Each year, we mark the accomplishments of Christopher Columbus, a 15th century explorer, who braved the hardship of an Atlantic crossing to the new world, leading many school children to believe that it was he who discovered America. Actually he never reached mainland America, just the offshore islands. We can’t even say he was first, for people were there to greet him.
Nor can we say that he was the first European, for Viking voyagers were here in the 12th century. However, Vikings left no permanent settlements, so to Columbus goes the credit of being the first to open the new world to European exploration and settlement. There was however, a group who braved the Atlantic long before Columbus, and before the Vikings, and they did explore America and settle here. They were Irish monks who never married, left no descendants, and their settlements were abandoned with their passing . But they did make the voyage. In fact, one of them, a monk named St. Brendan wrote Navagatio Brendini, the story of his visit to America, more than 900 years before Columbus and 400 years before the Vikings.
St. Brendan, known as Brendan the Voyager, was born near Tralee, Co. Kerry in 484 and died at Annaghdown, in 577. Baptized by Bishop Erc, he was educated under St. Ita, the Brigid of Munster, and he completed his studies under St. Erc, who ordained him priest in 512. Between 512 and 530, St. Brendan built monastic cells at Ardfert, and Shanakeel at the foot of Brandon Hill. It was from here that he set out on his famous voyage for the Land of the Blessed. The story of the seven years’ voyage became well known and crowds of pilgrims and students flocked to Ardfert to be taught by Brendan. In a few years, Monasteries were formed at Gallerus, Kilmalchedor, Brandon Hill, and the Blasket Islands, in order to meet the wants of those who came for spiritual guidance to St. Brendan.
He established the See of Ardfert and traveled to Thomond and founded a monastery at Coney Island, in Co. Clare, in the present parish of Killadysert, about the year 550. He then journeyed to Wales, then to Iona, and after three years returned to Ireland. He much good work in various parts of Leinster, especially at Dysart, Killiney, and Brandon Hill. He established churches at Inchiquin, Co. Galway and at Inishglora, County Mayo. His most celebrated foundation was Clonfert, in 557, where he was eventually interred. His feast Day is 16 May.
It is known that his writings were part of Columbus’ library of information upon which he based his theory of a round world, but time gradually widened the gap between Brendan’s voyage and the advent of scientific insistence on supporting evidence for all facts. It became increasingly more difficult to defend St. Brendan’s voyage since the only evidence was his own writings and they could not be verified; further, how could men sail the stormy Atlantic in the small leather-covered boat, or curragh, described in The Navagatio? The story of St. Brendan’s voyage was soon relegated to the category of legend.
Then, in June 1977, historian and explorer Timothy Severin and a four-man crew completed a 2,000-mile journey from Ireland to Newfoundland in a leaky 36-foot craft made of oak-tanned cow-hide stretched over a wooden frame. The vessel had been built according to the description of his curragh given by St. Brendan. Severin constructed the curragh – appropriately christened Brendan – and made the journey across the Atlantic to prove that it would have indeed been possible for the Irish Saint and his crew to have sailed to the new world before the Vikings. Upon the arrival of Brendan in Newfoundland, Severin was besieged by reporters seeking a statement. It was only about 150 years after Columbus, he reminded them, that people began to doubt that the Irish had been here. We’ve restored the balance.
The modern voyage of Timothy Severin in Brendan was sponsored and financed, in part, by National Geographic magazine, which subsequently presented a number of articles and documentary films on the expedition. Ironically, while Severin and his crew were restoring credibility to the story of St. Brendan’s early voyage to the new world, other archeological evidence was being unearthed which pointed to the Irish monks in America. Check the National Website at AOH.COM for that story