St. Brendan The Navigator of Fenit

Further information on St Brendan

Two Irishmen are named for their achievements, Daniel O Connell, the Liberator and Saint Brendan of Fenit, the Navigator. We are justly proud of them, Kerrymen both.

A local Fenit committee has received planning permission to erect a statue in honour of Saint Brendan in his birthplace. As we move into the third millennium, it seems appropriate to make this gesture in honour of a local man who inspired thousands down the years by his spirit of courage, initiative, enterprise and love of God.

We know of Brendan (or Bréanainn) from four sources, the Irish Lives, the Latin Lives, the Latin Navigatio Sancti Brendani and many vernacular versions of his voyage in the emerging languages of Europe, collectively known as the Voyage of Brendan. These various sources are in manuscript in all the major and many smaller libraries of Europe.. The earliest source was probably written around 750 to 800 A.D., some two hundred years after the death of Brendan. The various editions of the Navigatio and the Voyages were the most popular reading material of the early Middle Ages and inspired Columbus in his voyage to the New World. Up until 1721 explorers like Don Gaspar Dominguez searched for Saint Brendan’s Island which was represented on maps of the time, West of Ireland. A full bibliography of sources and studies on the life of Brendan fills a substantial volume. The voyage of Brendan is a particular type of literature and is based on oral tradition of which we have some manuscript evidence. The literature comprises echtrae (adventures), fis (visions) and immrama (voyages). The last of these are of the same genre as the Iliad and Odyssey of Homer, Virgil’s Aeneid, Ovid’s Metamorpheses and the Arabian tales of Sinbad, some of whose themes they share. They require careful interpretation. It is difficult to separate myth and legend from fact, yet some things seem fairly certain about Brendan. One recognizes that much research must yet be done to verify some of the points made below.

Brendan was born in 486 to Finlug and Cara in Alltraighe Caille or Cinbeara, a district comprising the four miles from Spa to Fenit Island, some five miles west of Tralee in County Kerry. The Alltraighe were a sept of the Ciarraighe who have given their name to the present County Kerry. His most likely place of birth was Fenit Island with Kilfenora and Barrow also possibilities. From Fenit Island the view of the Atlantic is framed by Kerry Head and by Brandon Mountain. The ocean and the mountain were to have a profound influence on Brendan, challenging him to dream impossible dreams and to make of them reality.

Brendan was born some five years before the death of Patrick whose ministry covered the North and West of Ireland. Finlug and Cara were probably pre-Patrician Christians whose religion was due to contact with traders from France, Spain and North Africa. One factor that points towards this contact, particularly with North Africa, is the maintenance of some Apocryphal (non-canonical) sources in the Irish manuscripts, sources which do not appear in continental works. There seems to be some Coptic (Egyptian) influence that can only have come along the trade routes around the coast of Ireland. Fenit, near the mouth of the Shannon, must have been a common port of call for travelers. Their boats and ships were of wood as were Brendan’s.

The sixth to the eighth centuries (500 – 800) are most important in understanding the contribution made by the Irish people to Europe. Strangely, when one reads the annals of Ireland, these years were ones of continuous fighting and of many great famines and plagues. Yet, in the midst of this, Brendan was one of the first to give a lead by his missionary activity and his organizing of communities around the central focus of the monastery wherein was lived a life of harmony, prayer and study. He probably founded Ardfert, some six miles from his birthplace sometime after 530. We then find him associated with Wales, Scotland and Normandy. He certainly visited Columkille in Scotland and many places there carry his name as do places in the Faeroes. At some time around the middle of the sixth century, Brendan’s people, the Alltraighe, seem to have been uprooted and went up along the Shannon to East Galway and Roscommon. Brendan followed them and founded the monastery or Clonfert on the western side of the Shannon in County Galway in 561. Clonfert became one of the most important schools in Europe.

Brendan died in 578 aged 93 and is buried at Clonfert.

Dicuil, an Irish monk, became astronomer and geographer at the court of Charlemange and published his work De mensura Orbis Terrae at the beginning of the ninth century (c 825). His is the first written account of Irish hermits visiting Iceland and marveling at the midnight sun, in 795. Some think that this work may have inspired subsequent accounts of Brendan such as we have in his lives and voyages. Alcuin, the Englishman, derided the work of Dicuil, criticizing him and his ‘Egyptian boys’ who were mistaken in their computation of the date of Easter. This is another pointer towards the influence of the Eastern Mediterranean on Early Irish Christianity.

Whatever may be said of the accounts of Brendan’s voyages, it seems clear that, amidst the fantastic renderings of the saga, there is evidence that someone had experienced the ice floes of the north, the fog of Newfoundland, and the exotic birds and flowers of the Caribbean. It is not possible to prove that Brendan himself experienced the events of the Voyage, yet it is most likely, such was his reputation as a Navigator, that his name came to be associated with the many undoubted voyages made by inhabitants of the coast of Kerry and of Ireland, so that in honouring Brendan we give honour to generations of Irish traders and fishermen who have braved the Atlantic and lived to tell the tale. Some, doubtless, went in search of the promised land, others went with missionary intent, many were blown long distances out to sea and off course and found themselves in the Faeroes, Iceland and places further afield. Recent genetic research shows the same gene-pool in Western Ireland, the Faeroes and Iceland. Further research will undoubtedly show that Irish seafarers were in America a thousand years before Columbus. And they probably were not the first!

The committee that has undertaken this work is local and has faced some of the difficulties that Brendan faced. We hope that, now that planning permission has been received, Kerry people and Irish people everywhere will be anxious to support this project. Teige O Donoghue of Glenflesk, Killarney, is designing the statue, in bronze. Teige is an internationally acclaimed artist and sculptor. The monument will be 12 feet high and stand on a four foot plinth on top of Samphire Island seventy feet above the mouth of Fenit Harbour. It will stand testament that the people of the locality, known to history as the ‘feara foirne’ (people of the shore), gave birth to a prophet whose fame has endured through the centuries. We expect this monument to become one of the most famous in Ireland and help local tourism as well as proclaiming the values of the local people.

We already have many pledges of support and many more will be needed. All contributions will be acknowledged and anyone who contributes €20 or more will have one’s name entered in the Brendan Book along with any dedication they wish to make. This book will be a lasting memorial to those who chose to honour Brendan and to those they have commemorated at the start of the third millennium.

Financial contributions are not all that are required. We hope this project will generate interest in our culture and history and rekindle pride in ourselves and in our achievements, so we should like to hear from anyone who is interested and can help in any way.