In Saint Brendan's Wake

By Robert Sullivan

Now who are these fine fellows we are saluting? We’ll have our answer about Severin in just a moment. To start at the beginning, we must first answer: “Who was Brendan the Navigator?”

He was an Irish monk of the Middle Ages: born circa 488, ordained in 512, and died circa 577. He was the founder of many monasteries in his native land, including the great one at Clonfert, where he lies buried. And, oh, yes, it’s a good possibility that dear old Saint Brendan was the European who discovered America.

That’s right, Saint Brendan may have been the one to discover America—way before Leif Ericsson explored the North Atlantic or Christopher Columbus set sail for the Orient. The story is that Brendan—full-time monk, sometime adventurer—once sailed his boat too far west and bumped into North America. While many historians will not entertain such conjecture, compelling arguments are made at regular intervals by Hibernophiles who insist that cave dwellings and Stonehenge-like arrangements throughout northeastern North America reflect a strong Celtic influence. When a large seaside rock with inscriptions on it resembling Irish letters was discovered in Newfoundland a few years ago, it led Canada’s national archivist to declare, “There is no doubt that Irish monks reached our shores before the Vikings.”

Brendan the Navigator was, all legends agree, the most footloose of these Irish monks. Having heard about “the land of promise and of the saints,” a milk-and-honey paradise to the west, he fasted for 40 days, then set out from Dingle Bay with a crew of more than a dozen men in a 36-foot, skin-covered boat called a curragh. When he returned to Ireland after seven years, he had many fascinating stories to tell about his adventures. Oral traditions that were handed down concerning Brendan were eventually codified in Navigatio Sancti Brendani (The Voyage of Saint Brendan). This volume was compiled by different authors between 700 and 1000—well after Brendan’s explorations.

The Navigatio was, in its day, a widely translated narrative; it remains a tantalizing document. In it, Brendan tells of encountering “mountains in the sea spouting fire,” floating crystal palaces, monsters with catlike heads and horns growing from their mouths, and “little furry men.” Before dismissing Brendan’s story as a lot of blarney, think upon Iceland’s volcanoes, upon icebergs, upon walruses, upon Eskimos.

According to the Navigatio, Brendan and crew drifted from one island to the next, “following God’s stepping stones,” until they came to a large land mass where they stayed for many months. Their return voyage was made by an altogether different route; they wound up in the Azores and from there sailed to Ireland. The voyage was deemed a great success, and this view obtained for centuries. It is said that some 900 years after Brendan and at least 400 after the publication of the Navigatio, Christopher Columbus visited Dingle to secure information about Brendan’s alleged trip before setting out to find a westward route to China. Maybe he did, maybe he didn’t—but certainly Columbus knew the Navigatio, and a map that he used when sailing from Spain in 1492 featured a large land mass in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean labeled “Saint Brendan’s Island.” In fact, the Spanish crown had already claimed sovereignty over it—wherever and whatever it was—and many sailors before Columbus had sought to find it. Back then, no one scoffed at Brendan’s claims.

Cut to the present era, and anyone who knew anything about Brendan’s claims was readily and loudly scoffing. Anyone but Tim Severin.

Severin was a devotee of Kon Tiki–esque adventures. He had already traced Marco Polo’s route on a motorcycle (he would later go on to recreate the journeys of Ulysses, Sinbad, and Genghis Khan; his most recent book, published last year, In Search of Moby Dick: Quest for the White Whale, recounts his quest for Ahab’s great nemesis). Severin was and still is a sailor, author, filmmaker, and lecturer. Back at the time of this journey, in the mid-1970s, he was living in Ireland. Being on the Emerald Isle gave him the opportunity to investigate Brendan’s tale. Severin found it irresistible.

Severin located a centuries-old tannery that prepared oxhides in the medieval manner. With these he fashioned a curragh that was probably like Saint Brendan’s. He found one of the last pieces of Irish-grown timber tall enough for a mainmast. He hammered, sawed, and tied; the boat’s framework featured ash laths bound by leather thongs. Finally, he had a boat, and he named it Brendan. He had it christened by the local bishop, Eammon Casey (“Bless this boat, O True Christ/Convey her free and safe across the sea…/To go to the land of promise is your right/ You are like a guide of Brendan’s time/Guide our boat now”), and then Severin and his men pushed it out upon the salty water. “Beneath us Brendan rose and sank on each wave crest with a motion that managed to be both ponderous and sensitive at the same time,” Severin wrote of his first hours on the Atlantic. “Very slightly, the hull bent and straightened to the changing pressures of the waves, and the masts creaked in sympathy against the thwarts. Aft, at the steering position, the massive four-inch shaft of the steering paddle nuzzled against the cross piece of an H-shaped frame that held the paddle in place. Every now and again the shaft dropped back into the crotch with a dull thump that could be felt as a quiver along the length of the hull. But apart from this sound, the boat was remarkably quiet. The leather skin seemed to muffle the usual slap of the wavelets against the hull, and the thong-tied frame damped out the customary tremors of a stiff-hulled sailing boat. The result was a curious disembodied feeling, a sense of being a part of the sea’s motion, molding to the waves.” In other words, Severin had succeeded in building a craft that was both unwieldy in the olden way and supple because of its careful construction.

