A modern Orthodox icon of St. Brendan the Navigator St. Brendan (Brandan, Brandon), called the “Navigator” or also the “Voyager”, is one of the greatest ascetics who lived in Ireland. Unfortunately, his earliest and most reliable hagiographies are lost, and what remains is later twelfth-century Latin and Irish manuscripts, annals and genealogies, traditions and legends; he is also mentioned in the Lives of some other Irish saints. But, most importantly, he has been loved and venerated by the Irish as one of the nation’s most important Church figures throughout the centuries. He was born in 484 or 486, and reposed, according to various traditions, in 575, 577 or 583 at the age of nearly 100. The names of his parents were Finnlug and Cara. The future saint’s birthplace was most probably tiny Fenit Island, situated northwest of the fishing village of Fenit in County Kerry, six miles from the town of Tralee, in the very south-west of Ireland. In the 2000s a massive bronze statue of St. Brendan was erected on neighboring Great Samphire Island at the entrance to Fenit Harbor to commemorate him.
St. Brendan was baptized as an infant by the holy Bishop Erc of Slane; the night Brendan was born, Bishop Erc saw an extraordinary light and a multitude of angels in glowing robes descending from heaven over his parents’ home. Tobar na Molt holy well not far from Tralee and Ardfert, where St. Erc baptized St. Brendan, still exists and is visited by pilgrims seeking physical and mental healing and consolation. There is a chapel near this well with an altar and the figures of three saints (Sts. Brendan, Erc and Ita) in it. St. Erc may later have ordained St. Brendan as a priest.
According to tradition, at the age of two little Brendan was given by St. Erc to the care of the illustrious holy Abbess Ita († c. 570; feast: January 15) of Killeedy in Limerick, known as “the Foster-mother of the Irish Saints”. Under St. Ita Brendan studied the rudiments of Christianity for five years, and he retained the love and respect for the abbess who nurtured and taught him always. After Killeedy, St. Brendan is believed to have gone to Tuam in Galway, to the famous monastery and school founded by St. Jarlath († c. 540; feast: June 6). Besides, St. Brendan was a disciple of St. Enda of Inishmore (+ c. 530; feast: March 21), one of the earliest monastic founders in Ireland.
Our saint also went to the famous Clonard Monastery in County Meath with the great St. Finnian († 549; feast: December 12), “the Teacher of the Irish Saints”, or one of his successors. Notably, St. Brendan the Navigator (like his saintly namesake, St. Brendan of Birr in Offaly, who reposed in c. 573 and is feasted on November 29) is ranked among “the Twelve Apostles of Ireland”, all of whom were in Clonard. Lastly, tradition says that the young saint travelled to Wales, where he spent some time with St. Gildas (or St. Cadoc) at Llancarfan in Glamorgan, in the monastery famous for its learning. Irish and Welsh monasticism of the age were closely interconnected.
Having been instructed by such celebrated monastic saints, St. Brendan was tonsured a monk, ordained, and then journeyed to the west of his native Ireland to found churches, do extensive missionary work and shepherd his fellow-countrymen. All his biographers wrote that St. Brendan led an austere ascetic life and gained fame as a wonderworker. He excelled in extraordinary zeal for prayer, extreme abstinence, profound humility, and great mercy and love for everyone. In Ireland and Scotland (which he visited many times) St. Brendan established a huge number of monasteries. The most famous of them, founded in about 559, was Clonfert, on the west bank of the River Shannon in County Galway. Clonfert, set up by St. Brendan, was renowned all over Ireland. At one time it is said that it had some 3,000 monks, future missionaries who later travelled all over Europe to preach the Gospel. One of the most illustrious disciples of Clonfert, who in his youth may have been instructed by St. Brendan, was St. Fursey († c. 648; feast: January 16), who later founded monasteries in Eastern England and France.
