St. Brendan The Navigator of Fenit

Brendan for today – Feast Day, May 16th

As Kerry prepares to celebrate the Gathering of Kerry people to honour Saint Brendan the Navigator on the week of his Feast Day May 16th, it seems proper to say a little about him.

Latterly, Saint Brendan the Navigator is beginning to receive the kind of recognition he deserves. For too long Brendan was dismissed as a rather mythical figure, a monk who spent years at sea searching for the ‘Promised Land’, meeting gryphons, a 100 foot tall mermaid, a whale that allowed its back to be used as a platform for the celebration of Mass, islands full of monks and Judas Iscariot tied to a rock in the ocean. His voyages were, supposedly, conducted in  leather boats which, if it were true, would render Brendan and his companions (22 or 66, depending on source) certifiable idiots.

Brendan was no idiot, and he did travel widely at sea. He travelled in wooden ships like those used by Sumerians, Persians, Phoenicians, Egyptians, Greeks, Romans and Gauls for the thousand years before Brendan learned the ways of the sea and the building of boats in Fenit and Barrow harbours near Tralee and in Clew Bay in Mayo. Bill Verity, world sailor, who lived his final years in Tralee, researched medieval boat building in the British Museum and built, on Fenit Pier, a twenty-foot scale model of the kind of wooden boat that Brendan would have used.

In 1969 he sailed this boat, The Brendan, from Fenit and made a 118 day solo voyage to the Bahamas. When we read Julius Caesar’s description (in his Commentaries of 56 BC) of Gaulish war ships, we can understand the kind of vessel Brendan built for offshore travel. In Fenit Church a beautiful stained glass window by Tighe O Donoghue/Ross depicts the type of swan neck vessel that Caesar knew and Brendan might well have built.

We have three main sources of information about Brendan: Beatha Bhreanainn, the Irish Life, written on the Continent by Irish Monks about 725 AD; Vita Brendani, the Latin Life, written similarly about 750 AD; and Navigatio Sancti Brendani Abbatis, the Voyage of Saint Brendan, Abbot, written about 775 AD, likewise on the Continent.

The Navigatio was translated into all the emerging languages of Europe and became the first Reader as persons of developing nations learned their reading and writing.  There were copies of the Navigatio or its translations (such as Benedeit’s Voyage of Brendan, in French) in every library in Europe by 1150 AD. Thus Brendan became the best-known person in Europe at that time. We have widespread mention of Brendan in other sources, in Annals like those of Inisfallen, Ulster, Four Masters, Clonmacnoise, Tigernach, Boyle and many others and in many Lives of other saints. We know from these that Brendan was particularly close (what is known in Irish as Anam Cara – soul friend) to Ciarán of Clonmacnoise, and to Senan of Scattery Island and Oilean tSeannaigh in the Maharees, four miles west of Brendan’s birthplace in Fenit Island.

Two problems surface as we try to establish, from the Annals and the Lives of the Saints, dates, places and tribal relationships for the fifth and sixth centuries – Brendan lived probably from 484 to 577; this means he was one of the earliest native Irish saints and one of the longest lived. The first problem is the condition of the sources. Some Annals have suffered physical damage from damp and fire; some have been changed deliberately to suit the designs of powerful interests while others have suffered other well-meaning revisions.

The second problem, this time mainly with the Lives, is the type of literature we are dealing with. It is not history as we know it. In reading the Lives, we must realize the narrator wanted to inspire the reader rather than relate brute facts. We also must be aware that in the era in question most people were illiterate so stories were narrated in fixed formats to help the narrator’s memory. In pre- and early-Christian Ireland the stories were generally of three types. These were the Eachtrai, adventure stories, the Immrama, sea adventures, and the Fis, vision stories. Many elements of these stories, especially the Immrama were incorporated into the Navigatio.

A brief look at one of the Immrama, the Voyage of Bran, Son of Febail, will illustrate the similarities in the basic structure of the tale and the Navigatio (there are, of course, blatant differences; Brendan never came on an Island of Women where partners were provided for him and his companions). Brandon Point in West Kerry is known in Irish as Srub Bhroin, Bran’s Nose, named for the legendary Bran, not for Saint Brendan, as many suppose.

Anything we say about Brendan (and others) must be advanced with a caution warning. At the same time, we can claim to be more sure of what we say about the Irish saints than what historians can say about some of the great characters of history like Abraham, Moses or the twelve Apostles. Brendan was born somewhere in Fenit Island, Fenit Without, Tawlaght or Barrow, West of Tralee. He was of the Altraighe clan, a sept of the Ciarrai from whom Kerry is named. The Ciarrai claimed descent from Ciar son of Fergus, exiled king of Ulster and Maeve queen of Connaught. Ciar is thought to have come south about 65 AD and to have based his Kingdom between the Rivers Maine and Shannon, including Corca Dhuibhne, the Dingle Peninsula. The O Connors Kerry claim direct descent from Ciar.

