St. Brendan The Navigator of Fenit

The Case for Recognition of Fenit as a World Heritage Site

Fenit, has had a powerful influence on the development of European and World culture and civilization.  Western Europe had developed under the influence of Greek and Roman philosophy, science and political and military organization for the thousand years before 400 AD. Barbarian forces, Celts, Huns, Vandals, Goths and Visigoths in their migration westward put increasing pressure on the borders of the Roman Empire.

Finally, in 400 AD the Goths crossed the Rhine and in 410 AD sacked Rome itself.  In 406AD Rome recalled its soldiers from Britain giving free rein to the Picts, Angles and Saxons to plunder the remnants of Roman civilization in Britain and Wales.

One consequence of the disruption after 406AD was that Christian institutions in Wales and Scotland, such as Ninian’s Candida Casa in Whithorn in Scotland and places in Cornwall and Wales, were evacuated and many of the monks like Declan, Ibar, Ailbe and Kieran of Cape Clear moved to Ireland. This was the impetus that began the wholesale Christianization of Ireland.

In 431 AD, Pope Celestine ordained Palladius as Bishop of the Christians in Ireland. With him came bishops Auxilius, Isernius and Benignus who founded the school of Armagh. Gildas of Wales would later be rector of this school before retiring to Wales. Meanwhile, probably due to traders and returning soldiers, a Christian community developed around Tralee Bay. Its first bishop seems to have been Erc (d. 512 AD) who lived on Kerry Head and had his See at Lerrig near Ardfert.

On Fenit Island in 484 AD was born Brendan who would be known as The Navigator. He became the best known of the remarkable flowering of saints and educators who emerged during the sixth century. Such were Finnian of Clonard, Colmcille of Derry and Iona, Kieran of Clonmacnoise, Finnian of Moville, Cormac of Durrow, Jarlath of Tuam, Enda of Inismore, Canice of Aghaboe and Kilkenny, Kevin of Glendalough, Finbarr of Cork, Finan of Inisfallen and Comgall of Bangor.

Growing up in Fenit Island, Brendan learned the ways of the sea and of ships. He saw the Brent geese gather in March on the Barrow mud flats and fly off to the North-west. He saw them return in October and asked where had they been? What or who was out there? Could he be the one who would bring the good news of Jesus Christ to unknown people?

Brendan spent the rest of his 93 years building an educational infrastructure in Ardfert and Confert, setting up monastic institutions in Ireland and Scotland and leading thousands of monks. Adamnán, abbot of Iona, wrote a Life of Colmcille in 697AD in which he called Brendan ‘the greatest founder of monasteries of them all’. David Camerarius, in a Calendarium he wrote for Charles 1 in 1532, called Brendan ‘the Apostle of the Orkneys and the Scottish Isles’

Brendan played such a major part in the rebuilding of Europe throughout the dark ages, it seems appropriate that his birthplace be honoured as a World Cultural heritage Centre. This will honour, not only Brendan and Fenit, but the whole Island of Ireland, its many religious and educational establishments and the many individuals who spread out across a darkened Europe and reignited the light of learning that would give rise, in turn, to the Renaissance and to the spirit of adventure that has given us the best of our modern world.

The Irish schools, like Clonfert, Inishmore and Clonmacnoise gave refuge to thousands of students from all over Europe and sent out missionaries and educators like Columbanus of Bobbio, Gall of St Gall in Switzerland, Dungal of Pavia, Cathaldus of Tarentum, Fergal of Salzburg and many more.

Accounts of Brendan’s travels, documented first in the beginning of the 8th century in the Irish and Latin Lives of Brendan, became the best known, and most widely used, literature of the early middle ages. Around 775 AD a monk, writing somewhere near the Rhine, published the Navigatio Sancti Brendani Abbatis, which was translated into all the emerging languages of Europe and became the first reader for so many of the people of a new Europe, inspiring them to dream.

The Navigatio would later inspire Dante and Christopher Columbus. While a student at Pavia, Columbus learned of Brendan and visited Galway to research Brendan’s travels. On the eve of his departure for the West Indies, Columbus is on record as saying ‘I go to seek the promised land of Saint Brendan’. So much did the legend of Brendan inspire the discovery of the New World!

So much of this influence on the New Europe, the education, the spirituality, the literature was due to Irish endeavour. One of the most important persons in all this influence was Brendan of Fenit. In and around Tralee Bay on the Sli Bhreanainn (the Brendan Way} are the many places associated with Brendan – Fenit Island where he was born, his place of fosterage in Listrim, his place of baptism in the ancient site of Tobar na Molt, his place of ordination in Lerrig, and Ardfert, one of his major foundations.

One question that may be asked is what of Patrick? Patrick had been a slave in the West of Ireland in the early part of the fifth century; he escaped and eventually became a bishop in the North of England. He broke the rules of canon law by leaving his diocese without permission and returned to the area in Sligo and Mayo around Clew Bay where he had been a slave. There he lived his life and conducted his ministry from 461 to his death in 493 AD.

Why then are Irish children taught that Patrick came to Ireland in 432 AD and died in 461 AD? Simply because the Ui Neill (Cenel nEoghain) family of Armagh had assumed the high kingship of Ireland and wanted all possible revenues to come their way. Brehon Law of the 7th century dictated that all ecclesiastical revenues should go to the diocese or abbey of the founder. So the Ui Neill had two persons, Muirchu and Tireachan write lives of Patrick which placed Patrick in Armagh after coming to Ireland in 432 and had him traverse the whole country (except Kerry) founding monasteries everywhere.

The works of Muirchu and Tireachán were written into the Book of Armagh in 807 AD along with an edited copy of Patrick’s Declaratio (Confession) Palladius and all the other saints of Ireland were written out of history or given bit parts, emphasizing the importance of Patrick and of Armagh.

Recognizing Fenit as a World Heritage Centre will help to undo an ancient wrong.

It seems best to submit the area from Kerry Head (home of Bishop Erc Mac Deadaigh) to Brandon Point, containing Tralee Bay, Fenit, Kilfenora, Barrow, Ardfert (Cathedral and Abbey), Listrim (Cathair Airde), Tubrid (Tobar na Molt), Lerrig (Tearmon Eirc), Banna, Ballyheige, the Maharees (6th century monastery), Annagh, Cathairconree, Kilelton (prehistoric and early Christian sites and deserted village of 1880s), Brandon Bay, Brandon Mountain and Brandon Point.

Brandon Mountain is associated with ancient Pagan ritual; Brandon point features as Srub Bhroin in one of the oldest of Ireland’s adventure sagas.