Another significant establishment of St. Brendan was the monastery and diocese of Ardfert, which became a large ecclesiastical and monastic center of Kerry close to the saint’s birthplace. Then he proceeded to establish a community at Inis-da-druim, now Coney Island (Innisdadrom) in County Clare. After that he built a monastery at Annaghdown in Galway, by the Bay of Annaghdown near Lough Corrib.
Numerous traditions tell that St. Brendan was also active in the historical Irish province of Leinster, where a host of places are associated with him. Of them let us mention the parish of Disart in County Kilkenny, Killeney (which still has a church in honor of St. Brendan) and Brandon Hill in Kilkenny. About 1700 feet tall, Brandon Hill, named for St. Brendan, is the highest mountain in County Kilkenny; St. Brendan built a monastic community or church beside it.
Later establishments of St. Brendan worth mentioning are a monastery on the island of Inchiquin, also called Innisquin, in the parish of Killursa in Galway, along with a monastic community on Inishglora off the Mullet Peninsula in County Mayo. For the past 100 years this island has been uninhabited. Inishglora is noted for its ancient relics related to our saint. Two monastic communities—one for monks and one for nuns—may have existed here simultaneously. Today you can find the ruins of the early St. Brendan’s Church, a “church for men”, a “church for women” there and drink water from St. Brendan’s holy well, which was used by local monks in the first millennium! There are very ancient cross shafts and other artefacts, situated near the remains of three early beehive cells, one of which belonged to St. Brendan.
Legends associated with Inishglora abound. The historian Gerald of Wales in the late twelfth century testified that as long as monks inhabited this island, human corpses were neither buried nor decayed on it—many bodies were deposited in the open so that people could see their ancestors absolutely uncorrupt for generations (this phenomenon must have ceased when the monks left). The same historian also wrote that vermin, such as mice and rats, never inhabited Inishglora as long as prayer was performed on it. Though thousands of them swarmed on other Irish islands, not a single one was found there. Whenever someone brought a rodent to Inishglora it would instantly run away and leap into the sea, or die if it was stopped. Formerly all ships sailing past Inishglora would lower their top sails to pay homage to St. Brendan, whose wonderworking wooden statue stood inside St. Brendan’s Church. Garlic that grows on Inishglora to this day is said to have been planted by monks 1500 years ago!
The greater part of St. Brendan’s life was spent in travels and voyages (typical for Irish monks and ascetics), which is why he was later nicknamed the “Navigator”. In the eighth and ninth centuries the famous saga, Navigatio Sancti Brendani (The Voyage of St. Brendan), was composed by an Irish monk, and later other authors wrote more elaborate versions of it. Though very popular throughout the Middle Ages, this saga in many ways transformed the authentic seafaring ascetic and abbot into a semi-mythical adventurer with supernatural abilities who accomplished unbelievable exploits. According to it, when Brendan was abbot of Clonfert, a monk Barrindus1 once visited him. The monk told him that he had travelled through a thick fog and reached the “heavenly Jerusalem”, full of precious stones, in which the sun never set, there were many mountains, birds sang sweetly, a river flowed from the east to the west and all the plants were always in bloom. Barrindus had spent a year there.
An Orthodox icon of St. Brendan the Navigator After hearing his story, Brendan chose fourteen disciples from his community, returned to his native Kerry and departed with them in a handmade wooden boat covered with oxhide. Their supply of food and drink would suffice for forty days, but they were destined to wander the ocean for seven years. In all versions of this story, St. Brendan with a team of fellow-monks furrowed the Atlantic Ocean in search of the “Promised Island of Paradise”2. They at last found it, and spent some time there, experiencing many interesting, exciting and dangerous encounters. In general, their routine throughout the voyage was a usual monastic cycle of worship and labor, and each day was punctuated by monastic duties “in the field”. After staying at the “Promised Island” of saints for some time, St. Brendan took some of its celestial fruit and precious stones and sailed back.
