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St. Brendan,The Navigator
by Bridget Haggerty

Also known as Brandan and Borodon, Brendan was born about 484 A.D. near Tralee in County Kerry. He was ordained by Bishop Erc and sailed around northwest Europe spreading the Christian faith and founding monasteries — the largest at Clonfert, County Galway. Legend says that the community had at least three thousand monks — their rule dictated to Brendan by an angel. He died at the age of 93 and he was buried at the monastery in 577 A.D.

Brendan and his brothers figure prominently in Brendan's Voyage, a tale of monks travelling the high seas of the Atlantic, evangelizing to the islands, and possibly reaching the Americas in the 6th century. At one point they stop on a small island, celebrate Easter Mass, light a fire - and then discover the island is an enormous whale!

Maps of Columbus’ time often included an island called St. Brendan’s Isle that was placed in the western Atlantic ocean. Map makers of the time had no idea of its exact position but did believe it existed some where west of Europe. It was mentioned in a Latin text dating from the ninth century called Navigatio Santi Brendani Abatis (Voyage of Saint Brendan the Abbot). It described the voyage as having taken place in the sixth century. Several copies of this text have survived in monasteries throughout Europe. It was an important part of folklore in medieval Europe and may have influenced Columbus

The account of Brendan’s voyage contained a detailed description of the construction of his boat which was not unlike the currachs still made in Ireland today.
Skeptics could not accept that such a fragile vessel could possibly sail in the open sea. Several passages in the legend also seemed incredible—they were “raised up on the back of sea monsters”, they “passed by crystals that rose up to the sky”, and they were “pelted with flaming, foul-smelling rocks by the inhabitants of a large island on their route”.

Brendan and his companions finally arrived at the beautiful land they called “Promised Land of the Saints.” They explored until they came to a great river that divided the land. The journey of Brendan and his fellow monks took seven years. The return trip was probably the longest part of the odyssey.

In 1976, Tim Severin, a British navigation scholar, embarked from Brandon Creek on the Dingle Peninsula in a currach that he constructed using the details described by Brendan. His goal was to determine if the voyage of Brendan and his fellow monks was possible. Severin and his team tanned ox-hides with oak bark, stretched them across the wood frame, sewed them with leather thread and smeared the hides with animal fat which would impart water resistance.

Examination of nautical charts led Severin to believe that Brendan’s route would be governed by the prevailing winds that would take him across the northernmost part of the Atlantic. This would take him close to Iceland and Greenland with a probable landfall at Newfoundland (St. Brendan’s Isle).

Severin and his crew were surprised at how friendly the whales were that they encountered. The whales swam around and even under their boat. The whales could have been even friendlier in Brendan’s time, before motorized ships would make them leery of man. So friendly, that perhaps they may have lifted the monk’s boat in a playful gesture!

After stopping at the Hebrides islands, Severin proceeded to the Danish Faroe Islands. At the island of Mykines, they encountered thousands of seabirds. Brendan called this island “The Paradise of Birds.” He referred to the larger island as the “Island of Sheep.” The word Faroe itself means Island of Sheep. There is also a Brandon Creek on the main island of the Faroes that the local people believe was an embarkation point for Brendan and his crew.

Severin’s route then carried them to Iceland where they wintered, as did Brendan. The volcanoes on the island have been active for many centuries and might well have been erupting when the monks stayed there. This could have accounted for the “pelting with flaming, foul smelling rocks”, referred to in the ninth century text.

The monks had never seen icebergs before, so their description of them as “towering crystals” would make sense. Severin’s boat was punctured by floating ice off the coast of Canada. They were able to make a repair with a piece of leather sewn over the hole. They landed on the island of Newfoundland on June 26, 1977. This might well have been Brendan’s “Land promised to the Saints” referred to in the Navigatio.

Severin’s journey did not prove that Brendan and his monks landed on North America. However, it did prove that a leather currach as described in the Navigatio could have made such a voyage as mapped out in the text. There is also no doubt that the Irish were frequent seafarers of the North Atlantic sea currents 900 years before the voyage of Columbus.

More conclusive evidence of Irish exploration of North America has come to light in West Virginia. There, stone carvings have been discovered that have been dated between 500 and 1000 A.D. Analysis by archaeologist Dr. Robert Pyle and a leading language expert Dr. Barry Fell, indicate that they are written in Old Irish using the Ogham alphabet.

According to Dr. Fell, the “West Virginia Ogham texts are the oldest Ogham inscriptions from anywhere in the world. They exhibit the grammar and vocabulary of Old Irish in a manner previously unknown in such early rock-cut inscriptions in any Celtic language.”

