Saint Brendan the Navigator
Saint Brendan / Bréanainn of Clonfert / Ardfert (c.484 – c.578 AD) called “the Navigator”, “the Voyager” or ”the Bold”.
Brendan was born near modern Fenit in County Kerry and was baptised at Ardfert by Bishop Erc. He was educated by Saint Ita, “the Brigid of Munster”, and completed his studies at Ardfert under Erc, who ordained him in 512 AD.
Over the next few years Saint Brendan built monastic cells at Ardfert and at the foot of what is now called Mount Brandon, where c.530 AD he is said to have built a coracle of wattle, covered it with leather hides tanned in oak bark softened with butter, set up a mast and a sail, and embarked with a number of companions (versions vary from 14 to 150) for several years (usually given as seven) on a fabulous journey.
Saint Brendan’s Voyage
The tales told of Saint Brendan’s wanderings made up a cycle of stories that were popular all over medieval Christendom. They were undoubtedly first spread by storytellers at fairs and as fireside travellers’ tales etc.
Although the C11th Navigatio Sancti Brendani Abbatis is probably the most famous written account, the earliest extant written version dates from 900 AD, and there are over 100 manuscripts of the saga across Europe, as well as many additional translations.
As a genre, the Voyage fits in with a then-popular form of oral and written literature, peculiar to Ireland, called an immram, typically describing a hero’s series of adventures in a boat. This style of storytelling meshed with a religious ascetic tradition of “white martyrdom” whereby Irish monks, unable to die gloriously in battle for their beliefs, would exile themselves alone or with a few companions on offshore islands or in boats, much as their desert brothers used to isolate themselves in caves or on top of columns in search of gnosis. The immram form was often used for religious allegories.
The Voyage of Saint Brendan is an overtly Christian narrative, but also contains narratives of natural phenomena and fantastical events and places, with many parallels and inter-textual references to the older Voyage of Bran and the Voyage of Máel Dúin and other stories, not only in Irish mythology but in other traditions, from Homer‘s Odyssey to Sinbad the Sailor or Pinocchio.
Saint Barrid tells of his visit to the Island of Paradise, which prompts Brendan to go in search of the isle.
Brendan assembles 14 monks to accompany him.
They fast at three-day intervals for 40 days, and visit Saint Enda for three days and three nights.
Three latecomers join the group. They interfere with Brendan’s sacred numbers.
They find an island with a dog, mysterious hospitality (no people, but food left out), and an Ethiopian devil.
One latecomer admits to having stolen from the mysterious island, Brendan exorcises the Ethiopian devil from the latecomer, latecomer dies and is buried.
They find an island with a boy who brings them bread and water.
They find an island of sheep, eat some, and stay for Holy Week (before Easter).
They find the island of Jasconius, have Easter Mass, and hunt whales and fish.
They find an island that is the Paradise of Birds, and the birds sing psalms and praise the Lord.
They find the island of the monks of Ailbe, with magic loaves, no aging, and complete silence. They celebrate Christmas.
A long voyage after Lent. They find an island with a well, and drinking the water puts them to sleep for 1, 2, or 3 days based on the number of cups each man drank.
They find a “coagulated” sea.
They return to the islands of Sheep, Jasconius, and the Paradise of Birds. A bird prophesies that the men must continue this year-long cycle for seven years before they will be holy enough to reach the Island of Paradise.
A sea creature approaches the boat, but God shifts the sea to protect the men. Another sea creature comes, chops the first into three pieces, and leaves. The men eat the dead sea creature.
They find an island of 3 choirs of anchorites (solitary monks), who give them fruit, and the second latecomer stays behind when the others leave.
They find an island of grapes, and stayed for 40 days.
They find a gryphon and a bird battle. The gryphon dies.
To the monastery at Ailbe again for Christmas.
The sea is clear, and many threatening fish circle their boat, but God protects them.
They find an island, but when they light a fire, the island sinks; it is actually a whale.
They pass a “silver pillar wrapped in a net” in the sea.
They pass an island of blacksmiths, who throw slag at them.
They find a volcano, and the third latecomer is taken by demons down to Hell.
They find Judas sitting unhappily on a cold, wet rock in the middle of the sea, and discover that this is his respite from Hell for Sundays and feast days. Brendan protects Judas from the demons of Hell for one night.
They find an island where Paul the Hermit has lived a perfect monastic life for 60 years. He wears nothing but hair and is fed by an otter.
They return to the island of Sheep, Jasconius, and the Paradise of Birds.
They find the Promised Land of the Saints.
They return home, and Brendan dies.
De Reis van Sint Brandaen, written in medieval Dutch in the C12th, describes “Brandaen,” a monk from Galway, and his voyage around the world for nine years. The journey was begun as a punishment by an angel who had seen that Brendan did not believe in the truth of a book on the miracles of creation and saw Brandaen throw it into the fire. The angel tells him that truth has been destroyed. On his journeys Brandaen encounters the wonders and horrors of the world, such as Judas frozen on one side and burning on the other, people with swine heads, dog legs and wolf teeth carrying bows and arrows, and an enormous fish that encircles the ship by holding its tail in its mouth.
Saint Brendan celebrating Mass on a whale.
