Who was Saint Brendan?
While many people regard St. Patrick as the best-known saint of Ireland, for centuries that place of honor was held by St. Brendan the Navigator. His popularity stems largely from the account of his 6th century voyage across the Atlantic Ocean; an account that some scholars are now considering as proof of the earliest recorded voyage to America; 400 years before Leif Ericsson and almost 1,000 years before Christopher Columbus!
St. Brendan is known by several names throughout history; among them Borodon, Brandan, Brendain McFinlugh, and Brendan the Voyager.
St. Brendan was born during the Middle Ages in 484, in Ciarraight Luachra, near Tralee in County Kerry, Ireland (an event reputedly marked by angels hovering in a bright light over the house). His father is named in the biographies as Findlugh, a descendant of an ancient and noble line. He was baptized at Tubrid, near Ardfert, by Bishop Erc.
According to custom, at the age of one he was sent to Killeedy in fosterage to St. Ita, the mystic. He was nurtured under her care and instruction for five years. When he turned six he was sent to St. Jarlath's monastery school at Tuam where he received a theological education that led, at age 28, to his ordination in 512 under the hand of Bishop Erc.
St. Brendan belonged to what was called the Second Order of Irish saints, also known as the Twelve Apostles of Ireland. These Apostles gave Irish Christianity its distinctive monastic character for the next six centuries; a monasticism that single-handedly preserved the arts and intellectualism of Europe which was so crucial for its difficult recovery after the collapse of the Roman Empire.
A persuasive evangelist and missionary, St. Brendan established a number of monasteries in his lifetime. However, his reputation as a traveler rests on the Navigatio Sancti Brendani Abbatis (The Voyage of Saint Brendan the Abbot), an account compiled by an Irish monk in the ninth century from the various oral traditions that were in circulation. More than 100 Medieval Latin manuscripts of the Navigatio still exist, and there are versions in Middle English, French, German, Italian, Flemish and other languages.
According to the account, St. Brendan was granted a vision of the “Promised Land” from the 3,200-foot high summit of Mount Brandon where the ruins of a small beehive-shaped chapel still exist. He and a group of handpicked monks promptly went to Brandon Creek, west of Mount Brandon in County Kerry, where they constructed a 36-foot, light, wooden-framed and ribbed boat called a curragh. This they covered with leather skins softened with butter, launched in the name of the Lord, and sailed under the ensign (symbol, flag) of the Cross.
St. Brendan's first attempt to sail to the Promised Land was apparently unsuccessful, but he was not discouraged. He and his crew of 14 (some accounts say 17) monks prayed and fasted for forty days and set off on a second voyage in 530 which lasted seven years; a journey which probably took them to Iceland, Greenland, and even to the American mainland. Though they had no practical idea of where this island was, they nevertheless exercised great confidence in God who would, sooner or later, reveal it to them.
When he returned to Ireland seven years later, he had many fascinating stories to tell. In the Navigatio, St. Brendan speaks of encountering “mountains in the sea spouting fire,” floating crystal palaces, monsters with catlike heads and horns growing from their mouths, and “little furry men.” Scholars see in this account the earliest descriptions of Iceland's volcanoes, icebergs, walruses, and even Eskimos.
According to the Navigatio, St. Brendan and his crew drifted from one island to the next, “following God's stepping stones,” until they came to a large land mass where they stayed for many months. It is unknown where they landed, but some of the descriptions make Newfoundland, Virginia, or even Florida likely candidates. They did come back, however, with knowledge and samples of flora and fauna that were neither Irish nor European.
Many medieval cartographers included St. Brendan's island on their maps. The particulars of the Navigatio give us a clear indication of where the prevailing winds and currents took him. Some nine months into the voyage, St. Brendan and his companions had clearly, by way of the island of St. Kilda, reached the Faeroe Islands ('The Island of sheep') where each year during the journey they returned to spend the period from Easter to Pentecost.
