Did an Irish Monk “Discover” America?

Tomorrow – Saturday, May 16 – is the feast day of St. Brendan the Navigator, the Irish sailor saint who reputedly set foot on the North American continent in the sixth century, almost a thousand years before Columbus. The story of this voyage across the Atlantic was popular in the Middle Ages due to a famous ninth century Latin tale, the Navigatio Sancti Brendani.

The St. Brendan Visitor Centre in County Kerry, Ireland has this short video that tells the tale accompanied by an Irish tin whistle. For a more scholarly take, History.com has a brief article that poses the question: Did an Irish Monk “Discover” America?

Lovers of high sea adventure may want to read The Brendan Voyage. In this book Tim Severin recounts how he decided to test the plausibility of the Brendan tale after his wife read him passages of the Navigatio. As a sailor familiar with the North Atlantic, Severin thought the descriptions of the voyage resembled what one would encounter sailing west in those northern seas.

Severin researched the kind of craft Brendan would have used. He studied ancient stone carving of monks sailing the seas and decided to model his craft on the traditional Irish currach. The Navigatio indicates the boat was made with ox hides and so a leather harness maker was recruited to help in building the boat.

Over two sailing seasons – 1976 and 1977 – Severin and his men sailed the North Atlantic finally reaching Newfoundland. Along the way their little boat survived gales and being swept through a narrow channel in the Faros islands. Later their boat floated peacefully as whales surfaced and swam alongside in a fashion similar to behavior of the sea monsters described in the Navigatio. In this fascinating 2005 lecture Severin tells more stories about this incredible voyage.

Some maintain the Brendan voyage is only a legend, but all scholars agree that Irish monks of his time did indeed sail the North Atlantic as part of their missionary effort to bring Christ to the heathen people in Northern England, Scotland and the many islands that surround the present-day United Kingdom.


Posted: May 15, 2015

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