The following account of the life of Saint Brendan first appeared as a series published in the Irish Ecclesiastical Record in 1872. There are four instalments in total and they reflect very well the sense of rediscovery of the Irish saints in the cultural revival of the nineteenth century. The scope encompasses much more than just the life of Saint Brendan for we meet a variety of other holy men and women, and the monastic rule attributed to Saint Ailbe is given in full in part III. I haven't attempted to reproduce the footnotes and have also omitted some material from part IV, but the original volume is available here.
NOTES ON THE LIFE OF ST. BRENDAN
I. St. Patrick's Blessing on Munster. Eulogy of St. Brendan. His Father. Birthplace. The Birth of St. Brendan foretold by St. Patrick and St. Bec-Mac-De. First gifts to St. Brendan. He is baptized by St. Erc. The year of St. Brendan's Birth. Meaning of his Name. The Baptismal gift. St. Brendan given in fosterage to St. Ita. The virtues of this great Patroness of Munster. Poem composed by her. St. Brendan for Five years under her care.
It is recorded in the life of our Apostle, St. Patrick, that, when preaching in the province of Munster, he bestowed a special blessing on its people:
" A blessing on the tribes of Munster,
On its men, its sons, its daughters;
A blessing on the land that gives them food,
A blessing on all the treasures
Produced upon its plains.
A blessing upon Munster,
A blessing on its woods,
And on its sloping plains ;
A blessing on its glens,
A blessing on its hills ;
As the sand of the sea under its ships,
So numerous be its homesteads ;
On its slopes, on its plains,
On its mountains, on its peaks, a blessing."
In no district of the southern province was this blessing more fruitful, and on none did the fertilizing dews of sanctity descend more copiously than on its western territory, extending from the Shannon to Bantry Bay, now known as the county of Kerry. Before the close of St. Patrick's apostolate, St. Brendan was born there, and so many were the holy men whom he guided in the paths of a religious life, so many were the other great saints who there emulated his virtues, and attained, like him, the heroism of sanctity, that that extensive district seemed transformed into another Thebaid, and its monasteries, its bee-hive cells, its oratories, its churches re-echoed, without ceasing, the hallowed anthems of the praises of God. We will meet hereafter some of the eulogies bestowed by our ancient writers on these sainted heroes of our early Church. For the present, it is more to our purpose to cite one passage, in which the author of the "Irish Life of St. Brendan" thus compendiates the many merits of this great Saint :
"Brendan was the chief of the faith and piety of the west of the world in his own time. He was like to Abraham in righteousness; a high prophetic psalm-singer, like David son of Jesse; an illustrious sage, like Solomon, son of David; a lawgiver, like Moses, son of Amra; a gifted translator, like Jerome; full of wisdom, like Augustine; a chief lecturer, like Origen; a virgin, like John of the bosom, the foster child of the Lord; a gospeller, like Matthew; a teacher, like Paul the high Apostle; the head of forgiveness, like Peter the Apostle; a hermit, like John the Baptist; a commentator, like Gregory of Rome; a prudent messenger of sea and land, like Noah, son of Lamech; and as Noah raised his ark over the swelling waters of the Deluge, so will the son of Findloga raise up his disciples and his people above the wrath of judgment, so that, through the power and pure piety of Brendan, no fire or smoke, or fog, or sparks, shall reach them."
All ancient authorities agree that St. Brendan was the son of Findlugh, who, through Ciar, son of Fergus, traced back his descent to Ir and Miledh, the great fathers of the Milesian race. Thus, in the Naomhseanchus:
"Brendan son of fair Findlugh,
And Mochuda pon of Findall,
A holy pair with penitential looks,
Of the race of Ciar, son of Fergus."
O'Clery, in his "Genealogies of the Saints of Ireland," gives in detail the parentage of our Saint, as follows :"Bishop Brendan, son of Fionnlugh, son of Olcon, son of Alta, son of Fogomain, son of Fithcuire, son of Delmna, son of Enna, son of Usralaig, son of Astamain, son of Ciar, son of Feargus, son of Rosa, son of Rudraighe."
Findlugh, the father of St. Brendan, is described to us as a virtuous and just man, who, living in peace and lawful wedlock, served God faithfully, with his wife, under the rule and guidance of Bishop Erc, and merited to have three other saints among his children, viz., St. Domaingen, Bishop of Tuaim-muscraighe, St. Faithleach of Cluain-tuaiscert, and St. Faolan, of Cill-tulach.
Some writers have supposed that St. Brendan was a native of Connaught; this opinion, however, is quite at variance with the ancient records of his life, and probably had its origin in the fact, that the great monastery of Clonfert was founded by him, and that he spent thErc the closing days of his saintly career. The Latin narrative expressly states that he was born " in the western district of Munster, called Ciarraighe," i.e., Kerry ; and the Irish life still more clearly defines the locality, telling us that " the precise place of his birth was Alltraighe Caille, situated in Ciarraighe Luachra."
