Kerry. from where Brendan set sail
Kerry, the site on the coast of Ireland where Brendan began his voyage. He took the Stepping Stone route across the Atlantic, traveling from island to island. Image by Noel Moore.

Tim Severin, the explorer who replicated ancient sea voyages, sat in a bar in Stornaway on the Isle of Lewis while a Hebridean fisherman pronounced judgment: “You’ll nae make it in that, you’ll all droon.”

The fisherman was expressing scepticism about the Brendan, the replica ocean-going Irish curragh in which Severin hoped to relive the Navigation of the Holy Abbot Brendan, a tale of ancient exploration.

Even today, the legacy of Brendan is of great interest to both the public and to scholars, especially in his native Ireland. The St. Brendan International Conference, in May 2013, will explore topics related to Brendan, including his famous ocean voyage.

According to mediaeval tradition, St. Brendan [484-577 AD] led an expedition of Irish monks to see what lay in the west, and returned with tales of a land beyond the Atlantic. He was seeking to settle an issue of religious importance, and could only do so by a risky experiment that entailed his journeying across uncharted ocean.

Quest for the Isle of the Blest

Why would a monk do this? Modern historians tend to overlook religious motives, but they may have been the prime and only reason for monks to make the dangerous journey. In Ireland there was probably a religious argument going on between pagans and Christians.

The pagans were adamant that to the west lay the sacred land of Tir na nog, the land of youth, the Isle of the Blest. This was where the pagan Gods dwelt and from which the mysterious Tuath de Danaan, now known as the Sidhe, the fairy folk, had emigrated in the distant past. The Christians were adamant that whatever was west of them, it was not Tir na Nog. The only way to settle the dispute was to go and see for oneself. This was an early and very brave act of experimental religion in which the monks staked their lives to ascertain a vital truth on which the success or failure of two faiths depended.

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  • Frank Parker

    I like this article. I have visited the place – I think it was in County Clare – where Severin’s boat is on display.