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Who is Brendan?

A Monk, a Boat And a Legend

Related by Brian, the son of an Irishman

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A Monk

There are several Brendans in history.

The one I've got my eye on here is St. Brendan: Brendan of Clonfert that would be, sometimes called Brendan son of Finnloga; not the other St. Brendan. St. Brendan of Birr he was, and is to this day for that matter, who lived at about the same time as Brendan O. Finnloga.

You'll notice that the proper form of the name, Brennain, is not that which I use here. That would be well and good, if more folk were familiar with the Irish culture and language. But, we take things as they come. Brandanus he was called (and still is) in Latin, and Brendan in the language spoken here in the land where I live. So, Brendan I'm calling him here.

Brendan of Clonfert was an abbot of a Benedictine monastery which he founded in the sixth century. This Brendan died in 578, still abbot in the monastery in Clonfert in eastern Galway. About the man, a great deal is not known. Irish monks at the time were somewhat more interested in keeping the faith and preserving the light of knowledge, than in recording a detailed account of the local unit's founder.

His Tale, in Brief

St. Brendan is best known for a voyage he is said to have taken, about the years 565 to 573. The saga of St. Brendan's discovery of the "Promised Land of the Saints" was well known in medieval times. This tale is found in Latin, French, English, Saxon, Flemish, Irish, Welsh, Breton and Scottish Gaelic. The oldest version still existing is the 11th century Navigatio Brendani.

And here is the tale. Brendan and his companions set sail in a leather boat; encountered marvels at sea, and returned with news of a fantastic land: more beautiful and golden than he could have imagined. Precious stones were pebbles on the ground, and every tree was heavy with fruit.

Was Brendan's voyage, and the lands he found, real? Until the 18th century, it had not entered anyone's mind to question whether the Navigatio Brendani was true, or a tale of the imagination.

After Columbus made that famous voyage of his, expeditions set out to locate Brendan's Island. In 1526, one left Grand Canary, commanded by Fernando de Villalobos (governor of Palma). Others followed in 1604 and 1721. These expeditions were following reports of trustworthy witnesses who had seen an island in the distance.

They didn't find St. Brendan's Island.

Then came the so-called Age of Reason. In 1759, sightings of St. Brendan's Island were "scientifically explained." They were shown to be the effects of a mirage.

And, during the 19th and 20th centuries, anyone who wanted to be thought of as scientific and educated had to believe that Brendan's Island was a silly medieval superstition, or perhaps a tall tale. After all, everyone knows that you need airplanes, or ocean liners, or at least great wooden ships, to get across the Atlantic

Then some Englishman had the nerve to demonstrate that Brendan actually could have sailed across the Atlantic. Timothy Severin was his name, and in 1976 he set out in a leather boat along the route that Brendan would logically have followed. Sure enough, he made it across the Atlantic.

Granted, proving that something could be done, and proving that it was done are two different things. Nevertheless, I'll not be the one to say that St. Brendan didn't sail the northern waters half a millennium before the Vikings made the trip, and very nearly a thousand years before that Columbus fellow followed the route.




A Boat

What Brendan needed, more than anything else, to cross that great unknown blue world out west of his home, was a boat.

Now, the Irish of that time had boats, which they used to catch fish. Good, useful boats they were, made of leather stretched over a frame and with a square sail over all. A curragh it's called. Or coracle if you like. Add paddles, and you could go anywhere on the water you wished, given time, and food, and water, and patience, and the Grace of God.

It was this sort of boat that Brendan used: You'll find the specifications in that book, the Navigatio, the same that Timothy Severin used when building his. Brendan's was larger than the ordinary run, but then he had his eye on a longer trip than that which was ordinary.

And a Legend

Brendan, you see, lived in Ireland, and in a part of Ireland where you could see that vast blue expanse where the sun goes each evening. Brendan, it's said, liked his own company, and would walk up a mountain when he could, look out over the ocean and consider what might be beyond.

Years passed, and Brendan knew no more of whatever was out in the west than when he started. Then Brendan's nephew, Barinthus his name was, came up to Brendan. Paradise Barinthus said he had found, out in the west, and had a beautiful scent about him to prove the claim. Flowery the scent was, and no common flowers either.

Up the mountain went Brendan. For forty days he stared west. And not a bite did he eat: There was too much thinking to do. Then, Brendan decided. If his nephew could find Paradise in the west beyond the ocean, then he could, too.

Down the mountain again. First things must come first. Brendan ate a meal sufficient for one who has gone without for so long. Then, he ordered a boat built. This done, he filled the boat with friends, provisions, and determination.