That portion of Kerry which extends from the slopes of Sliebh-Lougher to the sea, was anciently known as Ciarraighe-Luachra, whilst Alltraighe-Caille was the name of the lesser district, now comprised between Ardfert, Fenit, and Tralee. Thus, the ancient records allow no room for doubt as to the birthplace of our Saint ; and, I may add, that popular tradition fully corroborates this testimony of authentic history.
The fertile and wooded plains of this western district, washed by the waves of the broad Atlantic, are rarely mentioned in the romantic tales of our pre-christian period : henceforward, however, they shall have a leading part in the joys and sorrows of Ireland, and be the theatre of some of the most remarkable events of her chequered history. During her ages of faith, they shall be enriched with the blessings of heaven, and witness many holy and happy scenes. In the succeeding era of foreign plunder and domestic dissensions, no territory shall be more sadly pillaged. In the three hundred years of our nation's martyrdom for Christ, no district shall give more martyrs to religion, or see its sons more joyfully go forth to shed their blood for the faith. The age in which we live is, for Ireland, a time of reconstruction ; everywhere we see the faithful busy restoring the sanctuary, and rebuilding the ark of God : and, once again, this district seems destined in the ways of Providence to take a leading part in the work of faith. The Vexilla Regis solemnly entoned in Tralee, whilst these lines are written, gives proof that the Cross of Christ is triumphant there: the old abbey re-consecrated to-day will once more gather together within its hallowed walls many children of Christ; and this festival of Holy Cross marks, we fondly hope, the re-opening of a cycle of holiness and happiness to shed its choicest blessings on this favored region.
But, to return to St. Brendan : his birth was the theme of prophecy. When our glorious Apostle St. Patrick visited the territory of Luachra, about the year 450, he foretold that "thirty years thence there should be born in that district of West Munster, a great Patriarch of Monks, the star of the West, St. Brendan, of the Hy-Alta family."
St. Bec-Mac-De, who is commemorated in the Martyrology of Donegal as "a celebrated prophet," and in the Irish Life of St. Brendan is styled "the chief Prophet of Erin," though as yet a young man, also prophesied the birth and future greatness of our Saint.
"Bec-Mac-De, the chief Prophet of Erin (thus we read in the Irish Life), at that time came to the house of a certain wealthy farmer, named Airde, son of Fidach, whose residence was a good distance from the house of Findlugh and Airde said to him, ' What great event do you now predict for us ?' Bec-Mac-De replied :' Your own legitimate and powerful prince shall be born this night, between this and the sea-shore, and many are the kings and royal chieftains whom he shall guide in the service of God, to the enjoyment of Heaven." Having registered this prophecy, the Irish Life continues :
"On this night of the birth of St. Brendan, thirty cows of Airde, son of Fidach, brought forth thirty calves. Airde rose at early dawn on the morrow, and hastened to seek the spot where the infant was born, and finding the house of Findlugh, he eagerly prostrated himself before the child, and made an offering of the thirty cows, with their calves : this was the first alms offered to St. Brendan, as is recorded by a poet in the following rann:
"Thirty cows, ever fruitful, I deny it not,
Were given by the son of Fidach to Brendan ;
These were the first gifts to Brendan, the powerful, of hosts,
From the Brugaid (i.e., the farmer) of the Ciaraigi;
and afterwards the Brugaid took the child in his arms and said : "This child shall be my foster-child for evermore."
The mother of St. Brendan, a little while before his birth, had a vision, in which it seemed to her that her own bosom was radiant with heavenly light, whilst her lap was filled with a quantity of the purest gold. Having mentioned this vision to the holy Bishop Erc, he said to her : "You shall bring forth a son, wonderful in his holy deeds, and full of the grace of the spirit of God."
St. Erc himself, on the night of St. Brendan's birth, was favored with another vision from God. I shall narrate it in the words of the Irish writer of St. Brendan's Life : "On the night of Brendan's birth, Bishop Erc saw the whole country around in a blaze, such as never had been witnessed before ; and the angels, arrayed in robes of white, descended in various ministrations upon that district. Early next morning, St. Erc arose and came to the house of Findlugh ; and taking the child in his arms, he said : ' O servant of God, take me unto thee as a faithful disciple, for, though numbers are joyful at thy birth, far greater is the joy which inundates my heart and soul.' After this, St. Erc prostrated himself before the child, and shedding tears in abundance in token of his joy, administered Baptism to him."
