Among Ireland’s renowned explorers, of whom there are many, one name stands out. Shackleton and Crean (Antarctic voyages), Robert O’Hara Burke (first to cross the Australian Outback) and many others achieved monumental feats of discovery but it is the figure of the fifth century St Brendan who is the true torchbearer for Irish adventure.
That his motivation was religious was incidental. That he advanced the knowledge of the known world is incontrovertible. Did he discover America centuries before the Viking Leif Erikson or Italian seafarer, Amerigo Vespucci? Very possibly. He was born in about 484 in Fenit, Tralee, Co Kerry, a location singularly suited for ocean-going voyages.
The late Danny Sheehy retraced St Brendan’s voyage in 2011 to Iceland starting from the south of the peninsula at Dingle. And Tim Severin took the journey a step further in 1976 by crossing the Atlantic in a currach built from ash, oak and oxhide proving St Brendan could have crossed the Atlantic itself.
St Brendan’s peregrinations took him far and wide and on one such trip to the mythical St Brendan’s Isle near the Canary Islands. The journey to the “Isles of the Blest” took five years to accomplish.
As discussed on these pages in the last few weeks the mythical islands of Hy Brasil and Buss, if they existed, were situated on volcanic territory and may have subsided under the sea due to earthquakes. The same is true of St Brendan’s Isle off the volcanic ridges beside the Canaries.
The 15th century Book of Lismore records that St Brenainn (St Brendan) “desired to leave his land and his country and he urgently besought the lord to give him a land secret, hidden, secure, delightful, separated from men”.
WH Babcock cast some cold water on this record, to wit: “Its full blown development of certain marvels such as the spending of every Easter for at least five years on the back of a vast sea monster as a substitute for an island may well awaken a question as to the validity of this conjecture.”
See the main picture, above, and make up your own mind! On the advice of his foster mother, St Ita, St Brendan built a wooden boat and, with 60 men, sailed off in search of an island retreat off northwest Africa. There are different versions of the story and another tells of Brendan’s desire to go to an island “just under Mount Atlas”. The Canaries!
Brendan’s adventures were first recorded by cartographers several centuries after he left Dingle. The Hereford map of 1275 indicates his island as just west of the Canaries — “fortunate Insulae sex sunt Insulae Sct. Brandani”.
A medieval French version of this voyage records that St Brendan and his fellow seafarers found an island with immense sheep (interpreted as the Faroes) but just as they are about to cook one, the island sinks and reveals itself to be “a beast”.
“That he found some island or islands was certainly believed for his name is on many maps in full confidence,” wrote Babcock. In a 1339 map by the Majorcan Angelinus Dulcert. the Portuguese island group of Madeira is referred to as the “Fortunate Islands of St Brendan”.
So the exact whereabouts of St Brendan’s Isle was differently given. Babcock writes that it “engaged in wide wanderings”. It was located off the Canaries, at Madeira. and in the North Atlantic. These drawings have more to do with the impulses of mapmakers recording new adventures as they they have with reported sightings. In the 1500s, sailors from Bristol reported finding Hy Brasil but their searches for St Brendan’s Isle came to naught.
“The final judgement of navigators and cartographers, before it finally vanished from the maps, is to the waste of the north Atlantic as its most probable hiding place,” wrote Babcock.
Whatever the truth in these maps, at best approximate, at worst wildly inaccurate, there is no doubt they have been heavily filtered through the alembic of time, language and cultural bias. This gives us a twisted tale. The best kind.