When was Celtic Futurism? The Irish Immrama as Proto-Science-Fiction

SFRA Review, vol. 52, no. 1

LSFRC 2021 Papers

When was Celtic Futurism? The Irish Immrama as Proto-Science-Fiction

Chris Loughlin

Here begins the voyage of Máel Dúin’s boat. . . .
An abundance of wonders was seen in the world on the blue ocean.
(Oskamp 101)

Many remarkable things, many marvels, many mysteries [was] their pleasant story, as swift Máel Dúin told. (179)

This paper investigates the historical basis for an alternative futurism: Celtic Futurism, or “cymroddyfodoliaeth” (ap Dyffrig; “Uniting Alternative Futurisms”). Fantastical voyages, which in the Irish context are “immrama,” are one of the historiographical bases for Celtic Futurism. The Encyclopaedia of Science Fiction presents a sceptical view of the long history of science fiction. The editors describe proto-science fiction as merely setting the stage for the self-conscious development of the genre in the nineteenth century (Nicholls). Adam Roberts, however, whilst providing a much more favourable analysis of proto-science fiction, claims there was a thousand-year hiatus between Greco-Roman voyage tales and their re-emergence, contemporaneously, with the Protestant Reformation and Copernican revolutions (33-39). Yet the topic is still a relatively under-researched area of knowledge. The opening quotations above, from Immram curaig Máel Dúin, demonstrate that fantastical voyages were a component of Irish medieval culture. This paper will demonstrate a strong role for fantastical voyages—the immrama (“rowing about,” or voyager, tales) of Ireland in the medieval period—in the definition of science fiction. It will utilise the stories of Saint Brendan, Bran, and Máel Dúin to re-read the history of science fiction. It will present evidence to answer the question: When was Celtic Futurism? Last, it will contribute evidence to the definition, and discussion, of alternative futurisms and further discussion about the imperial gaze.

This paper will, first, examine and discuss the immrama (literally, “rowing about”) tales and related texts. It will highlight the stories of Saint Brendan, Bran, and Máel Dúin as examples of fantastical voyages and demonstrate how these contribute to proto-science fiction. However, there are also other tales from the Irish medieval world which contribute to a long history of science fiction; the echtrai (adventures) and exile stories concern issues of the otherworld, for example, whilst other stories from the period also contain fantastical elements, most famously the Táin Bó Cúalnge [the Cattle Raid of Cooley]. Many of these tales can also be considered tributaries to the wider history of Irish science fiction, but this will not form the central analysis in this paper. The second section considers the primary source bases of the immrama and Immram curaig Máel Dúin. The publication, translation, and secondary literature on the tales will also be discussed. Last, the immrama will be discussed in relation to definitions of science fiction. It will be demonstrated here that these tales are not only fantastical voyages, but are also examples of proto-science fiction. The stories’ use of fantastical place, time, and inner worlds highlights a longer and more variegated history of science fiction. It will highlight the basis for future research on an alternative futurism: Celtic Futurism, or cymroddyfodoliaeth.

The Immrama (“rowing about”) Tales

The Navigation of Saint Brendan is the first story which is accepted in the secondary literature as a voyager tale. The story exists in 125 manuscript copies, was one of the earliest published stories, and was translated into vernacular versions (Wooding xi). The earliest version of it is the Latin Navigatio Sancti Brendani abbatis and is probably from the ninth century CE, although an earlier version is contained in the Vita Brendani (Mackley 1). In this tale Brendan is inspired to visit the Promised Land of the Saints. Fourteen monks are chosen for the crew, but three further “supernumerary” monks insist on accompanying them; they subsequently leave the crew at key moments of the journey (4). The voyage lasts seven years with returns to certain locations at key dates in the liturgical year. They visit fantastical places such as an unoccupied stronghold, an island of enormous sheep, a mobile island, which is really a giant fish or whale, and an island of birds, which are the earthly form of angels. Finally, they are granted visions of heaven and hell: the former expressed by a pious hermit named Paul, and the latter by Judas Iscariot. The Navigatio was, however, conflated with the Vita Brendani and Betha Brénnain during their transmission (Wooding xxv, xxvii-xxviii). The tale of Brendan probably forms the starting point of a wider ecclesiastical and secular tradition of voyager tales (Oskamp). There has been debate about the dating and location of the writing of Brendan’s voyage. Carney argued for an authorship in Ireland in approximately 800 CE (46), whilst Selmer attributed it to an Irish author in Lotharingia in the first half of the tenth century (qtd. in Dumville 120).