The ancient Latin Life, and the Annals of the Four Masters, whilst fixing with accuracy the death of St. Brendan on the 15th of May, 577, "in the ninety-fourth year of his age," enable us to assign his birth to the year 483, at which time our Apostle, St. Patrick, was still living. The Irish Life also expressly records that " it was in the time of Oengus, son of Nadfraic, king of Munster, that Brendan was born." This royal ruler of Munster embraced the faith at the preaching of St. Patrick, and when baptized at Cashel, about the year 450, merited a special blessing by his firmness; for our Apostle inadvertently pierced the king's foot with the lower end of his crozier, which was sharp and pointed; and Oengus, imagining that this was part of the ceremonial of baptism, endured the torture without the slightest expression of pain. He fell in the battle of Kill-Osnadha, which was fought in the year 490, and an old chronicler commemorated his death in the following verse:
"Died the branch, the spreading tree of gold,
Oengus, the praiseworthy, son of Nadfraech,
His prosperity was cut off by Illann,
In the battle of Cell-Osnadha, the foul."
It was St. Erc who administered the sacrament of baptism to our Saint, and that holy Bishop decreed that the child's name should be Brendan, thus to set forth the purity and sanctity of his future life. His parents, indeed, had already given him the name of Mobi, but posterity has confirmed, by its sanction, the name chosen by St. Erc. A fragment of an ancient poem preserved in the Egerton MS. thus alludes to the name given to Brendan by his parents :
"Mobi was the first name given to Brendan
By his parents : comely was his countenance :
He was a loved, researchful, slender youth,
He was a refuge to the men of Erin."
Many have indulged in fanciful speculations as to the meaning of the old Celtic name Brenand thus given to our Saint by the holy Bishop Erc. Only two explanations seem to us to merit attention one of these is given in the poem just referred to, when it adds :
"Brendan (i.e., Broen-find) was his second name,
Given to him because he was spotless
In body and in soul."
The other is recorded by Lynch in his MS. History of the Irish Sees: "The name Brendan was given to him, i.e., Braenfhionn, because on the day of his birth dew of heavenly whiteness descended on the whole country around the spot where he was born."
One further circumstance connected with St. Brendan's baptism is mentioned by the ancient biographers, and incidentally it serves to illustrate some of the baptismal usages of our early Church. The infant was brought to receive the waters of regeneration at one of those clear springs which our people still love to call ' the holy wells,' where the crystal stream, gushing forth from the living rock, so fitly typifies the abundant graces of the new life which come to us through Christ. Whilst, however, he received from St. Erc the sacrament of baptism, three sheep of a neighbouring flock came to drink at the stream, and these were presented to the holy Bishop as a baptismal offering by the kinsmen of St. Brendan :
"Three coloured wedders a joyous flock,
The price of Brendan's baptism: 'tis not a falsehood;
Beautiful was the gift,
They came forth from the well together."
St. Brendan was allowed to remain with his parents only during the first year of his childhood, after which time he was consigned by St. Erc to the care and fosterage of St. Ita, "the Brigid of Munster."
Ireland is indebted to the lessons of heavenly wisdom imparted by this great virgin Patroness of Munster for several of the most illustrious saints who, in the sixth century, adorned our Church by their miracles and virtues. In all our Martyrologies she is commemorated as a model of perfection in her humility, mortification, and self-denial, as well as in her love for Jesus Christ. Deirdre was the name given to her by her parents ; but such was her insatiable thirst for the love of her Creator, that the name Ita became universally accepted as her distinctive designation among the saints of Ireland. St. Ita is thus commemorated in the Felire of St. Oengus, the most venerable Tract on our early Saints that has come down to us:
"She underwent a long course of fearful suffering,
She loved the three-days' wasting fast,
The radiant sun of Munster's daughters,
Ita of Cluain-Credhail ;"
and the gloss adds that "she was of the Desii, and a disciple of Benedict," one of the first companions of Palladius, and, subsequently, fellow-labourer of St. Patrick in the work of the Gospel, whose memory was long cherished at Inisbeg, in the diocese of Ferns. As regards her penitential life, the Felire commemorates that " there was a chafer constantly gnawing her, till, at length, it became as large as a young lap-dog, and it eat away her whole side ; yet no one perceived her suffering. On one occasion the chafer came forth from its den, and Ita, happening to leave the spot, some of the nuns saw the worm, and killed it. Ita, soon returning, asked: 'Where has my pet gone to ?' The nuns replied : ' Shut not heaven against us ; we saw the worm, and knowing not that it was not hurtful, we killed it.' Ita then foretold, that in punishment no nun should be her comharb in that monastery, and she prayed God to send his divine Son to comfort her."
The narrative then continues: "The Angel that was wont to minister to her (i.e., her guardian angel), announced to her :' What thou hast asked shall be given to thee.' Whereupon Christ came to her in the form of an infant, and she composed the poem:-
' Little Jesus, little Jesus,
Shall be nursed by me in my dear Disert :
Though a cleric may have many jewels,
All is deceit but little Jesus.
' A nursling I nurse in my house,
It is not the nursling of a low-born clown,
It is Jesus with His heavenly host,
That I press to my heart each night.
