ArtsAutosBooksBusinessEducationEntertainmentFamilyFashionFoodGamesGenderHealthHolidaysHomeHubPagesPersonal FinancePetsPoliticsReligionSportsTechnologyTravel

Did St. Brendan Discover America?

Updated on June 9, 2015
Pollyanna Jones profile image

Pollyanna writes about folklore, magic, history and legends, focussing on British, Irish, Germanic, and Celtic cultures.

Mount Brandon dominates the landscape, looming over the wild Atlantic of the Dingle Peninsula in County Kerry, Ireland. It is a region filled with legends, one of which puts forward a theory that an Irish saint discovered the Americas, nearly a thousand years before Christopher Columbus.

We know of course that the mysterious continents of North and South America were populated by First Nations tribes long before Caucasians "discovered" these lands, but this little-known account of an Irish monk sailing to the west and back is a charming and intriguing tale.

Students of Scoil Baile 'n Fhirtear (Ballyferriter School) recreating St. Brendan's voyage from Brandon Creek in 2010.
Students of Scoil Baile 'n Fhirtear (Ballyferriter School) recreating St. Brendan's voyage from Brandon Creek in 2010. | Source

One of Ireland’s most revered peaks, Mount Brandon rises majestically from the chill Atlantic waters to cast its holy shadow across the far west of the peninsula. Known in Gaelic as Cnoc Bréanainn, meaning Brendan’s Hill, the name of this saint has been Anglicised to Brandon. The saint after which this peak was named, is said to have retreated to the mountain to seek divine inspiration before setting out on a legendary seven year voyage, to what some people believe to be America.

Mount Brandon is popular with pilgrims who brave the climb to follow a trail of white crosses that mark the steps of the saint himself to the top of Ireland’s ninth highest mountain. The area is scattered with the intriguing stone bee hive huts, or clocháns . Corbelled from dry stone, they are thought to be built to house the local early Christian community or pilgrims to the area, although they may also have been built by the local population who fled to more remote parts of the Dingle Peninsula to escape the Normans in the 11th Century [1].

Whilst there are several days throughout the year that are noted as being suitable days to carry out a devotional climb to the peak of Mount Brandon, the most popular and holy is the last weekend in July. This pilgrimage is widely believed to be pre-Christian in origin, and is considered to be part of the Lughnasa festival where a local god of the harvest named Crom Dubh was honoured [2]. Whilst Lugh himself is seen as the principal deity of this festival, it is not unusual for local deities to be included in the festivities. Crom Dubh is said to have dwelt near Cloghane; a small town near the base of the mountain. Another explanation is that the festival honoured Lugh’s victory over Crom Dubh (meaning the “dark twisted one”) on the peak of the mountain on the 31st July or 1st August [3].

If the records of Saint Brendan’s voyage were true, then it would re-write history.

Mount Brandon, as viewed from Conor Pass.
Mount Brandon, as viewed from Conor Pass. | Source

Once Christianity became the widespread faith in Ireland, these old gods needed to be got rid of. And so the legends told how a local chieftain who dwelt in the valley of Lough A’Duin, named Crom Dubh, was converted to the new faith by Saint Brendan.

Born in 484 A.D. in Tralee, Saint Brendan is the patron saint of the Diocese of Kerry. Known as Saint Brendan the Navigator, or Saint Brendan the Voyager, this early monastic saint certainly had some adventures. Tutored by some of Ireland’s early Christians, he was ordered by Saint Erc to become a priest and spread the word of God. He travelled around the coast of Ireland, then further afield to Scotland, Wales, and even Brittany in France. Monasteries appeared wherever he landed, to spread the Gospel. These lands were not the only places that he sailed to.

According to legend, the saint built a traditional currach from wood covered in hides, and set sail for Paradise. He travelled with fourteen monks from Brandon’s Creek near the foot of Mount Brandon, to take the word of the Lord to an unknown continent in the west, referred to as “The Island of the Blessed”. He prepared for his voyage by fasting and praying for forty days and nights on the mountain, and then set forth in 535 A.D. to venture into the unknown.

Sculpture of St Brendan at Brandon's Creek, Co. Kerry, Ireland.
Sculpture of St Brendan at Brandon's Creek, Co. Kerry, Ireland. | Source

“Having received the blessing of the Holy Father and all his monks, he proceeded to the remotest part of his own country, where his parents abode. However, he willed not to visit them, but went up to the summit of the mountain there, which extends far into the ocean, on which is ‘St Brendan’s Seat;’ and there he fitted up a tent, near a narrow creek, where a boat could enter. Then St Brendan and his companions, using iron implements, prepared a light vessel, with wicker sides and ribs, such as is usually made in that country, and covered it with cow-hide, tanned in oak-bark, tarring the joints thereof, and put on board provisions for forty days, with butter enough to dress hides for covering the boat and all utensils needed for the use of the crew. He then ordered the monks to embark, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.” [4]

After sailing for seven years across uncharted waters, it is the local belief that he and his monks arrived on the shores of America. Amazingly, Saint Brendan returned to Ireland safely, and died in 578 A.D. It is not known what happened to his voyaging companions.

