Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Saint Brendan the Anchorite, also known as the Navigator or Voyager (+ c. 577)

St. Brendan the Voyager (Feast Day - May 16)

“They that go down to the sea in ships, that do business in great waters; these see the works of the Lord, and his wonders in the deep.” - Psalm 107:23, 24

Our holy father among the saints Brendan was born about 484 AD to an Irish family near the present city of Tralee, County Kerry, Ireland. He was baptized at Tubrid, near Ardfert by Saint Erc, and was originally to be called "Mobhí" but signs and portents attending his birth and baptism led to him being called 'Broen-finn' or 'fair-drop'. At a very young age he began his education in the priesthood and studied under Saint Ita at Killeedy. Later he completed his studies under Saint Erc, who ordained him in 512 AD.

During the next twenty years of his life, Saint Brendan sailed all around the Islands surrounding Erie (Ireland), spreading the word of God and founding monastery after monastery. The most notable of these is Clonfert in Galway, which he founded around 557 AD, and which lasted well into the 1600's. Brendan’s first voyage took him to the Arran Islands, where he founded a monastery, and to many other islands which he only visited, including Hynba Island off Scotland, where he is said to have met Columcille (Columba). On this voyage he also traveled to Wales, and finally to Brittany, on the northern coast of France.


The event that Saint Brendan is most celebrated for, however, is his voyage to the “Land of Promise”. Sometime in his early journeys, Saint Brendan heard from another monk the story of a land far to the west, which the Irish claimed was a land of plenty. He and a small group of monks including, possibly, Saint Machutus, fasted for forty days, then set sail for this land in order to investigate and convert the inhabitants. Altogether the journey took seven years.

This journey especially excited the imaginations of medieval writers and readers. In the ninth century, an Irish monk wrote an account of the voyage in the Navigatio Sancti Brendani (Voyage of Saint Brendan). This book remained popular throughout the entire Middle Ages, and made Brendan famous as a voyager.


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.

Upon reaching their destination, they engaged a guide who took them around the land. They went inland but were prevented from going further by a great river. Soon after this, Saint Brendan, and the remainder of his colleagues sailed back to Ireland. Only a few survived the journey.

Clonfert Cathedral

In modern times the story was dismissed as pure fabrication, but in the 1970′s a man named Tim Severin became fascinated with the story and decided to replicate Saint Brendan’s journey. Severin built a boat made of hides tanned with oak bark just like the one described in the ancient text. The hides were sewn together over a bent frame of ash wood and the seams were sealed with animal fat and grease. With a group of volunteers he set sail for America and made his way to Newfoundland. His journey is covered in The Brendan Voyage: Across the Atlantic in a Leather Boat.

Grave of St. Brendan at Clonfert Cathedral

Returning to Ireland, Brendan 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, Saint 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 proselytizing in various parts of Leinster, especially at Dysart (County Kilkenny), Killiney (Tubberboe), and Brandon Hill.

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 at Clonfert Cathedral, where his grave can be found today.

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