Sunday 16 May 2021

An Odysseus of the Irish Church


May 16 is the feast of one of the most famous of the Irish saints, Brendan the Navigator. The account of his voyaging was one of the most popular works of the Middle Ages and survives in over one hundred and twenty manuscripts written in a variety of European languages. In the 1905 account below we see why the Navigatio Brendani appealed so powerfully to the medieval imagination. Here Saint Brendan is portrayed as 'an Odysseus of the Irish Church' who, like the Classical hero, visits a number of island locations and encounters all manner of strange natural phenomena and bizarre creatures. As a Christian hero, however, there are distinctly Christian themes to be found in the Brendan voyage - paradise and hell, Judas and of course the great fish which recalls the biblical story of Jonah and the whale: 

An Odysseus of the Irish Church

It must always remain a matter of surprise that the Brendan legend, with its picturesque details, has not taken a more definite place in English literature. For it has about it the same flavour of romance and daring adventure upon the high seas which lends so deep a fascination to the stories of Elizabeth's great captains. Wrapped in grey wings of mystery, the figure of the Saint broods amongst the ocean mists of the long past, where, seen momently through rifts, his stature seems more than that of mortal man, and his hardy deeds crowned with a charm of blessings. There are many versions of his wanderings, in part sprung from the germs of truth, in part, no doubt, overlaid by the imaginations of the monks, who, poring over Holy Writ and Homeric enterprise, clothed "melodious Brendan" with borrowed attributes, dreamed him into Ionian perils, failed his sails with adventurous winds, such as would bear him into the wonders of the world's morning. That the monastic mind dwelt upon his history and delighted in it seems to be proved, for there is an ancient French legend of his doings which runs to two thousand verses, and a German poem has seventeen hundred and fifty-two. Little can be given of the life of this strenuous Saint in a short contribution like the present, but those who feel inclined to learn more of him will find a good guide in the "Brendaniana" of the Rev. D. O'Donoghue (Dublin: Browne and Nolan).

St. Brendan was born in Altraighe, Tralee. He was of Royal lineage. Miracles attended his birth, before which event his mother dreamed that her bosom was full of gold and her breasts white like snow. She told her vision to Bishop Erc (the earliest Bishop of Kerry, the "sweet-spoken Brehon" of St. Patrick), and he answered her: "There shall be born of thee a child of power, who will be full of the grace of the Holy Ghost." When a year old the child was carried by Bishop Erc to his foster-mother, St. Ita. Of this time it is quaintly written: 

"Angels in the guise of fair virgins
Were fostering Brendan,
From one hand to another,
Without much hurt to the babe."

Over and over again Brendan's character —strong, impetuous, and passionate — led him to acts that issued in heavy penances. The first recorded of these savours of a very human boy. When about ten he went driving with the Bishop, who, going away to preach, left Brendan reading psalms in the carriage. "Then a young maiden, gentle, modest, of a princely family, drew nigh to the carriage: and she looked at him and saw his face was beautiful and bright." Taken with his beauty, she wished to play with him, and made "a sportive bound" into the carriage. Brendan resented her advances, and tried to drive her away with angry words. "Go away home," he cried, "and have illwill to whoever left you here!" Thereupon he seized the reins and lashed her soundly, until she ran away crying and complaining to the King and Queen, her father and mother. For this piece of boyish intolerance he was condemned to do penance by remaining alone in a cave. In his devotions he sings: 

"The sound of the voice of melodious Brendan
In the cave near Fenit,
A thousand paces on every hand,
His high fine voice was heard."

Perhaps this early solitude turned his heart to the love of remote and solitary places, where he recurrently secluded himself in later years. As he attained to manhood, we find him wandering, preaching, founding abbeys, travelling on foot, rowing over wild seas to outlying islands, fasting on Inishglora or another of his beloved "deserts of the sea," singing masses to the accompaniment of storm-music; and all the while we feel that the heart of the born rover, the pioneer, the wanderer, beat under his monk's habit of rough woven stuff. Finally, his stern eyes turned to the unsailed ocean of the West: he could no longer restrain himself from going forth upon those long voyagings whither his intrepid fancy had preceded him. Two reasons are given for his taking ship on this perilous quest — one, his desire to save souls; another, that he was driven to go as a punishment. For Brendan, having read a book — presumably of travels — very strange and incredible, waxed indignant at such extravagances, and threw the book into the fire, Therefore God, to punish him for his incredulity, commanded him to forsake his country and parents, and traverse the wide ocean for seven years, that he might see "with his own eyes those wonders, and greater than those wonders, he deemed so unworthy of his belief."

Thus began the wanderings of the Irish Odysseus, the earliest of all those brave spirits who fell under the spell of "the magic of the sea," whose longings drew them through innumerable hardships to tempt the flood that lips the setting sun. Brendan and his disciple made light vessels with wicker sides and ribs, covered with cowhide, much like the curraghs in use to this day upon the islands off the West Coast of Ireland ; and in these frail craft adventured out upon the vast of waters, knowing of no shore to steer for, no port of refuge within the breathless distances of the horizons: —

"Then," to quote from a translation of the Latin version, "Brendan, son of Finlugh, sailed over the loud-voiced waves of the rough-crested sea, and over the billows of the greenish tide, and over the abysses of the wonderful, relentless ocean, where they paw in the depths the red-mouthed monsters of the sea and many great whales. They were thus for the space of five years upon the ocean, so wonderful, so strange, and utterly unknown to them; and during all that time no man chanced to meet them, and not one of all the crews suffered any want, nor did any injury befall either body or soul of' any one. And this was a wonder indeed, for Brendan had not allowed them to bring any provisions with them, but he told them that God would provide food for them wherever they might be, just as He fed the five thousand with the five loaves and fishes."