According to modern researchers, the saga was influenced by early Christian apocryphal literature and Irish (and Scandinavian) mythology, plus—the authors’ fantasies and some historical facts. This text survived in 116 Medieval Latin manuscripts, in addition to versions in Middle English, German, French, Flemish, Italian, Norse and Provencal. This delightful and captivating saga, which has been translated into many modern languages and published almost all over the globe, definitely has edifying elements and is popular to this day.
It is thought that St. Brendan and his band of companions did make a seven-year-long voyage across the Atlantic to the west of their native land, visiting the same islands on the days of major Church feasts every year to serve the Liturgy. However, the purpose of their travels was unceasing prayer to God (as ascetic practice; in this case the ocean served as their “desert”), building churches and chapels, converting insular inhabitants, and probably spreading Irish manuscripts and other skills. It is even possible that these missionaries some 1000 years before Christopher Columbus reached the shores of North and Central America, Greenland and Newfoundland, or even South America and the Canary Islands.
What is certain, however, is that St. Brendan sailed to the Hebrides (where he founded at least two monasteries: on Tiree and Eileach an Naoimh, where very early monastic ruins survive), Orkney, Shetland (all of them in Scotland), mainland Scotland (where he founded at least one monastic community on its west coast and had a memorable meeting with St. Columba of Iona), the Faeroes (now belonging to Denmark), Iceland (where he is remembered in some traditions), Wales (where St. Malo was among his friends) and Brittany.
In the 1970s a team of explorers headed by Tim Severin (b. 1940) built a thirty-six-foot replica of the Irish currach (an open boat of ash and oak, lashed together with about two miles of leather thong), sailed from the Irish coast and eventually reached Newfoundland, making several stops en route, proving that it was possible for St. Brendan in the sixth century to do the same! More than that, during their voyage Severin’s crew identified some “mystical” objects described in the medieval saga, such as “the island of sheep”, “the Paradise of birds that sung spiritual hymns” (perhaps both on the Faeroes), “crystal towers” (glaciers and icebergs on the northern islands), “the mountains that hurled rocks” (volcanoes in Iceland), “sea monsters” (whales, porpoises and probably walruses), etc. It is no wonder that Christopher Columbus believed that St. Brendan had discovered America before him and he (Columbus) used the maps composed partially on the basis of St. Brendan’s itineraries.
Notably, let us cite an extract from the book by Novice Vsevolod (Filipiev) entitled, An Athonite. A Story and Parable (Palomnik publishing house, 2014), the translation from Russian: “There is information that America had been discovered long before Columbus by Christian ascetics. In ancient times there existed ‘monastery-ships’, that made voyages to faraway distances. The version was put forward that those austere ascetics tried to find the remotest places that were absolutely inaccessible to people; places where they could wholly devote themselves to prayer and repentance. Obviously, it was the seafarer-monks that took the mentioned ascetics to the American land, then still unknown in the Old World. The location of that land was kept top secret by the voyager-monks who returned to Europe so as not to give away the anchorites.”
What could have happened to those first Christian hermits in America, if they ever went there, is unknown. It is likely that, landing ashore, they would not have known where Native Americans lived. Did they have to make contact with natives or did the Lord preserve them unnoticed amid intact American nature and the unspoiled desert till the end of their lives? Whatever the case, it is suggested that it was they who left the rock Church calendar calculations that definitely date back to the era after the Birth of Christ.”
