Saturday 16 May 2020

The Sailor Saint of Erin

May 16 is the feast of Saint Brendan of Clonfert. I have already reproduced a rather voluminous account of his life which can be accessed from the tab on the home page, but it is useful to have a shorter reminder of his illustrious career too. Below is one of the syndicated articles which appeared in the New Zealand press in 1923 and is a part of their Papers Past digitized collection. In it the author draws together many of the most famous episodes from the hagiography of Saint Brendan and reminds us that the account of his voyaging was something of a medieval blockbuster. The work Brendaniana mentioned in the article is also available online through the Internet Archive. Finally, I suspect that the 'Minniah of Loch Erue', listed in the opening paragraph as one of the Twelve Apostles of Ireland is a typo for Ninnian of Loch Erne.

The Sailor Saint of Erin

(By P. D. Murphy, in the Missionary.)

To the average Catholic St. Brendan is a shadowy, indeed, a mythical figure, who lived, if he lived at all, in a remote corner of Ireland hundreds and hundreds of years ago. But in his native land he is a very real personage, the patron saint of two important dioceses, and one of that group of zealous missionaries, known as the Twelve Apostles of Erin, the others being his namesake of Birr, Ciaran of Clonmacnoise, Ciaran of Saigher, Columba of Tir-da-Glass, Columba or Columbcille of lona, Mobhi of Glasnevin, Rodan of Lorrha, Senanus of Iniscarthy, Minniah of Loch Erue (sic), Lasserian, and St. Canice of Kilkenny. Brandon Hill in Kerry is called after him; so too, is Kilbrennan in Scotland. There was a church dedicated to him in Forfarshire, and in Teneriffe is a shrine which bears his name. He is mentioned in the Lives of the Saints, a copy of which reposes in the Burgundian Library in Brussels. A manuscript life of the saint is one of the most cherished possessions of the family of the Duke of Devonshire. There is a copy of Brendan's acts in the famous Book of Kilkenny, and there are various entries concerning him in the still more famous Book of Lismore. The Navigatio Brendani was in popular demand in the Middle Ages, and copies of it still preserved in European libraries are of almost priceless value. There is also a work entitled Brendaniana, compiled by a Kerry priest, which is full of interest to those who are interested in the lives of early pillars of the Church in Ireland.

Brendan, surnamed "the navigator," partly no doubt because of his passion for the sea, and partly to distinguish him from Brendan of Birr, who was known as "the prophet," was born in the last quarter of the fifth century in the County of Kerry, near where the town of Tralee now stands. Like many of the early Irish saints, he was of noble birth, being descended from Fergus Mac Roy, who was King of Ireland in the first century. His parents, Finnlugh and Cara, were devout people who lived under the religious rule of Bishop Erc, "the sweet-spoken brehon (i.e., lawgiver) of Patrick." According to tradition, shortly before the saint was born one Becc Mac De, a prophet, paid a visit to Airde, a wealthy man of the neighborhood, and on being asked, "What unknown event is soon to happen here?" he replied: "There will be born this night, between you and the sea, your true and worthy king, whom many kings and princes will devoutly honor, whom he will bear with him to heaven." Next morning Airde set out to find the new-born babe, and coming to the house of Finnlugh he was ushered into the child's presence. Airde at once knelt down and presented Brendan with thirty cows newly-calved and their thirty calves. It is also recorded that the night the child was born Bishop Erc saw a strange light, and many angels passing on their Avay to the house of Finnlugh, whereupon the learned Bishop visited the child, and, taking him in his arms, said: "O man of God, receive me thy faithful votary, and many will rejoice at thy birth, as my heart and soul now greatly rejoice thereat."

There is a well in the neighborhood where it is popularly believed the infant was baptised. This spring is known as Tubber-na-molt, or Wethers' Well, because, according to legend, three sheep arose from its waters during the ceremony.

When Brendan was a year old he was, in accordance with the custom of the time, put out to fosterage, his foster-mother being St. Ita, the Brigid of Munster. Fosterage, it may here be remarked, was a tribal custom which had existed in Ireland for centuries. It was not a system of baby-farming, but an institution recognised by law and adopted by rich and poor alike as a means of knitting the clan more closely together. The old Brehon Code clearly defined the duties of foster-parents, and penalties were imposed on all who failed to discharge these duties. Boys of the peasant class were instructed in farming and kindred pursuits, while their sisters were taught household management and plain needlework. The sons of parents more generously endowed with the world's goods were trained to the use of arms, and their daughters were initiated into the mysteries of domestic science and delicate embroidery.

