Saturday, March 17, 2012

St. Brendan



And then Saint Brandon bade the shipmen to wind up the sail and forth they sailed in God's name, so that on the morrow they were out of sight of any land. And forty days and forty nights after they sailed plat east, and then they saw an island far from them, and they sailed thitherward as fast as they could, and they saw a great rock of stone appear above all the water, and three days they sailed about it ere they could get into the place, but at the last by the purveyance of God they found a little haven and there went aland every each one. And then suddenly came a fair hound, and fell down at the feet of Saint Brandon and made him good cheer in his manner, and then he bade his brethren be of good cheer, for our Lord hath sent to us his messenger to lead us into some good place. And the hound brought them into a fair hall where they found the tables spread, ready set full of good meat and drink. And then Saint Brandon said graces, and then he and his brethren sat down and ate and drank of such as they found, and there were beds ready for them, wherein they took their rest after their long labour.
-- The Golden Legend: the Life of Saint Brandon
It is a source of Irish legend and pride: that 1000 years before Columbus a band of Irish monks led by an abbot named Brendan set out on a voyage of spiritual discovery that would instead lead to the first European contact with the Americas. To some the voyages of Brendan are a religious allegory, to others a stylized account of an actual group of brave and lucky voyagers, led by an extraordinary man.

The man who would become know as Saint Brendan the Navigator was born in AD 484 in southwest Ireland. After a short career building monastic cells, Brendan heard the story of Saint Barrid and his visit to the Island of Paradise. Accounts vary from there, but the basic story is that Brendan set out on a seven-year-long voyage, accompanied by fourteen monks (or sixty pilgrims), having many adventures. Among the most remarkable incidents is his coming ashore and celebrating Easter Mass on an island that turned out to be the sea monster Jasconius. Brendan also
  • discovers an Island Of Sheep where the voyagers stop for Holy Week
  • finds a “Paradise of Birds,” where the birds sing psalms
  • passed a silver pillar wrapped in a net
  • had rocks hurled at him by a mountain

Finally, Brendan and his companions arrived at “The Promised Land of the Saints,” a beautiful island divided by a great river.

The earliest known written version of the legend dates from the 1100s. Soon “Saint Brendan’s Isle” began appearing on nautical charts, first near the coast of Ireland, then moving westward and southward as time passed. By the 1700s, the island of “San Borodon” was reported to lie off the coast of Africa, in or near the Canary Islands.

Model of St. Brendan's carrach
Photo by Michealol
By this time, scholars were beginning to think Brendan’s voyages were more allegory than fact. The similarities to other Irish tales of the time, called immrams, and elements in common with other, clearly fictional tales, like those of Sinbad and Jason, led to the conclusion that whatever truth may lay at the core of Brendan’s story was covered by centuries of religious and folktale embellishment.

In 1976, British explorer Tim Severin set out to prove that -- whatever the truth of the tale -- it could have been done. Severin built a 36-foot carrach, the type of boat used by Irish mariners of the time, made from wood and leather. From mid-1976 to mid-1977, Severin sailed his craft from Ireland to Newfoundland, stopping along the way in the Hebrides and Iceland. Along the way he found many places with parallels to places in Brendan’s story, including the Island of Sheep and “Paradise of Birds in the Faroe Islands. Others have identified the "silver pillar" as an iceberg, and the mountains hurling rocks as the volcanoes of iceland.

Related Posts

Related Articles
Catholic Encyclopedia: St. Brendan
Irish Culture in Legends: St. Brendan, The Navigator

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