By Brian McGowan
With all the tumult over Christopher Columbus and political correctness, it may be time to resurrect a far-earlier discoverer of North America, and give credit where credit is due.
In this particular case, that credit must go to a Dark Ages Irish monk, known to us today as St. Brendan the Navigator, though he did wear a number of other labels during his 93 years, all of them honorable. He was a well-liked man.
Saint Brendan was born in Tralee, County Kerry, Ireland in the year 484, not long after St. Patrick made his way through the island and less than a decade after the fall of the Roman Empire. With the Western world plunged into darkness, this was the beginning of one of Ireland’s greatest gifts to mankind, as Irish monks labored in their monasteries to replicate and preserve the great texts of a crumbled civilization.
But that is not what we know St. Brendan best for. He is best known as the patron saint of sailors and other voyagers. Why? Because he was one himself. And he documented his longest voyage well enough that it would be recorded years after his death in a Latin text titled “Navigatio Sancti Brendani Abbatis,” which translates to “The Voyage of Saint Brendan the Abbot.”
About the year 512, he set about with a loyal band of 12 monks to build a sturdy craft which he hoped would carry them over the seas to a land known in Irish legends as “Hy Brazil” (in Irish Uí Breasail), a mythical island, shrouded in eternal fog except for a brief time every seven years when it became visible. (It has nothing to do with the modern country of similar name).
The isle was rumored to be somewhere to the southwest of Ireland, convenient to the Dingle Peninsula where Brendan and his band built their vessel. Its stout wooden ribs were covered with hide well waxed in sheep fat, really a large version of a curragh, the traditional craft of West of Ireland fishermen. They labored at their task in the shadow of a mountain known to this day as Mount Brandon. Others say he sought the land of Tír na nÓg (Land of Youth), whose residents never age.
An Atlantic Ocean shoal some 120 miles off the Irish coast, today named Porcupine Bank, is the likely location of St. Brendan’s goal. But once he set sail, he ventured much further. In his recounting of the journey, he described wondrous sights, such as mountains of crystal (icebergs), floating islands (whales), an island whose rivers ran with gold fire (volcanic activity on Iceland), and an island filled with grapes (possibly modern-day New Brunswick, just north of Maine).
Saint Brendan returned to Ireland about 530 and resumed the life of an abbot, continuing to establish monasteries throughout Ireland, Scotland, Britain and France. No doubt he had great yarns to spin, in the wake of his adventures.
Several hundred years later, in the year 1000, a Viking named Leif Erikson replicated Brendan’s feat and set foot in what the Vikings called “Vinland,” savoring the grapes that grew abundantly in this newly re-discovered land.
It would take almost another 500 years before an enterprising seaman from Genova in Liguria, Italy journeyed to Ireland to consult first-hand the writings of Saint Brendan’s voyage. From what he gathered, this seaman deduced the best round-trip path for his voyage – southwest going, northeast returning. Apparently, Saint Brendan had stumbled upon the Gulf Stream. On Oct. 12, 1492, following St. Brendan’s lead, this Genovese set foot in the New World, this time to stay – Cristoforo Colombo, known better as Columbus.
Would Chris, weary of the turmoil, willingly relinquish his monuments in favor of his Dark Ages guide? Perhaps. But are we ready for “St. Brendan’s Circle?”
Or “St. Brendan, Ohio?” Or the “Saint Brendan’s day parade?” In deference to my Italian friends and relations, and the reality of events we cannot change, I hope not!
Pleasantville resident Brian McGowan was born and raised in the Bronx, a second-, third- and fifth-generation Irish-American/Canadian, as his immigrant ancestors followed several paths to the New World. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter (@Bmcgowan52M). He is the author of two books, “Thunder at Noon,” about the battle of Waterloo, and “Love, Son John,” about World War II. Both are available at Amazon.com.