One of the most fascinating of all Medieval legends tells that St. Brendan the Navigator discovered glorious lands west of Ireland. The story was eagerly retold throughout Europe and made him more famous than St. Patrick to the people of the Middle Ages.
The fact that we know there really are rich lands to the west of Ireland makes it hard to dismiss the legend as nonsense. The history of archaeology has shown again and again that old stories--the Exodus, the Trojan War--have more than a grain of truth. Nothing would give archaeologists more delight than to turn up solid evidence for Brendan's voyages, but nothing has appeared yet.
The tales are so full of mythical events that large parts have to be dismissed. For instance, Brendan is said to have offered communion each Easter while he was at sea on the back of a friendly whale. On a wet rock, he found a remorseful Judas chained and suffering. Demons carried off one of his sailors. He and his companions observed sheep as big as stags. Fallen angels in the guise of birds appeared to them. These cheerful inventions have caused many sober scholars to dismiss the whole story as fantasy.
We know without a doubt that St. Brendan the Navigator existed. He was born about 484 in what is now County Kerry, Ireland. After studying under Saints Ita and Erc, he was ordained in 512. Brendan founded the monastery of Clonfert and others in Ireland and Wales. He probably traveled to Scotland. At the height of his power, some claim he had as many as 3,000 monks under him.
Unfortunately there isn't a shred of solid archaeological or historical proof for his voyages. While some of the descriptions in Voyage of St. Brendan might be referring to Iceland, the Faroe Islands, Newfoundland, Bermuda and other lands west of Ireland, the details are sketchy enough that no one can say for sure. Even Florida might vaguely fit some of the descriptions. (Curiously enough, there are Indian traditions of a white race who lived there a long time ago.)
If the stories of Brendan have any truth at all, then the Irish saint was among the greatest of European explorers and reached the New World nine centuries before Columbus. In fact, Columbus may well have had the old account of St. Brendan in the back of his mind when he set sail for the West. Some have have given fairly plausible explanations for Brendan's descriptions. The floating crystals, for example, might be icebergs.
Tradition says that it was on this day, May 16, 583 that the well-traveled saint died.
"Brendan or Benainn." Dictionary of National Biography. Edited by Leslie Stephen and Sidney Lee. London: Oxford University Press, 1921 - 1996.
"Brendan, St." The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church. Edited by F. L. Cross and E. A. Livingstone. Oxford, 1997.
Flood, W. H. Grattan and Hartig, Otto. "St. Brendan." The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton, 1914.
Gibson, Francis. The Seafarers: Pre-Columbian voyages to America. Philadelphia: Dorrance and co., 1974; pp.19-21.
Severin, Tim. "St Brendan's Isle." http://www.castletown.com/brendan.htm
Various encyclopedia articles; brief mentions in books on exploration, voyages and discoveries; internet articles.
Last updated May, 2007.