It was a fine June day when Brendan and his companions set sail, west towards Paradise. Well, to be perfectly accurate, not exactly west. You see, a curragh is a fine sort of boat, providing that it's enough for you that the winds and currents take you where they will, leaving you but a little say in your course. The winds and currents off the coast of Ireland took Brendan and all north.

So there you have it: a leather boat, full of Irishmen, sailing off over the unknown waters of the ocean. When they returned, they willingly told what they had seen: An island with sheep as large as oxen; Another where birds talk. A column of crystal they found floating in the ocean, with a hole straight through it and a silver roof overhead. Irishmen that they were, they sailed right through that hole, and out the other side.

Paradise they were not finding, nor a hint of that scent. An ordinary-looking little island they did find, on which the men decided to cook a meal. No sooner than they had a fire lit, than the island dove beneath the waves, taking their meal with it. The men swam back to Brendan, who had remained with the boat. The cooking pot floated off, but the sea beast on whose back they had lit a fire returned it later. A helpful creature it was.

An island that certainly was not Paradise was the one which stank of rotten eggs. Further, this island was the home of giants who threw hot coals at Brendan's boat. Brendan roared at the giants, his men strained the oars, and they all sailed away.

An evil monster came on them later, spewed great streams of water into the boat, obliging the men to bail for their lives. Brendan ordered the monster to go away to its home, but to no good effect. Another creature came along at about this point, and killed the first one. Strange creatures seemed to be in this part of the world, for Brendan's men saw a griffin, which might have done them great harm if a little bird hadn't come and pecked its eyes out.

This was about enough for Brendan's men. Adventure they had more than plenty of, and home is what they wanted. Brendan listened to them for a while, and then plugged his ears with wax. Paradise they'd gone to seek, and Paradise they'd find.

Then came the day that they sailed into fog. Dark fog. Deep fog. Fog so thick you couldn't see the water, much less the sky. And hailstones, great, round hailstones fell about them. And with the hail a scent: not that rotten-eggs fragrance of the giants. island, but a finer smell.

The fog lifted, and there was a land more beautiful to the eye, and nose, than Brendan had imagined. Pebbles of precious stones, trees heavy with fruit, fields bright with flowers: not unlike my own Minnesota on a fine summer day. And precious stones of a kind you will find here: agates, which I believe can be called semi-precious stones.

And big that land was. Brendan and his men were still exploring it when an angel gave them a message. They should go home now, for God had plans for that place and they were not a part of those plans.

So go they did. Happily, perhaps not, but with the knowledge that they had some fine stories to tell. And tell them they did, once they got back to Ireland.

A Thought or Two

Four hundred years passed before an account of Brendan's voyage was committed to writing. Four centuries of storytellers rolling the facts around their tongues before sending them on to the next generation.

The facts, as presented in the Navigatio are, I'll freely admit, just a little more colorful than what I learned back in my Geography classes about the northern Atlantic.

But then, this culture we're in today is perhaps a trifle less poetic than some, and more apt than many to prefer the description that relies the least on metaphor and dream.

And when was it said that the Irish were particularly known for their lack of poetry or imagination?

If Brendan's men, and the generations who passed their accounts on, used terms which we're not likely to find in reports of the United States Geological Survey, should we then be greatly surprised?

Or should we, on the other hand, take another look at their accounts? Let's do so.

That crystal column, now. What is it that floats in the north Atlantic, is crystalline in appearance, sometimes has holes in it, and, providing the light is right, could be said to have a silvery look to it? I'll give you a hint: think of why the Titanic stopped abruptly on that fateful night. An iceberg, of course! And if I'd not be likely to sail through a hole in one, well, I'd not be too likely to be off in a curragh, trying to find Paradise, either.

Oh, the island with giants. What is it that smells like rotten eggs and fires hot coals at you now and again? A volcano stinks that way: it's the sulfur that does it, scientists tell us, and I dare say they're right. The hot coals? Iceland's volcanoes spit rocks, as the Icelanders would tell you, if you give them a chance.

The huge sheep? The Faroe Islands were famous for their sheep, though there's no reliable report that their size approached that of an oxen's. And the talking birds? Well, there you have me. There's an island on Brendan's route noted for its birds. Talking, no, but birds nonetheless. The griffon? There you have me again, and the water-spitting monster I can't explain either.

But the diving island: doesn't that sound a bit like an unusually sleepy whale? And dive it would, at feeling a fire on its back.

So, do I think that all of Brendan's voyage as chronicled in the Navigatio should be taken literally, at face value, as a careful and strictly precise and unvarnished account like that which an American scientist of the 20th century would have given? No.

