The Emerald Isle

OPPOSITE ABOVE: A stained-glass image of St. Brendan in the church dedicated to him at Birr, County Offaly. OPPOSITE BELOW: A woodcut of a scene from Navigatio Sancti Brendani , showing the saint celebrating Easter Mass on the body of a whale. ABOVE: St. Brendan built monastic cells at Ardfert and at the foot of Mount Brandon, named after the Saint. RIGHT: Ardfert Cathedral is a ruin in Ardfert, County Kerry and was dedicated to Saint Brendan. and his crew, who realize their mistake when they light a fire on the surprised animal’s back. But Jasconius eventually befriends the monks, allowing them to conduct Easter Mass on his back for seven consecutive years. In other parts 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 possibly be oranges or grapefruit. The journey concludes when the crew returns to Donegal Bay after sailing through lands and bodies of water that resemble Newfoundland, Greenland and Iceland in their respective descriptions. The Navigatio Sancti Brendani was widely translated and distributed throughout Europe during the Middle Ages, leading some cartographers and explorers to take it for fact and include St. Brendan’s Island on maps of the era. Whether Brendan actually reached North America remains a mystery but, in 1976, the explorer Tim Severin built a curragh that he named after the saint and, in the same manner as Brendan, traversed 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 voyage to North America. 235