Interestingly, Archpriest Alexander Shabanov, who serves in the churches of the Protecting Veil of the Mother of God and of St. Arseny of Tver in the Russian city of Tver, has dedicated some of his books to the pre-schism saints of the British Isles and Ireland, including St. Brendan the Voyager. In his works, “St. Brendan the Navigator, in Quest of the Promised Island” and “Boats to St. Brendan” (both in Russian), he did thorough research into the “Navigatio” from several perspectives, trying to trace elements of truth and fiction and various influences of medieval sagas on St. Brendan’s voyages. At the end of his work he speculates that St. Brendan and his companions/followers might have walked through Scandinavia, the Baltic, reaching the Kola Peninsula, visiting some areas in what is now northwestern Russia, especially the districts near Ladoga Lake, Lake Ilmen and the Volkhov River. He proceeds to suppose that the Baptism of Russia took place not without the participation of Celts (the Irish), who may have built some churches and erected Celtic “standing crosses” in the mentioned areas, and even in Novgorod and Kiev (he puts forward the hypothesis that the first monastery in Kiev until the eleventh century was Irish!). Though we completely lack evidence to prove this, some contemporary historians speculate that individual Irish missionaries may have walked as far eastwards as Russia’s north. It is not impossible.
J. Le Goff has estimated that over the course of 200 years Ireland “exported” about 115 holy men to Germany (where St. Brendan was venerated in many monasteries), forty-five saints to France, forty-four to Britain, thirty-six to what is now Belgium, twenty-five to Scotland, and thirteen to Italy. Most of these saintly figures are legendary and became part of the countries’ folklore, which indicates what a deep trace Irish monasticism left in the mentality and feelings of the Western world.
Let us mention just a few saints who were disciples of St. Brendan. These were: St. Colman of Cloyne (c. 522–600; feast: November 24), who in his youth was a royal bard at Cashel, baptized by St. Brendan, and was later ordained and preached in the Limerick and Cork regions of Ireland, founding the cathedral of Cloyne (“meadow of the caves”) in c. 560 and becoming its first bishop (the medieval Anglican Cathedral in Cloyne, co. Cork, and the contemporary RC Cathedral in Cobh are dedicated to him); St. Finan of Kinitty (the sixth century; feast: April 7) was a disciple of St. Brendan and later founded Kinnitty Monastery in Offaly, of which he is the patron; St. Molonachus (the seventh c.; feast: June 25) was a disciple of St. Brendan and later served as Bishop of Lismore in Argyll in Scotland; St. Psalmodius (the seventh c.; feast: June 14) was a disciple of St. Brendan and later moved to what is now France where he lived as a hermit near Limoges.
St. Brendan the Navigator, after spiritual, church-building and pastoral labors that spanned more than half a century, reposed peacefully in Annaghdown and was buried at Clonfert Monastery, which he had ruled as abbot for many years. Later his relics were enshrined at Clonfert Cathedral where they may rest to this day, though the exact location is unknown. Beloved by everybody even during his lifetime, St. Brendan was deeply venerated after his death all over Ireland, Scotland, Wales, and Brittany. He is mentioned in all the major Irish martyrologies, and his veneration spread to parts of England, Iceland, and many regions of the continent. Seamen and travelers have always invoked the name of St. Brendan in their prayers. Countless churches and chapels in coastal settlements of Ireland and Scotland were dedicated to him, and some are still functional.
Numerous places, especially along the west coast of Ireland, bear the name of St. Brendan. Among them are Brendan Bay, Brendan Point, Brendan Well, Brendan Head, and Brendan Creek.
St. Brendan of Clonfert is also venerated as the principal saint of the Dingle Peninsula in county Kerry, which contains the westernmost point of Ireland and all Europe. Brandon Creek (a small bay) is situated precisely at Dingle Peninsula and according to tradition it was from this spot that St. Brendan set sail with his crew to the seven-year voyage across the Atlantic and reached America!
Just to the east of this creek is Mount Brandon—already the second (and more popular) mountain connected with our saint! It is named after him and is visited by Catholic and Orthodox pilgrims every August. It is the main holy place of Dingle Peninsula, which has been venerated since c. 800. It is situated close to the saint’s birthplace. The height of the mountain is over 3,100 feet, making it the eighth highest peak in the country. According to tradition, St. Brendan prayed on its summit for three days before departing for America and had a vision of angels there. Some local people believe that their beloved saint’s grave is on its summit. Indeed there survives an ancient stone structure barely the width of a coffin there. The mountain top is often covered with mist. The mountain is at the end of the ancient Christian pilgrimage route, “The Saints’ Road” (its final stage went from Ventry Harbor to the south), which is being revived in our days.
