The Emerald Isle

SAINT BRENDAN One of the 12 Apostles of Ireland, St. Brendan (Bréanainn) of Clonfert (ca. 484–ca. 577), called “the Navigator,” “the Voyager,” or “the Bold,” is one of the early Irish monastic saints. He is renowned chiefly for his legendary quest to the “Land of Promise,” also called Saint Brendan’s Island. St. Brendan’s feast day is celebrated on May 16. Brendan was born in Ciarraighe Luachra, near to the port of Tralee, in County Kerry, and was baptized at Tubrid, near Ardfert. For five years he was educated under the mystical St. Ita, “the Brigid of Munster,” and completed his studies under her brother, St. Erc, who ordained him a priest in 512. From then until 530 Brendan built monastic cells at Ardfert and at the foot of Mount Brandon, Shanakeel (Seana Cill), usually translated as “the old church,” also called Baalynevinoorach. While much of Brendan’s missionary work is documented, the details of his other exploits can be regarded as widely speculative. Some say that Brendan’s passion for sea travel had been nurtured by a childhood spent on the coast, and that it was this that led him to travel as far west as Iceland, Greenland, and perhaps to the shores of North America. These missionary travels led him to construct boats known as curraghs (or currachs), which were made by stretching animal skins over wooden frames. He would have been accompanied by as many as 60 monks on his travels throughout the British Isles and Northern France, during which he is said to have met St. Columba on Hynba Island in Scotland, traveled to Brittany with the Welsh monk, St. Malo (one of the seven founder saints of Brittany), and to have visited the Welsh monastery of Llancarfan founded by St. Cadoc. Brendan’s missionary journeys, however, often pale into insignificance when compared with his legendary 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 36-ft curragh and, after fasting for 40 days, set out with a crew of more than 12 men from Dingle Bay. According to the Navigatio Sancti Brendani, a Latin prose work written by the beginning of the 10th century by an Irish author, Brendan’s vision of the Land of Promise was inspired by the boasts of another abbot, who lived in the north of Ireland and who claimed to have visited it many times by traveling only a short distance over the North Atlantic Ocean. Without any navigational aids, 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 voyage, the travelers encounter floating crystal palaces, “mountains in the sea spouting fire,” and sea monsters with cat-like heads and horns emanating from their mouths, which could be translated as icebergs, volcanoes and walruses, indicating that Brendan made it at least as far as Iceland, which 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 believe may be the natural hot springs and ice spar of Iceland. In another part of the Navigatio, the story of Jasconius is related; Jasconius is a whale mistaken for an island by Brendan 234