamp, H. P. A. The Voyage of Mael Dunn Wolters-Noordhoff Publishing Company, Groningen. 1970. p. 43
  4. ^ Johnston, Elva. "A Sailor on the Seas of Faith: The Individual and the Church in The Voyage of Mael Duin", European Encounters: Essays in Memory of Albert Lovett (Judith Devlin and Howard B. Clarke, eds.), Dublin, University College Dublin Press, 2003
  5. ^ Visser, Margaret. The Gift of Thanks: The Roots and Rituals of Gratitude, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2009, ISBN 9780547428444
  6. ^ Aakhus, Patricia. Story Line Press, 1989, ISBN 9780934257312
  7. ^ http://www.dillonscott.com/adult-books/a-celtic-odyssey.htm


  • Joyce, Patrick. Old Celtic Romances (1879)
  • Stokes, Whitely, Revue celtique, vols. ix and x (1888–1889)
  • Zimmer, H., "Brendan's Meer-fahrt", Zeitschrift für deutsches Altertum, vol. xxxiii (1889)

External links[edit]

Public Domain This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domainChisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). Encyclopædia Britannica (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press.