Academic Features

Navigating the Voyage of St. Brendan

Written by Jack McGlone. Voyaging into the unknown was a constant for the early Medieval explorer. What drove them? What did they write down? And, might their hope offer inspiration for us today?

Brendan of Clonfert is a figure whose mark on maritime history is still visible, even if it is just in a nominal sense. Indeed, the saint, who is among the most noteworthy of Ireland’s Twelve Apostles, boasts a myriad of titles (the ‘Navigator’, the ‘Voyager’) and patronages (boatmen, divers, whales – portaging canoes, even) that all toe a similarly nautical-themed line.

Brendan was born in County Kerry in the 480s AD and, after his ordination in 512AD, set off from Ireland’s Southwest with a proselytising zeal that aligned with his keen eye for adventure – one that seems to have persisted over the course of his life. Brendan’s ventures produced monasteries across Ireland and into the Scottish Hebrides; churches are known to have been established in his name in Tiree and Mull, and Adamnan’s Life of Saint Columba recounts his presence at Iona. Medieval accounts of further voyages to the Orkneys, Wales, and Brittany helped craft the rich seafaring legacy that is associated with the saint.

This legacy was cemented in the Navigatio Sancti Brendani Abbatis (“The Voyage of Saint Brendan the Abbot”), a Latin epic composed sometime between the mid-eighth and early tenth centuries, which documents a legendary expedition in search of Terra Repromissionis, “the Promised Land of Saints”. Stylistically, the saga invokes the Celtic immrama, holy seafaring fables in which devout heroes set out in search of a heavenly Otherworld in the distant West. In it, Brendan, and a gutsy crew of monks, traverse the waters of the North Atlantic for seven action-packed years, encountering a series of fantastical creatures and mystical lands before eventually setting foot on paradise. The tale was wildly popular throughout Europe and lent itself to the prevailing Medieval belief that there was a “Paradise of Adam” to be found on Earth, prompting centuries of fierce debate over the possible geographical location of St. Brendan’s island. Pre-Columbian sea charts place it anywhere from the Faroe Islands to the Azores, but more recent scholarship has yielded a much more tantalising hypothesis: North America.

The prospect of a sixth-century transatlantic roundtrip is a fun one. It would anticipate Leif Erikson’s expedition to the Americas by a few hundred years at least, Columbus’ efforts by almost a millennium, and it potentializes a screed of far-reaching historical and cultural implications. However, aspersions are cast concerning the reliability of the Navigatio (its outwardly fantastical character, with detailed portrayals of gryphons, sea monsters, and the entrance to Hell itself, detracts somewhat from its utility as a historical document); as well as the durability of Brendan’s vessel – could a light, open-topped currach as described in the text seriously contend with the vast and volatile waters of the Atlantic?

These criticisms tend to miss the point somewhat, but they do give way to broader questions. Why did the story resonate so deeply and spread so widely in the first place? And is there any wisdom still to be found in the story of a half-mythical saint’s Christian Odyssey?

To answer these, one must look at Brendan’s surrounding historical context. We know that, after the fall of Rome, Ireland and its monasteries played a key role in the preservation of classical literature, keeping the flame of Greco-Roman culture firmly alight through an era once so reductively dubbed, the ‘Dark Ages’. But retaining some semblance of the Principate was just one side of the denarius. The Irish, once converted in the fifth century, proved a particularly intrepid lot: their efforts to take Christianity to farther flung shores were vital in consolidating the ascendant geopolitical hegemon of Western Christendom, whose vena cavawas an extraordinarily vibrant and cosmopolitan monastic network.

This network made increasing use of the North Sea and beyond, whose waters, long neglected during the heights of the Roman empire, were not so neatly connected by ancient trade and war routes as those in the Mediterranean. They instead offered an altogether more dangerous and inspiring experience. Michael Pye notes that, “in the North, the sea was still legend, so when men went sailing they knew they were testing the edge of the world”. For these sailors, the black waters of the North were equivalent to the vacuous terror of outer space; a Nietzschean abyss which spat out their deepest fears in the form of biblical leviathans, Homeric sirens, and terrible squalls.

In this context, the intense religiosity attached to the sea starts to make a lot of sense. Undertaking a voyage to the edge of the known world was an extraordinary leap of faith; Christianity as a belief system was now in bloom and it served as a sturdy mast to cling onto in the proverbial storms that would undoubtedly come. The North Atlantic thus became a theatre in which saints and sailors set out to affirm their faith be it in the fulfilment of mission-work, the establishment of new far-off settlements, or in the search of an earthly paradise, it was always an endeavour of immense hope.

Brendan and his Irish cohorts were the literal flagship in this culture of itinerant hope. Nordic Sagas note that cloisters of Irish monks had been living in Iceland for some time before the arrival of Norse settlers in the 870s. In one of the more fantastical sections of the Navigatio, Brendan encounters Judas Iscariot suffering for his sins on the red-hot rocks of a fiery hellscape; a hellscape now thought to be the volcanic islands on Iceland’s south coast. Art imitates life indeed.

While deciphering the practical subtext of such stories is part of the fun, sometimes there is no work needed. The Navigatio contains clear instructions on how to adapt a currach for long-haul journeys:

‘They covered it with ox hides tanned with the bark of oak and smeared all the joints of the hides on the outside with fat… They also placed a mast in the middle of the boat and a sail and the other requirements for steering a boat’.

In 1976, British historian and explorer, Tim Severin, recreated the Brendan currach in accordance to the stated guidelines, handcrafted with traditional iron tools. Severin’s replica made the astonishing 4,500-mile journey to Newfoundland in thirteen months, proving that such a voyage was at the very least possible.

These ramblings are not meant as a treatise on Irish exceptionalism, and they do not present irrefutable evidence of Brendan ever setting foot on American shores.

Our world now seems far less opaque than Brendan’s was. Global interconnectivity (as well as the intrusive purviews of corporations and governments alike) has swept away the world’s natural mysteries: maps have been mapped, cities erected, populations tracked and traced. Save some eccentric off-gridders and insular Amazonian tribesmen who are keeping the romance alive, today’s world plays by the new rules of the Digital Age – meaning that everything is accounted for and nuance is old news, essentially. Old-time deference to the unknown bred humility and hope in equal measure, but this feeling has since been replaced by an exceedingly world-weary malaise that can only be explained by our inescapable and intoxicating accessibility to information. The cross we bear: data ad infinitum.

We may no longer need the existential relief offered by a saint’s patronage, but the philosophy of hope intrinsic to the figure of Brendan the Voyager is a surely a universal one, and one we would do well to remember.

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