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St Brendan's Voyage to the Land of Youth

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A long time ago there was a monk named Brendan who lived in a poor cell on the Sliabh Daidche, by the western sea. He had been a great adventurer and traveller but was no longer a young man. Then one day he had a vision of a wonderful land that lay beyond the waters, a land served by angels where nobody aged. That night, in a dream, an angel spoke to him and said he would watch over him and guide him to the land.

So Brendan decided to set out on one last great adventure to search out the land of youth. He had built a very large ship with strong hides nailed over it. The hides were covered with pitch so the ship was watertight. Everybody was keen to sail with him but he chose his fourteen most trusted brothers.

They rowed out and the great sea and the wind drove the ship eastwards for forty days and nights. At last they saw a large island surrounded by hard rocks. Finding a little harbour, they came ashore. Suddenly a very handsome hound came and fell down at Brendan's feet in welcome. The hound brought them to a great hall where there was a table set out with bread and fish. After they had eaten their supper, they found beds ready for them and slept.

Next day they went back to their ship and sailed a long time with no sight of land. Finally, they saw a very green island. A kindly old man greeted them. "Welcome to the Land of Sheep," he said. "Here it is always summer. That is why the sheep are so large and so white, for the grass and the herbs are the best anywhere."

They looked about them and saw the whitest and finest sheep they had ever seen, each one the size of an ox. "Go on," said the old man, "until you come to the Paradise of Birds; there you will keep your Easter."

Back at sea, storms tossed and drove the ship onwards. Before them they saw another little island. "This is not the Paradise of Birds," said Brendan. However the brothers went to land. They put fish in a cauldron and lighted a fire to boil it.

No sooner was the fire hot and the fish beginning to boil, than the island began to quake and to move. In great terror the brothers scrambled back aboard the ship. To their astonishment they saw the island moving through the sea at speed until the fire was now burning a long way off. Brendan calmed them for in a vision he had been told that the island was really a great fish, the biggest in the world. His name was Jasconye and he was labouring day and night to put his tail into his mouth.

They sailed on westward, with no sight of land. Just as they were becoming very downhearted, they saw a beautiful island full of herbs and trees. They travelled through this lovely country until they came to a well with a tree beside it. The tree had many branches and on every branch were the most beautiful white birds, so many that hardly a leaf could be seen. The birds were singing and their song was incredibly joyful.

A bird flew towards them. Its flickering wings made a noise like a fiddle. Brendan asked, "Why do you sing so happily?" The bird replied, "Once we were angels but when our master Lucifer fell from heaven, we fell along with him. Because our offence was small, we have been put here in merriment to serve in whatever way we can."

The bird continued, "It has been twelve months, since your journey began, in seven years your journey will end. During these years you will keep your Easter here, until you find the blessed land." Then the birds sang the Easter songs and the monks celebrated. After eight weeks the little bird again came and told Brendan to sail on to an island where they would find twenty-four holy brothers. Here they would spend Christmas.

Once more they set out and the winds hurled them up and down. For four months they were tossed and turned with nothing to look at but the sky and the waves. At last they saw an island a good way off; but the waves rose about them and for another forty days they remained at sea. Exhausted they finally they came to a little harbour. They cast the anchor and waded ashore.

An old man came to them in welcome. He led them to a great Abbey. Here they found twenty-four holy brothers in cloaks of woven gold. A royal crown was before them and candles burned on every side. The brothers noticed that, despite burning constantly, the candles never seemed to need replacing.

They were served food and drank waters from a pure well. The abbot told them that the Holy men had not spoken a word for sixty years. Brendan and his brothers stayed through Christmas. Then they bade farewell to the abbot and returned to their ship.

The sea tumbled them up and down until once again they reached the Isle of sheep. It was Palm Sunday. The same old man welcomed them. Then they sailed to the place where the fish Jasconye was lying. The cauldron was still on his back. This time he stayed as still as stone as they cooked and ate their supper.

