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Saint Brendan the Navigator
Saint Brendan and the whale from a 15th century manuscript
Bornc. 484
Ciarraighe Luachra near Tralee, County Kerry, Munster, Ireland
Diedc. 577
Annaghdown, County Galway, Connacht, Ireland
Venerated inRoman Catholic Church, Eastern Orthodox Church, Anglican Communion
Major shrineClonfert
Feast16 May
Attributeswhale; priest celebrating Mass on board ship while fish gather to listen; one of a group of monks in a small boat[1]
Patronageboatmen; divers; mariners; sailors; travellers; whales; diocese of Clonfert; diocese of Kerry[1]

Saint Brendan of Clonfert or Bréanainn of Clonfert (c. 484 – c. 577) (Irish: Naomh Breandán; Icelandic: Brandanus) called "the Navigator", "the Voyager", or "the Bold" is one of the early Irish monastic saints. He is chiefly renowned for his legendary quest to the "Isle of the Blessed," also called Saint Brendan's Island. The Voyage of Saint Brendan could be called an immram (Irish navigational story). He was one of the Twelve Apostles of Ireland.[2]

Saint Brendan's feast day is celebrated on 16 May by Catholics, Anglicans, and Eastern Orthodox Christians.[3]

Early life

In 484 Brendan was born in Fenit Tralee, in County Kerry, in the province of Munster, in the south-west of Ireland.[4] He was baptised at Tubrid, near Ardfert, by Saint Erc.[2] For five years he was educated under Saint Ita, "the Brigid of Munster". When he was six he was sent to Saint Jarlath's monastery school at Tuam to further his education.[5] Saint Erc ordained him priest in 512. 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"— also called Baalynevinoorach. From here he is supposed to have set out on his famous seven-year voyage for Paradise. The old Irish Calendars assigned a special feast for the "Egressio familiae S. Brendani", on 22 March; and Saint Aengus the Culdee, in his Litany composed at the close of the eighth century, invokes "the sixty who accompanied Lord Brendini in his quest for the Land of Promise".

There is, however, very little secure information concerning his 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. The principal works devoted to the saint and his legend are a 'Life of Brendan' in several Latin and Irish versions (Vita Brendani / Betha Brenainn) and the better known 'Voyage of Saint Brendan the Abbot' (Navigatio sancti Brendani abbatis). Unfortunately, the Lives and the Voyage provide little reliable information about his life and travels; they do, however, attest to the development of his following in the centuries after his death. An additional problem is that the precise relationship between the Vita and the Navigatio traditions is uncertain.

Just when the Vita tradition began is uncertain. The surviving copies date no earlier than the end of the twelfth century, but scholars suggest that a version of the Life was composed before the year 1000. The Navigatio was probably written earlier than the Vita, perhaps in the second half of the eighth century.

Any attempt to reconstruct the details of the life of the real Brendan or to understand the nature of the Brendan legend has to be based principally on the Irish annals and genealogies and on the various versions of the Vita Brendani.[6]

Legendary journey

St Brendan is chiefly renowned for his legendary journey to the Isle of the Blessed as described in the ninth century Voyage of St Brendan the Navigator. Many versions exist that tell of how he set out onto the Atlantic Ocean with sixty pilgrims (other versions have fourteen, plus three unbelievers who join at the last minute) searching for the Garden of Eden. One of these companions is said to have been Saint Malo, the namesake of Saint-Malo. If it happened, this would have occurred sometime between AD 512–530, before his travel to the island of Great Britain. On his trip, Brendan is supposed to have seen Saint Brendan's Island, a blessed island covered with vegetation. He also encountered a sea monster, an adventure he shared with his contemporary Saint Columba. The most commonly illustrated adventure is his landing on an island which turns out to be a giant sea monster called Jasconius or Jascon. This too, has its parallels in other stories, not only in Irish mythology but in other traditions, from Sinbad the Sailor to Pinocchio.

