Today, May 16th, is the Feast of St. Brendan. This article is being written by a former US Navy sailor named Brendan, therefore, be prepared for a great deal of bias! In May of 2014 I had the great fortune of making a pilgrimage to Ardfert, Ireland (the site of one of Brendan’s great monasteries), and if you have not had the privilege to travel to County Kerry I highly recommend it. Here is a video of the sites in and around Ardfert (link).
The Beginnings of a Saint
As for St. Brendan, he was not born in Ardfert, but a small fishing village called Fenit. On the night of his birth a great light appeared in the sky. At the time the bishop, St. Erc of Slane, was traveling through the area and saw the light. The holy bishop made his way to the house over which the light was resting, and inside he found a brand new baby boy named Brendan.
Bishop Erc asked Brendan’s parents if he could baptize the boy. The small group made their way to a local pool near Tubrid, which St. Patrick had blessed for baptism several years before.
St. Brendan spent much of his younger years receiving instruction from St. Ita known as “the Brigid of Munster”, and when Brendan became a man Bishop St. Erc came back to ordain Brendan a priest in 512. This was the beginning of an Irish saint with one of the most sensational lives in the annals of Catholic history.
A Monk Goes on a Tear
St. Brendan was an evangelizer in every sense of the word. At the time Christianity was new to the Emerald Isle and St. Brendan made it his personal mission to capture as many souls as possible for Christ. Early on St. Brendan spent much of his time organizing the Church near Ardfert. He founded a monastery, which became extremely busy after his famed voyage, and he is personally responsible for setting up the See of Ardfert. However, his most famous founding was at Clonfert in 557.
He was not only dedicated to the spreading of the Gospel in Ireland but also abroad. He most certainly made trips to Scotland and Wales in hopes of spreading Christ, however, what Brendan is still remembered for is his trip to the island of “Paradise”.
Brendan the Voyager
The greatest tale concerning Brendan begins as all good tales do, with a call from the Lord on top of a mountain. Brendan was in his 93rd year when he decided to climb a mountain to fast and pray for forty days.
Now, going to the top of a mountain to talk to the Lord is an ancient Jewish tradition. Eden traditionally was on top of a mountain, Moses goes up a mountain to get the 10 commandments, Christ in Matthew’s Gospel gives the “Sermon on the Mount”, etc. In fact, today Croagh (Mount) Patrick, where St. Patrick spent 40 days on top of a mountain, is still a popular pilgrimage site in Western Ireland. So Brendan was in good company on top of his mountain.
It was during this fast that he had a vision of a land of promise called Hy-Brasil, which he thought could possibly be the Garden of Eden. He came down the mountain, and he and a troop of monks got into a currach, a small boat, sailing West.
Seven years pass by, and most took Brendan and his companions for dead when all of a sudden Brendan shows back up near Ardfert claiming to have discovered a Paradise land to the West. His tale spreads throughout Kerry and beyond, and soon pilgrims are coming to live near the great voyager.
Most historians today are very skeptical of the story of St. Brendan. It is true that our earliest written records come from the 9th century nearly three hundred years after St. Brendan’s voyage. However, many historians are infected with the bigotry known as “presentism”, meaning that they discount the testimony of generations that came before because they believe our ancestors were gullible and superstitious.
Now, much of St. Brendan’s tale is difficult to believe, however, something clearly happened near Ardfert in the 6th Century. After Brendan’s return there was an explosion of religious houses in the area, and while some of his story may have been embellished parts of it could very well have been true. His stories about new species of animals and plants is peculiar, and there is the fact he was gone for seven years. If he was just up the coast why did no one come forward to set the record straight?
Some believe the land Brendan discovered was North America or possibly the Canary Islands. The Vikings, 500 years after Brendan, believed he had preceded them to North America, and for centuries “enlightened” scholars discounted the Norseman’s tales until they found a Viking settlement in Nova Scotia. Is it possible there is some buried proof of Brendan’s voyage just waiting to be discovered? I hope so if only so that we may once again be able to tell the “scholars” to go fly a kite!
In any event, it is impossible to deny St. Brendan’s contribution to the Christianizing of Ireland, and today in a world that seems to be quickly de-Christianizing itself, it is good to remember a great man who worked his whole life to pass on the Faith that future generations would be able to live in Christ. Fair winds and following seas to all viewers, and St. Brendan, pray for us!