THEY HAD NOT BEEN sailing long when they sighted something a long way off towards the south, which at first they thought to be a large white bird floating on the sea, and rising and falling with the waves; but on turning their curragh towards it for a closer view, they found that it was a man.
He was very old, so old that he was covered all over with long, white hair.
He was standing quite alone on a bare rock surrounded by water, and he kept continually throwing himself onto his knees, and performing prostrations, and all the time he never ceased praying.
When they saw that he was a holy man, they asked for his blessing, which he gave. Then they began to talk with him; they asked who he was, and how he had come to be all alone on the rock.
In reply to their questions, here is the story he told the travellers.
I was born and bred in the island of Toraigh. When I grew up to be a man, I became the cook to the brotherhood of the monastery — and a wicked cook I was, for every day I sold part of the food entrusted to me, and secretly I bought many choice and rare things with the money.
Worse even than this I did; I made secret passages underground into the church and into the houses belonging to it, and I stole from time to time great quantities of golden vestments, book covers adorned with brass and gold, and other holy and precious things.
I soon became quite rich, and my rooms were filled with costly couches, with clothes of every colour, both linen and woollen, with brazen pitchers and cauldrons, and with brooches and armlets of gold. Nothing was wanting in my house, of furniture or ornament, that a person in a high rank of life might be expected to have; and I became proud and overbearing.
One day, I was sent to dig a grave for the body of a rustic that had been brought from the mainland to be buried on the island. I went and fixed on a spot in the graveyard; but as soon as I had set to work, I heard a voice speaking down deep in the earth beneath my feet:
Do not dig this grave!
I paused for a moment, in shock; but, recovering myself, I gave no further heed to the mysterious voice, and I began to dig again. And the moment I did so, I heard the same voice, even more plainly than before!
Do not dig this grave! I am a devout and holy person, and my body is lean and light; do not put the heavy, pampered body of that sinner down upon me in my grave!
“But” I answered, in the excess of my pride and obstinacy, “I will certainly dig this grave; and I will bury this body on top of you!”
If you put that body in my grave, the flesh will fall off your bones, and you will die, and will be sent to the infernal pit at the end of three days; and the body will not remain where you put it!
“What will you give me,” I asked, “if I do not bury this corpse on top of you?”
Everlasting life in heaven, replied the voice.
“How do you know this; and how am I to be sure of it?” I inquired.
And the voice answered me: The grave you are digging is clay. Observe now whether it will remain so, and then you will know the truth of what I tell you. And you will see that what I say will come to pass, and that you cannot bury that man on me, even if you should try to do so.
These words were scarcely said, when the grave was turned into a mass of white sand before my face. And when I saw this, I took the body away, and buried it somewhere else.
It happened, some time later, that I got a new curragh made, with the hides painted red all over; and I went out to sea in it. As I sailed by the shores and islands, I was so pleased with the view of the land and sea from my curragh that I resolved to live altogether in it for some time; and I brought on board all my treasures — my silver cups, gold bracelets, and decorated drinking horns, and everything else, from the largest to the smallest article.
I enjoyed myself for a time, while the air was clear and the sea was calm and smooth. But one day, the winds suddenly arose, and a storm burst upon me, which carried me out to sea, so that I lost sight of land, and I did not know in which direction the curragh was drifting. After a while, the wind abated, the sea became smooth, and the curragh sailed on as before, with a quiet, pleasant movement.
But suddenly, though the breeze continued to blow, I thought I could perceive that the curragh ceased moving, and, standing up to find out the cause, I saw with great surprise an old man not far off, sitting on the crest of a wave!
He spoke to me; and, as soon as I heard his voice, I knew it at once, but I could not at the moment call to mind where I had heard it before. And I became greatly troubled, and began to tremble, and I did not know why.
“Where are you going?” he asked.
“I do not know,” I replied, “but this I know: I am pleased enough with the smooth, gentle motion of my curragh over the waves.”
“You would not be pleased,” replied the old man, “if you could see the troops that are at this very moment all around you.”