The Voyage of Saint Brendan

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 coracle of wattle, covered it with hides tanned in oak bark softened with butter, set up a mast and a sail, and after a prayer upon the shore, embarked in the name of the Trinity.[5]

Chapter Synopsis:

  1. Saint Barrid tells of his visit to the Island of Paradise, which prompts Brendan to go in search of the isle.
  2. Brendan assembles 14 monks to accompany him.
  3. They fast at three-day intervals for 40 days, and visit Saint Enda for three days and three nights.
  4. Three latecomers join the group. They interfere with Brendan's sacred numbers.
  5. They find an island with a dog, mysterious hospitality (no people, but food left out), and an Ethiopian devil.
  6. One latecomer admits to having stolen from the mysterious island, Brendan exorcises the Ethiopian devil from the latecomer, latecomer dies and is buried.
  7. They find an island with a boy who brings them bread and water.
  8. They find an island of sheep, eat some, and stay for Holy Week (before Easter).
  9. They find the island of Jasconius, have Easter Mass, and hunt whales and fish.
  10. They find an island that is the Paradise of Birds, and the birds sing psalms and praise the Lord.
  11. They find the island of the monks of Ailbe, with magic loaves, no ageing, and complete silence. They celebrate Christmas.
  12. A long voyage after Lent. They find an island with a well, and drinking the water puts them to sleep for 1, 2, or 3 days based on the number of cups each man drank.
  13. They find a "coagulated" sea.
  14. They return to the islands of Sheep, Jasconius, and the Paradise of Birds. A bird prophesies that the men must continue this year-long cycle for seven years before they will be holy enough to reach the Island of Paradise.
  15. A sea creature approaches the boat, but God shifts the sea to protect the men. Another sea creature comes, chops the first into three pieces, and leaves. The men eat the dead sea creature.
  16. They find an island of 3 choirs of anchorites (monks), who give them fruit, and the second latecomer stays behind when the others leave.
  17. They find an island of grapes, and stayed for 40 days.
  18. They find a gryphon and a bird battle. The gryphon dies.
  19. To the monastery at Ailbe again for Christmas.
  20. The sea is clear, and many threatening fish circle their boat, but God protects them.
  21. They find an island, but when they light a fire, the island sinks; it is actually a whale.
  22. They pass a "silver pillar wrapped in a net" in the sea.
  23. They pass an island of blacksmiths, who throw slag at them.
  24. They find a volcano, and the third latecomer is taken by demons down to Hell.
  25. They find Judas sitting unhappily on a cold, wet rock in the middle of the sea, and discover that this is his respite from Hell for Sundays and feast days. Brendan protects Judas from the demons of Hell for one night.
  26. They find an island where Paul the Hermit has lived a perfect monastic life for 60 years. He wears nothing but hair and is fed by an otter.
  27. They return to the island of Sheep, Jasconius, and the Paradise of Birds.
  28. They find the Promised Land of the Saints.
  29. They return home, and Brendan dies.


It is speculated that the Voyage of St. Brendan is derived from the stories of the Voyage of Mael Duin, as well as the Voyage of Bran. The stories are closely related through intertextuality. Intertextuality refers to the process of shaping a text meaning by another text. Often it can be referred to as sub-textually citing another text in one’s own writing.

Some of the parallels that exist between the Voyage of Mael Duin and St. Brendan are:

• In the Voyage of St. Brendan, Brendan warns crew not to take anything from the island in chapter 5, and a late-comer steals a bridle and soon after dies. In chapter 11, of Mael Duin, a crew member in steals a necklet and is punished to death.

• In Brendan they stay on an island with sheep in chapter 8. In Mael Duin, chapter 11, they also visit an island of sheep, but do not go ashore for fear of possibly changing color.

• Both parties visit islands with vast amounts of birds. Brendan in chapter 10, Mael Duin in chapter 18.

• In chapter 11 of Brendan they visit an island of monks with magic loaves. In chapter 28 of Mael Duin they also visit an island called the Island of Monks of Brendan Birr. Here there is a magic spring which is similar to the magic loaves.

• Both visit islands with women. I chapter 28 of Mael Duin they visit an island with a queen and women. The queen pairs with Mael Duin and in Brendan the leader of the Island of Women is paired with Brendan.

• Brendan embarks on a long part of his voyage before lent in chapter 12. They then encounter an island with drinking water which puts them to sleep for days. In chapter 29 of Mael Duin, they also discover an island with fruit which puts Mael Duin to sleep.

• In chapter 22 of Brendan, they discover a silver pillar wrapped in a net. In Mael Duin chapter 26 they discover a silver column with a net which they pass through.

• In chapter 23 of Brendan they visit an island of angry blacksmiths, throw slag at the crew. In chapter 21 of Mael Duin, they also find an island of smiths who throw an iron mast at them.