His adventure is recorded in the medieval manuscript, “Navigatio Sancti Brendani Abbatis”. There are many versions of the story describing the voyage of Saint Brendan. Some of these describe a different amount of monks travelling with him, others describe how they are pilgrims. One version describes how Saint Malo was aboard his vessel.

In the tale of Brendan’s voyage, several locations are described that have left people guessing. Were they real islands, or just fiction? One such place is an island of sheep, where the saint and his companions stay for a week during before the Easter period. From here, they travel to an island which is named Jasconius, where they hold Easter Mass. Brendan and the crew hunt whales and fish whilst here. After leaving this place, they find an island filled with seabirds, which is referred to as a Paradise of Birds. They also find a volcano, and visit a land of grapes where they stay for forty days. These references could certainly be interpreted as being locations such as Vinland, Iceland, Greenland, and the isles in between.

Brandon Creek, where St. Brendan is said to have set forth on his great voyage.
Brandon Creek, where St. Brendan is said to have set forth on his great voyage. | Source

An attempt in 1976 was made to see whether or not the saint could have actually travelled to America and back in such a small and flimsy vessel. Determined to find out, Tim Severin, writer, and historian, built a traditional Irish currach. Naming the boat “Brendan”, he set off to see if it would make it to North America [5]. Amazingly, the vessel made it, and Severin wrote about his adventures upon his return in 1977, adding weight to the argument that the Irish might have discovered America before the Vikings! The voyage was as fraught with danger as Brendan’s, except Severin did not encounter any sea monsters; instead he suffered a puncture in the ship’s side whilst passing through icy seas.

Tim Severin built the ship using traditional tools from Irish ash and oak. It was lashed together with two miles of leather thong, and was wrapped in forty-nine tanned ox hides sealed with wool grease. The two-masted boat set sail from Ireland, via the Hebrides and Iceland, until they reached Peckford Island in Newfoundland. Many of the sights seen along the voyage convinced Severin that the descriptions of Brendan’s islands could indeed have been real places.

Tim Severin, writer, and historian, built a traditional Irish currach. Naming the boat “Brendan”, he set off to see if it would make it to North America

St. Brendan and the Demon, 1499 etching.
St. Brendan and the Demon, 1499 etching.

If the records of Saint Brendan’s voyage were true, then it would re-write history. But things don’t just stop with Brendan. Many consider his tale to be a Christian re-telling of the famous legend of the Voyage of Bran. Written down between 600 and 700 A.D, this Irish legend pre-dates the Navigatio Sancti Brendani Abbati and is believed to have inspired Brendan’s story.

In this tale, the hero Bran mac Feabhail set forth to find the Otherworld, land of peace and plenty. Here, none grow old or sick, nobody thirst or hungers, and it is always summertime. A woman of the Otherworld tells Bran to set sail for the Land of Women across the sea, and so he gathers a company of men and does just that [6].

There are even more similarities between Brendan’s voyage and the Voyage of Máel Dúin [7], a tale of a young man who discovers his true identity and sets forth on a journey of vengeance against raiders who wronged his kin. It is quite likely that the villains of this tale were the Vikings. This story was recorded towards the end of the first millennium A.D. and can be compared almost scene by scene with Brendan’s voyage. However, the reader will find an interesting blend of pre-Christian life blended with the new faith, with God featuring alongside druids.

The sculpture at Brandon's Creek, with a moody sky.
The sculpture at Brandon's Creek, with a moody sky. | Source

We can see with the three texts that there has been a tradition of story-telling around a great voyage to a far-away land, with islands that might even be Iceland, Greenland, and a paradise that some believe to be the New World of the Americas. With each version, the story becomes more Christian, yet the core elements remain.

Whichever one is to be believed, they present historical evidence that the Irish have long been great seafarers, with many unknown lands being discovered and written about.

The Irish were sailing far and wide, long before Columbus reached America. They might just even have beaten him to it.

Finding Brandon Creek

A markerBrandon Creek -
Unnamed Road, Co. Kerry, Ireland
get directions

Following a road out of Dingle, you eventually reach the creek on the side of Mount Brandon. Parking is available, but there are no other facilities.

