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«1. The voyage of St Brendan - not just a tall tale? A note to help answer some of the queries raised in the classroom. 2. Navigatio Sancti Brendanis ...»

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‘Ireland in Schools’

St Brendan the Navigator

Notes for teachers

1. The voyage of St Brendan - not just a tall tale?

A note to help answer some of the queries raised in the classroom.

2. Navigatio Sancti Brendanis Abbatis (Voyage of Saint Brendan the Abbot)

‘The bare bones’ of the tenth-century text of St Brendan’s voyage, ‘rendered down into the factual narrative

of a remarkable venture by sea’

‘Ireland in Schools’

The voyage of St Brendan - not just a tall tale?

A note to help answer some of the queries raised in the classroom St. Brendan was born in Ireland about 488 AD 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 AD. St. Brendan’s Feast Day is 16 May. He is the patron saint of boatmen, mariners, sailors, travellers and whales.

Voyage to the west Brendan’s most famous voyage was to the west. According to tradition, he was in his seventies when he and seventeen other monks set out on a westward voyage in a currach or coracle, a wood-framed boat covered in sewn ox-hides. They were seeking the ‘Promised Land of the Saints’, said to lie far to the west of Ireland. The monks sailed about the North Atlantic for seven years, according to details set down in the tenth-century Latin text Navigatio Sancti Brendani Abbatis (Voyage of Saint Brendan the Abbot).

Weaving through the topographical details of the Navigatio are a detailed description of the construction of his boat, which was not unlike the currachs still made in County Kerry today, and accounts of the perils and hardships of the sea. It is vivid writing, as in the description of the submarine volcano off Iceland, the Dantesque account of the weekend leave of Judas from Hell spent on a wave-drenched, but cooling rock, and accounts of unfamiliar monsters.

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.

Scepticism Sceptics could not accept that such a fragile vessel as a currach could possibly sail in the open sea.

Several passages in the legend also seemed incredible. The monks were ‘raised up on the back of sea monsters’;

passed by ‘crystals that rose up to the sky’; were ‘pelted with flaming, foul smelling rocks by the inhabitants of a large island on their route’, and 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.

Tim Severin’s voyage In 16 May 1976, Tim Severin, a British navigation scholar, embarked from Brandon Creek on the Dingle peninsula in a currach 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 for 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) - 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 travelled on these waters visited these islands and recorded their meeting with ‘Papers’(fathers).

Supporting the traditional story 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 wary of man.

So friendly that they may have lifted the monks’ 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 the Labrador-Greenland iceberg belt (‘The Crystal Pillar’) and to Iceland where they wintered, as did Brendan, with two Icelandic volcanoes (the ‘Island of Smiths’ and the ‘Fiery Mountain’). The IiS, St Brendan: Notes for Teachers, 2 volcanoes, active for many centuries, 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 to make a repair with a piece of leather sewn over the hole. They landed on the island of Newfoundland on 26 June, 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.

Other evidence of the Irish in early America Other evidence of Irish exploration of North America has come to light with the discovery of stone carvings in West Virginia. Dated between 500 and 1000 AD, they are written in Old Irish using the Ogham alphabet (an alphabet for the Irish language based on twenty-five characters represented by a system of strokes or notches). It seems possible that the inscriptions may have been made by Irish missionaries in the wake of Brendan’s voyage, for these inscriptions are Christian with the early Christian symbols of piety, such as the various Chi-Rho monograms (Name of Christ) and the Dextra Dei (Right Hand of God).

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 an embarkation point that far south. The design of their currach required favourable 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.

The meaning of Brendan’s voyage According to Professor George Simms (Brendan the Navigator. Exploring the Ancient World, O’Brien Press, 0-86278-241Brendan’s journey was not measured by any map, nor was it organised by a timetable. It was quite a different kind of exercise with three separate meanings.

Adventure and discovery First, Brendan and his companions undertake a challenging adventure with great seafaring skills. This sea-journey, often called Brendan’s navigation, has become famous. Other sailors, explorers, and adventurers have been inspired by Brendan’s great achievement. They have followed his example and, as a result, have often discovered new countries and unknown islands.

Meaning of life Secondly, Brendan’s voyage is described as a journey of life. The meaning of the saint’s life is explained, as if he was from his first birthday right up to his death ‘on a journey’. We read of the problems that he faces. He meets many dangers. He escapes from storms and shipwrecks. He comes across enemies who attack the ship. He is also wonderfully helped by many kind, generous people on the way. His faith gives him and his crew the strength and the courage to keep sailing.

It is not possible, of course, in this life-journey to trace on any map the places which he visits. The names of the islands describe his experiences: The Island of Delights and the Land of Promise and the Paradise of Birds are more than places on a chart or a map. They are part of Brendan’s vision. With the help of this journey, with all that happens on the way, Brendan sees what life is for. His bravery and his hopefulness make his life with God closer.