Immram Brain maic Febul, or The Voyage of Bran, son of Febul, has been dated as the earliest Irish voyager tale (Carney 73). Barbara Hilliers described this tale as “a curious composition; we might think of it as a collection of poems about the otherworld, set onto the framework of a voyager tale” (71). The poem combines elements of pagan, otherworld, and Christian allegory. Bran and his companions set out after he is invited by an otherworld woman to her island. They subsequently visit inis subai, the island of joy. They also visit tir inna mBan, the island of women. However, they leave and return to Ireland due to their homesickness. When they arrive back home, however, time has passed differently for those at home, who tell Bran, “we do not know such a one [Bran, son of Febul], though the voyage of Bran is in our ancient stories” (The Voyage of Bran 32). There are two further extant immrama, Immram Snédgusa ocus Maic Riagla and Immram curaig Ua Corra. Whilst further Irish voyager titles exist there is no manuscript record of their contents (Wooding xii). Further complicating matters is the role of the otherworld in other Irish stories. For example, these are recorded in the echtrai (adventures), exile stories, and other literature from medieval Ireland. Mackley uses the “fantastic” to analyse the stories of Saint Brendan; he highlights the broader category through which we can understand medieval Irish literature. However, arguably, the combination of imagination and reality in these tales makes the fantastic voyage and proto-science fiction more attractive concepts.

The most thorough reconstruction of Immram curaig Máel Dúin is the 1970 study by Oskamp. Máel Dúin combines elements of Atlantic and Irish geography with the fantastical and otherworldly. It survives in both a poetical and prose version. It is clearly influenced by both Christian and pagan beliefs. Máel Dúin, the titular protagonist, is a product of a liaison between a local king and a nun, but his father is murdered by rogues, and he is fostered by a different family and queen. As a youth he is taunted about his parentage and confronts his foster mother who tells him about his true heritage. He consults a druid, who tells him the number of companions he must take, and he sets out to avenge his father’s death. His foster brothers insist on accompanying the expedition and are the supernumeraries of the voyage. They visit the island where the murderers live but are driven off course by a storm. Máel Dúin “reproaches his foster brothers that it is because of their presence that he cannot reach his goal” (Oskamp 44). They are, subsequently, forced to visit over thirty fantastical islands during their journey. They visit islands inhabited by giant ants, a horse-like monster, the giant’s horse race, with a house where there are leaping salmon, wondrous fruits, the revolving beast and fighting horses, the fiery swine, the black and white sheep, the burning river, the miserly miller, and the black wailers. They also visit islands of imaginative geography, such as that of the four fences, and one with a crystal and glass bridge. They see an island of chanting birds, a wondrous fountain, and savage smiths. They also witness a sea of glass and a sea of clouds. They visit an island of silver, and one of the companions, Diurán, cuts off a piece of silver net which they bring back to the altar at Armagh. They also visit an island of women (tir inna mBan) and of different saints and hermits. Nearing the end of their voyage, they visit the hermit of Tory Island. He advises Máel Dúin to forgive his father’s murderers. He states, “slay him not, but forgive him, because God has saved you from many perils, and you, too, are men deserving death” (Oskamp 172-173). They then visit the island of the rogues who murdered Máel Dúin’s father, and he forgives the murder. This ends their journey, and they return to Ireland. Máel Dúin combines elements of pagan belief with an overarching Christian allegory of forgiveness. But the combination of fiction, imagination, and reality makes it a piece of proto-science fiction. Immram curaig Máel Dúin, alongside other immrama, utilises the sea literally and metaphorically. The latter makes them an interesting precursor to New Wave science fiction’s examination of inner worlds, psychology, and crisis. This also links the immrama to the reaction to Norse invasions, the Anglo-Norman occupation, and science fiction discussion of colonialism (a point considered further below). Next, this paper will examine the complex primary source basis of the voyager tales and the secondary literature.

Studying the Immrama and Secondary Literature

The Irish voyager tales “have received relatively limited critical attention” (Wooding xvii). This is primarily due to their existence in a minority vernacular language. However, Wooding has also emphasised the comparative neglect: the old English Seafarer, a lyric of just 126 lines, has a bibliography of over 250 items; whereas the entire corpus of literature on the immrama “warrants barely 50 items” (xvii). The Navigatio Brendani has also suffered from a more surprising critical neglect. Since the publication of Wooding’s anthology of scholarly criticism, however, there has been a modest development of interest in the tales. Another issue has been the lack of scholarly editions of the immrama to encourage further study. The principal immrama were translated between 1888 and 1905 by Whitley Stokes and Kuno Meyer. Whilst a scholarly edition of the immrama was attempted in the later 1930s, their publication was interrupted by the war and then death of the translator, Anton van Hamel, in 1945. The latest scholarly translation of Immram curaig Máel Dúin was published in 1970 but did not include a glossary. Unfortunately, other immrama are only accessible in Stoke’s and Meyer’s translations, which are now very dated. As Wooding wrote in the first scholarly anthology of criticism on these tales, “this is a very unsatisfactory state of affairs and confusing even for the professional student of Celtic literature” (xix). An important issue for study of the immrama is, therefore, their existence in Latin and vernacular literatures, a situation mirrored in the secondary literature. Some of this secondary literature has not been translated, which has further hampered study of the tales in the Anglophone world. So, how does this relate to Immram curaig Máel Dúin?