Brendan’s father wes Finnlug of the Altraighe-cuile, the Altraighe of the ‘corner’, that portion of Kerry west of Tralee (not the Altraighe-caille, as often given in the sources, who lived in the wooded area east of Tralee). His mother was Cara of the Corca Dhuibhne in West Kerry. He had brothers, Domaingin, Faitleac and Faolán and one sister, Brig, for whom Brendan would found the Abbey of Annaghdown on Lough Corrib in County Galway.

Bishop Erc, first bishop in Kerry, baptised Brendan at Tobar na Molt, near Ardfert, six miles from Fenit. After a year with his parents he was fostered for five years by the local chieftain, Áirde Mac Fidaigh, at Cathair Áirde, as it is still known (many sources claim Ita was his foster mother; they also claim she was foster mother of Jesus! She was four years older than Brendan!). He returned to his family and to Bishop Erc where he learned about Jesus, about his heritage and about the ways of the sea, the building of boats and the flight of birds to the northwest in Springtime. Later he went north to Enda in Inishmore in the Aran Islands and to Jarlath in Galway. From these he learned the rules of the Saints of Ireland. He returned home and Erc ordained him priest at Tearmon Eirc, in Lerrig, near Ardfert in 512.

Not yet thirty, Brendan began a lifetime of founding monasteries and hermitages and of attracting young men and women to follow his lead. Brendan’s work rate was astonishing. In Ireland he founded institutions in Kerry, Cork, Clare, Kilkenny, Galway, Roscommon and Mayo (Inis Glora). Abroad, we find solid evidence of his being in Scotland (Iona and the Orkneys), Wales and Brittany.

In Kerry, Brendan founded churches in Kilfenora, near Fenit, in the Dingle Peninsula, including the Blasket Islands, and he founded his main church and monastery in Ardfert, not far from where he was baptised and ordained. Most of this Kerry activity seems to have been undertaken by the time he reached his fifties. Natural events then began to play a part. First, about 537, there was a meteorite impact or comet near miss. Allied to this there may have been a volcanic explosion, possibly in Krakatau, in the Pacific. This caused a cloud of ash or dust to cover the Earth. As a result the Annals call 538 and 539 blian gan Arán (year without bread). Dendrochronologists, studying oak tree rings, assure us that the very narrow rings for the years 536 to 540 indicate the coldest spell for two thousand years.  541 saw the onset of the Plague of Justinian which over the next eight years killed up to a third of the world’s population, including Finnian of Clonard and Ciarán of Clonmacnoise.

One might make two comments on these happenings. First, living conditions must have been appalling, with widespread famine and bubonic plague wiping out entire populations. It is very likely that this is what caused many of the Ciarrai, including Brendan’s people, to leave Kerry and travel up the nearby Shannon to East Galway and to the plain of An in Roscommon and East Mayo where one finds places named Ciarrai Uachtar (Upper Kerry), Ciarrai Aei, Ciarrai Airtic and Ciarrai Locha na nAirneach. They were led by Coirbri MacConuire whose daughter married Aedh Mac Eochaidh Tirmcarna King of Connaught. This alliance resulted in the Kerry people getting the land now named for them.

Brendan followed  his people north and founded several monasteries, one in Cluaintuaisceart in South County Roscommon where he put his brother Faitleac in charge, one on Lough Corrib in County Galway at Inisquin, another at Annaghdown on Lough Corrib, for women, where he put his sister Brig in charge (and where he died in 577). Then in 561 he made his principal foundation at Clonfert in County Galway, across the Shannon from Clonmacnoise. Brendan was now 77 years old. He went west to an island off the coast of Mayo, Inis Glora, and set up a small hermitage. The lure of the sea took hold again and I believe he went to Westport, County Mayo from whose oak trees he built his boats for his journey to the Promised Land whither he had watched the geese of his boyhood go. We will have more to say about this Voyage soon.

The second comment we will evince cannot be developed in this short article. The source of the plague is most likely Egypt or through Egypt from China. The disease was transmitted by rat or mice fleas. It is likely that this can be taken as proof of the close ties between the Egyptians and the Irish, the Alexandrian and the Irish monastic systems. The rats came by sea, by boat; so did the structure of the monastic based Irish Church. John Cassian (350-435) brought monasticism from Egypt to Marseilles in Gaul and wrote the rules as he had learned them in Egypt. These rules he wrote in two series of booklets, the Institutions and the Conferences. These rules were the basis of those of the Benedictine Order and of the Irish Church.

The political ambitions of the Ui Neill of Ulster have clouded the story of Patrick and of the Irish Church which for some six hundred years was based on abbots not on bishops, on monasteries, not on diocese. Further proof of Egyptian influence was provided by the discovery of an eight century Psalter in a bog in Faddan More in North Tipperary in July 2006. The style and the Papyrus which lines the cover speak of an Egyptian source. Patrick was a humble and gentle man who suffered beatings and imprisonment and bribed his way in some situations.

