No Country For Old Mendicants

“Steady as she goes, Brother Malo. Take her in gently.”
The wiry monk manning the tiller nodded in acknowledgement.
“This fog is unnaturally thick, Father Abbot. I fear that we could well run aground.”

Brendan, the elderly Abbot of Clonfert, looked unruffled by this remark.
“Trust in the Lord, Brother Malo. He will guide us through safely.”
Brother Malo smiled but secretly wished that, rather than just guiding them through, the Lord might be a bit more proactive and blow the fog away.

No sooner has the thought passed through his mind than Malo repented of such blasphemy and, as a gesture of contrition, banged his sandalled foot hard into the wooden frame of the boat, badly stubbing his toe.
“Careful man,” shouted Brendan, then quickly composed himself. “If you go through the leather on the side of this currach, we are all in trouble.

It was back in the sixth century that Naomh Bréanainn, known these days as Saint Brendan, set sail with a party of monks from Ireland’s shores. Their mission was to find the Garden of Eden. Seventeen in number, they had followed a haphazard route over the North Atlantic for seven long years, backtracking and revisiting many of their ports of call along the way. During this time they saw many wonders; wonders that their rich Celtic imaginations interpreted as visions of Heaven and Hell. The volcanoes along the coast of Iceland became demons hurling fiery rocks to impede their journey and an iceberg was a mighty pillar of the purest crystal. Strangest of all was the small island upon which they landed to say mass one day. When that turned out to be a whale enjoying a quiet nap, it was hard to say who was the most surprised, the whale or the monks.

Now, with death having claimed three of their crew, fourteen monks sat staring into an impenetrable fog.
“This must be it,” whispered Brendan to himself. It had long been foretold that the promised land they had sought for so long would lie within a shroud of mist.

By now every breath of wind was stilled and the only sound to be heard was the slap of the oars as they pulled the currach through the shallow water towards the mysterious island.

While it would be unfair to say that Brendan was bitterly disappointed with his first view of, what he supposed to be, the Garden of Eden, he was far from overjoyed. He had expected a beautiful land filled sunshine, birdsong and heavily laden fruit trees. Instead, the eyes of the weary travellers were greeted by a ribbon of dismal mist that drifted listlessly over a headland crowned with scrubby grass, and clung to the line of spindly trees that bordered it. No birds sang in their branches.
Brendan decided that this was definitely not the land that they were seeking, and maybe it was time to head out to sea once more, when his eye was caught by a strange figure that seemed to magically materialise from amid the trees.

As if by some unspoken signal, each monk ceased what he was doing and stood, stock still, as the newcomer approached. He was dressed, outlandishly they thought, in soft leather trimmed with fur; feathers adorned his dark, plaited hair. When he was about ten yards from them he raised his right arm, palm outwards, in what was obviously a gesture signifying ‘I am no threat. How about you?’

What happened next surprised everyone.

“Top o’ the morning to you.” he said (or, at least, words to that effect) in quite recognizable Old Irish, which, of course, was the language that the monks all spoke (with the notable exception of Brother Malo, who was Welsh. However, and happily for this tale, the similarities between the Goidelic language of the Welsh and the Brittonic of the Irish were sufficient that they could understand each other quite comfortably… but I digress).

“Um… good morning brother,” responded Brendan, getting over his surprise. “We come in peace.”

A degree of awkward silence followed, neither party knowing how to proceed, until Brother Fergus, the oldest of them all and almost bent double, could not hold back any longer and asked the question that was on everybody’s lips.

“You speak our language!” he blurted out. “We are a thousand leagues from home, and yet we understand your tongue. How can this be?”
The stranger squatted on the ground and said nothing for what seemed an age.

“My name is Nechtan,” he said at last, after some thought. “Come with me to my village, where you will eat and drink, and I will tell you of my people”

The monks immediately felt at home in Nechtan’s village, where the single-storey houses huddled close to each other. They were uniformly small, probably no more than one room dwellings, with thatched roofs pegged down with ropes, which were tied to heavy stones. Similar structures were found near their abbey on the West Coast of Ireland, where the winter winds from the sea could be merciless.

Over a simple meal of cornbread, fish and spring water, Nechtan told the monks how, many generations ago, three ships had appeared on their shores carrying a score or more of fierce, red-headed adventurers. Despite their looks, the men from across the sea had wanted no more than to rest, find provisions and repair their much-travelled ships. At least, that is what they first told the islanders. After a week or so, their leader, whose name was Bran, confided to their head man that he wished to bury a box. It was a simple enough, though puzzling, request that the chief felt unable to refuse. And so, one moonlit night, the box was dragged ashore. It was a heavy sea-chest, fashioned from black bog-oak and bound with brass. Bran and his men took it to some undisclosed place and buried it deep beneath the earth. Upon their return they made the islanders swear that they would never attempt to look for the box of bog-oak and brass. Although this was agreed, Bran bade a handful of his men to remain behind and ensure that no one would go back on their word.

The ones who stayed settled down quite happily. They each found a wife and within a generation or two, Old Irish had become the lingua franca of the island.

