The Voyage of Saint Brendan

Originally Published for the 2006 Crawley Irish Festival

We all know that an Italian, Christopher Columbus, was the first European to discover America. But perhaps a priest from Tralee got there first?

Saint Brendan’s Voyage: fact or fiction?

Brendan was born in Ireland about 488 near Tralee and sailed about northwest Europe, as a priest, spreading the Christian faith and founding monasteries. Saint Brendan’s most famous voyage was ‘to the west’. According to tradition, he was in his seventies when he and seventeen other monks set out on a westward voyage in a Currach (or coracle): a wood-framed boat covered in sewn ox-hides. The monks were seeking the ‘Promised Land of the Saints‘, said to lie far to the west of Ireland.

The ‘Voyage of St Brendan’ became an important part of folklore and many accounts of the voyage have survived. The voyage story depicts subterranean volcanoes, claims that the monks were ‘raised up on the back of sea-monsters’, were passed by ‘crystals that rose up to the sky’ and were ‘pelted with flaming, foul smelling rocks by the inhabitants of a large island on the route’. Translation: the whales were friendly, they passed icebergs and Icelandic people were less than pleasant at the time. The story suggests that the monks explored until they found ‘The Promised Land of the Saints’ and explored until a great river divided the land.

For a long time, sceptics could not believe that such a fragile vessel as a Currach could sail in the open sea. In 1976, a British navigation scholar, Tim Severin, recreated the journey from Dingle in a Currach constructed using the details described by Brendan – he reached Newfoundland within thirteen months. It is therefore possible that explorers in primitive open-boats could have reached America.

More evidence seems to suggest that the monks reached North America, perhaps even that the great river was as far south as the Mississippi. Stone carvings using the old-Irish Ogham alphabet have been discovered in West Virginia (dated around the period) and the Native American (Shawano) tradition tells of a story when a white tribe with iron implements inhabited Florida.

Well, there you have it – it’s possible the story is true. Or maybe not… I wonder whether a Currach could reach the moon… ?