Today 16th May is the feast day of Saint Brendan of Clonfert (died c.577AD), one of the Twelve Apostles of Ireland who founded the monastic school. Little secure information survives concerning Brendan's life, however, it seems fairly certain he was born in 484 near Tralee, in County Kerry, in the south-west of Ireland and he died at Clonfert around 577. He was educated under Saint Ita, "the Brigid of Munster" and went on to establish many monasteries, notably Ardfert in County Kerry, Annaghdown and Clonfert in County Galway. According to the Lives of later saints, Brendan voyaged to Britain, the Hebrides, the Orkneys and the Faroes. Yet most of his evangelizing work is eclipsed by his journey into the Atlantic in his later years, which earned him the designation of Brendan the Voyager, or the Navigator, for his legendary quest to the "Isle of the Blessed”.
The 9th century text “The Voyage of Saint Brendan the Navigator” tells how the Saint set out onto the Atlantic Ocean with pilgrims searching for the Promised Land of the Saints. Some have even suggested that St Brendan sailed right across the Atlantic and discovered America. Is it possible that a 6th century saint could have crossed the Atlantic in a curragh or is it all romantic nonsense?
The first mention of St Brendan occurs in Adamnan's Vita Sancti Columbae, written between 679 and 704, who also records the voyages of Cormac and other sea pilgrimages in the 7th century. Two key texts that record the legend of St Brendan are the 'Life of Brendan' (Vita Brendani) and the better known 'Voyage of Saint Brendan the Abbot' (Navigatio sancti Brendani abbatis). Debate continues as to which tale came first, yet it seems likely the author of the Navigatio borrowed from the Vita. However, the two tales are clearly interrelated, whereas the Vita focusses on Brendan's life the Navigatio tells more of the voyage. Both texts tell of Brendan and his monks setting off from the west coast of Ireland in search of the Promised Land, in which they visit a number of islands and experience monsters and testing adventures before returning home. The Vita differs in that there are two voyages, the first unsuccessful, and there are fewer island episodes.
A visit from a fellow monk named Barinthus (Barrind) who has just returned from a voyage to the Land of Promise inspires Brendan's voyage. For seven years they journey across the ocean encountering the Devil and many enchanted islands, one of which turns out to be a whale which turns up regularly at Easter to allow the brethren to celebrate mass on its back. On the voyage they glimpse the horrors of Hell, Brendan heals the sick and calms a storm. Yet in all this time they survive without injury or loss and without provisions onboard. Eventually they come to an island with a beautiful church but cannot land. Finally, they head for home.
Faction or Fiction?
Several facts support the story of Irish saints voyaging into the Atlantic; the remains of ancient Christian chapels bearing the names of Irish saints, can be found all over the remote islands in the Atlantic to the north-west of Scotland and Ireland. Secondly; there is documentary evidence that there were already Irish people in Iceland when the Vikings first arrived there in the late 9th century.
Saint Brendan's Island is a phantom, or mythical, island said to have been discovered by the Saint and his followers where they held mass while they were travelling across the ocean. Receiving its first mention in the Navigatio Sancti, Saint Brendan's Island is supposedly situated in the North Atlantic somewhere west of Northern Africa and appeared on numerous maps during the Age of Discovery, most notably Martin Behaim's globe of 1492 used by Christopher Columbus on his journey to the Americas nearly a thousand years after St Brendan's voyage.
Allusions to sea voyages in the search for the Land of Promise with reference to Saints Brendan, Ailbe, Ibar, and Patrick, among others, is made in the Litany of Irish Pilgrim Saints, probably 8th century. Written in Irish or Latin, immram type tales form part of many saints' Lives; the Voyage of Saint Brendan could be called an immram.
Seaborne Pilgrims of Christ
Early Irish literature classifies these expeditions into otherworldly realms as echtrae and immrama. In the echtrae, literally an “outing”, the emphasis is placed on the heroes' entry into the supernatural world, where he experiences a timeless abode of perpetual good health and an abundance of food and drink; the realm of the echtrae is a pagan one. Whereas, the immram, literally “rowing about”, takes place across the sea with heroes wandering from island to island in an essentially Christian setting. The distinct apocalyptic tone, use of psalm verses and apocryphal Christian motifs forces the conclusion of an ecclesiastical origin for the immrama.
