St Brendan's Voyage to the Land of Youth - origins
Who was Brendan?
St Brendan on his travels
Brendan of Clonfert was an early Irish Monk and Saint with a reputation as a traveller or wanderer. He was also known as Brendan the Navigator or Voyager. He was born around 484 and died in 578 AD.
He is famous for his legendary journey to the Isle of the Blessed (called Tír na nÓg), also known as the Land of Youth, Delight or Promise; an adventurous trip with a crew of monks to explore a mysterious Celtic 'otherworld' reached over the western seas.
Brendan was born near Ciarraight Luachra (present day Tralee, County Kerry) in south west Ireland. He was baptized and educated by Saint Eric who ordained him as a priest in 512. Between the years 512 and 530 St. Brendan built Monasteries at Ardfert, and Inis-da-druim (now Coney Island, County Clare).
He also travelled to Britain visiting Wales around 550 and then Iona off the west coast of Scotland. After three years travelling in Britain he returned to Ireland where he founded more churches including one at the foot of Mount Brandon and a great monastery at Clonfert, where he lies buried. He spent his final years at Annaghdown. He was recognised as a saint by the Irish church, and his feast day is May 16th.
Why is the voyage legendary?
The story is legendary because of it combines elements from Christian teachings with monsters from Celtic myths and folk tales.
In these days sea travel was still very dangerous and the sea thought to hold many strange mysteries.
On his trip, Brendan is supposed to have seen a Blessed Island covered with vegetation. He encounters sea monsters and lands on an island which turns out to be a giant fish.
There are many version of the story. In some there are sixty pilgrims in others fourteen, along with 2 or 3 unbelievers that join at the last minute. All tell of his journey across the Atlantic Ocean searching for a place he was told about by an angel.
One of the earliest written versions is the Dutch Des Reis van Sint Brandaen (The Voyage of Saint Brandon), written in the 12th century and based on a lost text. In this version the journey is nine years. An angel sends him on his voyage after seeing him throw into a fire a book on the miracles of creation. The angel tells him he is destroying the truth.
On his journey he encounters both the wonders and terrors of the world. Creatures that are half human half animals, the wretched ghost of Judas and of course the giant fish.
As well as this journey he is also reputed to have visited St. Columba at Hinda (Argyle) and accompanied St. Malo to Brittany.
Are there any similar stories?
Paradise or heaven
The Voyage of St. Brendan is one example of a popular form of literature found in Ireland, known as an 'imrama' based around a hero's adventures in a boat.
Another example would be the voyage of Bran a much earlier work which has similarities to the Voyage of Brendan.
These stories may have become popular due to the travels of Irish Monks, who went out in their boats to establish monasteries, often in remote places.
An encounter with a sea monster is also found in the tales of St. Columba, who lived at about the same time. The most commonly illustrated adventure is his landing on an island which turns out to be a giant fish. This tale is found not only in Irish mythology but in other traditions tales such a Sinbad the Sailor.
Heaven was also known in early literature as the land of the forever young or the delightful plain. In some accounts it was an island beyond the sea. So Brendan's final location in this version of the story was heaven. In later myths this also become the island of Avalon to which King Arthur was borne after his last battle. The Author C.S.Lewis also used similar ideas in his tale 'The Voyage of the Dawn Treader.
Was the Voyage real and did he really discover the Americas?
Brendan discovering the Faroes and Iceland
Although the story is told to illustrate Christian ideas and beliefs, it was not written down until 700-1000 AD many years after Brendan lived.
Therefore, it has been argued, the story could have been based on an actual voyage, but changed later to support the religious beliefs of the time.
If the journey did happen, it would have taken place around 530, before his travel to the island of Britain, not at the end of his life as in our story. The ending was possibly changed later to emphasize religious ideas of heaven. Although in some versions his trip to the Isle of Youth is a separate journey to the main voyage made towards the end of his life.
It has been suggested that the land Brendan finally reached was America. While many historians scoff at such an idea, others have argued that cave dwellings throughout north-eastern North America reflect a strong Celtic influence.
In 1976, Irish explorer Tim Severin built an ox leather curragh to see if the journey would have been possible. On his voyage, he encountered various sights which he suggests were really the fantastic sights from the legends of Brendan. The story includes 'mountains spouting fire' (volcanoes), floating crystal palaces (icebergs), monsters (large sea mammals - walruses, whales).
He also identified a route, with places that matched the description given by Brendan and over two summers sailed the boat from Ireland via the Hebrides, Faroe Islands (isle of sheep) and Iceland (burning hill) arriving safely in Newfoundland but after suffering terrible storms on the way.
When a large seaside rock with inscriptions on it resembling Irish letters was discovered in Newfoundland a few years ago, it led Canada's national archivist to declare, "There is no doubt that Irish monks reached our shores before the Vikings."
It is even said that Christopher Columbus visited Dingle to secure information about Brendan's alleged trip before setting out to find a westward route to China. A map that he used when sailing from Spain in 1492 featured a large land mass in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean labelled 'Saint Brendan's Island.'