“Look out for Satan’s hand!”

Immram Ua Corra (Voyage of the Uí Chorra), an immram or voyage tale dating from the 11th century. Conall Derg Ua Corra and his wife make a pact with the devil in order to secure an heir. Three boys are born on the same night. When they grow up they kill clerics and burn churches, but they repent and embark on a voyage of pilgrimage.

It goes, the prosperous farmer Conall Ua Corra in the province of Connaught had everything to make him happy except that he and his wife had no children to cheer their old age and inherit their estate. Conall had prayed for children, and one day said in his impatience that he would rather have them sent by Satan than not have them at all. A year or two later his wife had three sons at a birth, and when these sons came to maturity, they were so ridiculed by other young men, as being the sons of Satan, that they said, “If such is really our parentage, we will do Satan’s work.”

So they collected around them a few villains and began plundering and destroying the churches in the neighborhood and thus injuring half the church buildings in the country. At last they resolved to visit also the church of Clothar, to destroy it, and to kill if necessary their mother’s father, who was the leading layman of the parish. When they came to the church, they found the old man on the green in front of it, distributing meat and drink to his tenants and the people of the parish. Seeing this, they postponed their plans until after dark and in the meantime went home with their grandfather, to spend the night at his house.

They went to rest, and the eldest, Lochan, had a terrible dream in which he saw first the joys of heaven and then the terrors of future punishment, and then he awoke in dismay. Waking his brothers, he told them his dream, and that he now saw that they had been serving evil masters and making war upon a good one. Such was his bitterness of remorse that he converted them to his views, and they agreed to go to their grandfather in the morning, renounce their sinful ways and ask his pardon. This they did, and he advised them to go to a celebrated saint, Finnen of Clonard, and take him as their spiritual guide. Laying aside their armor and weapons, they went to Clonard, where all the people, dreading them and knowing their wickedness, fled for their lives, except the saint himself, who came forward to meet them. With him the three brothers undertook the most austere religious exercises, and after a year they came to St. Finnen and asked his punishment for their former crimes. “You cannot,” he said, “restore to life those you have slain, but you can at least restore the buildings you have devastated and ruined.” So they went and repaired many churches, after which they resolved to go on a pilgrimage upon the great Atlantic Ocean.

“Señor,” said an old woman, “our sons and our husbands have again fallen into the hand of Satan.” They were near an islet which the sailors called Isla de la Man Satanaxio, or The Island of Satan’s Hand. It appeared that in that region there was an islet so called, always surrounded by chilly mists and water of a deadly cold; that no one had ever reached it, as it constantly changed place; but that a demon hand sometimes uprose from it, and plucked away men and even whole boats, which, when once grasped, usually by night, were never seen again, but perished helplessly, victims of Satan’s Hand.

The extant narrative of Immram Curaig Ua Corra has been transmitted in several versions. The earliest version is that found in the Book of Fermoy, written in the fifteenth century. A second version, found only in manuscripts of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, apparently derives from the Book of Lismore, another manuscript of the fifteenth century. A third version in a mixture of prose and verse also survives only in late manuscripts; the beginning of this is now lost and has been replaced in some manuscripts by a fragment of the version apparently deriving from the Book of Lismore. Structural and linguistic evidence suggests that all the versions of Immram Curaig Ua Corra derive from a composite narrative written some time after the mid-twelfth century.

Toirdhealbhach Ua Conchobhair (old spelling: Tairrdelbach Ua Conchobair) (1088–1156), anglicised Turlough Mór O’Connor / O’Conor, was King of Connacht (1106–1156) and High King of Ireland (ca. 1120–1156).


A historical and contextual reading of the voyage tale Immram Curaig Ua Corra.

Research on voyage tales in early Irish literature has earlier been centered on unveiling pagan beliefs and traditions beneath an imagined Christian surface. This tendency has rendered textual interpretation based on the voyage tales’ historical context somewhat unchartered territory. The aim of this thesis is, therefore, to read Immram Curaig Ua Corra first and foremostly as a child of its time. Certain signs within the tale as well as external mentions of it places it in the 12th century.

This is a century that proved particularly eventful for the locations mentioned in the text. The tale’s basic setting in the province of Connacht seem likely to be connected to the rise of Toirdelbach Ua Conchobair as king of the province and contender for high-kingship. These contentions resulted in friends and enemies not only outside Toirdelbach’s territory, but also in his most internal circles. One of the king’s contenders to the kingship of Connacht was his own son Ruadhrí, a son from a marriage with a lady from the south Connacht dynasty of Uí Fhiachrach Aidne. The many parallels between Aidnean legends and our voyage tale seem to suggest involvement from authors affiliated with this territory.

The extant tale does, however, seem to contain an inserted sequence in which St Findén of Clonard is portrayed as the main clerical hero, the ’foster-father of Ireland’ of the tale. This suggests that Clonard scribes used an earlier, lost, and possible Aidnean tale as basis for the creation of the extant voyage tale. It seems possible that it was composed in support of Clonard as a reaction to political and social changes which gave the Patrician church of Armagh unprecedented opportunities of influence, at the expense of the traditional monastic bastions.

The high-kingship struggles of the 12th century went on simultaneously with an extensive church reform which replaced the unique, Irish system of monastic units with a diocesan system in conformity with the Roman church. In this process, much power changed hands. Archdioceses were formed in accordance with secular politics – thanks to Toirdelbach Ua Conchobair’s efforts, Connacht got its own primatial see at Tuaim, an event that may explain the prominent role of this city in Immram Curaig Ua Corra.

A contextual reading does, however, also include the more spiritual ideals accompanying the winds of reform. The voyage tale champions the idea that no sin is too grave nor any human too depraved for change to be a realistic possibility. The protagonists of the tale, the three Uí Chorra brothers, goes to war against the Church on behalf of the Devil, whom they perceive as their lord. Their murderous and destructive conduct make the brothers infamous in all of Ireland. The extreme violence of the fictional brothers parallels the exceptionally violent Irish society in the centuries after the Viking wars, during which destruction of holy sites were not uncommon, neither by secular nor ecclesiastical agents. This provides an apt situation for the creation of a tale about diabolical warriors who, by divine providence and ecclesiastical compassion, realise they are fighting on the wrong side of a cosmic war.

Immram Curaig Ua Corra may demonstrate the Irish scribes’ use of re-defined ancient symbolism. One example of this is the tale’s employment of sun symbolism. The dying of the worldly sun gives rise to a sacred dawn, a theme found both in frame story and voyage part.

During the sea voyage of Uí Chorra’s boat the brothers and their additional six crewmembers are taken to islands and visions upon the waves which appear to be tableaus of theological ideas of the time as well as thoughts on the contemporary society. The voyage also shows us that after their rehabilitation, the brothers grow to fill important roles in the Church’s service.

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