Today is the feast day of Saint Brendan. Ora pro nobis.
There is very little secure information concerning Brendan’s life, although at least the approximate dates of his birth and death, and accounts of some events in his life, are found in the Irish annals and genealogies.
In 484 AD Brendan was born in Tralee, in County Kerry, in the province of Munster, in the south-west of Ireland. He was born among the Altraige, a tribe originally centred around Tralee Bay, to parents called Finnlug and Cara. Tradition has it that he was born in the Kilfenora/Fenit area on the North side of the bay.
His education was confided to Saint Ita, called the Bridget of Munster. At the age of twenty-six, Brendan was ordained a priest by Saint Erc. Afterwards, he founded a number of monasteries. Brendan’s first voyage took him to the Arran Islands, where he founded a monastery. He also visited Hinba (Argyll), an island off Scotland where he is said to have met Columcille (Columba). On the same voyage he traveled to Wales, and finally to Brittany, on the northern coast of France. Between the years 512 and 530 Brendan built monastic cells at Ardfert, and, at the foot of Mount Brandon, Shanakeel— Seana Cill, usually translated as “the old church”.
He made made missionary journeys to England, Ireland, and Scotland, established several sees in Ireland, and became famed for his voyages, particularly a seven-year journey to the Land of Promise, which he described in his epic saga Navigatio Sancti Brendani Abbatis.
The earliest extant version of The Voyage of Saint Brendan was recorded around AD 900. There are over 100 manuscripts of the story across Europe, as well as many additional translations. The Voyage of Saint Brendan is an overtly Christian narrative, but also contains narratives of natural phenomena and fantastical events and places, which appealed to a broad populace. The Voyage of Saint Brendan contains many parallels and inter-textual references to the Voyage of Bran and the Voyage of Máel Dúin.
On the Kerry coast, he built a currach-like boat of wattle, covered it with hides tanned in oak bark softened with butter, set up a mast and a sail. He and a small group of monks fasted for forty days, and after a prayer upon the shore, embarked in the name of the Trinity. The account is characterized by a great deal of literary license and contains references to hell where “great demons threw down lumps of fiery slag from an island with rivers of gold fire” and “great crystal pillars.” Many now believe these to be references to the volcanic activity around Iceland, and to icebergs.
Brendan travelled to Wales and the holy island of Iona, off the west coast of Scotland; returning to Ireland, he founded a monastery at Annaghdown, where he spent the rest of his days.He also founded a convent at Annaghdown for his sister Briga. Having established the bishopric of Ardfert, St Brendan proceeded to Thomond, and founded a monastery at Inis-da-druim (now Coney Island), in the present parish of Killadysert, County Clare, about the year 550. He then journeyed to Wales and studied under Saint Gildas at Llancarfan, and thence to Iona, for he is said to have left traces of his apostolic zeal at Kil-brandon (near Oban) and Kil-brennan Sound. After a three years’ mission in Britain he returned to Ireland, and did more proselytising in various parts of Leinster, especially at Dysart (County Kilkenny), Killiney (Tubberboe), and Brandon Hill. He established churches at Inchiquin, County Galway and at Inishglora, County Mayo, and founded Clonfert in Galway around 557 AD. He died c. 577 at Annaghdown, while visiting his sister Briga. Fearing that after his death his devotees might take his remains as relics, Brendan had arranged before dying to have his body secretly carried back to the monastery he founded at Clonfert concealed in a luggage cart. He was buried in Clonfert Cathedral.
Image: Book illustration Manuscriptum translationis germanicae Cod. Pal. Germ. 60, fol. 179v (University Library Augsburg, Germany), published around 1460 AD (6)
Research by Ed Masters, REGINA Staff