St. Brendan the Voyager
484 CE - 577 CE
A devoted missionary, St. Brendan established many religious houses throughout Ireland and helped spread Christianity throughout the British Isles. Legend ascribes to St. Brendan a mystical voyage of seven years duration that took him and his followers to the New World where some of his fellow travelers established colonies of white “clothed” natives. According to some Irish scholars, American Shawnee Indian legend tells of a tribe of white men who used iron implements.
Most scholars place the narrative of St. Brendan and his voyage among other mythic seafaring legends. Brendan the Voyager, also known as Brendan of Ardfert and Clonfert was born in 484 A.D. near present day Tralee in County Kerry, Ireland. He was baptized by Bishop Erc, and educated under St. Ita, “the Bishop of Munster.” He completed his education under St. Erc and was ordained a priest in 512 A.D. Between the years 512 and 530 A.D., Brendan established monastic cells at Ardfert and at Shanakeel, at the base of Brandon Hill. It was from Brandon Hill that Brendan set out on his mythic voyage to the “Promised Land.” Allegedly accompanied by between 18 and 150 (some sources say 60) monks on an incredible seven-year voyage, Brendan and his followers experienced some remarkable adventures. They were supposedly “raised up on the back of sea monsters” (whales?), “pelted with flaming foul smelling rocks…” (lava erupting from the volcanoes of Iceland?), and “passed by crystals that rose up to the sky” (icebergs?). While no historical records exist to authenticate these stories, these narratives written as early as the year 800 persist as part of Irish literary history. It has been suggested that Columbus had access to the information gathered by St. Brendan on his voyage and was aware of the trade winds and currents that would enable him to transit the ocean by traveling west. Nine hundred years before Columbus and four centuries before the Vikings landed in the New World, Brendan supposedly established the existence of a new land. In the early 19th century, a group of Irish scholars seeking credit for the Irish discovery of America, claimed that Brendan and his fellow monks had arrived there first, citing Norse accounts of finding a region south of Vinland they referred to as the “Land of White Men,” as well as the Shawnee Indians of Florida who reported a tribe of white men using iron implements, a metal unknown in the New World. The account of Brendan’s voyage described his flimsy vessel, a currach made of ox hides stretched over a wooden frame, similar to a kind of boat still made in County Kerry today.
In 1976 a British navigation scholar, Tim Severin, embarked on a voyage in a boat, similar to the one described by St. Brendan, to prove whether the mythic voyage was possible. The currach was made of a wooden frame held together with over two miles of leather lashings, and covered with the hides of almost fifty oxen. Following Brendan’s possible route, based on information from accounts written by others centuries after the voyage, Severin’s adventure took him eventually to Newfoundland, where he landed on June 26, 1977. While Severin’s experience did not prove that St. Brendan made it to North America, it did confirm that the currach could have successfully made the voyage.
On his return to Ireland, tales of the amazing voyage spread, attracting crowds of pilgrims and students flocking to Ardfert to seek the blessings of St. Brendan. As his fame spread, he established many religious houses at Gallerus, Kilmalchedor, Brandon Hill and Blasquet Islands. Around 550 A.D., Brendan went on to Thomond and founded a monastery on present day Coney Island, County Clare. He then traveled to Wales and then Iona and left a trail of converts to the Christian religion. He stayed in Britain for three years before returning to Ireland. Back in Ireland he founded the Sees of Ardfert and Annaghdown, then established churches at Inchiquin, County Galway and at Inishglora, in County Mayo. During his life he attracted 3,000 men to serve as monks. His most celebrated foundation was in 557 A.D. at Clonfert, County Galway. It was there in 577 A.D., at the age of 93, that he died and was interred.