“What troops do you speak of?” I asked.
“All the space around you, as far as your view reaches over the sea, and upwards to the clouds, is one great towering mass of demons, there on account of your avarice, your thefts, your pride, and all your other crimes and vices.” He paused. “Do you know why your curragh has stopped?”
“No,” I answered.
“It has been stopped by me — and it will never move from that spot until you swear that you will do what I am about to require of you.”
I replied that perhaps it was not in my power to grant his demand.
“It is in your power,” he answered. “And if you refuse me, the torments of hell await you.”
He came close to the curragh, and, laying his hands on me, made me swear to do as he demanded.
“What I require is this,” he said. “You are to throw into the sea, this very moment, all the ill-gotten treasures that you have in this curragh.”
This grieved me very much, and I replied, “It is a pity that all these costly things should be lost.”
“They will not be lost,” he replied. “Someone will be sent to take charge of them. Now do as I say.”
So, greatly against my wishes, I threw all the beautiful precious articles overboard, keeping only a small wooden cup to drink from.
“You will now continue your voyage,” he said, “and the first solid ground your curragh reaches, there you are to stay.”
He then gave me seven cakes and a cup of watery whey as food for my voyage; after which the curragh moved on, and I soon lost sight of him.
And now, all at once I realised that the old man’s voice was the one I had heard when I was about to dig the grave for the dead rustic. I was so astonished and troubled at this discovery, and so disturbed at the loss of all my wealth, that I threw aside my oars, and gave myself up altogether to the winds and currents, not caring where I went. For a long time I was tossed about on the waves, and I had no way of knowing where I would be taken.
At last it seemed to me that my curragh had ceased to move; but I was not sure about it, for I could see no sign of land. Mindful, however, of what the old man had told me – that I was to stay wherever my curragh stopped – I looked round more carefully; and at last I saw, very near me, a small rock level with the surface, over which the waves were gently laughing and tumbling.
I stepped on to the rock; and the moment I did so, the waves seemed to spring back, and the rock rose high above the level of the water; while the curragh drifted away and quickly disappeared, so that I never saw it again. This rock has been my abode ever since.
For the first seven years, I lived on the seven cakes and the cup of whey given to me by the man who sent me here. At the end of that time the cakes were all gone; and for three days I fasted, with nothing but the whey to wet my mouth. Late in the evening of the third day, an otter brought me a salmon out of the sea, but though I suffered much from hunger, I could not bring myself to eat the fish raw, and it was washed back again into the waves.
I remained without food for three days longer, and in the afternoon of the third day, the otter returned with the salmon. And I saw another otter bring firewood ; and when he had piled it up on the rock, he blew it with his breath until it took fire and lighted up. And then I broiled the salmon and ate until my hunger was satisfied.
The otter continued to bring me a salmon every day, and in this manner I lived for seven years longer. The rock also grew larger and larger daily, until it became the size you now see it.
At the end of seven years, the otter ceased to bring me my salmon, and I fasted for three days. But at the end of the third day, I was sent half a cake of fine wheaten flour and a slice of fish; and on the same day my cup of watery whey fell into the sea, and a cup of the same size, filled with good ale, was placed on the rock for me.
And so I have lived, praying and doing penance for my sins to this hour. Each day my cup is filled with ale, and I am sent half a wheat cake and a slice of fish; and neither rain nor wind, nor heat, nor cold, is allowed to molest me on this rock.
This was the end of the old man’s history. In the evening of that day, each man of the crew received the same quantity of food that was sent to the old hermit himself – half a cake and a slice of fish – and they found in his vessel as much good ale as they all needed.
The next morning he said to them:
“You shall all reach your own country in safety. And you, Máel Dúin, shall find on an island on your way, the very man who slew your father; but you are neither to kill him, nor take revenge on him in any way. As God has delivered you from the many dangers you have passed through, though you were very guilty, and well deserved death at His hands; so you are to forgive your enemy for the crime he committed against you.”
After this, they took leave of the old man, and sailed away.