On arriving at the Isle of Birds, they were told their journey would continue in this way through the years until they reached the land of promise. But each year the journey would be harder, the storms fiercer and the dangers greater. Undeterred the monks continued their journey.

One day a monstrous fish chased the boat. It cast up such great spouts of water that they nearly drowned. The fish was coming towards them so fast that all looked lost. Then suddenly another fish, even bigger, came from the west and swallowed the first fish whole.

For many days after this the men suffered hunger, for all their food was gone. Then a little bird, carrying a great branch of red grapes, visited the ship. The men lived off the grapes until they came to an island full of beautiful trees with fruit on every bough. They collected the fruit and returned to the ship.

Back on board they sailed through great storms and turbulent seas. Before long an even greater sea monster arose from the depths and attacked the ship. The boat rocked and the terrified men clung on for their lives. In the midst of the chaos the little bird appeared. It struck out the monster's eyes and the monster fell back into the sea.

After this for days they rowed through calm seas until they reached an unknown place where the water was so clear that they could see the sea bottom many leagues below crowded with fish. Then for several days they travelled through a sea full of the most wondrous cathedrals of ice. Finally a south wind arose and they saw, far away in the north, a dark country full of stench and smoke. They heard great blasting of bellows and the noise of blows.

Suddenly demons surrounded them on every side, with tongues of flame and fiery hammers. They crowded around the boat until the sea itself seemed aflame. But the demons began to roar and cry for they could not touch or harm the men. "We will come here no more," said Brendan, "for this is the border of hell." The wind drove them farther north until they saw a fiery hill, the men gazed at it in fear and wonder.

Then the wind turned and drove the ship southward. They came to a small rock in the sea. On the rock was sitting the most wretched ghost. The waves of the sea had so beaten his body that he was just a skeleton of bare bones. Brendan asked why he was sitting there. "I am the ghost," he said, "of the most wretched. My rightful place is hell but sometimes I am allowed to come here. I bid you," he continued, "to keep me from the devils that will be coming after me tonight."

Brendan agreed, with God's help, to protect him through the night. "And tell me, what is the stone you are sitting on?" said Brendan. "This stone I found lying in a desolate place and I took it and laid it in a boggy path where it was a great comfort to those that passed that way; and because of that, it comforts me now," said the ghost. So Brendan protected the ghost through the night from the screeching devils and demons.

The next day a great wind drove them south until, on Easter's Eve, they reached once more the great fish. On its back they ate and prayed. And when the Mass was ended the fish swam out very far into the sea. The brothers were terrified, but the fish set them down at the Paradise of Birds. Here they spent their time as before and so it continued until their seventh year, when once again they set sail eastward.

They sailed through a great shower of hail then a dark mist surrounded them. For many days they could see nothing until they heard a voice say; "Be glad for you have come to the Land of Promise." They came out of the dark mist and saw the loveliest country ever. It was light and full of joy. Every herb was full of blossom and every tree was full of ripe fruit. The ground shone with precious stones and there was no darkness.

The true happiness that they found there could never be described. It was, they were told, the land that would be given to the good and the just at the world's end. Here they stayed for forty days, until they came to a river. Beyond the river was a country of endless beauty.

By the river was a young man who said to Brendan, "Across the river is the country you have been seeking, the land of youth and joy. But it is God's will you should go back to Ireland without delay. He will show you more of his hidden things when you come again. Fill your ship with fruit and be on your way, for your life is near its end. This river you see is the mering" he said "that divides the worlds. And no living being can cross."

Brendan and his comrades collected fruit and precious stones and sadly set sail home. On reaching Ireland they were greeted with delight and there were great celebrations. As for Brendan, his mind was already looking towards the ageless kingdom to which he would soon return. And it is in Ireland that Brendan died and was buried and they renamed Sliabh Daidche "Brandon Mountain" in honour of the great adventurer who finally reached the land of the forever young.

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