The Tradition of Saint Brendan's Voyage to America

From A History of the Irish Settlers in North America by Thomas D'Arcy McGee

« Chapter XXVI. | Contents | Appendix II. »

Appendix I.

THE ancient and wide-spread European tradition of Saint Brendan's voyage is to be gathered from the various sources indicated in the first chapter; that is, from Irish, Danish and Ecclesiastical chronicles, from the popular poems of the middle ages, and the cotemporary legends of the saints. I have thought some illustrations of the references in the text would be desirable:—

Colgan, in his Acta Sanctorum Hibernia, makes this mention of St. Brendan's youthful days: "When Brendan was a mere infant, he was placed under her care," (he is speaking of St. Ita, Abbess of Cluan-Credhuil, in Limerick,) "and remained with her five years, after which period he was led away by Bishop Ercus, in order to receive from him the more solid instruction necessary for his advancing years. Brendan retained always the greatest respect and affection for his foster mother; and he is represented after his seven years' voyage, as amusing St. Ita with an account of his adventures in the ocean."—Colgan Acta S. S., p. 68, Louvain, 1637.

Unfortunately for our better information on this interesting subject, Colgan, who seems to have had the necessary Celtic materials, and who certainly had the requisite learning, did not live to finish his work. It extends only to the end of March, and the festival of St. Brendan being the 16th of May, his biography is not included in Colgan's Acta. He incidentally places the birth of St. Brendan in A. D. 485, and his voyage in 545. Dr. Lanigan thinks this latter date incorrect, as St. Brendan was then in his sixtieth year. But Columbus, we know, had passed his fiftieth when he undertook his voyage.

St. Brendan, before his voyage, was Bishop or Abbot of Ardfert and Clonfert, in the present county of Kerry, where the remains of churches, bearing his name, are still visited by tourists. He is honored as the patron of the Diocese of Clonfert.

The Rev. Caesar Otway, an Irish Episcopalian clergyman and writer of some note, reports the local tradition of the voyage, existing in the west of Ireland, as follows:

"We are informed that Brendan, hearing of the previous voyage of his cousin, Barinthus, in the western ocean, and obtaining an account from him of the happy isles he had landed on in the far west, determined, under the strong desire of winning heathen souls to Christ, to undertake a voyage of discovery himself. And aware that, all along the western coast of Ireland, there were many traditions respecting the existence of a western land, he proceeded to the islands of Arran, and there remained for some time, holding communication with the venerable St. Enda, and obtaining from him much information on what his mind was bent. There can be little doubt that he proceeded northward along the coast of Mayo, and made inquiry, among its bays and islands, of the remnants of the Tuatha Danaan people, that once were so expert in naval affairs, and who acquired from the Milesians, or Scots, that overcame them, the character of being magicians, for their superior knowledge. At Inniskea, then, and Innisgloria, Brendan set up his cross; and, in after times, in his honor were erected those curious remains that still exist. Having prosecuted his inquiries with all diligence, Brendan returned to his native Kerry; and from a bay sheltered by the lofty mountain that is now known by his name, he set sail for the Atlantic land; and, directing his course towards the southwest, in order to meet the summer solstice, or what we would call the tropic, after a long and rough voyage, his little bark being well provisioned, he came to summer seas, where he was carried along, without the aid of sail or oar, for many a long day. This, it is to be presumed, was the great gulf-stream, and which brought his vessel to shore somewhere about the Virginian capes, or where the American coast tends eastward, and forms the New England States. Here landing, he and his companions marched steadily into the interior for fifteen days, and then came to a large river, flowing from east to west; this, evidently, was the river Ohio. And this the holy adventurer was about to cross, when he was accosted by a person of noble presence,—but whether a real or visionary man does not appear,—who told him he had gone far enough; that further discoveries were reserved for other men, who would, in due time, come and Christianize all that pleasant land. The above, when tested by common sense, clearly shows that Brendan landed on a continent, and went a good way into the interior, met a great river running in a different direction from those he heretofore crossed; and here, from the difficulty of transit, or want of provisions, or deterred by increasing difficulties, he turned back; and, no doubt, in a dream, he saw some such vision which embodied his own previous thought, and satisfied him that it was expedient for him to return home. It is said he remained seven years aAvay, and returned to set up a college of three thousand monks, at Clonfert and he then died in the odor of sanctity."—Otway's Sketches in Erris and Tyrawley, note, pp. 98, 99. Dublin, 1845.

The Codex Kilkeniensis, in Primate Marsh's Library, Dublin, contains a fragment of an ancient life of St. Brendan, of which, it is possible, the missing parts may be yet recovered by the Irish archeologists.

