Born c. 484-489; died at Annaghdown, Ireland, c. 577-583.
I fear that I shall journey alone, that the way will be
dark; I fear the unknown land, the presence of my King
and the sentence of my judge. --The dying words of
Saint Brendan to his sister Abbess Brig.
St. Brendan of Ardfert and Clonfert, known also as Brendan the Voyager,
was born in Ciarraighe Luachra, near the present city of Tralee, County
Kerry, Ireland, in 484; he died at Enachduin, now Annaghdown, in 577. He
was baptized at Tubrid, near Ardfert, by Bishop Erc.
Like the wanderings of Ulysses, the story of Saint Brendan voyaging over
perilous waters was a popular story in the Middle Ages. We see him as
only a shadow in the old Celtic world, and who he was or where he came
from is uncertain, though it is supposed that he was born the son of
Findlugh near Tralee on Fenit Peninsula in Kerry, Ireland, of an ancient
and noble line. It is said that, as a child, he was committed to the
Saint Ita the
Brigid of Munster
(f.d. January 15)
for five years, who introduced him to theology. She taught him three
things that God really loves:
the true faith of a pure heart; the
simple religious life; and bountifulness inspired by Christian charity.
She would have added the three things God hates are
a scowling face;
obstinate wrong-doing; and too much confidence in money.
When he was six he was sent to
(f.d. June 6)
school at Tuam for his education. He was also under the tutelage of
Bishop Saint Erc of Slane
(f.d. October 31),
who had baptized him and, in
512, ordained Brendan to the priesthood. Brendan was a contemporary and
(f.d. December 12)
(f.d. January 29)
at Llancarfan in Wales, and that later he founded a
monastery at Saint Malo.
Like his master Saint Jarlath, he is reputed to have founded churches in
Britain and Wales, as well as schools and monasteries in Ireland. After
founding several settlements in Kerry, he sailed up the Shannon to found
the famous monastery at Clonfert. Montague reminds us that even if
Brendan had never left the islands, he would have merited recognition as
one of the great saints of Ireland.
It is hard to pin down the chronology of his life; however, it seems
that shortly after his ordination, Brendan became a monk and gathered a
community of disciples around himself. Between the years 512 and 530
St. Brendan built monastic cells at Ardfert, and at Shanakeel or
Baalynevinoorach, at the foot of Brandon Hill. Brendan's connection to
the foundation of Clonfert in Galway about 559 appears certain. His
biographer's speak of his governing a community of 3,000 monks with a
rule dictated to him by an angel. This foundation became the
fountainhead for missionary activities for centuries.
(f.d. March 8)
stood on his promontory on Scattery Island and in one day
counted seven ships carrying students from overseas up the Shannon to
Clonfert. Somehow Brendan is presumed to have left his brethren behind
to begin his travels (or did he found the monastery thereafter?).
Though Brendan was a real person, fabulous stories are told how his
wanderings in search of an unknown land, perhaps the Faroes, the
Canaries, or the Azores. For seven years he voyaged to find the
Promised Land of the Saints.
On the Kerry coast, with 14 chosen monks, he built a coracle of wattle,
covered it with hides tanned in oak bark softened with butter, and set
up a mast and a sail, and after a prayer upon the shore, he embarked in
the name of the Trinity to extend the Kingdom of God on earth. With his
sixty companions he set sail with a month's provisions to seek the
Island of the Blessed--a remnant of ancient Celtic folklore. On board
the ship, all the rules of monastic life were strictly observed. After
strange wanderings that included celebrating the Divine Offering on the
back of a whale, he returned to Ireland to found Clonfert.
The old Irish Calendars assigned a special feast for the
familiae S. Brendani,
on 22 March; and St Aengus the Culdee, in his
Litany, at the close of the eighth century, invokes
the sixty who
accompanied St. Brendan in his quest of the Land of Promise.
the story of the seven years' voyage was carried about, and, soon,
crowds of pilgrims and students flocked to Ardfert. Thus, in a few
years, many religious houses were formed at Gallerus, Kilmalchedor,
Brandon Hill, and the Blasquet Islands, in order to meet the wants of
those who came for spiritual guidance to St. Brendan.
