16 May is the feast day of St Brendan the Navigator, one of the Twelve Apostles of Ireland and patron saint of mariners, elderly adventurers and whales.
‘O! tell me, father, for I loved you well, if still you have words for me, of things strange in the remembering in the long and lonely sea, of islands by deep spells beguiled where dwell the Elven-kind: in seven long years the road to Heaven or the Living Land did you find?’ (J.R.R. Tolkien, “The Death of St. Brendan”)
|Edward Reginald Frampton’s (1870 – 1923) somewhat symbolistic imagination of St Brendan's Voyage|
It might be a bad case of “the grass is always greener on the other side” or just curiosity and a yearning to know what might be beyond the horizon of the broad Atlantic that washed upon their beaches, but it is the Gaels and the Britons, of all the Celtic people, the Insular Celts, who have the strongest tradition of tales about mythical islands and lost underwater kingdoms. Lyonesse west of the Scilly Islands in the Arthurian tradition, Ys off Brittany, the “Welsh Atlantis” of Cantre’r Gwaelod and the Irish legends of Tír Tairngire and Tír na nÓgm, whole Otherworlds and Happy Hunting Grounds out in the ocean and, of course, Hy-Brasil, an island cloaked in mist except for one day every seven years, that became the namesake of Brazil centuries later, to name but a few. A typical hero quest of Insular Celtic tradition was the voyage, by ship or magic horse, out there where adventure was awaiting and to return a better man or not at all. The motif of reaching the Great Beyond by ship was taken up by Irish monks in the early Middle Ages and transformed into Saints’ voyages to some Paradise or the other located west of Ireland, a type of tale called simply “immram”, voyage, and the most popular of the immrama is certainly that of St Brendan.
the lads and the Jasconius, the latter displaying a somewhat |
Whether or not the Blessed Brendan had founded Clonfert Cathedral in Galway in 563, usually named as the only historically secured feat of his vita, his tale, written down probably as late as the 10th century, became a long running hit in medieval literature with an impact history that lasted well into the Age of Exploration. The author or authors of Brendan’s travel story did, admittedly, their best to spin a whale of a tale that does not have to shun comparison with Coleridge’s “Ancient Mariner”. With elements of old legends, hell visions, probable early discoveries like the volcanoes of Iceland or places like the Faroe Islands, Greenland or Newfoundland, before Eric the Red and Leif Erikson followed the whale road across the Western Ocean around 1000 CE, the monks certainly held their audience in a thrall over the centuries. The most memorable event of Brendan’s maritime quest for the Garden of Eden certainly was the celebration of Easter Mass on an island that turned out to be the sleeping Jasconius, a giant, whale-like creature, awoken by the saint and his fellows when they lit a fire on the poor thing’s back. Nonetheless, St Brendan returned to tell the tale, became the patron saint of whales, founded various monasteries, finally died as an old man, allegedly, in 577 and was buried in Clonfert.
"A portable vessel of wicker ordinarily used by the Wild Irish" in short: a Currach
Brendan’s Island appeared on maps as late as the early 18th century, Henry the Navigator and Columbus believed in its existence, even though they placed it in west of Africa and not in the North Atlantic. Of course, Brendan joined the queue of pre-Columbian discoverers of America like the Welsh Prince Madoc or even pre-Viking explorers like Bran. In 1976, the British explorer, historian and author Tim Severin took the legends literally, build a currach, a type of Irish boat with a wooden frame over which ox hides are stretched as it was described in the old texts and used at least until the 17th century and set forth with a crew of three on an epic 4,500 mile voyage from the west of Ireland along the Hebrides and Iceland to Newfoundland, trying to prove that a voyage like St Brendan’s was at least possible in the early Middle Ages. The saint, in the meanwhile, is venerated as patron of sailors along with St Nick and various local heroes and, as of late, as the holy helper in cases where portable canoes are involved.
And more about St Brendan on:
Tim Severin on:
and his homepage:
and Tolkien’s poem quoted above can be found here: