That Which We Have Heard & Known

Occasional thoughts of an Anglican Episcopal priest

St. Brendan and the Cathedral at Clonfert

A few days ago I took a short drive and visited an ancient cathedral dedicated to St. Brendan the Navigator. It is currently a Church of Ireland church, part of the multi-point benefice that includes Banagher. It is in Clonfert, Co. Galway, only about 10 kilometers from my cottage outside of Banagher on the other side of the Shannon River.

St. Brendan's Cathedral, Clonfert, Co. Galway, Ireland

St. Brendan's Cathedral, Clonfert, Co. Galway, Ireland

According to the church tradition, St. Brendan was born in about 484 in Ciarraighe Luachra near the port of Tralee, County Kerry, in the southwest of Ireland. He was taken from his home as a small boy and raised to become a monk. His early education was overseen by St. Ita in whose convent school little boys were taught “faith in God with purity of heart; simplicity of life with religion; generosity with love.” He completed his education with St. Erc (that’s “Erc” not “Eric”) whom St. Patrick is said to have ordained as Bishop of Slane. St. Erc ordained Brendan to the priesthood.

St. Brendan's Cathedral, Clonfert, Co. Galway, Ireland

St. Brendan's Cathedral, Clonfert, Co. Galway, Ireland

Brendan is the patron saint of travelers and sailors because of the numerous voyages accredited to him. Although most of the legends of St. Brendan agree that he was an adventurous traveler, discrepancies concerning the direction of his travels remain. A few sources talk about his trips to Scotland and Wales, and there are place names in both countries supporting the idea that he journeyed there. Others cite the coast of Brittany and islands surrounding Ireland where he worked tirelessly to establish monasteries and spread the word of God.

Doorway of St. Brendan's Cathedral, Clonfert, Co. Galway, Ireland

Doorway of St. Brendan's Cathedral, Clonfert, Co. Galway, Ireland

The most famous story of St. Brendan is that of his search for a land of plenty in the far west, which is recounted in Navigatio Sancti Brendani (“The Voyage of St. Brendan”). This story is in the form of an immram, an epic poem style peculiar to Ireland that describes a hero’s series of adventures in a boat. According to this legend, Brendan and his companions had several adventures along the way including an encounter with a talking bird, a visit to Hell complete with demons, and landing on the back of an enormous whale which they mistook for an island.

Interior of St. Brendan's Cathedral, Clonfert, Co. Galway, Ireland

Interior of St. Brendan's Cathedral, Clonfert, Co. Galway, Ireland

The story is usually assumed to be a religious allegory, but 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. Whether St. Brendan really took this journey and “discovered” America is question for debate. There are several individuals, scholars, and groups that firmly believe that the voyage took place. In the 1970s, after much preparation and research, documentary maker Tim Severin duplicated the trip in a small vessel modeled after the traditional Irish curragh. It is also said that artifacts have been found in America proving that Brendan and his fellow monks had landed there.

Cathedra at St. Brendan's Cathedral, Clonfert, Co. Galway, Ireland

Cathedra at St. Brendan's Cathedral, Clonfert, Co. Galway, Ireland

Whether these voyages are fact or fiction, it is without doubt that Brendan was the founder of the monastery where the cathedral is located in Clonfert.

St. Brendan's Grave at Clonfert, Co. Galway, Ireland

St. Brendan's Grave at Clonfert, Co. Galway, Ireland

St. Brendan died around 580 AD and his body was buried at Clonfert.

Headstone on St. Brendan's Grave

Headstone on St. Brendan's Grave

3 Comments

  1. Amanda Lovelace

    March 27, 2012 at 3:43 am

    Hello, and thank you very much for all that you have written. My grandad is Brendan Frances Corcoran from Dublin, his father was a “Beat Cop” on the streets of Dublin. My Grandad passed away about 20 years ago. It was a Sad day for all that knew him. He used to write to me and tell me of his own “Travels” as a Merchant Seaman in the British Navy. I wish I still had them now. He would write about the “Serpants” in the sea and the strength it took to overcome them. I now see it was his way of telling me about life. . …. I had a Son in the Summer of 1998 and I named him Brendan. This is So Beautiful for me to show him this! Thank You!

  2. Hebert McGinnis

    August 7, 2013 at 1:58 pm

    I wanted to see a photo of Saint Brendan’s tomb for my research and I thank you for providing this information. May God grant that one day I am able to stand in that spot and see for myself. In America, I named my son Brendan also after the great sainted explorer. Thanks again for these pics.

  3. eric

    August 7, 2013 at 2:00 pm

    Hebert: You’re welcome. I enjoyed my sabbatical in Ireland renting a cottage not terribly from the Clonfert cathedral.

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