In England, a version of the voyage was inserted by Capgrave, in his Nova Legenda, published in 1516. Wynkyn de Worde, the first English printer, (and a cotemporary of Christopher Columbus,) published the legend, with many adornments, of which we give a specimen:—

"Soon after, as God would, they saw a fair island, full of flowers, herbs, and trees, whereof they thanked God of his good grace; and anon they went on land, and when they had gone long in this, they found a full fayre well, and thereby stood a fair tree full of boughs, and on every bough sat a fayre bird, and they sat so thick on the tree, that uneath any leaf of the tree might be seen. The number of them was so great, and they sung so merrilie, that it was an heavenlike noise to hear. Whereupon St. Brandon kneeled down on his knees and wept for joy, and made his praises devoutlie to our Lord God, to know what these birds meant. And then anon one of the birds flew from the tree to St. Brandon, and he with the flickering of his wings made a full merrie noise like a fiddle, that him seemed he never heard so joyful a melodie. And then St. Brandon commanded the foule to tell him the cause why they sat so thick on the tree and sang so merrilie. And then the foule said, sometime we were angels in heaven, but when our master. Lucifer, fell down into hell for his high pride, and we fell with him for our offences, some higher and some lower, after the quality of the trespass. And because our trespasse is but little, therefore our Lord hath sent us here, out of all paine, in full great joy and mirthe, after his pleasing, here to serve him on this tree in the best manner we can. The Sundaie is a daie of rest from all worldly occupation, and therefore that daie all we be made as white as any snow, for to praise our Lorde in the best wise we may. And then all the birds began to sing even song so merrilie, that it was an heavenlie noise to hear; and, after supper, Saint Brandon and his fellows went to bed and slept well. And in the morn they arose by times, and then these Joules began mattyns, prime, and hours, and all such service as Christian men used to sing; and St. Brandon, with his fellows, abode there seven weeks, until Trinity Sunday was passed."

The "Lyfe of Saynt Brandon" in the Golden Legend.
Published by Wynkyn de Worde. 1483. Fol. 357.

The voyage was a favorite theme with the early metrical romance writers, as was to be expected. It was precisely the subject for their school. "Two French versions, as well as the original Latin," says Mr. McCarthy, "have been published at Paris," under the following title, "La Legende Latine de S. Brandaine's avec une traductione en prose et en poesie Romanes. Publieé par Achille Jubinal," 1836. An English translation of one of the early French romances, which appeared in Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine, vol. xxxix., contains the following fine lines:—

"Right toward the port their course they hold;
But other dangers, all untold,
Were there; before the gate keep guard
Dragons of flaming fire, dread ward!
Right at the entrance hung a brand
Unsheathed, turning on either hand
With innate wisdom; they might well
Bear it, for 'twas invincible,—
And iron, stone, ay, adamant,
Against its edge had strength full scant.
But, lo! a fair youth came to meet them,
And with meek courtesy did greet them,
For he was sent by Heaven's command
To give them entrance to that land;
So sweetly he his message gave,
And kissed each one, and bade the glaive
Retain its place; the dragons, too,
He checked, and led them safely through,
And bade them rest, now they had come
At last unto that heavenly home,
For they had now, all dangers past,
To certain glory come at last.

And now that fair youth leads them on,
Where paradise in beauty shone;
And there they saw the land all full
Of woods and rivers beautiful,
And meadows large besprent with flowers,
And scented shrubs in fadeless bowers,
And trees with blossoms fair to see,
And fruit also deliciously
Hung from the boughs; nor briar, nor thorn,
Thistle, nor blighted tree forlorn
With blackened leaf, was there,—for spring
Held aye a year-long blossoming;
And never shed their leaf the trees,
Nor failed their fruit; and still the breeze
Blew soft, scent-laden from the fields.
Full were the woods of venison;
The rivers of good fish each one,
And others flowed with milky tide,—
No marvel all things fructified.
The earth gave honey, oozing through
Its pores, in sweet drops like the dew;
And in the mount was golden ore,
And gems, and treasure wondrous store.
There the clear sun knew no declining,
Nor fog nor mist obscured his shining;
No cloud across that sky did stray,
Taking the sun's sweet light away;
Nor cutting blast, nor blighting air,—
For bitter winds blew never there;
Nor heat, nor frost, nor pain, nor grief,
Nor hunger, thirst,—for swift relief
From every ill was there; plentie
Of every good, right easily,
Each had according to his will,
And aye they wandered blithely still
In large and pleasant pastures green,
O, such as earth hath never seen!
And glad was Brandon, for their pleasure
So wondrous was, that scant in measure
Their past toils seemed; nor could they rest,
But wandered aye in joyful quest
Of somewhat fairer, and did go
Hither and thither, to and fro,
For very joyfulness. And now
They climb a mountain's lofty brow,
And see afar a vision rare
Of angels,—I may not declare
What there they saw, for words could ne'er
The meaning tell; and melodie
Of that same heavenly company,
For joy that they beheld them there,
They heard, but could not bear its sweetness,
Unless their natures greater meetness
To that celestial place had borne,—
But they were crushed with joy. 'Return,'
Said they,—'we may not this sustain,'
Then spoke the youth in gentle strain;
'O Brandon, God unto thine eyes
Hath granted sight of paradise;
But know, it glories hath more bright
Than e'er have dazed thy mortal sight;
One hundred thousand times more fair
Are these abodes; but thou couldst ne'er
The view sustain, nor the ecstasy
Its meanest joys would yield to thee;
For thou hast in the body come;
But, when the Lord shall call thee home,
Thou, fitted then, a spirit free
From weakness and mortality,
Shalt aye remain, no fleeting guest,
But taking here thine endless rest.
And while thou still remain'st below,
That Heaven's high favor all may know,
Take hence these stones, to teach all eyes
That thou hast been in paradise.'