Immram curaig Máel Dúin survives in four manuscript sources. Linguistically it is one of the earliest voyager tales, “as early as the eighth century or ninth” (Clancy 203). The smaller manuscript sources consist of two fragments, both held at the British Library, London (Brown and Groenewegen). Lebor na hUidre [the Book of the Dun Cow] is the earliest full manuscript source, dating to the twelfth century and earlier scribes (Oskamp 89-90). A more detailed version, both the poem and prose, exists in another medieval Irish manuscript, the Yellow Book of Lecan. Whitley Stokes translated Immram curaig Máel Dúin into English in the late 1880s and this version remains important for discussion of the story (Stokes “part 1”). Stokes amalgamated materials from all four manuscript sources. Kuno Meyer also translated Immram curaig Máel Dúin in the early 1900s and collated from the Yellow Book of Lecan and the Harleian manuscripts. Anton Van Hamel translated the text in his collection Immrama in the late 1930s. Oskamp in his 1970 book, The Voyage of Máel Dúin. A study in early Irish voyage literature followed by an edition of Immram Curaig Máele Dúin from the YBL in TCD, utilised the Yellow Book of Lecan as his source material. Alongside these primary source translations, there are also popular poetry and prose versions of the story. For example, Patrick Joyce wrote a popular English translation which was published in 1879, which was probably the source for Tennyson’s 1880 poetical version of the tale (Joyce; Tennyson). There is also a series of beautiful illustrations to the tale by J. D. Batten, included in Joseph Jacobs’s 1919 book, The Book of Wonder Voyages. However, there has also been a rather complex historiographical debate about the history of the immrama and other Irish otherworld tales.

The most important introduction to the immrama and the historical debates they have inspired, to date, is the J. M. Wooding anthology of criticism from 2000, The Otherworld Voyage in Early Irish Literature. This book details debates which have occurred around Irish voyager literature, but one of the key questions has been the relationship between Ireland’s pagan, oral culture, and subsequent Christian literate society. Some scholars, such as Rudolf Thurneysen and Myles Dillon, felt the voyager tales were originally pagan, native productions which were later written down (Oskamp 11-12). Carney, by contrast, stressed that the texts were “all written . . . in the monasteries by the monks, and that these tales were often meant as ‘Christian allegories’” (12; see also Wooding xx-xxii). Kathleen Hughes felt that the voyager tales were a reaction to Norse invasions of Ireland during the medieval period (qtd. in Oskamp 16). Further research during the twentieth century has clearly demonstrated the inter-relationship between the Navigatio and the immrama. There are, however, unresolved issues and avenues for further research. For example, the influence of The Aeneid, and other classical sources, has still been under-researched and correlates with my own claims. Mackley’s work on the Navigatio has highlighted the inter-relationship between imagination and reality by examining that text through the prism of the “fantastic.” Last, the most knowledgeable expert on Irish science fiction, Jack Fennell, has highlighted the under-appreciated contribution early Irish literature made to science fiction (Irish Science Fiction; A Brilliant Void). The final section of this paper examines some definitions of science fiction and demonstrates the immrama as examples of both fantastical voyages and proto-science fiction.

