St. Brendan's Voyage

Margaret Anne Cusack
start of chapter | Chapter XI

The deaths of several Irish saints, whose lives are of more than ordinary interest, are recorded about this period. Amongst them, St. Brendan of Clonfert demands more than a passing notice. His early youth was passed under the care of St. Ita, a lady of the princely family of the Desii. By divine command she established the Convent of Cluain Credhuil, in the present county of Limerick, and there, it would appear, she devoted herself specially to the care of youth. When Brendan had attained his fifth year, he was placed under the protection of Bishop Ercus, from whom he received such instruction as befitted his advancing years. But Brendan's tenderest affection clung to the gentle nurse of his infancy; and to her, in after years, he frequently returned, to give or receive counsel and sympathy.

The legend of his western voyage, if not the most important, is at least the most interesting part of his history. Kerry was the native home of the enterprising saint; and as he stood on its bold and beautiful shores, his naturally contemplative mind was led to inquire what boundaries chained that vast ocean, whose grand waters rolled in mighty waves beneath his feet. His thoughtful piety suggested that where there might be a country there might be life—human life and human souls dying day by day, and hour by hour, and knowing of no other existence than that which at best is full of sadness and decay.

Traditions of a far-away land had long existed on the western coast of ancient Erinn. The brave Tuatha Dé Dananns were singularly expert in naval affairs, and their descendants were by no means unwilling to impart information to the saint.

The venerable St. Enda, the first Abbot of Arran, was then living, and thither St. Brendan journeyed for counsel. Probably he was encouraged in his design by the holy abbot; for he proceeded along the coast of Mayo, inquiring as he went for traditions of the western continent. On his return to Kerry, he decided to set out on the important expedition. St. Brendan's Hill still bears his name; and from the bay at the foot of this lofty eminence he sailed for the "far west." Directing his course towards the south-west, with a few faithful companions, in a well-provisioned bark, he came, after some rough and dangerous navigation, to calm seas, where, without aid of oar or sail, he was borne along for many weeks. It is probable that he had entered the great Gulf Stream, which brought his vessel ashore somewhere on the Virginian coasts. He landed with his companions, and penetrated into the interior, until he came to a large river flowing from east to west, supposed to be that now known as the Ohio. Here, according to the legend, he was accosted by a man of venerable bearing, who told him that he had gone far enough; that further discoveries were reserved for other men, who would in due time come and christianize that pleasant land.

After an absence of seven years, the saint returned once more to Ireland, and lived not only to tell of the marvels he had seen, but even to found a college of three thousand monks at Clonfert. This voyage took place in the year 545, according to Colgan; but as St. Brendan must have been at that time at least sixty years old, an earlier date has been suggested as more probable.[8]

The northern and southern Hy-Nials had long held rule in Ireland; but while the northern tribe were ever distinguished, not only for their valour, but for their chivalry in field or court, the southern race fell daily lower in the estimation of their countrymen. Their disgrace was completed when two kings, who ruled Erinn jointly, were treacherously slain by Conall Guthvin. For this crime the family were excluded from regal honours for several generations.

Home dissensions led to fatal appeals for foreign aid, and this frequently from the oppressing party. Thus, Congal Caech, who killed the reigning sovereign in 623, fled to Britain, and after remaining there nine years, returned with foreign troops, by whose assistance he hoped to attain the honours unlawfully coveted. The famous battle of Magh-Rath,[9] in which the auxiliaries were utterly routed, and the false Congal slain, unfortunately did not deter his countrymen from again and again attempting the same suicidal course.


[8] Probable.—The legend of St. Brendan was widely diffused in the Middle Ages. In the Bibliothéque Impériale, at Paris, there are no less than eleven MSS. of the original Latin legend, the dates of which vary from the eleventh to the fourteenth century. In the old French and Romance dialects there are abundant copies in most public libraries in France; while versions in Irish, Dutch, German, Italian; Spanish, and Portuguese, abound in all parts of the Continent. Traces of ante-Columbian voyages to America are continually cropping up. But the appearance, in 1837, of the Antiquitates Americanos sive ita Scriptores Septentrionales rerum ante-Columbiarum, in America, edited by Professor Rafu, at Copenhagen, has given final and conclusive evidence on this interesting subject. America owes its name to an accidental landing. Nor is it at all improbable that the Phoenicians, in their voyage across the stormy Bay of Biscay, or the wild Gulf of Guinea, may have been driven far out of their course to western lands. Even in 1833 a Japanese junk was wrecked upon the coast of Oregon. Humboldt believes that the Canary Isles were known, not only to the Phoenicians, but "perhaps even to the Etruscans." There is a map in the Library of St. Mark, at Venice, made in the year 1436, where an island is delineated and named Antillia. See Trans. R.I.A. vol. xiv. A distinguished modern poet of Ireland has made the voyage of St. Brendan the subject of one of the most beautiful of his poems.

[9] Magh-Rath.—Now Moira, in the county Down. The Chronicum Scotorum gives the date 636, and the Annals of Tighernach at 637, which Dr. O'Donovan considers to be the true date.