Lecture at Falls Library: The Ullans Academy and The Voyage of Bran

‘The Ullans Academy’ – A personal journey in search of Cuchulainn and the birth of the Irish Tradition, Falls Library, Saturday, 4th Aug, 12 noon

The Ulster Scots heritage, a culture and language – presentation by former Belfast Lord Mayor, Ian Adamson, on a shared cultural and historical heritage which challenges the myths of separated communities. ChairMairtin OMuilleoir (Belfast City Councillor & President of Irish Echo).

The Ullans Academy were there in force. There was Liam Logan (Chairman), Jim Potts (Treasurer), Helen Brooker, Roger Blaney, Des Meredith, and Brian Ervine ,as well as myself as President.

Today I based my lecture on the birth of the Irish tradition in Bangor, Co Down starting with the Voyage of Bran and the birth and death of Mongan Mac Fiachna, leading to the Ulster Cycle of tales, the story of Cuchulainn and the dissemination of his story to Skye and the Hebrides. This tradition is an integral part of the Academy’s narrative of Ulster Scots.

Immram Brain (maic Febail) (English: The Voyage of Bran (son of Febail)) is a medieval Irish  narrative. which was written in Bangor in the 8th century. Some Irish tale-lists categorize the tale as an Echtra (“Adventure”), but it contains the essential elements of an Imramm or “Voyage”. It influenced the later story of the voyage of Saint Brendan the Navigator, which led to the discovery of the New World.

Bran maic Febail (modern spelling: Bran mac Feabhail) embarks upon a quest to the Otherworld. One day while Bran is walking, he hears beautiful transcendental 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 Mannanan 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 Mongan in Ulster, and that his son will become a great warrior. Mongan’s mother was Cantigern, wife of Fiachna Lurgan, King of the Cruthin in Ulster.

Cantigern was poisoned by her maid, but restored to life by Comgall, who founded Bangor Monastery under Cantigern’s patronage. Mongan was also said to be an incarnation of Fionn mac Cumhaill , known in English as Finn McCool, who was a  hunter-warrior, occurring  in the mythologies of Ireland, Scotland and the Isle of Man. The stories of Fionn, and his followers the Fianna, form the Fenian Cycle (or Fiannaidheacht), much of it purported to be narrated by Fionn’s son, the poet Oisin.

“Fionn” is actually a nickname meaning “blond”, “fair”, “white”, or “bright”. His childhood name was Deimne , literally “sureness” or “certainty”, and several legends tell how he gained the nickname when his hair turned prematurely white. The name “Fionn” is related to the Welsh name “Gwyn”, as in the mythological figure Gwyn ap Nudd, and to the continental Celtic “Vindos“, an epithet for the god Belenus.

The 19th century Irish revolutionary organisation known as the Fenian Brotherhood took its name from these legends. The Scottish name Fingal  comes from the retelling in epic form by the 18th century poet James Macpherson. In Ireland he is associated with the Giant’s Causway (there is a mural of him in Bushmills), in the Hebrides with Fingal’s Cave, its extension across the Sea of Moyle.

Mongan is linked to the Tuath Monach, now known as Taughmonagh, one of the townlands of Malone. The  Monaigh or Menapians, the Sea People of Manannan mac Lir, were originally a Belgic people absorbed by the Cruthin, who also gave their name to Fermanagh and Monaghan.The Breadach were one of the four chief tribes of the Monaigh who lived, and still do, in the townland of Breda, from which Newtownbreda and Knockbreda derive their names. More of the Cruthin you can read in The Gaelic Placenames of Belfast, commissioned by Belfast City Council in partnership with the Ultach Trust.

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 recognize 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.Thus ends the story of Bran, son of Febal. But the story of Mongán, a historical figure,  continues in the Compert Mongáin.

Manannán takes Mongán away with him to Tír Tairngire—the land of promise, an otherworld similar to Tír na nÓg—where he learned shapeshifting and other esoteric knowledge. While Mongán is in the otherworld, his father is killed by Fiachnae mac Demmáin, an event which the Irish annals place after Mongán’s death. Mongán’s ability to change his shape is alluded to in the 9th century tale De Chophur in dá Muccado (The quarrel of the two swineherds), found in the Book of Leinster, which is one of the stories setting the scene for the Táin Bó Cuailnge.

The record of Mongán’s death in the Annals of Tigernach has him killed by a stone thrown by one Artúr son of Bicior, described as a Briton or perhaps, following Kuno Meyer‘s reading, a Cruthin. It is accompanied by a poem attributed to Bécc Bairrche mac Blathmaic, king of Ulaid. Whitley Stokes translated it as follows:

The wind blows cold over Islay ;
there are youths approaching in Kintyre:
they will do a cruel deed thereby,
they will slay Mongán, son of Fiachnae

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