Saint Brendan of Clonfert - the Navigator

Irish Monk, Saint and Claim to the Discovery of America

Saint Brendan - as portrayed at the Knock Shrine
Saint Brendan - as portrayed at the Knock Shrine. © Bernd Biege 2014

Saint Brendan (in Irish Bréanainn, in Icelandic Brandanus) of Clonfert lived in the late 5th and early 6th century - and amongst the numerous Irish saints his unique claim to fame is the discovery of America.

Or is it?

He was known as a navigator due to the tale told about his forays into the wide unknown. Which might have included a trip to America. Proven possible. But what is the actual historical truth?

Let us have a quick look at Brendan and his boating.  

The Historical Brendan

Starting with a disclaimer - as usual, there is  very little actual information or documentation available about the historical Brendan. Only the approximate dates of his birth and death plus accounts of some events in his life can be found in annals and genealogies. The rest is hagiography, like the "Life of Brendan" and the "Voyage of Saint Brendan the Abbot". Both more interesting in the way they reflect his influence on Christianity in Ireland. But both composed literally ages after he passed away. 

Brendan was born in about 484, tradition has this happening in or at least near Tralee (County Kerry). Educated from an early age by churchmen and -women, he is said to have joined Saint Jarlath's monastery school at Tuam at the age of six.

Ordained as a priest by Saint Erc in around 512, Brendan embarked on a missionary career and became known as one of the "Twelve Apostles of Ireland".

This coincided with the beginning of his career as "the Navigator" (also "the Voyager" or, less specific "the Bold") - Brendan choosing a boat-based mission around the coasts and islands of (or off) Ireland. Being bold he also ventured to Scotland, Wales and Brittany ... founding monasteries on the way.

During these endeavours Brendan assembled a band of monks who joined him on a quest to sail to the "Land of Promise", an earthly paradise of sorts, not to be confused with the more conservative "promised land" in the area of today's Israel.

The Brendan Voyage - an Irish Tradition

"The Voyage of Saint Brendan" is really a genre piece - and part of a very popular form of literature in old Ireland, namely the "immram". Travel writing involving daring heroes, boats and the search for a better world. Like the land of eternal youth, Tir na nOg, often described as an island west of Ireland, far away, even beyond the edge of the world..

The Irish immram  was especially popular in the 7th and 8th centuries, the first versions of Brendan's voyage may have been recorded at this time, conflated with other tales. Which makes it impossible to determine which parts are "original", which parts are allegories and which are (more or less) factual accounts. 

A Very Short Synopsis of the Brendan Voyage

As the tale exists in a number of versions, here are the bare bones: Brendan sets out with a group of followers (not necessarily all on them believers) to find the "Isle of the Blessed" or the "Land of Promise", a vaguely Christianized version of Tir na nOg and almost heaven on earth (or paradise).

On this voyage many adventures wait ... from natural phenomena to mythological beasts. And temptation, always temptation.

On the (presumably) Kerry coast, Brendan builds a traditional Irish boat of wattle, covers it with tanned hides and, after the obligatory fast of forty days, sails off into the sunset. The reason for this venture? Apparently Saint Barrid has been there, done that and told the tale, so Brendan got the itch as well. 

Off they go from island to island and across huge stretches of water. Encountering (amongst others) Ethiopian devils, birds singing psalms, never-ageing monks, a well with water that acts as a powerful sedative, various "sea creatures" that conveniently kill each other off, a griffon, Judas on a holiday from hell, a hermit fed by a tame otter and so on ... until they finally arrive at the "Land of Promise", high-five each other, sail home and that's it.

Gripping stuff, but not exactly Nobel Prize material. And, very generally speaking, a continuous exhortation to lead a good, Christian life.

The American Connection

Some of the events in the Brendan Voyage have been interpreted as descriptions of real places. Apart from the obvious like the island that sinks when the monks light a fire on it ... you do not light fires on whales. But take the island inhabited by a tribe of ferocious blacksmiths, throwing glowing coals at the travellers. Could this be Iceland, complete with volcanic activity?

In the end it all depends on how you read the Brendan Voyage, not how it is written ...

And that applies to the discovery of America as well. Which is based on the assumption that if you sail west from Ireland the next stop is America. Which is true ... if you hold a true course and are not diverted to Greenland, Iceland, the Canary Islands, the Azores or somewhere else. Remember that the last person discovering America thought that he had arrived in India.

Only after the immram of Brendan had been almost completely assigned to the real of tall tales, joining such worthies as Ulysses and Sinbad, the idea came up that here we actually have "proof" that the Irish were the first Europeans to reach America. One possible interpretation of the text ... but without real factual basis. 

Proof of Possibility - Tim Severin

The British explorer, historian and writer Tim Severin (who also penned a cracking yarn on the adventures of Hector Lynch, abducted from Ireland by Barbary corsairs) tried to re-enact Brendan's voyage in real life. In 1976 he built a replica of Brendan's boat with traditional tools only, eleven metres long, held together by leather tongs and sealed with nothing but wool grease. 

Setting out to sea in May 1976, Severin and a crew of fellow adventurers sailed the "Brendan" on a journey of more than 7,000 kilometres from Ireland to Newfoundland, complete with a stop-over in Iceland. During the recreation of Brendan's voyage, Severin attempted to identify the true-life basis for the "legendary" elements in the immram. Not all of them, but a fair number.

This, together with the undisputed fact that Severin managed to sail the "Brendan" to North America, leads a certain credential to the "American Connection" ... though it should not be seen as proof. The actual boat used during the expedition is preserved at the Craggaunowen Museum. For a gripping description, read Severin's book​, The Brendan Voyage.

And Brendan ... Where Did He Go?

He continued to travel, founded more monasteries and finally died in 577, his feast day is celebrated on May 16th. It is generally assumed that he was interred in Clonfert Cathedral.