Then Brandon worshipped God, and took
Of paradise a farewell look.
The fair youth led them to the gate;
They entered in the ship, and straight
The signal's made, the wind flows free,
The sails are spread, and o'er the sea
They bound; but swift and blithe, I trow,
Their homeward course; for where was foe,
Of earth or hell, 'gainst them to rise,
Who were returned from paradise?"

It is mentioned among the accomplishments of a troubadour, by old Pierre St. Cloud, that he had many a tale

"Of Arthur brave or Tristram bold,
Of Charpel, of St. Brendan old."

Among the more matter-of-fact Flemings, the maritime fame of St. Brendan was not less general than with their French neighbors. Mr. Longfellow assigns their Reis van Sainte Brandaen, or "Journey of St. Brendan" to the twelfth century. In his "Poetry of Europe," (p. 372,) he gives the following account of this whimsical Dutch romance:—

"To the same century belongs the wonderful 'Journey of St. Brandaen,' (Reis van Sainte Brandaen,)[1] containing an account of his remarkable adventures by sea and land; how he put to sea with his chaplain and monks, and provisions for nine years; how, after sailing about for a whole year without sight of shore, they landed on what, like Sinbad the sailor, they supposed to be an island, but found to be a great fish; how they all took to their heels, and were no sooner on board than the fish sank and came near swamping their ship; how they were followed by a sea-monster, half woman, half fish, (half wijf, half visch,) which the saint sank with a prayer; how they came to a country of scoriae and cinders, (drossaerden en schinkers,) where they suffered from the extremes of heat and cold: how they were driven by a storm into the Leverzee, (the old German Lebermeer,) where they saw a mast rise from the water, and heard a mysterious voice, bidding them sail eastward, to avoid the magnetic rocks, that drew to them all that passed too near; how they steered eastward, and saw a beautiful church on a rock, wherein were seven monks, fed with food from paradise by a dove and a raven; how they were driven by a south-west wind into the Wild Sea, in the midst of which they found a man perched on a solitary rock, who informed them he was the king of Pamphylia in Cappadocia, and, having been shipwrecked there ninety-nine years previous, had ever since been sitting alone on that solitary rock; how they came to a fearful whirlpool, called Helleput, or Pit of Hell, where they heard the lamentations of damned souls; how they arrived in Donkerland, a land covered with gold and jewels instead of grass, and watered by a fountain of oil and honey; how one of the monks stole there a costly bridle, by which afterwards a devil dragged him down to hell; how they came to a goodly castle, at the gate of which sat an old man with a gray beard, and beside him an angel with a flaming sword; how the monks loaded their ship with gold, and a great storm rose, and St. Brandaen prayed, and a demon came with the lost monk on his shoulders, and threw him into the rigging of the ship; how they sailed near the Burning Castle. (Brandenden Burcht,) and heard the dialogues of devils; how they came to the Mount of Syoen, and found there a castle whose walls were of crystal, inset with bronze lions and leopards, the dwelling of the Walschrander, or rebel angels; how they journeyed further, and found a little man no bigger than one's thumb, trying to bail out the sea; how a mighty serpent wound himself round the ship, and, taking his tail in his mouth, held them prisoners for fourteen days; and, finally, how they came to anchor, and St. Brandaen asked his chaplain, Noe, if he had recorded all these wonders, and the chaplain Noe answered, 'Thank God. the book is written,' (God danc, lit boec es volscreven.) And so ends this ancient 'Divina Commedia' of the Flemish school; not unlike, in its general tone and coloring, 'The Vision of Frate Alberico,' or 'The Legend of Barlaam and Josaphat,' and the rest of the ghostly legends of the middle ages, which mingled together monkhood and knight-errantry."[2]

To conclude this summary of the published versions of the tradition, I cannot refrain from alluding to the noble poem on the same subject, in D. F. McCarthy's "Poems," (Dublin, 1850;) a book which, if we were not such slaves of London criticism as we are, would long ago have been in every library in America. Our readers will thank us for the stanzas descriptive of the outward voyage of St. Brendan—


At length the long-expected morning came,
When from the opening arms of that wild bay,
Beneath the hill that bears my humble name,
Over the waves we took our untracked way:
Sweetly the morn lay on tarn and rill,
Gladly the waves played in its golden light,
And the proud top of the majestic hill
Shone in the azure air—serene and bright.


