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By William H. Babcock, LL.B.
The beginning of Irish navigation, like the beginning of everything else, is hidden in the mist of antiquity. Vessels of some kind obviously must have borne the successive waves of immigrants or invaders to the island. Naturally they would remain in use afterwards for trade, travel, exploration, and war. Irish ships may have been among those of the Breton fleet that Caesar dispersed at Vannes after an obstinate struggle. Two or three centuries later we find Niall of the Nine Hostages making nautical descents on the neighboring shores, especially Britain: and there is every probability that ships of the island conveyed some at least of the “Scots” (Irish) whom Gildas in the sixth century describes as joining the Picts in furiously storming the Roman wall.
The equally adventurous but more pacific work of exploration went on also, if we may judge by that extraordinary series of Irish sea-sagas, the Imrama, comprising the Voyages of Bran, Maelduin, the Hui Corra, and St. Brendan—the last-mentioned deservedly the most famous. These vary in their literary merits and in the merits of their several parts, for they have been successively rewritten at different periods, receiving always something of the color, belief, and adornment which belonged to the writer’s time; but under all may be dimly traced, as in a palimpsest, the remote pagan original. At their best they embody a lofty and touching poetry very subtle and significant, as when we read of Bran’s summoning by a visitant of supernatural beauty to the isles of undying delight, where a thousand years are but as a day; his return with a companion who had been overcome by longing for Ireland and home; the man’s falling to ashes at the first touch of the native soil, as though he had been long dead; and the flight of Bran and his crew from the real living world to the islands of the blessed. At least equally fine and stirring is St. Brendan’s interview with the exiled spirit of Heaven, whose “sin was but little”, so that he and his fellows were given only the pleasing penance of singing delightfully, in the guise of beautiful birds, the praises of the God who showed them mercy and grace, amid the charms of an earthly paradise. “Then all the birds sang evensong, so that it was an heavenly noise to hear.”