Did St. Brendan, an Irish monk make an epic voyage across Atlantic and set foot on American soil, nine hundred years before Christopher Columbus set sail? Seán Carberry looks at evidence.
The Irish monk in question, St. Brendan, was a Kerryman, born around year 484 at Church Hill, on north shore of Tralee Bay. He had an exceptionally long life – 93 when he died in County Galway – as well as an exciting and event-filled one. Our national saint, Patrick, is believed to have died about forty years before Brendan was born, and while Patrick is literally world-renowned in our times, for nearly seven centuries Brendan was best known abroad of saints of Ireland. This was mainly because of widespread interest in, and fascination with, Navigatio, ninth century account of Brendan’s travels in Atlantic Ocean. Part of this fascination was caused by way story seemed to penetrate vast mysteries of Atlantic – detailing encounters with sea monsters, volcanoes, icebergs and other adventures – as well as charm and literary skill with which events of voyage and personality of saint are depicted. So, did Brendan and his colleagues build a boat made of animal skin, and cross Atlantic?
Before we hazard an answer to that, it is instructive to look at life of Brendan. At age of one, as was custom of time, he was sent in fosterage to St. Ita, mystic, and this was source of a famous and lifelong friendship between two saints. Brendan belonged to what was known as Second Order of Irish Saints, also described as Twelve Apostles of Ireland. Because there was another Brendan in this group, our Brendan was distinguished with title of Navigator. These Apostles gave Irish Christianity its distinctive monastic character, which it was to retain for over six centuries. The monasteries were powerhouses of learning and arts as well as religion, and this was source for revival of Europe after its period of darkness and barbarism which followed collapse of Roman Empire. The monks spread throughout Europe for centuries, and left an indelible and enlightened mark on continent.
“In all, he had 3,000 monks under his rule. His extensive travels meant that his cult was widespread.”
Brendan himself was quite a powerhouse: he set up his main foundation at Clonfert, beside River Shannon, and had four other foundations around country, as well as in Wales, Scotland, Brittany and Faroe Islands. In all, he had 3,000 monks under his rule. His extensive travels meant that his cult was widespread, and was to be found in numerous regions across Europe. And age didn’t slow him down. According to literal interpretation of Navigato, he was in his mid-eighties when he set out on great voyage on Atlantic that was to last seven years. So what does world-renowned explorer and author Tim Severin say of this legendary person and his exploits?