• In chapter 26 of Brendan, they visit Paul the Hermit, who wears only his hair for clothing. In chapter 33 of Mael Duin, they also find a man clothed only in white hair.

Early Dutch version

One of the earliest preserved written versions of the legend is in Dutch De Reis van Sinte Brandaen (Mediaeval Dutch for The Voyage of Saint Brendan), written in the 12th century. Scholars believe it is derived from a now lost middle High German text combined with Gaelic elements from Ireland and combines Christian and fairy tale elements. De Reis van Sinte Brandaen describes "Brandaen," a monk from Galway, and his voyage around the world for nine years. The journey was begun as a punishment by an angel who had seen that Brendan did not believe in the truth of a book on the miracles of creation and saw Brandaen throw it into the fire. The angel tells him that truth has been destroyed. On his journeys Brandaen encounters the wonders and horrors of the world, such as Judas frozen on one side and burning on the other, people with swine heads, dog legs and wolf teeth carrying bows and arrows, and an enormous fish that encircles the ship by holding its tail in its mouth. The English poem Life of Saint Brandan is a later English derivative of the Dutch version.[7]


Sculpture of St Brendan, The Square Bantry, County Cork

As a genre, The Voyage of St Brendan (in Latin, the Navigatio Sancti Brendani) fits in with a then-popular form of literature, peculiar to Ireland, called an immram, that describes a hero's series of adventures in a boat. (Some of these immrams involved the search for, and visits to, Tir na nOg, an island far to the west, beyond the edges of the world map.) For example, there appear to be similarities with The Voyage of Bran written much earlier. In the Navigatio, this style of storytelling meshed with a religious ascetic tradition where Irish monks would travel alone in boats, the same way their desert brothers used to isolate themselves in caves.

Brendan is one of the most famous Irish saints. His voyages created one of the most remarkable and enduring of European legends. With much of Brendan's journeys coming from the Navigatio it has been difficult for scholars to interpret what is factual and what is folklore. Irish immram flourished during the seventh and eighth centuries. Typically, an immram was a sea-voyage in which a hero, with a few companions, often monks, wanders from island to island, meets other-world wonders, and finally returns home. The story of Brendan's voyage, developed during this time, shares some characteristics with immram. Like an immram, the Navigatio tells the story of Brendan, who, with some companion monks, sets out to find the terra repromissionis sanctorum, the Promised Land of the Saints or the Earthly Paradise.[8]

Possible link to North America

Over the years there have been many interpretations of the possible geographical position of this island. Various pre-Columbian sea-charts indicated it everywhere from the southern part of Ireland, to the Canary Islands, Faroes or Azores, to the island of Madeira, to a point 60 degrees west of the first meridian and very near the equator. Belief in the existence of the island was almost completely abandoned when a new theory arose, maintained by those who claim for the Irish the glory of discovering America.[5]

While the story is often assumed to be a religious allegory, there has been considerable discussion as to whether the legends are based on actual events, including speculation that the Isle of the Blessed was actually North America. There is a St Brendan Society that celebrates the belief that Brendan was the first European to reach North America. Tim Severin has demonstrated that it is possible that a leather-clad boat such as the one described in the Navigator could have reached North America.[9][10]

Later life

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.[11] He also founded a convent at Annaghdown for his sister Briga. He was recognised as a saint by the Church, and his feast day was celebrated on 16 May . 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,[5] 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. 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.


As the legend of the seven years voyage spread, crowds of pilgrims and students flocked to Ardfert. Religious houses were formed at Gallerus, Kilmalchedor, Brandon Hill, and the Blasket Islands, to meet the wants of those who came for spiritual guidance from Saint Brendan.[2] Saint Brendan is the Patron Saint of sailors and travellers. At the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland, a large stained glass window commemorates Brendan's achievements. At Fenit Harbour, Tralee, a substantial bronze sculpture with a small horn has been erected to honour the memory of Brendan.


St Brendan's activities as a churchman, however, were developed in Western Ireland, where his most important foundations are found, i.e. Ardfert (Co. Kerry), Inishdadroum (Co. Clare), Annaghdown (Co. Galway), and Clonfert (Co. Galway). His name is perpetuated in numerous place names and landmarks along the Irish coast (e.g. Brandon Hill, Brandon Point, Mount Brendan, Brandon Well, Brandon Bay, Brandon Head).[12]

Saint Brendan's most celebrated foundation was Clonfert Cathedral, in the year 563, over which he appointed St Moinenn as Prior and Head Master. St Brendan was interred in Clonfert.

