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.