Irish Monks and the Voyage of St. Brendan
The case that can be made for transatlantic voyages
by medieval Irish monks is a reasonable one. We know that Ireland
was the centre for a vigorous culture during the fifth and sixth
centuries CE, preserving Christian civilization in Northern
Europe after the decline and collapse of the Roman Empire. During
this period, Irish monks ventured out into the North Atlantic in
pursuit of some kind of spiritual or divine mission. They reached
the Hebrides, Orkneys, and Faeroe Islands. The Norse sagas
suggest that Irish monks were even in Iceland when the Norse
settled there after about 870 CE (though no archaeological
evidence has yet confirmed this).
Such accomplishments add
authenticity to the story of St. Brendan, who was born in Ireland
about 489 and founded a monastery at Clonfert, Galway. According
to legend, he was in his seventies when he and 17 other
monks set out on a westward voyage in a curragh, a wood-framed
boat covered in sewn ox-hides. The monks sailed about the North
Atlantic for seven years, according to details set down in the
Navigatio Sancti Brendani Abbatis in the tenth century.
St. Brendan and his Brethren setting sail, n.d.
Artist unknown. From Rev. Denis O'Donoghue,
St. Brendan the Voyager (Dublin: Brown & Nolan, 1893) frontispiece.
Eventually, they reached "the Land of Promise of the
Saints," which they explored before returning home with
fruit and precious stones found there. Had Brendan reached
Newfoundland, using the islands of the North Atlantic as
stepping-stones? In 1976 and 1977, the adventurer Tim Severin
demonstrated that such a voyage was possible by building the
Brendan, a replica of a curragh, and sailing it to Newfoundland.
If Irish monks did voyage across the Atlantic and back, then
their achievement was historically very significant, for Ireland
was the target of Viking raids before the end of the eighth
century, and it is perhaps through the Irish that the Norsemen
learned about other lands further to the west.
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