Feast of St. Brendan
May 16th marks the feast of St. Brendan, an Irish monk from the 6th century known for establishing churches in Britain and Ireland and voyaging (with other monks) to various islands in the vicinity. According to legends and ancient descriptions, he also went a good way further than the vicinity, all in a tiny currach, a traditional Irish boat with a wooden frame wrapped in leather.
In the tradition of some older Irish myths and legends, tales grew around him and his travels, culminating around the 9th century in a book in Latin generally known as “The Voyage of St. Brendan” full of exploration, religious symbolism, and strange fantastic tales. In it, Brendan is an esteemed older monk who decides to seek the Promised Land itself, trusting that God will guide them there if it be His will. (Read about “Ireland’s Saintly Women and Holy Wells”.)
It was known widely in Europe throughout the Middle Ages, to the extent that Christopher Columbus used it as a reference to guide and support his assertion that lands were reachable across the Atlantic.
When Columbus and others returned, people began to reexamine the already ancient story of St. Brendan and look for correlations between its islands and the newly discovered lands to the west. Today, skeptics see it all as fantasy with a few coincidental similarities with the New World. Optimistic interpreters see possible evidence of the author’s knowledge of far northern sea ice, the vast Eastern Woodlands, and even the low sandy islands of the Bahamas.
Is It Even Possible?
In 1976, adventurer, writer, and historian Tim Severin decided to follow in the wake of Thor Heyerdahl’s Kon-Tiki voyage, and build a traditional ship and see if it could match the accomplishments in a legend. Using traditional design and building techniques he fashioned a modern currach, christened it Brendan and set off from Ireland to reach North America. Successful in showing that it could have been done, Severin published a book and an article in National Geographic Magazine, and a 1500-year-old tale was given new life.
The video below features Tim Severin describing the Brendan Voyage in 2005 in a free public lecture at Gresham College, London. Their lecture series began in 1597. That’s pretty long ago, but it was already 1000 years after St. Brendan’s life and whatever actual journey he made.
Did It Have to Be Brendan?
Just because Tim Severin made it across alive, that doesn’t mean an Irish monk by the name of Brendan in the 500s A.D. did as well, but it does show that it’s possible, and it hints that at least some of the descriptions in the “Voyage” may in fact describe New World locations. Some scholars point to the similarities between the written “Voyage” and older Celtic myths as an indication that knowledge of western lands may go back even further, and simply have been re-told with Brendan cast as the lead.
Significantly, the basic form of the currach goes back thousands of years, so indeed, the true pioneers may have lived as long before Brendan as he did before us.
Why It Matters
While reading early medieval manuscripts does leave one with the impression that earlier generations may have been overly credulous, journeys like Severin’s show us that current generations may be a bit too skeptical. One may suit your attitudes better, but both can lead to major misconceptions about what actually happened. While believing everything you find in an old manuscript will make you believe some things happened that didn’t, believing none of it may lead you to believe that things never happened which actually did.
The story of the voyage of St. Brendan (and Tim Severin’s modern crossing) stands as a reminder that it doesn’t take modern equipment to make major accomplishments. People have always explored and have always used their available resources in remarkable ways.
Columbus made a voyage that reunited long-separated branches of the human family at a scale probably never seen before. The Vikings made a similar voyage that simply didn’t create the same kind of large-scale, long-term interactions. It is very possible that Brendan did as well. It is even possible that someone had before him, and that tales of that voyage inspired him just as his inspired Columbus.
And while we’re at it, Dennis Stanford of the Smithsonian Institution still champions the idea that stone-point styles in North America and paleolithic Europe are just too similar not to raise the possibility that trans-Atlantic voyages may go back to the very dawn of modern human cultures in Europe and North America.
A Day for Exploration
So, you need not be a Cave Man Voyager, an Irish Monk, or Modern Currach-Builder, but with St. Brendan the Navigator having been celebrated for centuries on this day, it’s a nice time to embark on an exploration of your own, or at least to explore the realization that modern humans have taken on many incredible expeditions in the past 200,000 years, and whatever traces may or may not remain buried in the dirt or buried in old books, for every tale we know, there are countless more we may never even dream of.