Dr. Fell goes on to speculate that, “It seems possible 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. The early Christian symbols of piety, such as the various Chi-Rho monograms (Name of Christ) and the Dextra Dei (Right Hand of God) appear at the sites, together with the Ogham texts.”

The lack of any written account of this exploration could be explained by the explorers not being able to return to their homeland. If they indeed did reach what is now West Virginia, it would be extremely doubtful that they could manage to return to Ireland from an embarkation point that far south. The design of their currach required favorable winds and currents in the right direction in order to navigate. Severin discovered that it was extremely difficult to tack as other sailing ships were able to do. Perhaps that is the reason that it took Brendan seven years for his journey. That he was able to return at all is a miracle - or was it all a myth?

Perhaps we'll never know for certain whether or not Brendan's voyage was a medieval fantasy or that he was indeed, among the first to discover the New World. The evidence would indicate that a fantastic voyage across the Atlantic did take place and the stone carvings in West Virginia certainly prove the presence of Irish Christians at just about the right time in history. Whatever you believe, it's a fascinating chapter in Irish folklore and one that should be passed down until such time that the truth can be determined.

St. Brendan's Feast Day is May 16th. He is the patron saint of boatmen, mariners, sailors, travellers, and whales.

Note: Read the story of Brendan for Kids by Grainne Rowland. Click here for Brendan.

Resources: This article is edited and adapted from material on the Life of St. Brendan contained in The Irish Heritage Newsletter, May 2001.

Images: West of Ireland fishermen carrying a currach by Seamus Culligan, from a free postcard on
St. Brendan image from Legends of Ireland video.


Wed, Jan 3, 2018

Ilnacullen, Co. Cork - an Island Garden

Located in the sheltered harbour of Glengarriff in Bantry Bay. Ilnacullin, which means island of holly, is a small island known to horticulturists and lovers of trees and shrubs all around the world as an island garden of rare beauty.
The vivid colours of Rhododendrons and Azaleas reach their peak during May and June, whilst the hundreds of cultivars of climbing plants, herbaceous perennials and choice shrubs dominate the midsummer period from June to August.
Because of its sheltered situation and the warming oceanic influence of the Gulf Stream, the climate is favourable to the growth of ornamental plants from many parts of the world.
Even for those who aren’t particularly interested in gardens, there are many other scenic views, especially in the surrounding waters where seals frequent the rocks on the southern shore.
The cover photo on Bridget's book The Traditional Irish Wedding shows a wrought iron garden gate on Ilnaculen. I took that photo. To see it, go to the home page. It's part of the opening paragraph Failte.
Resource: Copy and Image - Cork Guide

Click for More Culture Corner.

A fascinating, very cleverly written account that's part fiction and part fact. But don't be misled by the "fiction" part. The stories that Mr. Moorhouse tells are all based on thoroughly researched historical evidence. Bridget Haggerty
"Moorhouse writes with eloquence and a quiet humor calculated to charm even the blackest of heathens." Atlantic Monthly
"The chilling facts of the monks' penitent lives are real enough to send a shiver down an Irish Catholic's spine." New York Times Book Review
Click here for Sun Dancing.

...a well-known Celtic legend, is given musical voice here by composer, songwriter, keyboardist, and singer Jeff Johnson, who explored similar themes on his previous Music of Celtic Legends and No Shadow of Turning. Inspired by the tale, he's composed some dazzling soundscapes, and sings on several pieces, along with guest vocalist Janet Chvatal, whose skill and talent as a singer is impressive. The CD opens with "Oceanus," which sets the mood for the entire recording with the sound of ocean waves and some lovely pennywhistle work from Brian Dunning, whose playing is featured elsewhere on the CD as well. The music ranges from the Clannad-ish "I Call to You" to the dramatic "Jasconius," which features some excellent electric cello work from Jami Sieber. Chvatal's vocals sound truly inspired on "The Crystal Pillar," with acoustic guitar and washes of cymbal sound providing counterpoint. The album as a whole has the feeling of a journey, which is appropriate given Johnson's source material, and proves a wholly satisfying listen. --Genevieve Williams
Jeff Johnson does an incredible job of making a true concept album which follows a journey. The music is beautiful and haunting. I think my favorite track is St Brendan's Prayer but the whole album is gorgeous and I can honestly say that there is not a song that I did not like. Anyone who enjoys celtic style music will be quite impressed with this.
Click here for Prayers of St. Brendan


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