One of the myriad of exceptional qualities that we Irish are blessed with is our ability to drop everything and sail out into the unknown completely unafraid. We have the uncanny ability to travel to the furthest reaches and, as they say, ‘become more native than the natives themselves.’ This ability has enabled us to both bring to and receive from other cultures, knowledge which enriches and educates. Early examples of this are the Irish holy men and monks who, in the 4th and 5th centuries AD, traveled from Ireland armed with nothing more than their fertile minds and otherworldly information, passing it on to whomever they met along the way. In return they absorbed new knowledge about the different cultures they lived among and eventually brought this new knowledge back to Ireland. There, they passed it on to their brothers the ‘scribes’ who wrote it all down for the future generations to read. Some believe that Irish scholars may have even visited the Great Library of Alexandria in Egypt before it was burned by Julius Caesar. Even today our quest for giving and receiving knowledge continues un-abated.
Many of the old annals tell us that an Irish monk named Brendan made a voyage to America in the 5th. century AD, and this astonishing claim was not just a wild fairy tale. This claim is a recurrent theme based on authentic and well-researched Latin texts which date back to at least 800 AD. The ancient texts told how St. Brendan and a party of monks had sailed to a land far across the ocean in a boat (curragh) made with a framework of wicker and covered in cow or ox hides. Of course, if the claim was true, then St. Brendan would have reached America almost a thousand years before Columbus and four hundred years before the Vikings.
Brendan was born in AD 484 in Tralee, County Kerry, in the province of Munster, in the south-west of Ireland. He was born among the 'Altraige' an Irish clan originally centered around Tralee Bay, to parents called Finnlug and Cara in the Kilfenora/Fenit area on the North side of the bay. He was baptised at Tubrid, near Ardfert by Erc, the Bishop of Slane, and was originally to be called "Mobhí" but signs and portents seen around the time of his birth and baptism led to him being christened 'Broen-finn' or 'fair-drop'. For five years he was both educated and given in fosterage to St. Ite of Killeedy, "The Brigid of Munster" and when he was six he was sent to Jarlath's monastery school at Tuam in Galway to further his education. Brendan is considered one of the "Twelve Apostles of Ireland", one of those said to have been tutored by the great teacher, Finnian of Clonard.
At the age of twenty-six, Brendan was ordained a priest by Bishop Erc after which he founded a number of monasteries. His first voyage took him to the Aran Islands, where he founded a monastery. He also visited Hinba (Argyll), an island off Scotland where he is said to have met Columcille. On the same voyage he traveled to Wales and finally to Brittany, on the northern coast of France. Between AD 512 and 530 he built monastic cells at Ardfert, and Shanakeel at the foot of Mount Brandon. From there he is supposed to have embarked on his famous voyage of 7 years in his search for Paradise. Brendan is primarily renowned for his legendary journey to the Isle of the Blessed as described in the 'Navigatio Sancti Brendani Abbatis' (Voyage of Saint Brendan the Abbot). Many versions exist that narrate how he set out on the Atlantic Ocean with sixteen monks (although other versions record fourteen monks and three unbelievers who joined in the last minute) to search for the Garden of Eden.
The voyage is dated to AD 512–530, before his travels to the island of Great Britain. On his trip, Brendan is supposed to have seen Saint Brendan's Island, a blessed island covered with vegetation. He also encountered a sea monster, an adventure he shared with his contemporary Columcille. In author Tim Severin’s book, 'The Brendan Voyage' there's a remarkable account of an even more remarkable event that started in May 1976. As he writes in his book, Tim found himself and his three-man crew sailing out of Brandon Creek, and within 30 miles off the Kerry coast they were heading into a rising gale, aboard a craft that looked like a floating banana, and was made of leather. “Her hull was nothing more than 49 ox hides stitched together to form a patchwork quilt and stretched over a wooden frame...Why on earth were my crew and I sailing such an improbable vessel in face of a rising gale? The answer lay in name of our strange craft: she was called Brendan in honor of great Irish missionary, St. Brendan. The obvious way of checking the truth of this remarkable story was to build a boat in a similar fashion (as described in texts) and then see if it would sail the Atlantic. So there we were, my crew and I, out in the ocean to test whether St. Brendan and the Irish monks could have made an ocean voyage in a boat made of leather.”
After fifty days at sea, described in brilliant detail in Tim’s book, Brendan made landfall in the New World, on an island northwest of St. Johns in Newfoundland. News went around the globe: St. Brendan could well have made the same voyage. An interesting footnote: one of the islands described in 'Navigatio' could well be in the Bahamas – the same group of islands where Columbus made his most northerly landfall on his first trip. The bold Christopher made four transatlantic trips in all, and never set foot on North American mainland; instead, he landed in Cuba, Central America, and South America.
Brendan traveled to Wales and the holy island of Iona, off the west coast of Scotland; returning to Ireland, he founded a monastery in Annaghdown, where he spent the rest of his life.He also founded a convent at Annaghdown for his sister Briga. Having established the bishopric of Ardfert, Brendan proceeded to Thomond, and founded a monastery at Inis-da-druim (currently Coney Island), in the present parish of Killadysert, County Clare, in AD 550. He then journeyed to Wales and studied under Gildas at Llancarfan, and then he traveled to Iona. After a mission of three years in Britain he returned to Ireland, and evangelized further in various parts of Leinster, especially at Dysart, County Kilkenny, Killeney near Durrow and Brandon Hill. He established churches at Inchiquin, County Galway, and Inishglora, County Mayo, and founded Clonfert in Galway in AD 557. Brendan died in AD 577 in Annaghdown, while visiting his sister Briga. Fearing that after his death his devotees might take his remains as relics, Brendan had previously arranged to have his body secretly returned to the monastery he founded in Clonfert, concealed in a luggage cart. He was interred in Clonfert Cathedral.
Brendan was recognised as a saint by the Catholic Church and his feast day is celebrated on 16 May. As the legend of the seven years voyage spread, crowds of pilgrims and students flocked to Ardfert. Religious houses were formed at Gallerus, Kilmalchedor, Brandon Hill, and the Blasket Islands, to meet the wants of those who came for spiritual guidance from Brendan who is also known as the patron saint of sailors and travelers. At the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland, a large stained glass window commemorates Brendan's achievements. At Fenit Harbour, Tralee, a substantial bronze sculpture by Tighe O'Donoghue/Ross was erected to honor the memory of Brendan. The project, including a Heritage Park and the Slí Bhreanainn (the Brendan way) was headed by Fr. Gearóid Ó Donnchadha and completed through the work of the St. Brendan Committee.
In the Sicilian town of Bronte there is a church dedicated to Saint Brendan, whose name in the local dialect is "San Brandanu." Since 1574, the "Chiesa di San Blandano" ("Church of Saint Brendan") replaced a chapel that existed previously in the same location with Brendan’s name. The reasons for dedicating a church to Saint Brendan are still unknown and probably untraceable. The Normans and the many settlers that followed the Norman invasion brought into Sicily the tradition of Saint Brendan; there are very old papers of the 13th century written in Sicily that refer to him; in 1799 the countryside surrounding Brontë became the British "Duchy of Horatio Nelson". The town of Drogheda in Ireland is twinned with Bronte.
Complete Annotated Bibliography on the Voyage of St Brendan and the Life of St Brendan
"Navigatio sancti Brendani abbatis" in (Latin) "Voyage Of St Brendan The Abbot" in (English)
Betha Brénnain (Life of Brenainn) translated into English from the Book of Lismore.
Betha Brénnain (Life of Brenainn) in (Old Irish) from the Book of Lismore
Wall Street Journal: "Of Sainted Memory"
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