The Immrama as Proto-Science Fiction

Peter Nicholls, in an entry on the history of science fiction from the definitive The Encyclopaedia of Science Fiction, claims the genre is “impure” and did not finally take shape until the nineteenth century. Whilst elements existed in previous epochs, he has further stated that, “it requires a consciousness of the scientific outlook, and it probably also requires a sense of the possibilities of change, whether social or technological.” In further entries in The Encyclopaedia, Stableford establishes that fantastic voyages and proto-science fiction are important precursors to the field (“Fantastic Voyages”; “Proto SF”). However, Nicholls also provides a list of five key elements which became melded into science fiction: one, the fantastic voyage; two, the utopia and dystopia; three, the philosophical tale; four, the gothic; five, the technological and sociological anticipation. Clearly the immrama combine the first three elements, but arguably the voyager tales also contain the last two components. In contrast to this sceptical view is one adopted by Adam Roberts in The History of Science Fiction. Roberts claims that science fiction can be understood in much less, definitive, hard-science terms, “but rather into a delineation of the continuum by which SF can be meaningfully separated out as that form of the Fantastic that embodies a technical (materialist) ‘enframing’, as opposed to the religious (supernatural) approach we would today call ‘Fantasy’” (21). However, Roberts’s view succumbs to a hard differentiation between oral and written culture: “for over 1,000 years SF fell into abeyance as a literary mode. Its disappearance was connected, very obviously, with the more general collapse of literary culture, and of literacy itself” (30). He goes on to make the point that medieval European culture was explicitly concentrated on religious themes and science fiction was only able to re-emerge following the religious changes of the Reformation and the scientific-technological changes associated with modernity and the Copernican revolution (33-39). This, however, creates a misleading chronology as it passes over the rich fantastical voyage and journeys to the otherworld of the literatures of medieval Europe. Further, some authors have posited a relationship between colonialism, modernity, and science fiction (Rieder). As was noted previously, Kathleen Hughes noted a relationship between the Norse invasions of Ireland and the immrama. The most famous colonisation of Ireland, however, began with the Anglo-Norman invasions of the twelfth century (although the Christian invasions of Ireland could also be considered colonialist). It is therefore clear that there is a strong basis for further research into the immrama as proto-science fiction and discussion of the relationship of colonialism, modernity, and sociological and technological change. This research will further enrich knowledge of alternative futurisms and discussion of the imperial gaze.

The last area this paper will consider is the recent emergence of historiography on Irish science fiction. This work has been conducted by Fennell, Howard, and Maume. They mostly concentrate on the latter history of modernity. Fennell has mentioned that there is an argument to be made for the longer-term history of Irish science fiction, although in his monograph he concentrates on the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Fennell’s highlighting of the role of myth and mythology is a useful framework within which to consider the immrama and Irish medieval literatures. Further, Mackley’s work on the Navigatio has usefully adopted the “fantastic” as the frame within which to consider this work. Mackley’s view correlates with both Fennell and Roberts. It is unarguable that the immrama are important examples of fantastical voyages and should, therefore, be considered proto-science fiction. We should heed Roberts’s call for considering the field of science fiction as a spectrum, rather than a definitive literary category. Further, many of the stories of the Irish medieval societies contain either fantastical elements or voyages to otherworlds, or both. Immram Brain contains, for example, an important difference in experience of time: when Bran and his companions return to Ireland, they are told, “we do not know such a one [Bran, son of Febul], though the voyage of Bran is in our ancient stories” (Meyer 32). This contrasting experience of time is a motif which appears in other stories from medieval Ireland. Last, the immrama and exile tales are often discussed as expressive of Christian allegory and the sea voyage as a metaphor for spiritual journey. This fits with the expansive understanding of science fiction expressed by New Wave authors with their discussion of crisis, disaster, inner-worlds, and psychology. These themes are particularly pertinent for discussing the far-reaching impact which Christianization, Norse invasion, and colonialist occupation had on Ireland. These stories—the echtrai, immrama, and other Irish tales—offer important avenues for future research on the long history of science fiction and alternative futurisms.

Celtic Futurism

This paper tentatively set out the first evidence for the alternative futurism of Celtic Futurism. It read the immrama (“rowing about”) tales as examples of fantastic voyages and proto-science fiction. The paper utilised Rodhri ap Dyfrig’s “cymroddyfodoliaeth” (Welsh or Celtic futurism) as a framework within which to investigate Irish medieval literature. It has demonstrated that there are science fiction elements to the immrama, echtrai, and other tales from medieval Ireland. The evidence cited above, however, also highlights areas to consider for future research. First, we can further investigate the immrama and other Irish stories as proto-science fiction, for example, how they utilised conceptions of technology, time, and the otherworld requires further detailed investigation. How this relates to colonialism, crisis, and psychology will add evidence to the legitimacy of Celtic Futurism. Second, considering how these stories relate to other medieval literatures would be a useful exercise, for example, how do these Irish stories compare with the fantastical voyages and other world tales of Wales and other cultures? The comparison of these stories with Norse and Viking culture would also be a useful task. The investigation of Celtic Futurism as a form of proto-science fiction is an important area of research for the longer-term history of the field. It also has something to contribute to wider discussion of the issue of indigenous futurism and the losses caused by colonialism, modernity, and progress.


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Chris Loughlin is a labour historian of modern Britain and Ireland. He was employed as lecturer in history at Newcastle University, 2018 to 2021, and obtained his training at Queen’s University Belfast. His first monograph was published in 2018, Labour and the Politics of Disloyalty in Belfast, 1921-39. He has also published work on civil rights, loyalty and the foundation of Northern Ireland, gender, sexualities, and industrial relations. He has peer-reviewed work for the Royal Society, Labour History Review and International Labor and Working Class History.

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