The group of ecclesiastical remains at Ardfert is one of the most interesting and instructive now existing in Ireland. The ruins of the ancient Cathedral of St Brendan, and of its annexed chantries and detached chapels, form a very complete reliquary of Irish ecclesiastical architecture, in its various orders and ages, from the plain but solid Danhliag of the seventh or eighth century to some late and most ornate examples of medieval Gothic. The cathedral, as it now stands, or rather as it stood before it was finally dismantled in A.D. 1641.[13]

Appearances in popular culture

Places associated with St Brendan


In the Sicilian town of Bronte there is a Church dedicated to Saint Brendan, whose name in the local dialect is "San Brandanu". Since 1574, the "Chiesa di San Blandano" (or Church of Saint Brendan) replaced a Chapel with such name that existed previously in the same location. The reasons for dedicating a church to Saint Brendan are still unknown and probably untraceable. In 1799 the countryside surrounding Brontë became the British "Duchy of Horatio Nelson". The town of Drogheda is twinned with Bronte.[14][15]

See also


  1. ^ a b Patron Saints Index: Saint Brendan the Navigator
  2. ^ a b c Grattan-Flood, William. "The Twelve Apostles of Erin." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 1. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1907. 24 Jul. 2013
  3. ^ Template:Gr icon Ὁ Ὅσιος Βρενδανὸς ὁ Ἀναχωρητής. ΜΕΓΑΣ ΣΥΝΑΞΑΡΙΣΤΗΣ.
  4. ^ Allen, John Logan (1997). North American Exploration: A New World Disclosed. Volume: 1. University of Nebraska Press. p. 18.
  5. ^ a b c d "The Commemoration of St. Brendan of Ardfert and Clonert", All Saints Parish
  6. ^ Burgess, Glyn. The Voyage of St Brendan. UK: University of Exeter Press, 2002.
  7. ^ Meijer 1971:9–10.
  8. ^ # John D. Anderson. The Classical Journal, Vol. 83, No. 4 (Apr. – May 1988), pp. 315–322
  9. ^ Severin, Tim. The Brendan Voyage: A Leather Boat Tracks the Discovery of America by the Irish Sailor Saints. McGraw-Hill Book Company. 1978. ISBN 0-07-056335-7.
  10. ^ (1964, Robert Reily) Irish Saints page:37, Wing Books, New Jersey, ISBN 0-517-36833-1
  11. ^ "Corrandulla / Annaghdown". County Galway Guide. Retrieved 28 March 2009.
  12. ^ Selmer, Carl. Navigatio Sancti Brendani Abbatis. Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press, 1959.
  13. ^ O’Donoghue, Denis. Brendaniana. Dublin, Ireland: Browne & Nolan, 1893.
  14. ^ Bronte Insieme/Monumenti – Chiesa di San Blandano
  15. ^ Bronte Insieme/Storia – Il nome delle sorelle Brontë
Preceded bynew creation Abbot of Clonfert 563–577 Succeeded bySeanach Garbh


Secondary sources

  • Ó Donnchadha, Gearóid. St Brendan of Kerry, the Navigator. His Life & Voyages. OPEN AIR 2004 ISBN 1-85182-871-0
  • Meijer, Reinder. Literature of the Low Countries: A Short History of Dutch Literature in the Netherlands and Belgium. New York: Twayne Publishers, Inc., 1971.