Over the sea we flew that sunny morn,
Not without natural tears and human sighs,
For who can leave the land where he was born,
And where, perchance, a buried mother lies,
Where all the friends of riper manhood dwell,
And where the playmates of his childhood sleep:
Who can depart, and breathe a cold farewell,
Nor let his eyes their honest tribute weep?


Our little bark, kissing the dimpled smiles
On ocean's cheek, flew like a wanton bird,
And then the land, with all its hundred isles,
Faded away, and yet we spoke no word.
Each silent tongue held converse with the past,
Each moistened eye looked round the circling wave,
And, save the spot where stood our trembling mast,
Saw all things hid within one mighty grave.


We were alone, on the wide, watery waste—
Nought broke its bright monotony of blue,
Save where the breeze the flying billows chased,
Or where the clouds their purple shadows threw
We were alone—the pilgrims of the sea—
One boundless azure desert round us spread;
No hope—no trust—no strength, except in THEE,
Father, who once the pilgrim-people led.


And when the bright-faced sun resigned his throne
Unto the Ethiop queen, who rules the night,—
Who, with her pearly crown and starry zone,
Fills the dark dome of heaven with silvery light,—
As on we sailed, beneath her milder sway,
And felt within our hearts her holier power,
We ceased from toil, and humbly knelt to pray,
And hailed with vesper hymns the tranquil hour.


For then, indeed, the vaulted heavens appeared
A fitting shrine to hear their Maker's praise,
Such as no human architect has reared,
Where gems, and gold, and precious marbles blaze.
What earthly temple such a roof can boast?—
What flickering lamp with the rich star-light vies,
When the round moon rests, like the sacred Host,
Upon the azure altar of the skies?


We breathed aloud the Christian's filial prayer,
Which makes us brothers even with the Lord;
"Our Father," cried we, in the midnight air,
"In heaven and earth be thy great name adored
May thy bright kingdom, where the angels are,
Replace this fleeting world, so dark and dim."
And then, with eyes fixed on some glorious star,
We sang the Virgin-Mother's vesper hymn!


"Hail, brightest star! that o'er life's troubled sea
Shines pitying down from heaven's elysian blue!
Mother and maid, we fondly look to thee,
Fair gate of bliss, where Heaven beams brightly through.
Star of the morning! guide our youthful days,
Shine on our infant steps in life's long race;
Star of the evening! with thy tranquil rays,
Gladden the aged eyes that seek thy face.


"Hail, sacred maid! thou brighter, better Eve,
Take from our eyes the blinding scales of sin;
Withal our hearts no selfish poison leave,
For thou the heavenly antidote canst win.
O sacred Mother! 'tis to thee we run—
Poor children, from this world's oppressive strife;
Ask all we need from thy immortal Son,
Who drank of death, that we might taste of life.


"Hail, spotless Virgin! mildest, meekest maid—
Hail! purest Pearl that time's great sea hath borne—
May our white souls, in purity arrayed,
Shine, as if they thy vestal robes had worn;
Make our hearts pure, as thou thyself art pure—
Make safe the rugged pathway of our lives,
And make us pass to joys that will endure
When the dark term of mortal life arrives."


'Twas thus, in hymns, and prayers, and holy psalms,
Day tracking day, and night succeeding night,
Now driven by tempests, now delayed by calms,
Along the sea we winged our varied flight.
O! how we longed and pined for sight of land!
O! how we sighed for the green, pleasant fields!
Compared with the cold waves, the barest strand—
The bleakest rock—a crop of comfort yields.


Sometimes, indeed, when the exhausted gale,
In search of rest, beneath the waves would flee,
Like some poor wretch, who, when his strength doth fail,
Sinks in the smooth and unsupporting sea,
Then would the Brothers draw from memory's store
Some chapter of life's misery or bliss—
Some trial that some saintly spirit bore—
Or else some tale of passion, such as this.

« Chapter XXVI. | Contents | Appendix II. »


[1] "This old romance is probably of French origin," says Mr. Longfellow. We see, by the text, that it was originally Irish, but was received in one shape or another in every country of Europe, from Denmark to Italy.

[2] "Oudvlaemsche Gedichten der XIIe, XIIIe, en XIVe Eeuwen, nitgegeven door JONKHR. PH. BLOMMAERT. Gent: 1838-41. 8vo."