Having established the See of Ardfert, St. Brendan proceeded to Thomond,
and founded a monastery at Inis-da-druim (now Coney Island, County
Clare), in the present parish of Killadysert, about the year 550. He
then journeyed to Wales, and thence to Iona, and left traces of his
apostolic zeal at Kilbrandon (near Oban) and Kilbrennan Sound. After a
three years' mission in Britain he returned to Ireland, and did much
good work in various parts of Leinster, especially at Dysart (Co.
Kilkenny), Killiney (Tubberboe), and Brandon Hill. He founded the Sees
of Ardfert, and of Annaghdown, and established churches at Inchiquin,
County Galway, and at Inishglora, County Mayo. His most celebrated
foundation was Clonfert, in 557, over which he appointed St. Moinenn as
Prior and Head Master.
It is said that Columbus, to whom Brendan's story would have been
familiar, may have been inspired by the saint's epic saga Navigatio
Sancti Brendani Abbatis
, which had been translated into the major
languages of Europe and was included in university curricula.
Historians, such as G. A. Little, have stated that Columbus even visited
Clonfert before setting out on his voyage to India and that his crew
included many Irishmen. Long before Columbus, the Irish monks were
renowned as travellers and explorers. Tradition says that they reached
Iceland and explored even farther afield in the Atlantic--perhaps as far
While the oldest extant version of the Navigatio
was written in the
10th century, scholars agree that it is a 9th-century Irish composition.
Under the guise of an adventure tale, the anonymous author paints a
detailed picture of the ideal monastic life. It was so well written
that even Dante drew upon its images in his Commedia
. The story was
so well accepted that cartographers, especially on the Iberian
Peninsula, continued to include Brendan's island at various places west
of Ireland. Only in the mid-18th century was belief in the existence of
the island abandoned.
Scholars long doubted the voyage to the Promised Land described by
Brendan could have been to North America, but some modern scholars now
believe that he may have done just that. In 1976-77, Tim Severin, an
expert on exploration, following the instructions in the Navigatio
built a hide-covered "curragh" and then sailed it from Ireland to
Newfoundland via Iceland and Greenland, demonstrating the accuracy of
its directions and descriptions of the places Brendan mentioned in his
epic. William Verity of Fort Lauderdale, Florida, sailed round trip
between Florida and Ireland in 1969 to
put the Brendan legend in
Even today inscriptions in the ogham script of Irish Gaelic found in
Newfoundland and in the northeast of the United States are being studied
on the assumption that they support the travels of Saint Brendan.
Brendan himself stands out in a dark age as the captain of a Christian
crew. Like the Greeks and the Vikings, he had a craving for the sea,
but he built his boat, and launched it in the name of the Lord and
sailed it under the ensign of the Cross. It is a thrilling saga, for
all its strangeness, and set many a sailor later to search in vain for
Saint Brendan's Island; but none ever found it, though it was said at
times to be seen, like an Isle of Paradise, riding above the surface of
Brendan probably died while visiting his sister Briga, abbess of a
convent at Enach Duin (Annaghdown). His story as it comes to us
includes his dying conversation with his sister. When he asked her to
assist his death with her prayers, she asked why he was afraid of dying.
I am afraid of loneliness on this dark journey to the
unknown land. I fear the presence of the King and the sentence of the
Foreseeing that there might be rivalry for his body, Brendan
requested that his death be kept a secret while his relics were returned
by cart to Clonfert in the disguise of luggage being sent ahead for his
Today all that is left of the once thriving Clonfert Monastery is a
single Hiberno-Romanesque door amidst the solitude
Voyage of St. Brendan
St. Brendan belongs to that glorious period in the history of Ireland
when the island in the first glow of its conversion to Christianity sent
forth its earliest messengers of the Faith to the continent and to the
regions of the sea. It is, therefore, perhaps possible that the legends,
current in the ninth and committed to writing in the eleventh century,
have for foundation an actual sea-voyage the destination of which cannot
however be determined. These adventures were called the Navigatio
, the Voyage or Wandering of St. Brendan, but there is no
historical proof of this journey. Brendan is said to have sailed in
search of a fabled Paradise with a company of monks, the number of which
is variously stated as from 18 to 150. After a long voyage of seven
years they reached the
or Paradise, a most
beautiful land with luxuriant vegetation. The narrative offers a wide
range for the interpretation of the geographical position of this land
and with it of the scene of the legend of St. Brendan. On the Catalonian
chart (1375) it is placed not very far west of the southern part of
Ireland. On other charts, however, it is identified with the
of the ancients and is placed towards the south. Thus it is put
among the Canary Islands on the Herford chart of the world (beginning of
the fourteenth century); it is substituted for the island of Madeira on
the chart of the Pizzigani (1367), on the Weimar chart (1424), and on
the chart of Beccario (1435).
