It was 50 quatrains of verse that the stranger sang to the kings of Ireland. They knew not from whence she came or how she came to be there, for the stronghold was fast.
Bran, High King of Ireland, reluctant as a ruler, left his castle to find solitary peace by walking his lands. As he walked he heard music coming from behind him. He would turn, but which ever direction he sought, the music was still behind him. Perplexed, he entered the enclave of a copse and rested by a glittering pool of water where he took his repose. The music lulled him to a deep, hypnotic sleep. When he awoke, he held within his palm a silver branch with white blossom. He carried it back to the castle to seek the counsel of his advisors.
In the Great Hall of Kings, he held the branch. None present could explain the magic of his experience. As they spake, a woman entered. She was unknown to any, and they wondered at her entrance, for the stronghold had been barred. She began to sing, 50 quatrains of verse inviting Bran to the ‘Land of Women’ across the waters. As she sang, Bran found that his arm weakened and he began to lose the strength to hold the silver branch. Upon the last quatrain of the song, the branch left Bran’s hand and fastened to the woman’s. Thereupon, she disappeared before their very eyes.
Bran was spellbound and driven. He took three boats, each with nine men, to the high seas and sought this Land of Women. They encircled the first island they discovered. Upon its shores was a great host who gaped and laughed at them. Try as they might to converse with the people of this island, they would not enter into discussion with them, only gape and laugh. Disconcerted, Bran sent one of his kinsmen to the shores to seek direction for the Land of Women, and to replenish their supplies. However the man, upon his arrival, only turned and gaped at Bran and his men and laughed like the others. Finally, Bran left this island, the Land of Joy, and continued his journey, leaving his kinsman behind them.
Soon after, they saw great waves heading toward their boats, and were sure that they would be drowned. But as the waves neared, they saw the heads of horses, and their rider, god of the seas behind them.
“Behold, Mannanan, son of Lir!” Cried one of the men.
Mannanan MacLir led Bran to the island he sought, passing a great many more, the thrice times 50 islands of the Otherworld.
Women came to the beach to greet them. The queen who led them had the appearance of the stranger who had come to the Great Hall of Kings and had sung the 50 quatrains. She beckoned the travellers to the island, but Bran was uncertain, afraid for his men after what had come to pass at the Land of Joy. The queen threw a ball of yarn at his face, which Bran caught in his hand. There it held fast and the queen reeled him in.
The men were each given a plate of food. As they ate, the plate was replenished with more food. When satiated, a woman led each of them to their room, where they coupled. All were contented, and they rested on the isle for what seemed to them but a year. But Nechtan became homesick, remembering his wife and four childer. At first the men would not listen to him. But he persisted, reminding them of their folk back home and their responsibilities to them. They in turn ailed with homesickness.
At first the women would not let them leave, but on seeing their sickness, the queen finally agreed to releasing them from the isle. But she warned them, they must never set foot upon the shore of their land. Bran agreed and set sail for home.
The hearts of the men were lifted upon sighting their home. They were hailed by people they did not recognise. One among them questioned who it was that came from over the sea.
“I am Bran, High King of Ireland, son of Febal,” he claimed.
“We do not know a Bran Mac Febal, but the Journey of Bran is part of our ancient lore.”
Bran knew then that they had not passed only one year away from home, but many a hundred. Their families had long since departed.
Bu Nechtan was impatient. He left the boat in haste and ran to the shore, seeking his wife and childer. But as his foot touched the earth, he turned to ashes as if he’d been dead a thousand years.
It was then that Bran sang his quatrain to those gathered:
“For Collbran’s son great was the folly
To lift his hand against age,
Without anyone to cast a wave of pure water
Over Nechtan, Collbran’s son.”
Thereupon, Bran told the story of his voyage to those gathered upon the shore and wrote his quatrain in ogham, a warning to any who might repeat their folly. He bade them farewell and departed. His journey from that day on has never been told.
The Voyage of Bran, retold by Safar Fiertze (2015). The legend forms part of the Mythological Cycle of legends of Ireland.