It is obviously impossible to do more than touch upon the fringe of the web of miracles, incidents, and dangers that has woven itself round these voyagings. There is a chord in almost every heart that vibrates when the keynote of romance is struck. It is then small wonder that the deeds of Brendan, the greatly daring, the man of unquailing faith, should echo and re-echo, amplified and glorified, through the centuries. Early in their wanderings, he with his companions came, "by the purveyance of God," to a full, fair island, filled with green pasture, wherein were the whitest and greatest sheep that ever they saw, for every sheep was as great as an ox. "There they took comfort for a short time, and were told to sail again until they reached a place, like Paradise, where they should keep their Eastertide." This prophecy being fulfilled, they landed upon the island, "weening to" them they had been safe, and made thereon a fire for to dress their dinner, but St. Brendan abode still in the ship. And when the fire was right hot and the meat nigh soden, then this island began to move; whereon the monks were afraid, and fled anon to the ship, and left the fire and meat behind them, and marvelled sore at the moving. And St. Brendan comforted them, and said it was a great fish named Jasconye, which laboureth day and night to put his tail in his mouth, but for greatness he may not."

Thus they kept not only that Eastertide, but subsequent ones, on the back of the "whale," as the fish is elsewhere called, this miracle recurring every Easter for the keeping of tho feast. That familiarity taught its usual lesson to tho monks may be gathered from some words of the Saint uttered at a later date. They had come to a region where the sea was calm and pellucid, and through the clear water they could behold terrific sea-monsters gambolling far below in the depths. The brethren grew afraid at the sight, but Brendan reminded them of their safety on the back of the whale, where they not only lighted fires, but even cut off pieces of the creature's flesh, which they dressed and ate. Thereupon the Saint sang Mass in a loud and strong voice, and the charmed monsters swam up to hear and circled round the boat, but at a distance. The next discovery was the Island of Birds — "their number was so great and they sang so merrily that it was an heavenly noise to hear." Upon the prayer of the Saint to know what these birds meant one of them is permitted to speak: "Sometime we were angels in heaven, but when our master, Lucifer, fell down into hell we fell with him for our offences, some hither, some lower, after the quality of their trespass: and because our trespass was but little, therefore our Lord has set us here out of all pain ... to serve Him in the best manner that we can." Other islands they touched at, each having its own marvel. One was a home of demons where a monk landing was for some old sin snatched away and cried woefully that he could by no means return. Another is described as black and treeless, smoky and covered with smiths' forges. We may surely read in a volcanic island here, and an iceberg as the underlying fact of a mighty column of clear crystal reaching into the sky, with a canopy about it of gold and silver. On a certain Sabbath they descried upon a low rock a man so cruelly drenched and buffeted by the waves that Brendan cried out in pity of him. But the man answered that he was Judas, who by the mercy of God was allowed on Sabbath days and during the period of certain feasts of the Church to sit upon that rock as an assuagement of the pangs which he endured in hell. But the island St. Brendan called after his own name is perhaps the most interesting of all. It was mountainous and lapped by seas of changeless summer. In maps of the time of Columbus it is found two hundred leagues west of the Canaries. But none have ever landed on St. Brendan's Isle since his own day. It has been seen, so tradition has it, in serene and clear weather, a mirage upon the horizon, but it has ever remained unapproachable and unattainable. Those who ventured near its shores were driven by furious tempests far from it. An old Spanish chronicle graphically says of it, "which cannot be found when sought for.'' From time to time many expeditions were fitted out to search for it, one so late as in the year 1721.

Brendan passed in safety through his Odyssey of wanderings. He lived, alas! to lay his curse on Royal Tara. The old annals of Clonmacnoise tell the tale. The last King Diarmait had long been a friend of the Saint, but having seized a certain chieftain for the crime of slaying a Royal herald, he refused, in spite of the entreaties of St. Brendan and the Church, to give up his prisoner, who suffered the death-penalty. Whereupon Brendan prayed that "no King or Queen could or would ever dwell in Tara, that it should be waste for ever without Court or Palace, and so it fell out accordingly." Like the glories of Tara, the Saint and his voyagings are dipped within the haze of time; we catch but glimpses of the truth. It is better so, better that the accurate end of Brendan's long sea-pilgrimages be lost, for as in a picture which inspires us with yearnings to know all that lies just beyond the last touches of the artist's brush — what dream-country that, winding road leads to: how look the folk who tread the streets of that now-gone white-turreted city: what unimaginable happenings lie waiting for us could we but pass into the green gloom of that woodland— so it should be with these old-world voyagings. It is fitter we should never know the name of the ultimate beaches that welcomed the Saint's weary rovers from the sea.— 

Hesketh Prichard, in the Spectator. 


Permanent link to this item
Bibliographic details
Evening Post, Volume LXVI, Issue 70, 19 September 1903, Page 11 

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