Brendan stroked his chin. The story of the voyage of Bran was well-known to him, but he had always assumed it was no more than a colourful legend, a tale dreamed up by the pagan bards to amuse their listeners.

“But what was the significance of the oaken box?” he asked Nechtan.
The islander shook his head.

“I have no idea,” he confessed, “but before he sailed back to his own land, Bran carved some symbols on a stone tablet. It has been handed down through the generations of my family. No one knows what it means but maybe, if you can understand it, it will shed some light on the mystery.”

Nechtan lifted the lid of a chest that doubled-up as a table, rummaged through its contents and, with some difficulty, extracted a stone tile, as wide as a man’s splayed hand and twice as long. On its surface was carved a series of glyphs in the form of notched grooves. Some were horizontal and others diagonal. All lay on, or was bisected by, a vertical line.

“It’s Ogham script,” said Brendan. As he read his face became more and more grim.

After a while he looked up from the tile and addressed Nechan.
“It entreats any who can read this to never, under any circumstances, seek for the chest of bog-oak. On their travels Bran and his crew encountered a fierce demon. He claims that their druid subdued this infernal creature and imprisoned it within the chest, binding the locks with magic. He then commanded them to bury it deep in the earth of the misty island they would find at the end of their journey. As much as I despise all mention of pagan magic, I have to agree. Under no account seek out this cursed chest and its unholy prisoner.”

“Be assured,” said Nechan, “we are a dwindling people. There are very few of us left here, these days –soon there will be none. No one cares about this legend. There is enough to fear on our island without digging up more monsters to trouble us.”

Brendan wondered what he meant. The place was dismal, that was for sure, but he saw no evidence of things to fear.

The voyagers returned to their boat and on the following morning decided to venture further inland. Surely there had to be one or two relatively pleasant places to enjoy. As Nechan had implied, the rest of the land seemed devoid of humans and indeed, animal life as well. At the end of the first day they pitched camp on a reasonably flat piece of ground overlooking the sea and settled down to what they hoped would be a decent night’s rest, away from the cramped conditions of the currach.
It must have been around midnight when Brother Malo sat bolt upright.
“Did you hear that,” he whispered. There’s something going through our belongings.”

The monks had left their meagre possessions outside their tent, confident that nothing was likely to happen to them.

Malo pushed his head through the flap and gulped in astonishment. Three small, fish – like creatures, balancing on crude wooden stilts, were going through the monks’ packs and dragging away anything they could manage. One had found some wooden spoons and had discarded his stilts in favour of these more sophisticated prosthetics.

Malo swore, then remembering his vows, hit himself with a rock as penance.

By then the whole camp was awake and two of the younger monks – both on the wrong side of fifty – chased after the spoonwalkers (this was probably the very first occasion that these creatures could legitimately be called this, as it’s unlikely that any had before used spoons as a preferred method of locomotion).

Brother Fergus was surprised to find a long tentacle wrapped around his leg. It was issuing from a small fissure in the ground and was attempting to persuade the ancient monk to join it. Brendan at once rushed forward, brandishing his wooden crucifix and demanding that the creature, apparently from the very depths of Hell, to let go of his colleague and return once more to the fiery pit. All that this achieved was for a second tentacle to emerge and take the crucifix from his grasp. Fortunately Malo had the presence of mind to hit tentacle number one with the rock that he was still fortuitously holding, retained in the event of his having the urge to inadvertently swear, or think blasphemous thoughts again. The resulting blow ensured that Fergus was freed and the brace of tentacles, along with Brendan’s crucifix, disappeared swiftly into the rocky ground.
Just when everyone thought that things could not possibly get any worse, the vast shape of the Kraken rose from the boiling ocean, its slumbers disturbed by all the commotion.

“That’s it! Back to the boat brethren.” cried Brendan, “I’ve had enough of this island, it’s hopeless,” he added, with a rare, but unintentional, flash of clairvoyance.

“And you expect me to believe that load of old Blarney,” said Philomena Bucket, a smile upon her pallid face.

“It’s true,” replied Bartholomew Middlestreet, propping himself against the bar of The Squid and Teapot. “I’m telling you, Saint Brendan the Navigator visited Hopeless as part of his epic voyage.”

“And what about all those islanders who spoke Irish? Where are they now?”

“I expect they died out, as Nechan predicted.”

“And Bran?”

“True as well,” said Bartholomew. “When Sebastian Lypiatt was digging the foundations of the flushing privy, all those years ago, he found the Ogham stone.

“I don’t believe a word of it” said Philomena.

“It’s true. He had no idea what it was or what it meant but he knew it was important, somehow. Look… up there, just above the fireplace. You’ve probably never noticed it…”

Philomena looked and sure enough, just where Sebastian had placed it, almost a century before, was a rectangular tile, as wide as a man’s splayed hand and twice as long, covered in the faint grooves of the Ogham script.

“There was even a chest made of bog-oak and brass, but that’s another tale altogether,” said Bartholomew, with a grin.

Author’s note: Should you wish to know what became of the bog-oak chest and its contents you might like to read the tales ‘The Necromancer’ –

and ‘Bog-Oak and Brass’ (preferably in that order).

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