St. Brendan is best known as “the Navigator” because of the book, The Navigation of St. Brendan Abbot. an 11th-century epic of his voyages in the Atlantic Ocean. But it was not his travels that made him a saint (although he journeyed forth in the name of the Gospel); it was his work as a monastic founder.
The son of Findlugh, Brendan (also called Brandon) was apparently a native of Tralee in Co. Kerry. As a small child, he was raised, it is said, by St. Ita (or Deirdre), the remarkable abbess of Killeedy who was foster mother to several Irish saints, and ranks second only to St. Brigid among the women saints of Erin. Where Ita left off, Bishop Ere took over, supervising Brendan’s theological education.
We next find the future voyager as a monk of the monastery of Ardfert. He was its superior, and perhaps even its founder. He is reputed to have set up several monasteries. Atop Brandon (i.e., Brendan) Hill in Kerry, for instance, there are still ruins of a St. Brendan’s Chapel surrounded by ancient stone monastic huts. Some say that Brendan also built monasteries in Scotland and Wales. But his principal monastic establishment (around 560) was Clonfert Abbey in Co. Galway. At Clonfert, his biographers report, he ruled as many as 3,000 monks!
Many of the old Irish monks left Ireland in search of more deserted spots across the main. Brendan certainly visited one of these self-exiled ascetics, St. Columba, who had crossed the Irish Sea to lona, to become the apostle of Scotland. Brendan may also have visited Wales, and even Brittany in France,
But the Navigation records the holy abbot’s longest trip, a westward voyage on the open Atlantic in search of “The Land of Promise”. He and his monks built a large seaworthy coracle — a type of boat still used in Ireland, consisting of a wooden or wicker frame covered with leather. Brendan and 14 or more companion monks then set sail from western Ireland, and touched en route upon many lands. Among the islands they encountered, one was covered with birds, another with sheep, another with grapevines, and yet another spouted fire. They saw pillars of crystal float by. They halted on Easter to celebrate Mass on a small barren island, and then built a breakfast fire. When the fire was kindled, the island suddenly started moving. The travelers quickly clambered aboard their boat and watched the supposed islet speed away.
They had landed on a sleeping whale! Eventually the monks reached their paradisal, subtropical destination in the western Atlantic. Then they sailed back to Ireland.
Much of this narrative is fantasy, but it may well be based on a real pre-Leif Ericsson voyage to North America. In 1976-77 explorer Tim Severin and a few colleagues built a large leather boat of the same coracle type and made the journey from Ireland to Newfoundland. En route they noted islands full of birds and sheep, and vines, as well as firespouting volcanic islands that could have been those described in the Navigation. The pillars of crystal mentioned could easily have been icebergs. Severin’s trip therefore proved that an ocean voyage in such a boat was possible. Interestingly enough, there are modern stories of sailors disembarking on quiescent whales. But only archaeological evidence can prove if Brendan or other early Irish navigators actually reached North America.
Especially because of the wide circulations of the Brendan saga, the Irish monastic founder became known throughout Europe. All the old maps showed his fabulous “Land of Promise,” (also called “San Brendan,” “The Fortunate Isle,” or ” Hy-Brasil”), indicated now here, now there in the Atlantic.
Brendan spent his last years at home. He died while visiting his sister Brig, a nun, in Annaghdown. Fearing that after his death his devotees might try to make off with his remains, the Saint had arranged before dying to have his body carried back to Clonfert secretly, concealed in a luggage cart bound for the monastery. He was buried in Clonfert cathedral.
–Father Robert F. McNamara