His faith is tested by these adventures, but grows stronger all the time. His life is made richer, more useful and more helpful to others. His example, even today, hundreds of years later, is followed by others who have been inspired by him.

This journey is not only a fine piece of navigation and seamanship. Quite clearly, it is a missionary journey. It is also a pilgrimage as Brendan wanders over the seas ‘for Christ’. It is, in fact, a spiritual journey. Brendan found not only new countries, which had not previously been discovered. He found happiness. The treasures he found were not highly-priced pieces of gold, silver or jewellery. They were instead valuable spiritual blessings, such as wisdom, new knowledge, true faith, and the freedom that is found by living a good and honest life, spent generously in God’s service with a caring love for all living creatures, including fellow human beings.

IiS, St Brendan: Notes for Teachers, 3 A way of life - a floating monastery Thirdly, the journey was guided and given shape by the rules, not of navigation alone, but of the monastery from which Brendan had started. We read of the feasts and festivals, as well as of the times of fasting, which are celebrated out at sea by the crew. The prayers of the whole liturgical round of the Christian year are recited faithfully and regularly as they sail along. They follow the same pattern set by the prayers of the cloisters and the church within the monastery walls.

The travellers celebrate Christmas on one island, and Easter on another. They keep the fast of Lent and train, not only as oarsmen with hard rowing, but as monks who belong to a community, bound closely to one another and to God by prayers and psalms and spiritual songs. The long day is divided up. Every three hours they strengthen their lives and their spirits with prayer.

In the course of the voyage, they meet another community. St Ailbe, the abbot, welcomes them. They share the life of silence on an island out there far away from Ireland. They learn how the old abbot, now 140 years old, strengthens the life in his community and counts his blessings, since God gives to him everything he needs.

The monks loved the psalms in a special way. In some places they found that it was the custom to recite the whole book of 150 psalms each day. They spoke of praying the words of ‘the three fifties’. In many places in the story of Brendan’s navigation, written several hundreds of years after the voyage, there are quotations from these psalms.

Some are psalms of welcome which they hear as they approach an island-harbour, like this one:

‘Brother, how good and joyful a thing it is to dwell together in unity.’

Other psalms have a real taste of the sea in their words:

‘They that go down to the sea in ships and occupy their business in great waters... these see the works of the Lord and his wonders in the deep!’ Reflection Brendan’s name has appeared on the old ocean-maps. His story has been told in many languages. Brendan (or Bran-don) island is marked in mid-Atlantic on the map, made in Portugal by Toscanelli in 1474, and used by Christopher Columbus.

There is a Brendan Society today which seeks to encourage all the nations of the world to combine in friendship and peaceful co-operation with a Brendan-like ‘outgoing spirit’. The stone carving at Bantry, county Cork, outlines a boat, like Brendan’s, as ‘he rows heavenward’. Many are the signs and traditions surrounding this famous navigator. He, who has inspired intrepid explorers to adventure for Christ, remaining humbled by his own experiences in ‘his dusty little coracle on the broad-bosomed glorious ocean.’ At the end of his life, he was still humble and not, in the worldly sense, at all boastful or proud of his achievement

as he said:

‘I fear the solitary journey by so dark a way; I fear the unknown journey to go before my King, the sentence of the Judge!’

–  –  –

Many people think that St. Brendan, an Irish monk, discovered America nearly 1,000 years before Christopher Columbus. The story of St. Brendan’s travels is full of strange adventures.

St. Brendan lived from the year 488 to about 580. One day, a friend told him about the Promised Land of the Saints. On this island day never ends. The rocks are jewels. Every tree had fruit which was good to eat. Every plant had flowers with wonderful smells. The air was always warm. St. Brendan set out to find this wonderful island.

First he and some of his monks built a boat. It had a wooden frame covered with cowhides. The outside was smeared with grease to make it waterproof. It had one sail. St. Brendan blessed the boat and had it filled with supplies. Then he set off to the West with a few monks.

After many days the men spotted an island. A dog led the monks to a large house, filled with marvellous furnishings. There was bread, fish, and water for each of the visitors. Then they slept in comfortable beds. For three days, the sailors ate and rested. Except for the dog, no other living creature was seen on the entire island. Then they set sail again.

On another island, the monks met a man who gave them many supplies. He also told them that they would sail for seven years before returning to Ireland.

Not long after leaving that island, St. Brendan and his monks stepped onto a stony beach. They collected a small pile of driftwood and began to cook lunch. But as the fire burned hotter, the earth began to move.

What could be happening? The monks shook in fear. The land began to shake and sink into the water.

Racing for the boat, the monks paddled away as fast as they could. When they looked back, they saw the ‘island’ was really a giant fish.



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