As the increase in knowledge of this region proved the former belief to
be false the island was pushed
further out into the ocean. It is found 60 degrees west of the first
meridian and very near the equator on Martin Behaim's globe. The
inhabitants of Ferro, Gomera, Madeira, and the Azores positively
declared to Columbus that they had often seen the island and continued
to make the assertion up to a far later period. At the end of the
sixteenth century the failure to find the island led the cartographers
Apianus and Ortelius to place it once more in the ocean west of Ireland;
finally, in the early part of the nineteenth century belief in the
existence of the island was completely abandoned.
But soon a new theory arose, maintained by those scholars who claim for
the Irish the glory of discovering America, namely, MacCarthy, Rafn,
Beamish, O'Hanlon, Beauvois, Gafarel, etc. They rest this claim on the
account of the Northmen who found a region south of Vinland and the
Chesapeake Bay called "Hvitramamaland" (Land of the White Men) or
"Irland ed mikla" (Greater Ireland), and on the tradition of the Shawano
(Shawnee) Indians that in earlier times Florida was inhabited by a white
tribe which had iron implements. In regard to Brendan himself the point
is made that he could only have gained a knowledge of foreign animals
and plants, such as are described in the legend, by visiting the western
continent. On the other hand, doubt was very early expressed as to the
value of the narrative for the history of discovery. Honorius of
Augsburg declared that the island had vanished; Vincent of Beauvais
denied the authenticity of the entire pilgrimage, and the Bolandists do
not recognise it. Among the geographers, Alexander von Humboldt,
Peschel, Ruge, and Kretschmer, place the story among geographical
legends, which are of interest for the history of civilisation but which
can lay no claim to serious consideration from the point of view of
geography. The oldest account of the legend is in Latin, Navigatio
and belongs to the tenth or eleventh century; the first French
translation dates from 1125; since the thirteenth century the legend has
appeared in the literatures of the Netherlands, Germany, and England.
Visit The Voyage of Brendan the Navigator
and La Isla Fantasma: San Borondon
(in Spanish but some good pictures). The first site discusses the
possibility that Brendan reached the New World. The second speaks of the
legend of Brendan's visit to the Canary Islands.
Below I've recounted some of the many legends surrounding Saint Brendan:
There is a graphic description of one of their expeditions:
Scots came to King Alfred, in a boat without oars, from Ireland, whence
they had stolen away, because for the love of God they desired to be on
pilgrimage, they recked not whither. The boat in which they came was
made of two hides and a half; and they took with them provisions for
seven days; and about the seventh day they came on shore in Cornwall,
and soon after went to King Alfred
Saint Brendan was chanting the office for the Feast of Saint Paul the
Apostle, when his brethren asked him to do so quietly for fear of
disturbing the sea monsters. He laughed, "What has driven out your
faith? Fear naught but the Lord our God, and love Him in fear. Many
perils have tried you, but the Lord brought you safely out of them all.
There is no danger here. What are you afraid of?" And he said Mass
more solemnly than before.
Thereupon the monsters of the deep began to rise on all sides, and
making merry for joy of the Feast, followed after the ship. Yet when
the office of the day was ended, they straightway turned back and went
They sailed to another small, lovely island, in which there was a
whirlpool. "They went across the island, and found a church built of
stone, and in it a venerable old man at his prayers. . . . And the old
man said to them, 'O holy men of God, make haste to flee from this
island. For there is a sea-cat here, of old time, inveterate in wiles,
that hath grown huge through eating excessively of fish.' Thereupon
they turned back in haste to their ship, and abandoned the island.
