LivingTravelSaint Brendan de Clonfert - The Navigator

Saint Brendan de Clonfert – The Navigator

Saint Brendan (in Irish Bréanainn , in Icelandic Brandanus ) of Clonfert lived in the late 5th and early 6th centuries, and among the many Irish saints, his only claim to fame is the discovery of America.

Or is that it?

He was known as a navigator due to the story told about his forays into the unknown. What could have included a trip to America. Tested possible. But what is the real historical truth? Let’s take a quick look at Brendan and his navigation.

The Historic Brendan

Starting with a disclaimer: as usual, there is very little actual information or documentation available on the historic Brendan. Only the approximate dates of his birth and death plus accounts of some events in his life can be found in annals and genealogies. The rest is hagiography, like the “Life of Brendan” and the “Journey of Saint Brendan the Abbot.” Both more interesting in the way they reflect their influence on Christianity in Ireland. But they both composed literally years after his passing.


Brendan was born around 484, according to tradition, this happens in or at least near Tralee (County Kerry). Educated from an early age by men and women of the church, he is said to have joined the Saint Jarlath monastery school in Tuam at the age of six.

Ordained a priest by Saint Erc around 512, Brendan embarked on a missionary career and became known as one of the “Twelve Apostles of Ireland.” This coincided with the beginning of his career as “the Navigator” (also “the Voyager” or, less specifically, “The Bold”): Brendan chose a mission by ship around the coasts and islands of (or outside) Ireland. Being brave, he also ventured to Scotland, Wales and Britain… founding monasteries along the way.

During these efforts, Brendan gathered a band of monks who joined him on a quest to navigate to the “Promised Land”, a type of earthly paradise, not to be confused with the more conservative “promised land” in the area of the Present-day Israel. .

Brendan’s Journey: An Irish Tradition

“The Voyage of Saint Brendan” is really a genre piece, and part of a very popular form of literature in ancient Ireland, namely the ” immram “. Travel writing that involves daring heroes, ships, and the search for a better world. Like the land of eternal youth, Tir na nOg , often described as an island to the west of Ireland, far away, even beyond the limit of the world.

Irish immram was especially popular in the 7th and 8th centuries, the earliest versions of Brendan’s journey may have been recorded at this time, combined with other tales. Which makes it impossible to determine which parts are “original,” which parts are allegories, and which are (more or less) factual accounts.

A very short synopsis of Brendan’s journey

Since the story exists in multiple versions, here are the basics: Brendan sets out with a group of followers (not necessarily all of them believers) to find the “Island of the Blessed” or the “Land of Promise,” a vaguely Christianized Tir na nOg and almost heaven on earth (or paradise). On this journey, many adventures await… from natural phenomena to mythological beasts. And temptation, always temptation.

On the (presumably) Kerry coast, Brendan builds a traditional Irish wattle boat, covers it with tanned hides, and, after the mandatory forty-day fast, sails into sunset. The reason for this adventure? Apparently Saint Barrid has been there, did and told the story, which is why Brendan got itchy too.

They go from island to island and cross huge stretches of water. Encountering (among others) Ethiopian demons, birds singing psalms, monks who never grow old, a well with water that acts as a powerful sedative, various “sea creatures” that conveniently kill themselves, a griffin, Judas on a holiday from hell, a hermit fed by a domestic otter and so on … until they finally reach the ‘Promised Land’, high five, sail home and that’s it.

Fascinating stuff, but not exactly Nobel Prize stuff. And, in very general terms, an ongoing exhortation to lead a good Christian life.

The American connection

Some of the events in Brendan Voyage have been interpreted as descriptions of real places. Aside from the obvious like the island that sinks when the monks light a fire on it… you don’t light fires on the whales. But take the island inhabited by a tribe of fierce blacksmiths, throwing glowing coals at the travelers. Could this be Iceland, complete with volcanic activity?

In the end, it all depends on how you read Brendan’s trip, not how it is written …

And that also applies to the discovery of America. Which is based on the assumption that if you sail west from Ireland, the next stop is America. Which is true … if you keep a true course and don’t stray to Greenland, Iceland, the Canary Islands, the Azores, or somewhere else. Remember that the last person to discover America thought they had come to India.

It was only after Brendan’s immram had been almost entirely assigned to the reality of the tales, joining such worthy characters as Ulysses and Sinbad, did the idea arise that we actually have ‘proof’ here that the Irish were the first Europeans. to get to America. A possible interpretation of the text … but without a real basis of fact.

Possibility Test – Tim Severin

British explorer, historian, and writer Tim Severin (who also wrote a crack thread on the adventures of Hector Lynch, kidnapped in Ireland by Barbary corsairs) tried to recreate Brendan’s journey in real life. In 1976 he built a replica of Brendan’s boat using only traditional tools, eleven meters long, held together by leather clamps and sealed with nothing but wool grease.

Setting out to sea in May 1976, Severin and a team of fellow adventurers sailed the “Brendan” on a journey of more than 7,000 kilometers from Ireland to Newfoundland, with a stop in Iceland. During the recreation of Brendan’s journey, Severin attempted to identify the real-life basis of the “legendary” items in the immram . Not all, but a fair number.

This, coupled with the indisputable fact that Severin managed to sail the “Brendan” to North America, carries a certain credential to the “American Connection” … although it should not be seen as proof. The actual ship used during the expedition is kept in the Craggaunowen Museum. For a gripping overview, read Severin’s book, The Brendan Voyage .

And Brendan… Where did he go?

He continued traveling, founded more monasteries and finally died in 577, his feast is celebrated on May 16. It is generally assumed that he was buried in Clonfert Cathedral.

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