During the following autumn they reached an island that held the monastic Community of Ailbe, populated by the Irish followers of a pre-Patrician Irish missionary who had set out to seek the Promised Land many years before. Here, according to the Navigatio, St. Brendan's party returned to spend each Christmas for the next five years. It is not clear where this island is. There are references to a warm muddy pool and crystal that might suggest the Icelandic spar, but the descriptions are more in keeping with a very temperate climate and tropical latitude; perhaps the Azores or the Canaries, which are both volcanic.
The reader also meets a 'soporific island' (possibly one of the Azores) and, some distance further on, what may be the Sargasso Sea. In the following year they reach an island that is described as “extraordinarily flat so much so that it seemed to them to be level with the sea. It had no trees or anything that would move with the wind, it was very spacious and covered with white and purple fruit.” This may have been one of the Bahamas, some of which do not rise more than 10 feet above sea level. Some six days sail away was also a very fertile island (Jamaica?) with “grapes as big as apples” and “a perfume like that of a house filled with pomegranate.”
The narrative continues with the return voyage by way of the Bahamas-Bermuda (“countless fish in crystal water”), the Labrador-Greenland iceberg belt (“The Crystal Pillar”) and two Icelandic volcanoes (the “Island of Smiths” and the “Fiery Mountain”), then by Rockall to Donegal Bay.
Though St. Brendan was in his fifties upon his return, he continued to possess an indefatigable missionary zeal that manifested itself in the foundation of numerous religious communities and monasteries. Throughout his lifetime he built foundations in Ardfert, near his birthplace; Inis-da-druim (now Coney island) in the River Shannon close to Ennis, County Clare; on Inchiquin Island in Lough Corrib, County Galway; Annaghdown by the Corrib in County Galway (a foundation for nuns of which his sister Briga became the abbess); and at Clonfert by the Shannon in County Galway. He also had foundations in Scotland, Wales, Brittany, the Faeroe Islands, Germany, and along the Baltic coast to the Gulf of Finland. Of these, his most celebrated foundation was the monastic community in Clonfert which he established in 557. Biographies say that this community had at least three thousand monks and that their rule of faith was dictated to St. Brendan by an angel.
He died after a long and fruitful life in Enach Duin (now Annaghdown) in 577 at the age of 93, and was buried at Clonfert. He was recognised as a saint by the Irish church, and his feast day is May 16th. It is said that some 900 years after Brendan and at least 400 after the publication of the Navigatio, Christopher Columbus visited Dingle to secure information about Brendan's alleged trip before setting out to find a westward route to China, relying on the legends told of St. Brendan as part of his argument that it was indeed possible to travel to Asia by crossing the Atlantic. Columbus knew the Navigatio, and a map that he used when sailing from Spain in 1492 featured a large landmass in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean labeled “Saint Brendan's Island.” In fact, the Spanish crown had already claimed sovereignty over it--wherever and whatever it was--and many sailors prior to Columbus had sought to find it.
In art, St. Brendan is often shown saying Mass on board a ship as the fish crowd around to listen to him. He may also be shown holding a candle. Just inside the main doors of Saint Patrick's Cathedral in Dublin, across from Saint Brigid, stands a statue of Saint Brendan holding his ship. St. Brendan is typically the patron of seafarers and travelers.
Saint Brendan's Prayer:
Shall I abandon, O King of mysteries, the soft comforts of home? Shall I turn my back on my native land, and turn my face towards the sea?
Shall I put myself wholly at your mercy, without silver, without a horse, without fame, without honor? Shall I throw myself wholly upon You, without sword and shield, without food and drink, without a bed to lie on? Shall I say farewell to my beautiful land, placing myself under Your yoke?
Shall I pour out my heart to You, confessing my manifold sins and begging forgiveness, tears streaming down my cheeks? Shall I leave the prints of my knees on the sandy beach, a record of my final prayer in my native land?
Shall I then suffer every kind of wound that the sea can inflict? Shall I take my tiny boat across the wide sparkling ocean? O King of the Glorious Heaven, shall I go of my own choice upon the sea? O Christ, will You help me on the wild waves?
(Ascribed to Saint Brendan the Navigator before sailing across the Atlantic.)