The development of voyage literature is tied to the journeys of early medieval Irish clerics, who from at least the 6th century voluntarily left their homeland to go on peregrinatio pro Christo (adventuring or travelling for Christ). Here pilgrims of Christ would go wandering in their curraghs seeking the solitude of terra deserta out in the ocean putting themselves totally in God's hands in a seaborne wilderness. By the 7th century the wandering Irish monks, the peregrini, had reached the Orkneys and the Shetlands, by the 8th century there is evidence for their presence in Iceland.
The Irish monk known as Dicuil described how, in the early 9th-century (c.825), a group of Irish priests spent most of the year on a northern island, thought to be Iceland, and had been able to pick lice from their clothes at night by the light of the “midnight sun”. Dicuil explained that in summer, “it does not grow dark even for the shortest space of time”. A medieval Norse work, the Íslendingabók (Book of Icelanders), tells us that the Norse settlers encountered Irish monks when they first arrived in Iceland in 874; “.... before Iceland was peopled from Norway there were in it the men whom the Norse call the Papae: they were Christians… they left behind Irish books, bells, and crosiers…” Several Icelandic place-names have been linked to the "Papar" (from Latin papa, via Old Irish, meaning "father"), including the island of Papey, as well as the Vestmannaeyjar ("islands of the Westmen").
As with Iceland there is also suggestive evidence for settlers, possibly Irish monks, in the Faroe Islands before Viking colonisation in the 9th century. In 2013 Archaeologists from Durham University studied a site on the island of Sandoy, situated between the North Atlantic Ocean and the Norwegian Sea, and found deposits containing patches of burnt peat ash. These ash spreads contained barley grains that were burnt in domestic hearths and were then spread by human activity onto the windblown sand surface between the 4th and 6th centuries and again between the 6th and 8th centuries, a common practice identified in the North Atlantic during this period to control wind erosion. The discovery signifies that the settlers were established on the islands and must have grown and processed barley and used peat to cook, dating human settlement to pre-Viking times. As in Iceland, there are several “papar” place-names in the Faroe Islands including Vestmanna (from Vestmannahøvn) meaning the "harbour of the Westmen" (Irish) and tombstones in a churchyard in Skúvoy are said to bear possible Gaelic influence. Ample “papar” place-names can also be found in the Orkneys (Papa Stronsay) and Shetlands (Papa Stour) and two ‘papar’ locations in the Outer Hebrides to reach the same conclusion.1
So we have evidence for pre-Viking visits to the islands of the north-west Atlantic. But could St Brendan have really reached the Americas in a simple leather covered boat?
The Voyage of the Brendan
In 1976 the modern day explorer Tim Severin built a replica of the vessel that Brendan would have used, a leather covered curragh, and sailed from Ireland across the Atlantic, island hoping via the Hebrides, Faroe Islands and Iceland, to arrive in Newfoundland a year later. Severin encountered various sights such as icebergs and sea animals, like whales and porpoises, which he suggests are factual counterparts to the fantastic sights from the legends of Saint Brendan. Severin's adventure was recorded in the “The Voyage of the Brendan” which although not proving St Brendan's voyage as fact, certainly demonstrated that it was in fact possible.2
The Navigatio sancti Brendani abbatis was a medieval bestseller, over a hundred manuscripts have survived influencing later works. Barinthus turns up again in Geoffrey of Monmouth's Vita Merlini, c.1150, in which he describes an island Elysium as the place they took the mortally wounded Arthur after the battle of Camlan. The island is the abode of nine maidens, Morgen and her sisters, the goddess with great skill in healing. Barinthus is the pilot of Arthur's death barge who guides Myrddin and Taliesin on their voyage to 'The Fortunate Isle' because of his knowledge of the seas and the stars of heaven:
"The Island of Apples gets its name 'The Fortunate Island' from the fact that it produces all manner of plants spontaneously. It needs no farmers to plough the fields. There is no cultivation of the land at all beyond that which is Nature's work. It produces crops in abundance and grapes without help; and apple trees spring up from the short grass in its woods. All plants, not merely grass alone, grows spontaneously; and men live a hundred years or more.”
