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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 care of Saint Ita the Brigid of Munster (f.d. January 15) at Killeedy 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 Saint Jarlath's (f.d. June 6) monastery 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 disciple of Saint Finian (f.d. December 12) and later Saint Gildas (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. Saint Senan (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 Egressio 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. Naturally, 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 as America.

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 working order.

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 the sea.

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. He responded, 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 Judge. 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 own return.

Today all that is left of the once thriving Clonfert Monastery is a single Hiberno-Romanesque door amidst the solitude (Attwater, Attwater2, Benedictines, Bentley, Coulson, Delaney, Gill, Husenbeth, Little, Montague, Severin, Walsh, WebbES).

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 Brendani, 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 Terra Repromissionis, 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 Fortunate Isles 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 Sancti Brendani, 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: Three 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 (Gill).

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 their way (Plummer).

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" (Plummer).

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 drink.'

"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 to him.

"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 rest.

"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) (Montague).

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 (Roeder).

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.

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.

* * *

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, 1994.

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 intercession.


* * *

Icons of Saint Brendan the Navigator:

From Holy Cross Hermitage (ROCA)

By Lady Gregory

according to the Old Writings and the Memory of the People of Ireland

Akathist and Vigil Service to St. Brendan
16 May

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