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St. Brendan,The Navigator
Brendan and his companions finally arrived at the beautiful land they called Promised Land of the Saints. They explored until they came to a great river that divided the land. The journey of Brendan and his fellow monks took seven years. The return trip was probably the longest part of the odyssey.
In 1976, Tim Severin, a British navigation scholar, embarked from Brandon Creek on the Dingle Peninsula in a currach that he constructed using the details described by Brendan. His goal was to determine if the voyage of Brendan and his fellow monks was possible. Severin and his team tanned ox-hides with oak bark, stretched them across the wood frame, sewed them with leather thread and smeared the hides with animal fat which would impart water resistance.
Examination of nautical charts led Severin to believe that Brendans route would be governed by the prevailing winds that would take him across the northernmost part of the Atlantic. This would take him close to Iceland and Greenland with a probable landfall at Newfoundland (St. Brendans Isle).
Severin and his crew were surprised at how friendly the whales were that they encountered. The whales swam around and even under their boat. The whales could have been even friendlier in Brendans time, before motorized ships would make them leery of man. So friendly, that perhaps they may have lifted the monks boat in a playful gesture!
After stopping at the Hebrides islands, Severin proceeded to the Danish Faroe Islands. At the island of Mykines, they encountered thousands of seabirds. Brendan called this island The Paradise of Birds. He referred to the larger island as the Island of Sheep. The word Faroe itself means Island of Sheep. There is also a Brandon Creek on the main island of the Faroes that the local people believe was an embarkation point for Brendan and his crew.
Severins route then carried them to Iceland where they wintered, as did Brendan. The volcanoes on the island have been active for many centuries and might well have been erupting when the monks stayed there. This could have accounted for the pelting with flaming, foul smelling rocks, referred to in the ninth century text.
The monks had never seen icebergs before, so their description of them as towering crystals would make sense. Severins boat was punctured by floating ice off the coast of Canada. They were able to make a repair with a piece of leather sewn over the hole. They landed on the island of Newfoundland on June 26, 1977. This might well have been Brendans Land promised to the Saints referred to in the Navigatio.
Severins journey did not prove that Brendan and his monks landed on North America. However, it did prove that a leather currach as described in the Navigatio could have made such a voyage as mapped out in the text. There is also no doubt that the Irish were frequent seafarers of the North Atlantic sea currents 900 years before the voyage of Columbus.
More conclusive evidence of Irish exploration of North America has come to light in West Virginia. There, stone carvings have been discovered that have been dated between 500 and 1000 A.D. Analysis by archaeologist Dr. Robert Pyle and a leading language expert Dr. Barry Fell, indicate that they are written in Old Irish using the Ogham alphabet.
According to Dr. Fell, the West Virginia Ogham texts are the oldest Ogham inscriptions from anywhere in the world. They exhibit the grammar and vocabulary of Old Irish in a manner previously unknown in such early rock-cut inscriptions in any Celtic language.
Dr. Fell goes on to speculate that, It seems possible that the scribes that cut the West Virginia inscriptions may have been Irish missionaries in the wake of Brendans voyage, for these inscriptions are Christian. The early Christian symbols of piety, such as the various Chi-Rho monograms (Name of Christ) and the Dextra Dei (Right Hand of God) appear at the sites, together with the Ogham texts.
The lack of any written account of this exploration could be explained by the explorers not being able to return to their homeland. If they indeed did reach what is now West Virginia, it would be extremely doubtful that they could manage to return to Ireland from an embarkation point that far south. The design of their currach required favorable winds and currents in the right direction in order to navigate. Severin discovered that it was extremely difficult to tack as other sailing ships were able to do. Perhaps that is the reason that it took Brendan seven years for his journey. That he was able to return at all is a miracle - or was it all a myth?
Perhaps we'll never know for certain whether or not Brendan's voyage was a medieval fantasy or that he was indeed, among the first to discover the New World. The evidence would indicate that a fantastic voyage across the Atlantic did take place and the stone carvings in West Virginia certainly prove the presence of Irish Christians at just about the right time in history. Whatever you believe, it's a fascinating chapter in Irish folklore and one that should be passed down until such time that the truth can be determined.
St. Brendan's Feast Day is May 16th. He is the patron saint of boatmen, mariners, sailors, travellers, and whales.
Note: Read the story of Brendan for Kids by Grainne Rowland. Click here for Brendan.
There are hundreds of islands around the Irish coast. Achill is the biggest, the Arans the most romantic; Skellig Michael the most dramatic and Tory the most menacing - at least in legend. The Blaskets offer the most fertile ground for literature and Clare island is the most meticulously studied. But, whichever island you may visit, you can be sure each of them has its own superlative. For example, Little Skellig off St. Finian's Bay in Co. Kerry, is known for its gigantic colony of white seabirds called gannets.
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March 4, 2011
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