Severin and his crew set out from Ireland on May 17, 1976, seeking to follow what is believed to have been Brendan’s “stepping-stones” (Scotland, the Hebrides, the Faroes, Iceland, Greenland, Newfoundland, and Nova Scotia, the “Promised Land”). It turns out, indeed, that the 3,000 miles traversed on this probable route from Ireland to America are not only the ones with the least open water but also those most direct: Transatlantic jets use it on the Shannon-to-Boston leg every day.

Severin and his crew encountered terrible weather. At one point they repaired a tear in the hull of the boat by hanging over the side as they restitched the leather, their heads sometimes submerged in the icy North Atlantic water.

This neck of the sea is, of course, Perfect Storm territory, and Severin survived some brutal squalls. “The crew looked at me with eyes raw-rimmed from exhaustion and the constant salt spray...the waves kept up their ceaseless rumble and roar; and for a moment I seriously wondered what on earth the four of us were doing here in this lonely, half-frozen part of the Atlantic; cold, drenched, and very tired, and out of touch with the outside world.”

So it felt to Severin a quarter-century ago, and most probably to Brendan those centuries past. (Severin writes with great eloquence but admirable restraint in regard to his heroics. His ability to conjure Brendan’s adventure and tell his own at the same time makes The Brendan Voyage a pleasure to read.)

The route Severin sailed passed through a region prone to storms and also to much ice. “Our torch showed us that Brendan had blundered into a type of sea ice known as Very Open Pack, and that most of the ice was rotten,” Severin wrote. “Everywhere the torch lights probed, white lumps of ice winked back out of the dark. Painfully, we wallowed past...heaving on the tiller, and silently hoping that Brendan would respond in time. Smaller floes bumped and muttered on her leather skin; and out of the darkness we heard the continuous swishing sound of the waves breaking on ice beyond our vision.”

They made it through. In Severin’s words: “Brendan eased forward. Not with style or speed, but in the same matter-of-fact manner that she had crossed three and a half thousand miles of sea. The red ring cross on her mainsail began to sag as I eased the halliard a few feet to slow the boat even more. Trondur took up the slack on the anchor rope and handed it gently over the gunwale. Arthur made a couple of dips at the water with his blade to keep the boat straight. Brendan nosed quietly onto the rocks. George leaped. His feet splashed, and touched ground…and I thought, ‘We’ve made it!’

Brendan touched the New World at 8:00 p.m. on June 26, 1977, on the shore of Peckford Island in the Outer Wadham Group some 150 miles northwest of St. John’s, Newfoundland. She had been at sea for fifty days. The exact spot of her landfall has no particular significance to the story of the early Irish voyages into the Atlantic. It was merely the place where the wind and current had brought a twentieth-century replica of the original Irish skin vessels….”

Severin might be said to have a bias vis-à-vis his implications regarding those original Irish skin vessels. For a concluding note on the magic and wonder of the Saint Brendan story, let us turn to an objective observer—to one who is even, one might say, an amiable skeptic. Donald S. Johnson wrote admiringly of the Brendan voyage in his 1994 book, Phantom Islands of the Atlantic: “This remarkable achievement ended all controversy over whether such a voyage was possible. Using the prevailing wind and current patterns of northern latitudes, Severin found a ‘logical progression’ of landfalls, one conceivably the same as Saint Brendan’s; the islands he visited and the events he encountered closely paralleled those of the ancient legend.” Johnson then, however, throws cold water on the message of the replica voyage: “Unfortunately, proof that it could be done is not the same as proof that it was done.”

True. But having allowed Johnson his say, we must aver: There is another way to look at it. Since we know that Severin made it to North America in a big leather canoe, we are required—absolutely required—to ask: Did Brendan?

Even without a firm answer, we salute them. Here’s to you, Brendan, and you too, Tim.  Sláinte, boys!

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