Primary sources

  • Navigatio Sancti Brendani Abbatis (Latin):
    • trans. J.F. Webb in The Age of Bede, ed. D. H. Farmer (Harmondsworth, 1983)
    • ed. Carl Selmer, Navigatio Sancti Brendani Abbatis (South Bend, IN, 1959)
    • trans. John O‟Meara and Jonathan Wooding, in The Voyage of Saint Brendan: Representative Versions of the Legend in English Translation, ed. W.R.J. Barron and Glyn S. Burgess (Exeter, 2002).
  • The First Irish Life of St Brendan
    • ed. and tr. Whitley Stokes, Lives of Saints from the Book of Lismore. Anecdota Oxoniensia, Mediaeval and Modern Series 5. Oxford, 1890. pp. 99–116, 247–61. Based on the Book of Lismore copy.
    • ed. and tr. Denis O’Donoghue, Brendaniana. St Brendan the Voyager in Story and Legend. Dublin, 1893. Partial edition and translation, based on the Book of Lismore as well as copies in Paris BNF celtique et basque 1 and BL Egerton 91.
  • The Second Irish Life of St Brendan (conflated with the Navigatio). Brussels, Bibliothèque Royale de Belgique 4190–4200 (transcript by Mícheál Ó Cléirigh)
    • ed. and tr. Charles Plummer, Bethada náem nÉrenn. Lives of the Irish saints. Oxford: Clarendon, 1922. Vol. 1. pp. 44–95; vol. 2, 44–92.
  • Voyage of St Brendan (Anglo-Norman)
    • The Anglo-Norman Voyage of St Brendan, ed. Brian Merrilees and Ian Short (Manchester, 1979)
    • The Anglo-Norman Voyage of St Brendan by Benedeit, ed. E.G. Waters (Oxford, 1928)
    • Benedeit – Le Voyage de Saint Brandan, ed. and transl. into German Ernstpeter Ruhe (München, 1977)
    • Transl. in The Voyage of Saint Brendan: Representative Versions of the Legend in English Translation, ed. W.R.J. Barron and Glyn S. Burgess (Exeter, 2002)

Further reading

  • Bray, Dorothy, "Allegory in the Navigatio Sancti Brendani", Viator 26 (1995), 1–10.
  • Burgess, Glyn S, and Clara Strijbosch, The Legend of St Brendan: A Critical Bibliography (Dublin, 2000)
  • Dumville, David, "Two Approaches to the Dating of Nauigatio Sancti Brendani", Studi medievali, third s. 29 (1988), 87–102
  • Esposito, M., "An Apocryphal Book of Enoch and Elias as a Possible Source for the Navigatio Sancti Brendani", Celtica 5 (1960), 192–206
  • Gardiner, Eileen, Visions of Heaven and Hell Before Dante (New York: Italica Press, 1989), pp. 81–127, provides an English translation of the Latin text of the Voyage of St Brendan.
  • Iannello, Fausto, "Navigatio sancti Brendani" e materia arturiana: continuità e analogie, "Atti della Accademia Peloritana dei Pericolanti, classe di Lettere, Filosofia e Belle Arti" 85 (2009), 241–253
  • Illingworth, Robin N., "The Structure of the Anglo-Norman Voyage of St Brendan by Benedeit," Medium Aevum 55:2 (1986), 217–29
  • Jones, Robin F., "The Mechanics of Meaning in the Anglo-Norman Voyage of Saint Brendan,‟ Romanic Review 71:2 (1980), 105–13
  • Mackley, Jon, Legend of Brendan: A Comparative Study of the Latin and Anglo-Norman Versions (Leiden: Brill, 2008)
  • Moult, D. Pochin, "St Brendan: Celtic Vision and Romance,‟ in Ireland of the Saints (London, 1953), pp. 153–70
  • Ritchie, R. L. G., "The Date of The Voyage of St Brendan‟, Medium Aevum 19 (1950), 64–6
  • Sobecki, Sebastian, "From the désert liquide to the Sea of Romance – Benedeit's Voyage de saint Brandan and the Irish immrama", Neophilologus 87:2 (2003), 193–207
  • Sobecki, Sebastian, The Sea and Medieval English Literature (Cambridge: 2008)
  • Wooding, Jonathan, "St Brendan's Boat: Dead Hides and the Living Sea in Columban and Related Hagiography‟, in Studies in Irish Hagiography: Saints and Scholars, eds John Carey, Máire Herbert and Pádraig Ó Riain (Dublin, 2001), pp. 77–92
  • Wooding, Jonathan, The Otherworld Voyage in Early Irish Literature (Dublin, 2000).
  • Wooding, Jonathan, "The medieval and early modern cult of St Brendan," in Boardman, Steve, John Reuben Davies, Eila Williamson (eds), Saints' Cults in the Celtic World (Woodbridge, Boydell Press, 2009) (Studies in Celtic History),
  • Murray, K. Sarah-Jane, "The Wave Cry, The Wind Cry," in From Plato to Lancelot (Syracuse University Press, 2008).