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