Brendan spent five years with St. Ita, who "gave him exceeding love, for she saw the ministering of angels about him, and the grace of the Holy Ghost manifestly upon him."

Then along with his sister Briga, who later became a nun, he was placed under Bishop Erc for a further period of five years. At the end of that time, when Brendan had been instructed in the Old and New Testaments, he set out to study in the monasteries, which even at this early period were attracting students and ecclesiastics from the continent of Europe.

Having visited his first teacher, St. Ita, with whom he remained three days, he crossed the Shannon into Connacht, which at that time included all the land west of the river. Here he met a soldier named Mac Lenin, whom he converted, and who afterwards became known as St. Colman, patron of the diocese of Cloyne. Brendan spent some time under St. Jarlath at Tuam, and then journeyed. into Roscommon. On the way he is reputed to have raised a dead man to life, and the matter reaching the ears of the King the young student was summoned to the palace, where an offer of a tract of land was made to him. But Brendan declined the offer and continued his journey in the pursuit of knowledge. When at length he felt he had acquired all that he had set out to learn be returned to Bishop Erc, by whom he was shortly afterwards ordained.

"Thenceforth," says the manuscript life of the Saint, "the love of the Lord grew exceedingly in his heart, and he desired to leave his country and land, and parents and family, and he earnestly besought the Lord to grant him some place, secret and retired, far apart from men. While he slept that night be heard the voice of an angel from heaven saying to him: 'Arise, O Brendan, for God will grant to thee what thou hast prayed for —even the Land of Promise.' Brendan then retired to the mountain called Sliabh-Diadche, and there fixed his future abode."

From this quiet retreat he exercised spiritual jurisdiction over all that territory from Tralee in Kerry to the shores of Lough Corrib in Galway. His fame spread abroad and students from far and near came to study under him. He gave himself freely to the work, but solitude had an irresistible attraction for him. Throughout his life, whenever it was at all possible, he sought the secluded glen rather than the beaten highway, and there passed his time in prayer.

Some years later, when he was living at Ardfert, a visiting priest told him of a wonderful island out in the Atlantic to which Mernac, an Irish monk, had withdrawn for solitude. Brendan pondered over the story, and finally made up his mind to set out in search of the romantic isle. He took the members of his little community, 14 in number, into his confidence, and one and all agreed to accompany him on his voyage. In preparation for the journey they spent 40 days in fasting and prayer. Then when everything was ready they sailed for Aran to take leave of St. Enda, Brendan's faithful friend. Their boat, according to Brendaniana, had wicker sides and ribs, over which was fastened cowhide tanned in oak. St. Enda heartily approved the project and the party returned to Kerry, where they took on board provisions for 40 days and an adequate supply of cooking utensils. Then Brendan blessed the vessel, and all embarked in the name of the Blessed Trinity.

For 12 days and nights they pursued their course, and then a calm set in. The crew took to the oars and exerted themselves to the utmost. When nearly four weeks later their provisions had almost run out, and the members of the expedition were in the last stages of exhaustion, land was sighted away to the north. It proved to be an island, the character of whose coast was such as to chill the hearts of Brendan and his companions. It was rocky and precipitous, and for three days they sailed round it hoping to discover a landing place. When it became apparent there was none they headed the boat into a cove surrounded by high cliffs. Brendan blessed the place and managed to get the party ashore, where they were met by a dog which led them to a mansion "laid out with couches and seats and water for washing the feet." After they had eaten the repast which they found awaiting them, all except Brendan retired, and he, we are told, spent the night in prayer. Three days later they resumed . their hazardous undertaking, and after a short voyage landed on another island, where they celebrated the Easter festival. Again they put to sea and in due time reached what appeared to be a barren tract. Here they spent the night and next morning, after Mass, some members of the party set about preparing breakfast. All at once they were amazed to notice that their camping ground was moving. In great alarm they ran to Brendan and informed him of their discovery, but the Saint set their fears at rest when he told them it was not an island they were on, "but a fish, the largest of all that swim in. the ocean."

