Feast Day : May 16
Also known as: Brendan the Navigator, Brendan the Voyager, Brandan, Brandon
Patronage: boatmen; mariners; sailors; travelers; watermen; whales
Brendan was born sometime around 484 near the seacoast town of Tralee in County Kerry. A descendant of Ireland’s first-century high king Fergus MacRoy, or McRory, the boy seemed destined for greatness. The entire Irish countryside supposedly lit up the night he was born. Brendan was baptized by Bishop St. Erc and spent his first five years in the care and education of St. Ita at her monastery school in Killeedy. Later he traveled to many of the great Irish monasteries to receive religious instruction from the abbots there, including Jarlath of Tuam, Finian of Clonard and Enda of Aran. Returning to Bishop St. Erc, Brendan received ordination in 512 and continued his wanderings, establishing monastic communities at Ardfert and Shanakeel (or Baalynevinoorach). Although revered for his saintly ways, Brendan’s fame comes from the Navigatio Santi Brendani Abatis, or the Navigations (or Travels) of Saint Brendan the Abbot. Legend says that Brendan, unable to shake his wanderlust, left the monastery at Baalynevinoorach with between 17 and 60 monks (accounts vary) to discover and evangelize the people living on islands beyond the western horizon. Most specifically, Brendan sought the “Lands of Delight,” the “Land of Promise”or the “Isles of the Blessed Saints.” Old Irish calendars assigned the feast day of March 22 to celebrate the “egressio familiae S. Brendani,” or Saint Brendan’s departure, and St. Aengus the Culdee invoked the 60 monks in his eighth-century Litany. The voyages took seven years and included detailed descriptions of the construction of the group’s hide-covered boats, called currachs or coracles. Currachs—small boats that ride high in the water, unaffected by currents—are still built in County Kerry today much the same as they were in the sixth century. The monks’ tales seemed incredible, telling of large sea-monsters that raised the boats on their backs, of huge crystals that rose to the sky, and of being pelted with “flaming, foul-smelling rocks by the inhabitants of a large island.” The monks even tried to light an Easter fire on one island only to discover they were on a whale. Word of Brendan’s magical voyages spread and attracted many pilgrims to the monastery at Ardfert. After his return, Brendan continued his mission to spread the Word of God, founding a monastery at Inisda- druim, now Coney Island in County Clare, about 550. He traveled throughout Ireland, to Wales, to St. Columba’s monastery at Iona, to the Canary Islands and to Europe. His greatest contribution was the monastery at Cluain Fearta, or Clonfert in County Galway, built about 557. The monastic community at Clonfert reportedly housed 3,000 men under rules dictated to Brendan by an angel. Although most of the monastery fell into ruins years ago, the cathedral remains, regarded as an Irish national treasure and one of the finest examples of Irish Romanesque architecture. The doorway contains six decorated arches topped by a huge triangle containing ornaments and heads. Brendan established a monastic community for women at Enach Duin (Annaghdown) and placed his sister Briga in charge. He died there in 577 at about age 93 while visiting her. Fearing that some might want his relics, Brendan arranged for Briga to keep his death a secret and send his body back to Clonfert in his luggage. He is buried at Clonfert. From medieval times into the 18th century, maps of the western Atlantic Ocean included an island called St. Brendan’s Isle. Mapmakers were unsure of the island’s exact position, but it often appeared south of the Antilles and west of the Cape Verde Islands. Scholars speculate that locating this magical place inspired Christopher Columbus’s voyage to the New World. Six copies of the Navigatio manuscript remain, but few have believed the fantastic tales were anything more than stories for the faithful. In 1976, British navigation scholar Tim Severin and a crew decided to reconstruct Brendan’s journeys by following the accounts in the Navigatio to prove that the trip was possible. To begin with, Severin and his crew built the currachs following Brendan’s directions. They tanned ox-hides with oak bark, stretched them across the wooden frame, sewed them with leather thread and smeared the boats with animal fat to provide water resistance. Skeptics didn’t believe the lightweight currachs could handle ocean current, but Severin found them quite seaworthy. The crew embarked from Brandon Creek on the Dingle Peninsula, supposedly Brendan’s point of departure. Severin’s study of nautical charts indicated Brendan’s route was governed by prevailing winds, taking the monks across the northernmost part of the Atlantic, close to Iceland, Greenland and maybe Newfoundland. This was the same route Viking Leif Eriksson traveled about 400 years later. Most of the stops chronicled in the Navigatio were islands where the Irish monks established primitive monasteries. Indeed, the accounts of Viking explorations remarked on meetings with “Papers” (“papas” or fathers—priests). Severin and his crew were surprised at the playful, friendly encounters with North Atlantic whales, and they speculated that the creatures were even friendlier in the sixth century—before they had been hunted— causing them to bump and lift the tiny boats, as the monks recounted. Off the coast of Canada, an iceberg punctured Severin’s currach, which he patched with a piece of leather. Such icebergs may well have been Brendan’s “towering crystals.” And the active volcanoes of Iceland may explain the “flaming, foul-smelling rocks.” Other stops included the Hebrides Islands and the Danish Faroe Islands. Brendan had described an island as “the Paradise of Birds,” and Mykines in the Faroe chain is populated by thousands of seabirds. Brendan called the largest island the Island of Sheep, and the word “faroe” means sheep. There is also another Bran Brandon Creek on the main island. Severin and his crew landed on Newfoundland on June 26, 1977, proving that the possibility of a sea voyage in a currach was not just an old sailor’s tale. But the Navigatio says Brendan’s voyages took seven years. Tim Severin found the boats extremely hard to tack against winds and currents, leading him to think that the return voyage to Ireland took much longer than the journey west. Most intriguing is the discovery of markers covered with Old Irish Ogham runic language in what is now West Virginia. If the monks were the first Europeans to explore America—what Brendan called the “Promised Land of the Saints”—their overland expeditions would have lengthened their trip as well.