Brendan of Clonfert, known as “the navigator” and “the bold”, is one of the best-known Irish saints, though much of his life remains a mystery.
He was born around AD 484 and lived into his 90s, but what we know of his life stems from Latin biographies written between the eighth and 10th centuries. They tell an immram, an Irish seafaring story, about the saint who sailed off in a boat “in his quest for the Land of Promise”.
Born in Tralee in Co Kerry, from a tribe called the Altraige, he was supposed to be named Mobhi but at the last minute was called Broenfinn, or “fair-drop”. Educated under St Ita, another of the great early Irish saints, he was ordained priest in his late teens and spent the next two decades sailing around the islands off Ireland –
no mean feat even today, given the Atlantic’s stormy weather.
Among the monasteries he founded was Clonfert in Co Galway, which lasted for 1,000 years, and one in the Aran Islands. He also visited Argyll and Brittany, although his legendary journey to “St Brendan’s Island”, west of the Canaries and well on the way to America, is the most interesting if perhaps the least plausible.
The story goes that Brendan was in search of the Garden of Eden, along with 14 other pilgrims and three “unbelievers” who decided to go along for the ride.
Wherever St Brendan’s Island is, and what the “sea monster” was that he encountered – or, for that matter, “the Ethiopian devil” mentioned – his historical journeys were epic and reflected the sheer dynamism of Irish Catholicism at the time.
Although the stories attract scepticism, experts have shown that the type of vessel used by Brendan could have reached North America. He is the patron of explorers and is mentioned frequently in popular culture, especially in songs.
Brendan spent much of the rest of his life preaching the Gospel around Ireland, before dying in Annaghdown, Co Galway, in 577. He was buried at the original Clonfert Cathedral. The current, now Anglican, cathedral dates from the 12th century.
This article first appeared in the latest edition of the Catholic Herald magazine (8/5/15).
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