The quickest and easiest way to its summit is from the West via the final part of the medieval pilgrimage route, which begins eleven miles away. There are a couple of longer and more difficult alternative paths, though. There are small white crosses on the route and a large metal cross at the top. The contemporary pilgrimage walk passes two other significant holy sites of Dingle Peninsula on the way: the Gallarus Oratory (a fine, intact very early Christian stone chapel, used as a shelter for pilgrims or possibly for burials) and the Kilmalkedar monastic site (probably founded by St. Brendan: now a stone church, a chapel or cell, a cross, a holy well, an Ogham stone, a sundial etc. survive).The slopes and the top of the mountain offer brilliant views of the Paternoster Lakes and the surrounding area. There is the village of Brandon at the foot of the mount, which also bears the saint’s name.
In the village of Clonfert (the name means “the meadow of the grave”) in Galway, where St. Brendan established his most famous monastery and school, the Anglican cathedral is dedicated to him. The monastic community set up by St. Brendan existed till the sixteenth century, though it was pillaged by the Danes in 1016 and twice burned down in the twelfth century. The present little cathedral dates to about 1180, and its chancel and the beautiful East Window are slightly younger. It preserves a collection of ancient monuments and relics. One of the main landmarks is its 850-year-old elaborate Romanesque west doorway, decorated with numerous carved figures, heads of men and animals, and foliage; and there is also a famous fifteenth-century carving of a mermaid on the chancel arch, along with numerous figures of angels. Interestingly, almost the only surviving feature of the original monastery is a walk of yew trees by the cathedral, which may be over 1000 years old. A prominent place of learning, both the monastery and school of Clonfert were closed under Henry VIII. The current cathedral was heavily damaged again in 1641 and restored only over 100 years ago. Today this ancient holy site is visited by pilgrims, including Orthodox.
Our saint founded another important monastery in Ardfert (the name means “the hill of miracles”) in north Kerry. The monastery burned down in 1089, and after its reconstruction a new fire completely destroyed the monastic settlement in 1151. What dominates Ardfert in our days is a partly ruined twelfth-century replacement cathedral dedicated to St. Brendan. The roof of this edifice was destroyed in 1641 during the Irish Rebellion, but its south transept was extended and reroofed later in the same century. Although it is reportedly no longer used for worship, the cathedral has some chevron decorations, medieval stained-glass windows, lancets and effigies of Church figures. There are two historic churches (of the twelfth and the fifteenth centuries) near this cathedral, both survive though not completely. There is also a Roman Catholic Church dedicated to St. Brendan in Ardfert. A Catholic Franciscan friary used to exist in the town prior to the Reformation and it also had its own diocese from 1117 till 1660.
In village Annaghdown (the name means “the marsh of the fort”) in Galway, where St. Brendan founded another of his great monasteries on the land granted to him by a king, along with a convent for his sister Briga, there are well-preserved ruins of the ancient Catholic abbey and cathedral of St. Brendan. The early history of this holy place is obscure, but in the twelfth century it was a site of some great importance and had its own bishop’s see.
There is a statue dedicated to St. Brendan in a square in the town of Bantry in county Cork.
Finally, there is a 100-year-old Roman Catholic Cathedral dedicated to St. Brendan in the town of Loughrea in County Galway.
The holy places linked to St. Brendan are scattered all over Ireland and elsewhere. County Kerry alone has a host of ancient holy wells dedicated to him.