Do I think that a band of adventurous Irishmen sailed the Atlantic and found this continent I'm standing on some nine centuries before Columbus? I'm quite willing to think it possible, even likely.

And I'll follow with considerable interest what archeologists and other learned folk say about that petroglyph, I'm speaking of the one in Wyoming County, West Virginia. It's the one that some gentleman from Harvard, an emeritus professor no less, Dr. Barry Fell by name, studied. He concluded that it was written in ogham, and wrote of what he found in Wonderful West Virginia, March 1983. It seems that he thinks ogham is spelled ogam, a curious detail.

What is so interesting is that Dr. Fell is quoted as saying that this petroglyph was carved into the rock of West Virginia back in the seventh century, give or take a hundred years or so. Translated into the tongue we speak here and now, he says the carving has this message: "At the time of sunrise, a ray grazes the notch on the left side on Christmas Day, a Feast-day of the Church, the first seven of the [Christian] year, the season of the blessed advent of the Savior, Lord Christ. Behold, He is born of Mary, a woman." Now, should this actually be a message carved in the rock so many centuries ago, it would not surprise me a bit to learn that it was carved by an Irishman, perhaps a monk, perhaps St. Brendan himself.

copyright © Brian H. Gill 2001

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Just Another Word or Two

It was a privilege I experienced in September of 2003, to receive a message from one F. Javier Gago, of Spain, regarding a most curious coincidence of names. You might read his message in this website's guest book, but it would be a pleasure for me to recount in brief what he said here, on the page devoted to the more widely famous aspects of St. Brendan of Clonfert.

Now, it seems that in F. Javier Gago's town of Avilés, in the region of Asturias, on the northern coast of Spain, there is an estuary. And, on this estuary there is a beach, which is named San Balandrán. It is the opinion of my correspondent that this may be what happened to the name San Brendan as the centuries came and went.

And so it may be! He tells me that in the Canary Islands there is a legend of a flying island called the Island of San Borondón, or San Balandrán, and furthermore that in Tenerife there is a shrine devoted to this saint with a similar name.

As to connections in general with the British Isles in the Middle Ages, F. Javier Gago tells me that in the Middle Ages Avilés was an important harbor, and of course ships came and went to and from other lands, including Hastings, Sandwich, Hythe, and other ports of England. And more, there is a church in Avilés, devoted to St. Thomas of Canterbury, which dates to 1254. Sailors of Avilés, you see, would fish in the Irish Sea or the waters south of England. And, of course, they heard of St. Thomas while using English ports.

As to whether St. Brendan the Navigator ever sailed to the north of Spain, that I cannot say. That he could have is beyond doubt, at least in my mind.

Then, in February of the year 2004, I had the pleasure of learning some more about St. Brendan's memory. Sten Wiksten, who lives outside Stockholm, Sweden, was kind enough to tell me of a 13th century church near him. In this church, which is in Taby, one would see a painting of St. Brendan, standing on a sea monster, and, good Irishman that St. Brendan was - and is, the saint is pictured with some food near at hand. At least, there's something looking like food nearby, and so food I'll say it is.

In July, 2004, I received this message, from Terry Torbay, of Newfoundland, about St. Brendan:

One reference to St. Brendan's voyage mentions a sea creature with large eyes "like glass" that did battle with a whale. Sounds very much like it could have been a giant squid not unknown in these North Atlantic waters; A large dead giant squid specimen is preserved at Memorial University of Newfoundland in St. John's. Also it is recorded that whales bearing the roundish marks of squid 'suckers. on their skins have been noted during the last 100 years. Just a further comment that seems to reinforce Brendan's voyage; which probably, in my opinion included the island of Newfoundland.
Terry Torbay Newfoundland, Canada. July 4th 2004.

Later the same month, Keith, writing from near the birthplace St. Brendan, told me that he understood Brandenburg, Germany, to be named after St. Brendan, as well as the Brandenburg Tor. 

Well, there the matter must stand for this time: at least until I have more to read about those times than is available to myself at present.

And Now, Some Links

A lady sent me a most reasonable and interesting question in an e-mail sent sometime in late 2006. She wanted to know where she might find on the Web pictures of St. Brendan and his voyage. Paintings, drawings, or what-have-you dealing with the subject, that is.

I had no good answer at the time, but it being such a good question, and me being an inquisitive sort, I found one or two examples out there in the digital domains which were worth a passing glance at least.

And here they are, in no particular order apart from the alphabetical.

copyright © Brian H. Gill 2003-2004, 2006


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