St. Brendan the Navigator

About Our Patron

      St. Brendan (Brénainn in Gaelic) was a tireless Irish missionary abbot who is famous for the many monasteries he founded and his many journeys, in particular one that has stirred imaginations for hundreds of years.

      Born in 484 near the present town of Tralee in County Kerry to Findlung (his father) and Broinngheal (mother), Brénainn was baptized in Ardfert by St. Erc, bishop of Kerry in western Ireland. At the age of one year, he was entrusted to the care of St. Ita, who raised him according to an old custom to allow a monk or nun to provide a child's early religious education. He continued his studies at an early age with Erc, who ordained him a priest in 512, and Brendan immediately commenced upon founding monastic communities. One of these foundations was Shanakeel, or Baalynevinoorach, at the foot of what today is known as Brandon Hill, the western-most point of Europe. To Brendan, this was the edge of the world. It was from this point that Brendan set out in a boat with a group of monks into the unknown on his famous seven-year journey to the Land of Delight.

      There are differences of opinion on where the monks journeyed to. Some say the famous account of St. Brendan's sea journey is an allegory of the life pilgrimage of a Christian. Others say that this is a real though embellished account of an actual journey, perhaps to the New World, which would make Brendan and his community the first Europeans to "discover" the New World (at least journeying as far as Greenland), preceding Columbus by several hundred years. The most likely North American sites of his landing are variously proposed as Newfoundland or Labrador or even the Carribean or the eastern seaboard of the continental United States.

      In residence at Clonfert (which means "Meadow of Miracles"), where he established the ancient cathedral still standing and now the seat of the Church of Ireland (Anglican) diocese of Clonfert, Brendan heard rumors of an island called The Promised Land of the Saints. He gathered a group of monks and invited them to join him on a journey, which they eagerly agreed to do. At that time, the typical Irish boat was called a coracle, made of leather hides stretched tightly over a wooden frame. In 1976 and 1977, an explorer named Tim Severin constructed several replicas of boats such as St. Brendan would have used, and navigated them successfully from Ireland to North America, so it is physically possible for Brendan to have made such a journey.

      After a long and dangerous journey, Brendan and his crew returned with fantastic tales, which are recorded in many different forms and languages. The story of his journey reached many people, and crowds flocked to him for spiritual guidance, many settling in new monastic communities he established at Gallerus, Kilmalchedor, Brandon Hill and the Blasquet Islands. Continuing is evangelization of the Celtic people, he founded abbeys in Scotland and Wales.

      After returning to Ireland, Brendan continued to found many churches and dioceses. He died at Enachduin (now Annaghdown) and was interred in Clonfert Cathedral in 577. He is remembered in the liturgical calendar on May 16.

Icon of St. Brendan ©Cheryl Ann Pituc available from "Come and See" Icons, Books & Art at: