St. Brendan of Clonfert (c.484-c.577) called “the Navigator,” “the Voyager,” or “the Bold” is one of the early Irish monastic saints. He is chiefly renowned for his legendary quest to the “Isle of the Blessed” which is also called St. Brendan’s Island. The Voyage of Saint Brendan is an Irish navigational story. He was one of the Twelve Apostles of Ireland. His feast day is celebrated on May 16 by Catholics, Anglicans and Eastern Orthodox Christians.
In 484, Brendan was born in Tralee, in County Kerry, in the province of Munster, in southwestern Ireland. He was born among the Altraige tribe who originally lived around Tralee Bay, to parents Finnlug and Cara. Tradition says he was born in the kilfenora/Fenit area on the north side of the bay. He was originally to be named Mobhi but signs attending his birth and baptism by Bishop Erc led him to be baptized “Broen-finn” or “fair drop.” Baptized at Tubrid, near Ardfert, by Saint Erc. For five years he was educated under St. Ita, “the Brigid of Munster.” When Brendan was six, he was sent to St. Jarlath’s monastery school at Tuam to further his education. Brendan was one of the Twelve Apostles of Ireland, one of those who had been tutored by the great teacher, Finnian of Clonard.
Saint Erc ordained him a priest in 512. During the next 20 years of his life, St. Brendan sailed all around the islands surrounding Ireland spreading the Word of God and founding monastery after monastery. The most notable of these is Clonfert in Galway, which he founded around 557 and which lasted well into the 1600s. Brendan’s first voyage took him to the Arran Islands, where he founded a monastery and to many other islands which he only visited, including Hinba, off Scotland where he is said to have met Columba. He also went to Wales and finally to Brittany, on the northern coast of France. Between 512 and 530 he built monastic cells at Ardfert and at the foot of Mount Brandon, Shanakeel-Seana Cill or “the old church.” From here is supposed to have set out on his famous voyage to Paradise.
St. Brendan is chiefly known for his famous journey to the Isle of the Blessed as described in the ninth century text Voyage of St. Brendan the Navigator. Many versions of the tale exist that tell how he set out onto the Atlantic Ocean with sixty pilgrims searching for the Garden of Eden. On his voyage, he is supposed to set eyes on St. Brendan’s Island, a blessed island covered with vegetation. He also encountered a sea monster, an adventure shared with his contemporary St. Columba. The earliest version of the story was recorded around 900 AD. There are over 100 manuscripts of the story across Europe, as well as many additional translations. It is an overtly Christian narrative. Yet it also contains tales of natural phenomena and fantastical events and places, which appealed to a broad populace.
On the shores of Kerry, he built a currach-like boat of wattle, covered it with hides tanned in oak bark softened with butter, set up a mast and a sail. He and a small group of monks fasted for forty days and after a time of prayer, embarked in the name of the Trinity. The account is characterized by a great deal of literary license and contains references to hell where “great demons threw down lumps of fiery slag from an island with rivers of gold fire” and “great crystal pillars.” Many now think these to be references to the volcanic activity around Iceland and to icebergs. The Voyage of Saint Brendan fits in with a then-popular genre of literature peculiar to Ireland, called an immaram, that describes a hero’s series of adventures in a boat.
Brendan is one of the most famous of Irish saints. His voyages helped create one of the most remarkable and enduring of European legends. It has been hard for scholars to interpret what is factual and what is folklore. Irish immram flourished during the seventh and eighth centuries. Immram was sea-voyage in which a hero wanders from island to island, meets other-worldly wonders and finally returns home. Brendan’s Voyage shares some characteristics with a immram.
Over the years there have been many interpretations of the possible geographic location of St. Brendan’s Island: southern part of Ireland, the Canary Islands, Faroes or Azores, Madeire or near the equator. While the story is often assumed to be a religious allegory there has been considerable discussion as to whether the legends are based on actual events including speculation that the Isle of the Blessed was actually North America. There is a St. Brendan’s Society that celebrates the belief that Brendan was the first European to reach North America giving the glory of the discovery to the Irish. Tim Severin has demonstrated that it is possible that a leather-clad boat such as the one described in the story could have reached North America.
Brendan travelled to Wales and the holy island of Iona. He established a bishopric at Ardfert and proceded to Thomond and founded a monastery at Inis-da-druim (now Coney Island) in County Clare around 550. In Wales, he studied under St. Gildas at Llancarfan; it was after then that he travelled to Iona. Returning to Ireland after a three year mission in Britain, he founded a monastery at Annaghdown, where he spent the rest of his days. He also founded a convent there for his sister Briga. He also did more proselytizing in Leinster especilly at Dysart (County Kilkenny), Tubberboe and Brandon Hill. He established churches at Inchinquin, County Galway and at Inishglora, County Mayo. He died in 577 at Annaghdown, while visiting his sister. Fearing after his death his devotees might take his remains as relics, Brendan had arranged before his death to have his body secretly carried back to the monastery he founded at Clonfert concealed in a luggage cart. He was buried in Clonfert Cathedral.
As the legend of his seven year voyage spread, crowds of pilgrims and students flocked to Ardfert. Religious houses were built at Kilmalchedor, Brandon Hill, and the Blasket Islands to meet the wants of those who came for spiritual guidance from St. Brendan. He is the patron saint of sailors and travelers. At the U.S. Naval Academy a large stained glass window commemorates Brendan’s achievements. At Fenit Harbor, Tralee, a large bronze sculpture with a small horn has been erected to honor his memory. Brendan is also the patron saints of the Dioceses of Kerry and Clonfert. He also has been made the patron saint of scuba divers.
His name has been perpetuated in numerous place names and landmarks along the Irish coast (Brandon Hill, Brandon Point, Mt. Brandon, Brandon Well, Brandon Bay, Brandon Head).
The group of ecclesiastical remains at Ardfert is one of the most interesting and instructive existing in Ireland. The ancient ruins of the Cathedral of St. Brendan, with its charities and detached chapels, form a complete reliquary of Irish church architecture in its various orders and ages from the plain but solid of the seventh or eighth centuries to the late and ornate of medieval Gothic. The cathedral as seen now, or as it stood before it was dismantled in 1641.