Here Geoffrey clearly mixes elements of Celtic (Arthurian) and Classical mythology. Geoffrey's description of the Fortunate Isles comes largely from the Classical tradition, much of it to be found in Isidore, but is also clearly influenced by Celtic legends of the happy Otherworld. There is a significant passage in Pomponius Mela which reflects ancient Celtic tradition.3
It is often assumed that Geoffrey must have obtained his Barinthus from the Voyage of Saint Brendan, with his role that of the ferryman, a Celtic Charon. However, it has been argued that Geoffrey based his Barinthus on an earlier tradition in which he was god of the sea and the Otherworld.4
The Life of St David reveals a pre-Geoffrey Celtic tradition of St Barri which cannot be a mere adaptation form the Latin legend of Brendan. The tale reveals how one day St Barri borrowed a horse from St David and rode it across the sea from Wales to Ireland, suggesting that Barri must have been riding a sort of fish or sea-horse.
We find similar accounts in Irish mythology in which Manannán mac Lír is featured riding on a sea-horse across the ocean between Ireland and Wales, although what appears to be the sea to mere men is to Manannán the flowering plain of Mag Mell.5 Surely the tale reveals that Barri was in all probability originally a Celtic sea god, like Manannán, who became Christianised as a Saint. This is a common trait of the early Saints' Lives and other Celtic literature. Barinthus may therefore be an epithet, such as the Irish Barrfind, or Finbarr, which means literally 'white-topped'.6 Throughout Celtic mythological tales the denotation of 'white' implies Otherworldly connotations, usually applied to a deity.
Indeed, a more appropriate name for a god of the sea would be hard to find. It seems highly probable that Barinthus, or Barri, was in origin a sea-deity and consequently an early Celtic god of the Land beyond the Waves. The Barinthus episode fails to form an integral part of the Voyage of Saint Brendan; as is common in typical Celtic Otherworld voyage tales, he appears briefly at the beginning as an Otherworld messenger who suggests to the Hero the idea of the voyage.7
The Voyage of Bran
Essentially the immrama are not strictly concerned with the Otherworld; although they contain supernatural elements, they are firmly set in the Christianised world with a Christian hero. The early 8th century tale The Voyage of Bran (Immram Brain), although named as such, is not an immram but belongs to the group of older tales recounting an excursion to the Otherworld, collectively known as 'echtrae' in Old Irish. The story of Bran's voyage probably became confused and influenced by that of Brendan the Navigator (Navigatio Brendani), and the term immram became attached, incorrectly, to Bran's story.8
Bran's voyage starts when he sees a silver branch in front of him. Then an Otherworldly woman appears and sings a poem to him about the Otherworld where this silver branch had grown. In this land, it is perennial summer, there is no shortage of food or water, and no sickness ever strikes the fair people. The next day Bran departs for the voyage to the Land of Women across the sea at the woman's prompting. After two days, he sees a man on a chariot speeding across the water towards him. This is no man but the sea god Manannan mac Lir who tells Bran that he is not sailing upon the ocean, but upon a flowery plain, just as Barri appeared to St David. Significantly Bran is also a Celtic sea-god.
In the echtrae, tales of voyages to the Land of Promise, the adventure starts following the appearance of a deity, usually a goddess. The appearance of Barrind (as Barinthus) at the beginning of the Navigatio Brendani signifies that St Brendan's adventure is essentially a Christianised version of Immram Brain and therefore unlikely to have been a real event.
Copyright © 2015 Edward Watson
1. Barbara E. Crawford, The Papar Project.
2. Tim Severin, The Brendan Voyage: The Seafaring Classic That Followed St. Brendan to America, Gill & Macmillan, 2005.
3. John Jay Parry, trans. The Vita Merlini, Latin text by Geoffrey of Monmouth, 1925. Available at Sacred Texts.
4. Arthur C L Brown, Barintus, Revue Celtique, XXII, 1901.
5. Francesco Benozzo, Landscape Perception Early Celtic Literature, Celtic Studies Publications, 2004, pp.3-18.
6. Brown, op cit.
9. Barbara Freitag, Hy Brasil: The Metamorphosis of an Island: From Cartographic Error to Celtic Elysium, Rodopi, 2013. Kuno Myer mis-named the Voyage of Bran as an immram without any manuscript authority, although the tale contains the essential elements of an immram it is without doubt an echtrae.
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