St Brendan's Isle
Or: Who Really Discovered America

Also known as  Brandan; Borodon
Memorial  16 May

Priest. Monk. Educated by Saint Ita and Saint Erc of Kerry. Friend of Saint Columba and Saint Brendan of Birr. Founded Clonfert monastery and monastic school. Legend says that this community had at least three thousand monks, and that their rule was dictated to Brendan by an angel.

Brendan and his brothers figure in Brendan's Voyage, a tale of monks travelling the high seas of the
Atlantic, evangelizing to the islands, possibly reaching the Americas in the 6th century. At one point they stop on a small island, celebrate Easter Mass, light a fire - and then learn the island is an enormous whale!
traditional feast day is May 16.

Born 460, Tralee, County Kerry, Ireland
Died c.577 Annaghdown; buried Clonfert
Patronage boatmen, mariners, sailors, travellers, watermen, whales

Maps of Columbus’s time often included an island called St. Brendan’s Isle that was placed in the western
Atlantic ocean. Map makers of the time had no idea of it’s exact position but did believe it existed some where west of Europe. It was mentioned in a Latin text dating from the ninth century titled Navigatio Santi Brendani Abatis (Voyage of Saint Brendan the Abbot). It described the voyage as having taken place in the sixth century. Several copies of this text have survived in monasteries throughout Europe. It was an important part of folklore in medieval Europe and may have influenced Columbus.

Historians relate that Brendan was born about 484 A.D. near
Tralee in County Kerry. He was ordained by Bishop Erc and sailed about northwest Europe spreading the Christian faith and founding monasteries, the largest at Clonfert, County Galway, where he was buried in 577 A.D. at the age of 93.

The account of Brendan’s voyage contained a detailed description of the construction of his boat which was not unlike the currachs still made in
County Kerry today. Skeptics could not accept that such a fragile vessel could possibly sail in the open sea. Several passages in the legend also seemed incredible—they were “raised up on the back of sea monsters”, they “passed by crystals that rose up to the sky”, and were “pelted with flaming, foul smelling rocks by the inhabitants of a large island on their route”. They finally arrived at the beautiful land they called “Promised Land of the Saints.” They explored until they came to a great river that divided the land. The journey of Brendan and his fellow monks took seven years. The return trip was probably the longest part of the odyssey.

In 1976, Tim Severin, a British navigation scholar embarked from
Brandon Creek on the Dingle peninsula in a carrach that he constructed using the details described by Brendan. His goal was to determine if the voyage of Brendan and his fellow monks was possible. They tanned ox-hides with oak bark, stretched them across the wood frame, sewed them with leather thread and smeared the hides with animal fat which would impart water resistance. Examination of nautical charts led Severin to believe that Brendan’s route would be governed by the prevailing winds that would take him across the northernmost part of the Atlantic. This would take him close to Iceland and Greenland with a probable landfall at Newfoundland (St. Brendan’s Isle). This would be the route that Leif Erickson would have taken in the tenth century. Many of Brendan’s stops on his journey were islands where Irish monks had set up primitive monasteries. Norsemen that traveled on these waters visited these islands and recorded their meeting with “Papers” (fathers).

Severin and his crew were surprised at how friendly the whales were that they encountered. The whales swam around and even under their boat. It could have been recognized as another whale by the giant mammals. The whales could have been even friendlier in Brendan’s time, before motorized ships would make them leery of man. So friendly that they may have lifted the monk’s boat in a playful gesture.

After stopping at the
Hebrides islands Severin proceeded to the Danish Faroe Islands. At the island of Mykines, they encountered thousands of seabirds. Brendan called this island “The Paradise of Birds.” He referred to the larger island as the “Island of Sheep.” The word Faroe itself means Island of Sheep. There is also a Brandon Creek on the main island of the Faroes, that the local people believe was the embarkation point for Brendan and his crew.

Severin’s route carried them to
Iceland where they wintered, as did Brendan. The volcanoes on the island have been active for many centuries and might well have been erupting when the monks stayed there. This could have accounted for the “pelting with flaming, foul smelling rocks”, referred to in the ninth century text. The monks had never seen icebergs before, so their description of them as “towering crystals” would make sense.

Severin’s boat was punctured by floating ice off the coast of
Canada. They were able make a repair with a piece of leather sewn over the hole. They landed on the island of Newfoundland on June 26, 1977. This might well have been Brendan’s “Land promised to the Saints” referred to in the Navigatio.

Severin’s journey did not prove that Brendan and his monks landed on
North America. However it did prove that a leather currach as described in the Navigatio could have made such a voyage as mapped out in the text. There is also no doubt that the Irish were frequent seafarers of the North Atlantic sea currents 900 years before the voyage of Columbus.

More conclusive evidence of Irish exploration of
North America has come to the fore in West Virginia. There, stone carvings have been discovered that have been dated between 500 and 1000 A.D. Analysis by archaeologist Dr. Robert Pyle and a leading language expert Dr. Barry Fell indicate that they are written in Old Irish using the Ogham alphabet. According to Dr. Fell, the “West Virginia Ogham texts are the oldest Ogham inscriptions from anywhere in the world. They exhibit the grammar and vocabulary of Old Irish in a manner previously unknown in such early rock-cut inscriptions in any Celtic language.” Dr. Fell goes on to speculate that, “It seems possible that the scribes that cut the West Virginia inscriptions may have been Irish missionaries in the wake of Brendan’s voyage, for these inscriptions are Christian. The early Christian symbols of piety, such as the various Chi-Rho monograms (Name of Christ) and the Dextra Dei (Right Hand of God) appear at the sites together with the Ogham texts.”

The lack of any written account of this exploration could be explained by the explorers not being able to return to their homeland. If they indeed did reach what is now
West Virginia, it would be extremely doubtful that they could manage to return to Ireland from a embarkation point that far south. The design of their currach required favorable winds and currents in the right direction in order to navigate. Severin discovered that it was extremely difficult to tack as other sailing ships were able to do. Perhaps that is the reason that it took Brendan seven years for his journey.

We can conclude that the voyage of St.Brendan was not a mere medieval fantasy but a highly plausible tale. These were special men. They sought the lands beyond the horizon, the wondrous realms to be revealed by God—the Promised Lands.

Related videos:
Legends of Ireland: Saint Patrick/Brendan the Navigator

Related books:
Brendan the Navigator: A History Mystery About the Discovery of America
Lives and Legends of Saint Brendan the Voyager
Navigatio Sancti Brendani Abbatis: From Early Latin Manuscripts
The Emerald Sea: The Quest of Brendan the Navigator (Heroes of the Misty Isle Series)
The Voyage of Saint Brendan
The Voyage of Saint Brendan: Sources and Analogues


Source: Irish Heritage Email Group