In 484 St. Brendan was born in Ciarraighe Luachra near the port of Tralee, in Co Kerry, in the province of Munster, in the South West of Ireland. He was baptised at Tubrid, near Ardfert, by Saint Erc. He spent his first year with his parents, then he went to the home of the local chieftain, Airde mac Fidaigh at Cathair Airde in Listrim, three miles to the East. He returned to his family at the end of his fifth year and completed his studies under St. Erc, who ordained him priest in 510.
Between the years 510 and 530 St. Brendan built monastic cells at Ardfert, and, at the foot of Mount Brandon, Shanakeel— Seana Cill, usually translated as “the old church” — also called Balynevinoorach.
From here he is said to have set out on his famous seven years voyage for Paradise. The old Irish Calendars assigned a special feast for the “Egressio familiae S. Brendani”, on 22 March; and St Aengus the Culdee, in his Litany composed at the close of the eighth century, invokes “the sixty who accompanied St. Brendan in his quest for the Land of Promise”.
The story of St. Brendan’s “Journey to the Promised Land” was one of the most famous and enduring stories of western Europe for almost a thousand years, a multi-language ‘best seller’. It may be that in his voyages in the Atlantic Ocean he reached the shores of America long before Columbus. There is a renewed interest internationally in this sixth-century Irish saint whose name appeared on ocean maps through the centuries, and whose story has been written in countless versions in many languages.
St Patrick is now the best known Saints of Ireland; but for perhaps seven centuries, up to the 16th century, that place was held by St. Brendan the Navigator. This was mainly because so many countries were fascinated for so long by the Navigatio Brendani, the ninth century account of his travels in the Atlantic Ocean. Part of this fascination was caused by the way the story seemed to penetrate the vast mysteries of the Atlantic and also because the charm and literary skill with which events of the voyage and the personality of the Saint are depicted. In recent years the interest in the Saint has revived as it becomes more likely that the Navigatio may be the earliest account of Voyaging to America. This likelihood has been increased by the success of Tim Severin in 1977 in reaching Newfoundland by way of the Faeroes, Iceland and Greenland in a boat built according to the specifications laid down in the Navigatio, an adventure described in his book, The Brendan Voyage.
As the legend of the seven years voyage spread, crowds of pilgrims and students flocked to Ardfert. Religious houses were formed at Gallarus, Kilmalchedor, Brandon Hill, and Inistooskert in the Blasket Islands, in order to meet the wants of those who came for spiritual guidance from Saint Brendan. St. 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.
Photo: Ancient Cross near St. Brendan’s Holy Well, Valentia Island, Co Kerry, Willie Kunze Photography