Such Scottish places as Kilbrandon (“the church of Brendan”) parish in Argyll and Bute, and Kilbrannan Sound, which separates the island of Arran from the Kintyre Peninsula, indicate this saint’s popularity and influence in Scotland. There is still St. Brendan’s medieval chapel in Skipness in Argyll and Bute. Another example is the old kirk (church) of St. Brendan in Birnie not far from Elgin in the Moray area. The present church was built in 1140 and served as the first cathedral of the Bishop of Moray for some forty years. It is one of the oldest Scotttish churches in continuous use. The Kirk has a chancel and a nave, both small. The circular shape of its ground indicates that the original structure was pre-Norman. According to Sister Elizabeth Rees, an ancient handbell of a Celtic monk is kept at the manse (the minister’s house) attached to this church. Keeping small private bells and sometimes leaving them on hermitage sites was a distinctive attribute of Celtic ascetics. The churchyard at Birnie also has unique Pictish carvings.
Kilbirnie (meaning “church of Brendan”) in North Ayrshire in Scotland also has an Old Kirk (Church) of the fifteenth century dedicated to our saint, though the original was pre-Norman. It has a chancel, a nave, a transept and two aisles, and there is a unique sundial in its graveyard. Such churches were often erected on the sites of Celtic hermits’ cells or in the memory of their labors in the area. The local village used to hold an annual St. Brendan’s Fair every May. Alas, such traditions were abandoned long ago in most ancient holy spots. However, in olden times St. Brendan was among the favorite saints in some regions of Scotland. For example, he was considered the patron of the Isle of Bute—an island off the southwest coast of Scotland in the Firth of Clyde. Formerly Bute people would call themselves “Brandans” because sailing and swimming was an integral part of their life, and they relied on St. Brendan’s miraculous help every day. We can only marvel at how many times St. Brendan saved people—swimmers, sailors, merchants, travelers, saints and ordinary people—from storms, shipwreck, drowning, and many other accidents in the water.
Apart from this, on Scottish soil St. Brendan has been the patron saint of some places on Islay (the southernmost island of the Inner Hebrides), in Inverness, Moray, the surroundings of Bannf in Aberdeenshire, and on Mull (a large island of the Inner Hebrides).
St. Brendan is also venerated on the Isle of Man. It is not impossible that he visited it or sent his disciples here to found communities. The very old parish of Braddan near Douglas (the main town of Man) bears his name. It has an old kirk (church) dedicated to St. Brendan. An important event connected to this place happened in 1291, when a bishop of Galway held a Church Synod here. One of the church’s gems is a carved Celtic wheel-headed cross slap with a carving that probably depicts the Prophet Daniel in the lion’s den, which is a very rare example. The New Kirk of Braddan was erected within the parish in the nineteenth century which is also in use.
In England, the parish church in the village of Brancepethin in County Durham is dedicated to “St. Brandon”, who is identified with our saint. The original church, most of which burned down in 1998, dated back to the twelfth century. Several years ago it was restored. There are churches dedicated to our saint in the southwest of Britain, as well. For example, the parish church in the village of Brendon in Devon close to the Somerset border is dedicated to him.
St. Brendan with a whale (from a fifteenth-century manuscript) St. Brendan the Navigator is usually depicted as a monk or a priest celebrating a service on a ship, while fish gather around to listen to him; with a whale (in one version of the “Navigatio” the monks found themselves on the back of a giant whale, and celebrated the Paschal Liturgy there without noticing where exactly they were); or in the same boat with fellow-monks. Thanks to St. Brendan’s extraordinary spiritual practice of praying unceasingly at sea while navigating for many miles on the open ocean in a humble vessel, covering great distances and putting all his hope in God’s mercy and protection, visiting and discovering many lands, in Russia the modern Russian priest and world-famous traveler Fr. Fyodor Konyukhov has been compared to him.
“Brendan” and similar forms of the name is still a popular baptismal name in Ireland and other countries with significant Irish communities, including among the Orthodox. An OCA missionary parish in Astoria, Oregon, is dedicated to St. Brendan.
Holy Father Brendan the Navigator, pray to God for us!