St. Brendan the Navigator (c. 486-c. 578), also known as St. Brendan of Clonfert, is perhaps best known as the subject of the fictionalized romance Navigato Sancti Brendani (Brendan's Voyage), which according to the Clonfert-Monastic Settlement in Galway website, was "written by an Irish monk in the ninth or tenth century and describes the seven year voyage of Saint Brendan."
Navigato Sancti Brendani depicts St. Brendan as an explorer who discovers a land widely believed to be a representation of North America before the Norse Vikings, Amerigo Vespuci, or Christopher Columbus ever set foot on the continent. The seven-year voyage to locate the legendary island—alternately referred to as the Island of the Saints, Land of Delight, or Land of Promise— occurred while Brendan was older than 80 and features meetings with St. Patrick (who died in the century preceding Brendan's birth) and Judas Iscariot, betrayer of Jesus Christ. The tale also tells of encounters with sea monsters, talking birds, and a whale that allows Brendan and his crew to conduct Easter Mass on its back. While the tale contains these fantastic elements, some historians grant credence to the theory that Brendan actually carried out a lengthy sea exploration that might have resulted in his visiting North American shores. Despite the conjectures surrounding his travels, it is known conclusively that Brendan was a tireless missionary on behalf of the Catholic Church, and that he established a number of abbeys and monasteries throughout Ireland, Scotland, Wales, and France.
The patron saint of Kerry, Ireland, Brendan was born around 486 in Ciarraighe Luachra near Tralee Bay in County Kerry, Ireland, now called Church Hill. Irish legends state that angels presented themselves in a bright light over the house when he was born. Some historians believe that he was the son of Findlugh and a descendant of a noblemen. The Bishop of Kerry, named Erc (later canonized St. Erc), baptized the infant. According to the custom of the time, the boy was then taken from his parents when he was one-year old and placed under the foster care of Ita (also spelled Aida; later canonized St. Ita) of Killeedy. Ita was a female mystic who became a lifelong confidante of Brendan's. She provided Brendan with his early education until he was six when his education was turned over to St. Erc. Erc instructed Brendan, and he also indulged his pupil's studies with St. Jarlath in Tuam, St. Enda in the Aran Islands, and St. Ninian in Whithorn, Galloway. It is believed that Brendan also studied with St. Finian and St. Gildas in Llancarfan, Wales. Erc ordained Brendan to the priesthood in 512.
Brendan is considered a member of what became known as the Second Order of Irish saints, also called the Twelve Apostles of Ireland. This group is credited with defining early Christian civilization as an amalgamation of religious, intellectual, and artistic pursuits. Their missionary zeal resulted in converting Ireland into a Christian haven from where they launched further missionary work to Scotland, Wales, and Brittany. The Irish monks, priests, and abbots are also credited with preserving much of the great works of civilization during the Dark Ages, when, due to the collapse of the Roman Empire and the subsequent barbarian raids on Europe's cultural centers, many books and cultural artifacts were destroyed.
Following his ordination, Brendan set about establishing monasteries in Ardfert and Shanakeel. He recruited many disciples and, during the next thirty years, Brendan founded monasteries in Kilbrandon and Kilbrennan Sound in Scotland and Inis-da-druim, which is north of Limerick in Ireland. Around 558, Brendan established a monastery at Clonfert in Galway, which remained one of Ireland's most prestigious schools until the sixteenth century. He founded a convent at Annagdhdown, County Galway, and named his sister, Brig, to head the institution.
While many details of Brendan's missionary work is documented, much of what is written about Brendan's other explorations is widely speculative. Historians conjecture that Brendan's passion for sea travel was nurtured by a childhood spent by the sea and led him to travel as far west as Iceland, Greenland, and perhaps the shores of North America. These missionary travels led him to construct boats called curraghs (or currach), which were built by stretching animal skins over wooden frames. Traveling throughout the British Isles and Northern France, he would be accompanied by as many as sixty monks. During these travels, he is reported to have met St. Columba on Hynba Island in Scotland, traveled to Brittany with the Welsh monk St. Malo, and to have visited the Welsh monastery of Llancarfan founded by St. Cadoc.
His missionary travels, however, often are relegated beneath the supposed seven-year journey to the Land of Promise. While meditating in a chapel at the peak of what is now Mount Brandon, Brendan is said to have experienced a vision of Hy-Brasil, the legendary Land of Promise. He constructed a thirty-six-foot curragh, and, after fasting for forty days, set out with a crew of more than twelve men from Dingle Bay.
According to the Navigatio Sancti Brendani, Brendan's vision of the Land of Promise was inspired by the boasts of another abbot, who lived in the north of Ireland. The abbot had said that he had visited the Land of Promise many times by traveling only a short distance in the North Atlantic Ocean. Without any navigational coordinates, Brendan and his crew set out, trusting that God would guide their craft to their desired destination. On their travels, they encounter Judas Iscariot, who—allowed a temporary reprieve from Hell—clings to a rock above the sea. They also enjoy a conversation with the spirit of St. Patrick.
During their journey, the travelers encountered floating crystal palaces, "mountains in the sea spouting fire," and sea monsters with catlike heads and horns emanating from their mouths—which some scholars read as, respectively, icebergs, volcanoes, and walruses—leading them to believe that Brendan made it at least as far as Iceland. This postulation is supported elsewhere in the Navigatio when Brendan visits an island inhabited by former seekers of the Land of Promise. The island—inhabited by the Irish monks of the Community of Ailbe—is described as containing warm muddy pools and crystal, which some scholars believe are the natural hot springs and ice spar of Iceland.
In another part of the Navigatio, the narrators relate the story of Jasconius, a whale mistaken for an island by Brendan and his crew. The explorers realize their mistake when they light a fire on the surprised whale's back. Jasconius eventually befriends the monks, however, and allows them to conduct Easter Mass on his back for seven consecutive years. In other portions of the tale, the monks arrive in a tropical climate, visiting islands that may be fictional or, as some scholars suggest, may also be the Canary Islands, Jamaica, or the Bahamas. These islands featured "grapes as big as apples," which could either be oranges or grapefruit. The journey concludes when the crew returns to Donegal Bay, after traveling through lands and bodies of water that resemble Newfoundland, Greenland, and Iceland in their respective descriptions.
Navigatio Sancti Brendani was widely translated and distributed throughout Europe during the Middle Ages, leading some cartographers and explorers to believe its veracity and include St. Brendan's Island on maps of the era.
Whether he actually traveled to North America remains a mystery, but, in 1976, explorer Tim Severin built a curragh that he christened BRENDAN in the same manner as Brendan and traveled through the North Atlantic to the Faroe Islands—believed to be the Island of Sheep that Brendan described—and wintered in Iceland. Severin eventually landed in Newfoundland in June 1977, proving at least the possibility of Brendan's visit to North America.
After St. Patrick, Brendan remains the second-most popular Irish saint, and his name is given to several Irish landmarks, including Brandon Bay. St. Brendan's Feast Day is celebrated by Roman Catholics on May 16, and he is honored as the patron saint of boatmen, mariners, sailors, travelers, and whales. He is believed to have died when he was more than 90 years old while visiting his sister, Briga, who was serving as abbess at the Enach Duin convent in Annaghdown. He is buried facing the front door of the Cathedral of Clonfert. St. Brendan was a man of staunch faith. Nevertheless, his dying words, according to the Saints Preserved website, were to his sister: "I fear that I shall journey alone, that the way will be dark; I fear the unknown land, the presence of my King and the sentence of my judge."
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