St. Brendan The Navigator of Fenit

Further information on the 6th Century

The years 491 to 615 saw the most remarkable men, women and events that ever Ireland produced. We begin with the most likely date of Patrick’s death and we end with the death of Columbanus in Bobbio in Italy in 615. That 124 years saw the life and death of all those labeled ‘the second order of Irish saints’ , the founders of our great monasteries and our most important missionaries.

Finnian (d.549) founded the great monastery of Clonard on the banks of the Boyne in County Meath in 520. Among the young men who entered that monastery were Colmcille (521 – 597), Brendan of Fenit (486 – 578), Brendan of Birr and Ciarán the son of the wright (511 – 547). Ciarán founded Clonmacnoise in 545, Brendan founded Clonfert in 561 and Colmcille founded Iona in 563. Colmcille also founded Derry, Durrow and, probably Kells before and after Iona. Meanwhile Comgall ( born 515) founded Bangor in 555. Bangor was to send out Columbanus (540 – 615) to found Annegray, Fontaine and Luxeuil in France and Bobbio in Italy in 614. With Columbanus went Gall (d.630) whose foundation grew into the great monastery and city of St. Gall in Switzerland. Very possibly, it was later to send out John Scotus Eriugena and Dicuil to grace the academic world of ninth century Europe.

Others who lived at this time were Brigid of Kildare, Brega of Annaghdown, Enda of Inishmore, Jarlath of Tuam, Flannan of Ennis, Colman of Cloyne, Fachtna of Ross, Kevin of Glendalough, Finbarr of Cork, Senan of Scattery and the Maharees and two Kerrymen who must be mentioned, Carthage of Lismore and Fionan Cam of Corca Dhuibhne who founded the Sceilig among other places from Offaly to Kerry. All these men and women are interesting in their own right and their names grace the playing fields of Ireland today but we have space but to mention their names and the fact that most of them knew and, doubtless, influenced one another.

To return to the great saints and their monasteries, they attracted students from all over Europe and beyond during Europe’s dark ages when the only lights left shining were the Irish monastic schools which preserved not only theology and scripture but astronomy, geography, navigation, mathematics, and the classics. Until the middle of the ninth century the Irish influence would be great in Europe. One proof of this is that, as the new vernacular languages of Europe emerged, the principal reader and text was the Voyage of Brendan, copies of which are preserved in manuscript form in most of the libraries of Europe.

Not all the activities of our great saints were edifying. They were human beings who were deeply involved in the secular affairs of their time. Colmcille was in great measure responsible for the development of what is modern Scotland and, through Iona’s daughter house in Lindisfarne, was highly influential in the development of the Northern Kingdoms of England. We owe it to these men and women, and to ourselves, to learn what we can about them, that we may understand them and learn lessons for our own time.