"But lo, behind them they saw that beast swimming through the sea, and
it had great eyes like vessels of glass. Thereupon they all fell to
prayer, and Brendan said, 'Lord Jesus Christ, hinder Thy beast.' And
straightway arose another beast from the depths of the sea, and
approaching fell to battle with the first; and both went down to the
depth of the sea, nor were they further seen. Then they gave thanks to
God, and turned back to the old man, to question him as to his way of
living and whence he had come.
"And he said to them, 'We were twelve men from the island of Ireland
that came to this place, seeking the place of our
resurrection. Eleven be dead; and I alone remain, awaiting, O Saint of
God, the Host from thy hands. We brought with us in the ship a cat, a
most amiable cat and greatly loved by us; but he grew to great bulk
through eating of fish, as I said; yet our Lord Jesus Christ did not
suffer him to harm us.'
"And then he showed them the way to the land which they sought; and
receiving the Host at the hands of Brendan, he fell joyfully asleep in
the Lord; and he was buried beside his companions"
Then they came to an island filled with flowers and fruit trees and
found harbour. "The Brendan said to his brethren, 'Behold, our Lord
Jesus Christ, the good, the merciful, hath given us this place wherein
to abide His holy resurrection. My brothers, if we had naught else to
restore our bodies, this spring alone would suffice us for meat and
"Now there was above the spring a tree of strange height, covered with
birds of dazzling white, so crowded on the tree that scarcely could it
be seen by human eyes. And looking upon it the man of God began to
ponder within himself what cause had brought so great a multitude of
birds together on one tree."
And He prayed with tears that God might reveal the mystery of the birds
"And the bird spoke to him. 'We are,' it said, 'of that great ruin of
the ancient foe, who did not consent to him wholly. Yet because we
consented in part to his sin, our ruin also befell. For God is just,
and keeps truth and mercy. And so by His judgement He sent us to this
place, where we know no other pain than that we cannot see the presence
of God, and so hath He estranged us from the fellowship of those who
stood firm. On the solemn feasts and on the Sabbaths we take such
bodies as you see, and abide here, praising our Maker. And as other
spirits who are sent through the divers regions of the air and the
earth, so may we speed also.
"'Now hast thou with thy brethren been one year upon thy journey; and
six years yet remain. Where this day thou dost keep the Easter Feast,
there shalt thou keep it throughout every year of thy pilgrimage, and
thereafter shalt thou find the thing that thou hast set in thy heart,
the land that was promised to the saints.' And when the bird had spoken
thus, it raised itself up from the prow, and took its flight to the
"And when the hour of evening drew on, then began all the birds that
were on the tree to sing as with one voice, beating their wings and
saying, 'Praise waiteth for Thee, O Lord, in Sion: and unto Thee shall
the vow be performed.' And they continued repeating that verse, for the
space of one hour.
"It seemed to the brethren that the melody and the sound of the wings
was like a lament that is sweetly sung. Then said Saint Brendan to the
brethren, 'Do ye refresh your bodies, for this day have your souls been
filled with the heavenly bread.' And when the Feast was ended, the
brethren began to sing the office; and thereafter they rested in quiet
until the third watch of the night.
"Then the man of God awaking, began to rouse the brethren for the Vigils
of the Holy Night. And when he had begun the verse, 'Lord, open Thou my
lips, and my heart shall show forth Thy praise,' all the birds rang out
with voice and wing, singing, 'Praise the Lord, all ye His angels;
praise ye Him, all His hosts.' And even as at Vespers, they sang for
the space of one hour.
"Then, when dawn brought the ending of the night, they all began to
sing, 'And let the beauty of the Lord our God be upon us,' with equal
melody and length of chanting, as had been at Matins.
"At Tierce they sang this verse: 'Sing praises to God, sing praises;
sing ye praises with understanding.' And at Sext they
sang, 'Lord, lift up the light of Thy countenance upon us, and have
mercy upon us.' At Nones they said, 'Behold how good and how pleasant
it is for brethren to dwell together in unity.' And so day and night
the birds sang praises to God. And throughout the octaves of the Feast
they continued in the praises of God. . . .