All versions agree that after a long voyage Saint Brendan reached a beautiful island with luxuriant vegetation, variously called the Terra Repromissionis or Promised Land, the Land of Promise, the Blessed Island, the Isle of the Blessed, the Island of Saints, the Land of Delight, the Garden of Eden, Paradise, Tir na n’Óg etc.
Over the years there have been many interpretations of the possible geographical position of this island. Various pre-Columbian sea-charts indicated it everywhere from the southern part of Ireland, to the Canary Islands, Faroes or Azores, to the island of Madeira.
Belief in the existence of the island was almost completely abandoned when a new theory arose, maintained by those who claim for the Irish the glory of discovering America.
This claim rests in part on the account of the Vikings who found a region south of the Chesapeake Bay called “Irland ed mikla” (Greater Ireland). It is true that the Irish monks were renowned as travellers and explorers centuries before Columbus. It is known that they reached Iceland, and tradition says they explored even farther afield in the Atlantic.
Some scholars who long doubted that Brendan could have made it to North America had to reconsidered their position based on the research of Ireland’s answer to Thor Heyerdahl. In the late 1970s the British navigation scholar Tim Severin sailed a hide-covered boat from Ireland to Newfoundland via Iceland and Greenland, demonstrating the accuracy of the directions and descriptions in the Navigacio of the places Brendan mentioned in his epic, and proving that a small boat could have sailed from Ireland to North America.
However, the theory is mainly based and on stone carvings discovered in West Virginia dated between 500 and 1000 AD Analysis by “language expert” Barry Fell, published in the magazine Wonderful West Virginia in 1983, indicated that they were written in Old Irish using the Ogham alphabet. According to Dr Fell, “the West Virginia Ogham texts …… exhibit the grammar and vocabulary of Old Irish in a manner previously unknown in such early rock-cut inscriptions in any Celtic language“, and he went on to speculate that “the scribes that cut the West Virginia inscriptions may have been Irish missionaries in the wake of Brendan’s voyage, for these inscriptions are Christian. Early Christian symbols such as Chi-Rho monograms (Name of Christ) and the Dextra Dei (Right Hand of God) appear at the sites together with the Ogham texts.”
A 1983 article by archaeologist and historian W Hunter Lesser described Fell’s claims as “pseudoscientific and unreliable“. In 1989 lawyers Monroe Oppenheimer and Willard Wirtz wrote an article based on opinions of academic archaeologists and linguists to dispute that the inscription was written in Ogham script. They further accused Fell of deliberate fraud.
David H Kelley, an archaeologist at the University of Calgary, complained in a 1990 essay: “Fell’s work [contains] major academic sins, the three worst being distortion of data, inadequate acknowledgment of predecessors, and lack of presentation of alternative views.” In the same essay, however, Kelley went on to state that “I have no personal doubts that some of the inscriptions which have been reported are genuine Celtic ogham.” Kelley concluded: “Despite my occasional harsh criticism of Fell’s treatment of individual inscriptions, it should be recognized that without Fell’s work there would be no [North American] ogham problem to perplex us. We need to ask not only what Fell has done wrong in his epigraphy, but also where we have gone wrong as archaeologists in not recognizing such an extensive European presence in the New World.”
This writer is no expert, but is puzzled by why Christians would have used the druidic Ogham script (itself apparently a codified version of the Greek or Roman alphabet) – particularly monks, presumably educted in Latin and therefore fully cognisant with the Roman alphabet.
Saint Brendan in fact returned to Ireland after many years to resume his monastic career. As stories of his Voyage spread, crowds of pilgrims and students flocked to Ardfert. In order to meet the wants of those who sought his spiritual guidance, religious houses were formed at Gallerus, Kilmalchedor, Brandon Hill and the Blasket Islands.
Having established a bishopric of Ardfert, Saint Brendan proceeded to Thomond, and in 550 AD founded a monastery at Inis-da-druim (now Coney Island), in the present parish of Killadysert. He then journeyed to Wales, and thence to Iona, and is said to have left traces of his apostolic zeal in Scotland at Kilbrandon (near Oban) and Kilbrennan Sound.
After a three years’ mission in Britain he returned to Ireland, and did more proselytising in various parts of Leinster, especially at Dysart and Brandon Hill (in modern County Kilkenny) and at Tubberboe, Killiney (in modern County Dublin). He also established churches at Inchiquin and at Inishglora in Connacht, where his most celebrated foundation was Clonfert, c.560 AD. He appointed Saint Moinenn as the first Prior of what as soon a major monastic school.
Towards the end of his life he founded a bishopric at Annaghdown, where he also established a convent run by his sister Briga. It was on an extended visit to her that he died c. 577 AD.
Fearing that after his death his devotees might take his remains as relics, Brendan had arranged before dying to have his body secretly carried back to Clonfert concealed in a luggage cart. He was buried in Clonfert Cathedral.
Saint Brendan is the Patron Saint of sailors and travellers. His Feast Day is 16th May.
His name is perpetuated in numerous place names and landmarks around Ireland, e.g. Mount Brandon, Brandon Bay, Brandon Head, Brandon Point, Brandon Hill, Brandon Well .
A substantial bronze sculpture honours the memory of Saint Brendan at Fenit Harbour, Tralee.
A sculpture of Saint Brendan stands in the Square, Bantry, County Cork.
At the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland, a large stained glass window commemorates Saint Brendan’s achievements.
The St Brendan Society promotes the belief that Brendan was the first European to reach America.