Pentecost found them on another island, which they called the Paradise of Birds. Then followed three months at sea, tossing about at the mercy of the wind, suffering much from exposure and hardship. They discovered many other islands, but were eventually driven back to the Paradise of Birds. Here one day, while Brendan was praying near his boat, a bird appeared and perched on the prow of the vessel. The little creature clapped his wings loudly and then delivered this message to the intrepid navigator:

"The Almighty and Merciful God has appointed for you four different places, at four different seasons of the year, until the seven years of your pilgrimage will be ended. On the festival of the Lord's Supper you will be each year with your procurator; the vigil and festival of Easter you will celebrate on the back of the great whale; with us here you will spend the Paschal Time until the Octave of Pentecost; and on the island of St. Ailbe you will remain from Christmas until the festival of the Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary. After those seven years, through many, and divers perils, you will find the Land of Promise of the Saints which you are seeking, and there you will abide for 40 days; then God will guide your return to the land of your birth."

And so it turned out to be. For seven long years Brendan and his companions sailed the seas in their frail craft, visiting many strange islands, and enduring great hardships. And at the end of that time they reached the Land of Promise of the Saints, which in the opinion of many competent scholars was none other than the great continent of America. They found the country rich and fertile, with great woods and many rivers. In the course of their wanderings they came one day to a river larger than any they had hitherto encountered, and while they lay on the bank a heavenly messenger appeared and confided to the Saint that his mission was at an end.

"This is the land you have sought after for so long a time," the messenger continued, "but you could ..not hitherto find it, because Christ Our Lord wished first to display to you His divers mysteries in this immense ocean. Return now to the land of your birth, bearing with you as much of those fruits as your boat can carry, for the days of your earthly pilgrimage must draw to a close when you may rest in peace among the saintly brethren. After many years this land will be made manifest to those who come after you, when the days of tribulation may come upon the people of Christ."

Without further ado, Brendan and his little company returned to their ship and set sail for Ireland, which they reached in due course. The Saint re-established himself in his little cell on the bleak side of Slaibh-Diadche to which he repaired after his ordination. Solitary though he was by nature, he soon realised that there was work for him to do in the conversion of those of his own countrymen who had not yet been brought into the Fold. For fifteen years he labored in Munster and Connacht, and then about the year 540 he extended his mission into Britain, where he was welcomed by Gildas, the distinguished ecclesiastic who was an alumnus of the great school at Armagh. He travelled widely in Britain, visiting Wales, Scotland, and the Orkney Islands. His mission in Scotland preceded that of Columbcille by some 20 years, and that he cherished an affection for that country is evident from St. Adamnan's life of the Apostle of Iona, wherein it is recorded that four great founders of monasteries came to visit the first and greatest of the Irish missionaries in his self-imposed exile. "These were," says Adamnan, "St. Comgall, founder of the great monastery and school of Bangor; St. Canice, founder of Aghaboe and Kilkenny; St. Cormac, a disciple of St. Columba; and St. Brendan of Clonfert, the greatest founder of monasteries of them all."

Altogether he spent ten years in. Britain, after which he returned to Ireland, where he built several churches and monasteries. But the outstanding event of his career was the great establishment he set up at Clonfert, which, according to the Annals of Innisfallen, he began on the very date of the battle of Cooldrooney, as the result of which Columbcille, the Dove of the Church, went into voluntary exile in Iona. At this time Brendan was verging on 80 years of age, but still full of mental and bodily vigor. He addressed himself to his new task with that enthusiasm which characterised all his labors. The monastery grew apace and even during the lifetime of its founder, was recognised as one of the great schools of Ireland. Some idea of the magnitude of Clonfert may be gathered from the fact that it housed no fewer than three thousand monks who instructed thousands of students, both native and foreign.

Brendan ruled over Clonfert for many years, and desired to be buried within its hallowed precincts. When he saw that his end was approaching he went down to his sister Brigda, at the convent of Annaghdown, and there some days later he passed away. At his own request his remains were conveyed back to Clonfert, and there they were interred in the presence of "a great multitude of holy men assembled from all quarters on the occasion."

The Sailor Saint of Erin,New Zealand Tablet, Volume L, Issue 4, 25 January 1923

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Matthew Conner said...

Dear Ms Marcella,

Your site has been a wonderful reference. Thank you.

If I could trouble you, is there an abbreviation for "Naomh".

Saint Malachy: St Malachy; Naomh Maelmhaedhoc Ó Morgair: ***** Maelmhaedhoc Ó Morgair

Happy Penetecost

Matthew Conner

Marcella said...

Hello Matthew, you can just say N. as an abbreviation for Naomh so N.Maelmhaedhoc.

Thanks for your kind words and support of the site.

Matthew Conner said...

Thank you.