Patrick was not the all-conquering hero in green chasuble driving druids and snakes before him.. He probably worked in the area of Sligo/East Mayo for some thirty years after his arrival as bishop in 461 (not 432). In his two authentic writings he never mentioned Armagh. We have been told that Patrick founded virtually all the churches of Ireland. This was not the case. Rome was never happy with the Irish Church and ended centuries of rancour when, in 1169, Pope Adrian IV in his Bull Laudabiliter, calmly gave Ireland, which he claimed was his, to Henry II of  England, on condition he imposed the laws of Roman Hierarchical structure to replace the monastic structure of the Irish Church. Henry convoked the Synod of Cashel (1172) which gave us our modern diocesan structure. Thus, at the hands of Pope and King, perished the authentic Irish, Celtic, Church.

To return to the sixth century, Europe lay in ruins as a result of the Barbarian incursions from 406 onwards. Christian and classical manuscripts were destroyed wholesale. Christian and classical learning were reintroduced by Irish and Irish-inspired British monks who founded some two hundred monasteries across Europe between 550 and 850. In these monasteries were established the scriptoria that preserved the ancient learning. These monasteries were also the first towns and technological parks which helped local inhabitants survive and laid the basis of the Renaissance. The trailblazers in this movement to whom our world owes its existence were Brendan, Colmcille and Columbanus. Colmcille was responsible for the Scottish and Northumberland Churches, Columbanus for foundations across France, Germany and Italy while Brendan was the inspiration for the whole movement. This inspiration was transmitted through the spread of the Navigatio throughout Europe.

This brings us back to the meaning of the Navigatio. Written, as we have seen, toward the end of the seventh century, it uses the form of an immram to express the spirituality of the Irish monks. There are two ways of interpreting the motivation of the monk in seeking to leave home and family and seek God either in solitude, or, as was the case of the majority, in the company of like-minded individuals. The first interpretation is the negative, the dualistic one that saw the monk fleeing an evil world. This is not how Brendan and his monks saw things. Theirs was the positive approach; they gloried in nature, in the power of the sea, in the rise of the sun, in the smile of a child, in the change of seasons, in the awe of tree-shaded holy wells. In leaving home, they were not fleeing evil; they ‘sought the place of their Resurrection’. Thomas Merton, poet, and mystic spoke for them:

We are exiles in the far end of solitude, living as listeners

With hearts attending to the skies we cannot understand:

Waiting upon the first far drums of Christ the Conqueror,

Planted like sentinels upon the world’s frontier.

If, as we have suggested, they were under the influence of Greek philosophy through the neo-Platonism of Alexandria, they saw life as an unending eternity where all things come from God and will return to God eventually. This is what is represented in the unending whorls of Newgrange of 5,000 years ago; this is the neo-Platonic theory of Apokatastasis that John Scotus Eriugena, an Irish monk, developed in the Court School of Charles the Bald around 850. The Irish monks saw themselves called to spread the word of Jesus to the ends of the earth so that they might merit a place with the Divine. The place of their ministry would be the place where they earned their eternal reward. The Irish were accepting of many of the beliefs of the people among whom they worked, including their own pagan ancestry from whom they brought such a legacy as the honouring of the dead which is more evident in Irish wakes and funerals than anywhere else on Earth.

The influence of the theory of Apokatastasis is shown in a scene in the Navigatio where Brendan came upon Judas chained to a rock in the ocean. God gave reprieve from hell to this greatest of sinners on certain feastdays. At Judas’ request, Brendan prayed and got him an extension of reprieve, showing the ultimate mercy of God to all. Eriugena was excommunicated for his belief which shows the difference in tolerance and reliance on God’s mercy in Rome and among the Irish. In many other less spectacular instances, the Navigatio spells out the beliefs and practices that constituted the life and practices of the Irish monks. Rather than telling the story of an actual voyage of Brendan, the Navigatio uses the format of the immram and the fame of Brendan’s many voyages to spell out the inward journey of the true monk as he sought to find God in his own heart through the medium of the Church’s liturgical year and the ever recurring Mass, Cnrist’s loving sacrifice for sinners.

One last point to underscore Brendan’s importance in world history; Christopher Columbus attended the University of Pavia where he was inspired by the example of Brendan he found in a copy of the Navigatio in the monastery library. This caused him, later, to visit Galway and bring back with him an Irish navigator. As he embarked on his trans-Atlantic voyage in 1492, he said “I go to seek the promised land of Saint Brendan”. Thus did a boy who grew a man at the edge of the known world inspire two movements that changed the world utterly…..a terrible beauty was born. As the face of Helen launched a thousand ships, so did the example of Brendan underpin the launch of two patterns of civilization that are with us still.

As we begin our gathering to honour Brendan as one of our own, let us hope that, under the leadership of Pope Francis, the ideals of Brendan and his fellow apostles be ours also.

During the week 12th – 19th May 2013, Kerry will honour Brendan in a way that will, hopefully, bring this wonderful  man out of the mythical twilight to which he has been long consigned and set him and his time in their deserved setting. For details of the week, especially the International Conference on the 18th and 19th , see