33. The Three Eagles

SOON AFTER, they landed on another large island. On one side, it was overgrown with great forests of yew and oak; and on the other was a broad flat plain, in the middle of which was a small lake, with herds of sheep feeding in the surrounding meadows.

There they also found a church and a fortress. They entered the church and encountered a monk, ancient and gray, and entirely naked, so that his only covering was his own hair.

Máel Dúin asked him who he was, and where he came from.

“I am the fifteenth man of the community of the blessed Brendan of Birr,” the old cleric replied. “We went forth on a pilgrimage into the vast and boundless ocean, and we came to this island. And of the fifteen men, all have died here but me.”

Then he showed them the tablet of the blessed Brendan, which they had taken with them on their pilgrimage. The travelers bowed reverently before it, and Máel Dúin held it and kissed it.

“You may stay here as long as you wish,” said the old man, “and eat your fill of the sheep for food, but take no more than is necessary to appease your hunger.”

So they stayed there for a season, and fed on the flesh of the sheep, and worshiped with the cleric.

One day, as they were seated on a hill, gazing out over the sea, they saw what looked like a black cloud coming towards them from the south-west. They kept watching as it came nearer and nearer; and at last they saw with amazement that it was an immense bird, for they saw quite plainly the slow, heavy flapping of its wings.

When it reached the island, it alighted on a hill next to the lake; and they felt some alarm, for they thought, on account of its vast size, that if it saw them, it might seize them in its talons, and carry them off over the sea. So they hid themselves under trees and among rocks, but they never lost sight of the bird, for they were determined to watch its movements.

The bird appeared to be old, and weary. It held in one claw a branch, which it had carried with it from over the sea. The branch was larger and heavier than the largest full-grown oak on the island, and was covered with fresh green leaves and heavy clusters of red and rich-looking fruit that resembled grapes; but they were much larger.

It remained resting for a time, on the hill, being much wearied after its flight, and then at last it began eating the fruit off the branch. After watching it for some time longer, Máel Dúin ventured warily towards the hill, to see whether the creature was inclined to making mischief; but the bird showed no disposition to do harm. This encouraged the others, and they followed their chief.

The whole crew now marched in a body around the bird, headed by Máel Dúin, with their shields raised; and as it still made no movement, one of the crew went straight up to the bird, and brought away some of the fruit from the branch which it still held in its huge talons. The bird went on plucking and eating its fruit, and never took the least notice of the theft.

On the evening of that same day, as the men sat looking over the sea to the south-west, where the great bird had first appeared to them, they saw in the distance two others, quite as large, coming slowly towards them from the very same direction. On they came, flying at a great height, nearer and nearer, until at last they swooped down and alighted on the hill, one on each side of the first bird.

Although they were plainly much younger than the other, they seemed tired, and took a long rest. Then, shaking their wings, they began picking the old bird all over — body, wings, and head, plucking out the old feathers and the worn quill points, and smoothing down its plumage with their great beaks. After this had gone on for some time, the three birds together began plucking the fruit off the branch, and they ate till they were satisfied.

Next morning, the two birds began again at the same work, picking and arranging the feathers of the old bird as before; and at midday they ceased, and began again to eat the fruit, throwing the stones and what they did not eat of the pulp into the lake, so that it was not long until the water had turned as red as wine.

After this the old bird plunged into the lake and remained in it, washing itself, until evening, when it again flew up onto the hill, but perched on a different part of it, to avoid touching and defiling itself with the old feathers and the other traces of age and decay which the younger birds had removed from it.

On the morning of the third day, the two younger birds set about arranging its feathers for the third time; and on this occasion they applied themselves to their task in a manner much more careful and particular than before, smoothing the plumes with the nicest touches, and arranging them in beautiful lines and glossy tufts and ridges. And so they continued without the least pause till midday, when they ceased.

Then, after resting for a little while, they opened their great wings, rose into the sky, and flew away towards the south-west, until the men lost sight of them in the distance.

Meantime the old bird, after the others had left, continued to smooth and plume its feathers until evening; then, shaking its wings, it rose up and flew three times around the island, as if trying its strength.

And now the men observed that it had lost all the appearances of old age: its feathers were thick and glossy, its head erect and its eye bright, and it flew with all the power and swiftness of the other two. Alighting for the last time on the hill, after resting a little, it rose again into the sky, and turning its flight after the other two, to the point from which it had come, it was soon lost to view, and the voyagers saw no more of it.

It was obvious to Máel Dúin and his companions that this bird had undergone a renewal of youth from old age, according to the word of the prophet, which says “Thy youth shall be renewed as the eagle.”

Diuran was moved by seeing this great wonder. “Let us also bathe in the lake, and we shall obtain a renewal of youth like the bird,” he said.
But the others would not, and said, “No, for the bird has left the poison of its old age and decay in the water. It will harm us.”

Diuran, however, insisted on having his own way, and he told them he was going to try the water, whether they followed his example or not; they could do as they pleased.

So he plunged in and swam about for some time, after which he took a little of the water and mixed it in his mouth, and in the end, he swallowed some. And he emerged perfectly sound and whole; and he remained so afterwards. For as long as he lived, he never lost a tooth or had a grey hair, and he suffered neither from disease or bodily weakness of any kind. But none of the others dared to enter the water.

The voyagers, having remained long enough on this island, stored in their curragh a large quantity of the flesh of the sheep, and after bidding a fond farewell to the old monk, they sought the ocean once more.


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