"Here then the brethren remained until the Whitsun Feast; for the sweet
singing of the birds was their delight and their reviving. . . . But
when the octave of the feast was ended, the Saint bade his brethren to
make ready the ship, and fill their vessels with water from the spring.
And when all was made ready, came the aforesaid bird in swift flight,
and rested on the prow of the ship, and said, as if to comfort them
against the perils of the sea: 'Know that where ye held the Lord's
Supper, in the year that is past, there in like fashion shall ye be on
that same night this year. . . . After eight months ye shall find an
island . . . whereon ye shall celebrate the Lord's Nativity.' And when
the bird had foretold these things, it returned to its own place.
"Then the brethren began to spread their sails and go out to sea. And
the birds were singing as with one voice, saying, 'Hear us, O God of our
salvation, Who art the hope of all the ends of the earth, and of them
that are afar off upon the sea.' And so for three months they were
borne on the breadth of ocean, and saw nothing beyond the sea and sky"
(Plummer; these stories are also told in Curtayne).
Through the prayers of St Brendan and of all the Saints of Ireland,
Christ our God, have mercy on us and save us!
Now the great mountain that juts out into the Atlantic in County Kerry
is called Mount Brandon, because he had a little chapel atop it, and the
bay at the foot of the mountain is Brandon Bay. Each year his "pattern
day" the Irish (June 29) celebrate his memory with a pilgrimage to this
spot. Prayers are said along the climb at cairns marking the ancient
route. At the summit crowds hear Mass said in the ruined, primitive
oratory, where Brendan is said to have planned his voyages (Coulson). In
addition to Mount Brandon in Kerry, there are at least three holy wells
(two in Mayo; one in Kerry) in his name. A creek in the Faroe Islands
is called "Brandarsvik" (Brendan's Creek)
In art, Saint Brendan is shown saying Mass on ship as the fish crowd
round to listen to him. He may also be shown holding a candle. Brendan
is the patron of seafarers and travellers, and is venerated in Ireland
For a French Life of Saint Brendan with nice illustrations
(thanks to Jean-Michel in Belgium)
Troparion of St Brendan tone 4
The Divine Likeness has been perfected in thee, O holy Father Brendan,/
for taking up the Cross thou hast followed Christ,/ and by thy deeds
thou hast taught us to disdain the flesh for it passes away,/ but to
cultivate the soul for it is immortal:/ wherefore, O holy father, thy
spirit rejoices with the Angels.
A HYMN TO SAINT BRENDAN.
By Guido of Ivrea (11th Century). Latin text in Analecta Hymnica #48.88.
Guido is associated with the Irish-founded monasteries of Northern
Italy, and wrote songs to Patrick, Brigid, and other Celtic saints.
English translation by Karen Rae Keck, 1994.
Let the brothers and sisters now sing
Of the holy life of Brendan;
In an old melody
Let it be kept in song.
Loving the jewel of chastity,
He was the father of monastics.
He shunned the choir of the world;
Now he sings among the angels.
Let him pray that we may be saved
As we sail upon this sea.
Let him quickly aid the fallen
Oppressed with burdensome sin.
God the Father; Most High King
Breast-fed by a virgin mother;
Holy Spirit: when They will it,
Let Them feed us divine honey.
* * *
FRAGMENTS OF A MASS.
Date uncertain; found at the end of the life of Saint Brendan, Paris MS
2333 A. Colbert (14th Century). English translation by Karen Rae Keck,
COLLECT: O God, Who hast offered us today this most holy day, the feast
of thy confessor and abbot the blessed Brendan, uphold Thy Church by his
holy prayers, that he whose merits are secured may glory in Thy mercies.
SAID BY THE PRIEST SILENTLY: On the holy altars, O Lord, where
sacrifices are place, let holy Abbot Brendan beseech our Lord that He
may come to us in good will.
POST-COMMUNION PRAYER: Let the Blessed Abbot Brendan shield us, O Lord,
with the understanding of Thy mysteries, interceding for us that we may
know the sign of his holy life, and may know the mercies of his
* * *
Icons of Saint Brendan the Navigator:
From Holy Cross Hermitage (ROCA)
THE VOYAGE OF BRENDAN
By Lady Gregory
according to the Old Writings and the Memory of the People of
Akathist and Vigil Service to St. Brendan