Mount Brandon as viewed from Loch a'Dúin Valley at Ballyhoneen.
Mount Brandon as viewed from Loch a'Dúin Valley at Ballyhoneen. | Source

Sources

[1] The Beehive Huts of South West Kerry

[2] Tinteán

[3] Dingle Peninsula Complete Visitors Guide website

[4] The Voyage of Saint Brendan: The Navigator (Gerard McNamara translation) – ISBN 978-1491271094

[5] Tim Severin, The Brendan Voyage: Across the Atlantic in a Leather Boat – ISBN 978-0717139279

[6] The Voyage of Bran, Son of Febal: To the Land of the Living (Kuno Meyer translation) – ISBN 978-1605064444

[7] Patricia Aarkus McDowell, “The Voyage of Máel Dúin: A Celtic Novel” – ISBN – 978-0863273094

© 2015 Pollyanna Jones

Comments

    0 of 8192 characters used
    Post Comment

    • CarolynEmerick profile image

      Carolyn Emerick 23 months ago

      Great coverage of this topic! Definitely upvoting and sharing ;-)

    • Larry Rankin profile image

      Larry Rankin 23 months ago from Oklahoma

      Very interesting theory.

    • Pollyanna Jones profile image
      Author

      Pollyanna Jones 23 months ago from United Kingdom

      Thanks Carolyn and Larry! I had never heard of this one before, and came across the story when I first visited the Creek. Who knows if it was true; I suspect it might be a retelling of an older legend, but the descriptions of the islands found on the voyage are intriguing.

    • Robert Levine profile image

      Robert Levine 23 months ago from Brookline, Massachusetts

      A group of Irish monks did settle in Iceland before the Norse.

    • lyoness913 profile image

      Wendi Pembridge Skilling 23 months ago from Overland Park, KS

      Great read- I've never heard of this theory and I really enjoyed it!

      -Wendi

    • profile image

      mikeydcarroll67 23 months ago

      Interesting! I knew that the Irish were good at seafaring but never knew that they might have come here~

    • profile image

      Howard Schneider 23 months ago from Parsippany, New Jersey

      Excellent and interesting Hub, Pollyanna.

    • Pollyanna Jones profile image
      Author

      Pollyanna Jones 23 months ago from United Kingdom

      Thank you all for dropping by, and your lovely comments!

    • sharadgah profile image

      sharadgah 23 months ago

      thanks .... good article

      but ...... you didn't speek about arab

      i read articles say: Ibnmajed ( arabic traveler) was the first man who came to amrica ... you can write about this (agree or disagree)

    • Pollyanna Jones profile image
      Author

      Pollyanna Jones 23 months ago from United Kingdom

      That is interesting to learn. This piece is about a legend from a part of Ireland which is why I have not written about the Arabian explorers. You should write about it, it'd make a great Hub.

    • alancaster149 profile image

      Alan Robert Lancaster 23 months ago from Forest Gate, London E7, U K (ex-pat Yorkshire)

      Hello again Pollyanna. I had a book about the Atlantic voyages by Irish monks, including one group that took off from the west coast a little while before the Norsemen started their discoveries in the western seas.

      They meant to settle in the Faeroer (Faeroes), otherwise known as the 'Sheep Isles', but then the Norsemen showed and the monks sailed on. They next reached Iceland, just before Ingolf Arnarson arrived with his brother and a shipful of his neighbours in 874 AD (fleeing Harald 'Harfagri' [Fairhair] with his exorbitant taxes to pay for his new standing army). They sailed on west and reached what we know as Canada. As they were no threat to the locals they were taken in to their community. The Norsemen turned up again some years later. A report by one of these new arrivals mentions seeing amongst the 'skraelings' (Norse for 'wretches' because they were of stunted growth due to their poor diet) "a tall fellow with long flowing white hair who looked nothing like those around him".

      On their voyage north to the Faeroes these monks had stopped at what they thought was a rocky outcrop. They set up a camp fire and started to cook food. The 'island' shook and began to sink. They were back on their 'curragh' or large coracle before the island sank beneath them. The island was a whale, although they weren't aware of it. This group never returned home, choosing to stay put with the tribe that 'adopted' them.

    • Pollyanna Jones profile image
      Author

      Pollyanna Jones 23 months ago from United Kingdom

      Hello again Alan, thanks for posting! Very interesting to read that it may be more than a legend then. I read about the sinking whale in The Voyage of St. Brendan the Navigator. Not sure if I believe that bit though! Unless perhaps a whale surfaced for air beneath their little boat (could that happen without it being overturned I wonder?!).

    • alancaster149 profile image

      Alan Robert Lancaster 23 months ago from Forest Gate, London E7, U K (ex-pat Yorkshire)

      Their craft would have been built with shallow draught to get in close to the shore and therefore keel-less (would have been 'hairy' sailing on the open ocean, they'd have to have a lot of ballast). It's probably physically possible. Whether credible is another question. These stories of the missionaries were meant for the faithful, who wouldn't have been familiar with sea-going matters.

    Click to Rate This Article