' The fair Jesus, my good life,
Demands my care, and resents neglect ;
The King who is Lord of all,
To pray him not, we shall be sorry.
It is Jesus, the noble, the angelical,
Not at all a tear-worn cleric,
That is nursed by me in my dear Disert,
Jesus the son of the Hebrew maiden.
' The sons of chiefs, the sons of kings,
Into my district though they may come,
It is not from them that I expect wealth,
More hopeful for me is my little Jesus.
' Make ye peace, O daughters,
With him to whom your fair tributes are due,
He rules in His mansion above us,
Though he be little Jesus in my lap.'
I have cited this long passage from the Felire of St. Oengus, that the reader may fully appreciate the happy guardianship to which our Saint was entrusted, St. Cuimin, of Connor, in his poem on the characteristic virtues of the Saints of Erin, also commemorates St. Ita :
"Midhe loved great nursing,
Great humility without ambition ;
Her head on the pillow she never laid,
Through love of the Lord."
The Martyrology of Donegal, on her festival (15th January,) also says of her:
"Ite, Virgin, of Cluain-Creadhail. Mide was another name for her. She suffered great martyrdom for God: a worm was gnawing her, unknown to all for a long time, until it was as large as a sucking-pig, so that it withered all her side .... A.D. 569 was the year of her repose. Deirdre was her first name. She was of the race of Fiacha Suighdhe, son of Feidhlimidh Reachtmhar, son of Tuathal Teachtmhar. Neacht was her mother's name."
For five years Brendan remained under the care of St. Ita ; and, it is added in his Life, that this holy virgin watched over him with special care, " because she saw the Angels ministering unto him, and because the grace of the Holy Spirit was abundantly showered down on him." St. Brendan, on the other hand, always manifested special delight at the presence of Ita, and being asked one day why he was thus joyful, he replied that each time she approached he saw her accompanied by a choir of virgins of heavenly brightness, who lavished every kindness on him. It is added : "They were angels in the form of fair virgins that were there, as the poem tells us :
"Angels in the form of virgins bright
were the nurses of Brendan :
From one to another
They fondled the child with joyous love."
II. St. Brendan at the School of St. Erc. Many Saints of the name of Erc. St. Erc, of Slane, the tutor of Brendan. Sketch of his life. St. Brigid and the Disciple of St. Erc. St. Brendan and the wild deer of Sliabh Luachra. His affection for his sister. Angelic visions. Penance imposed on St. Brendan. Miracle performed by him. St. Brendan studies the Rules of the Saints of Erin. Words of St. Ita. St. Brendan and St. Jarlathe of Tuam. Poem composed by them.
From the fostering care of St. Ita, Brendan passed to the school of St. Erc. He was not, however, at once admitted among the disciples of that holy bishop their duties were too arduous for his tender years; but he at once entered on a course of preparation for that higher state of perfection, and for five years ' read the Psalms with fervour,' being at the same time diligently trained to walk in the paths of piety and learning.
It was thus that, in the early ages of Christianity, the duty of training up youthful aspirants to the sanctuary devolved on the bishops themselves. St. Augustine, in Hippo, instructed his own clergy, and so, too, did St. Ambrose in Milan, and many similar instances are registered in the lives of the sainted bishops of our island.
The life of St. Brendan affords us no clue for determining which of the holy bishops who bore the name of Erc was thus privileged to train the youthful mind of our Saint. "The Martyrology of Donegal" has four entries referring to saints of the name of Erc. Thus, at 17th September, it commemorates "Erc, bishop of Domhnach-mor Maighe-Damhairne :" again, at October 2nd, it has the simple entry, " Erc bishop :" at October 27, "Erc, bishop of Domhnachmor Maighe-Luadhat, in the north of Ui-Faelain. This may be Erc, bishop, son of Fergna, son of Folachta, who is of the race of Bresal Breac, from whom the O'Sraighi are descended :" in fine, at November 2nd, " Erc of Slane, bishop of Lilcach and of Fertaferfeig, at the side of Sidh-Truim, to the west. The age of Christ, when he went to heaven, was 512."
The Martyrology of Tallaght also commemorates each of these festivals, with the sole difference, that at the 17th of September, instead of Erc, bishop of Domhnachmor Maighe-Damhairne" it reads, "Erc, bishop, from Domhnach-mor Maighe-Coba."
It is possible, indeed, that more than one of these festivals may refer to the same saint Erc, for sometimes the same saint was honoured on different days in various churches of our island. However, St Oengus removes all doubt on this head, for he expressly states, in his curious Tract on the Episcopal Saints of Ireland, that there were five saints of the name of Erc, who adorned our island by their sanctity. The same great hagiologist, in his Felire, which commemorates only the most remarkable among our saints, makes mention of two distinct saints of that name. Thus, on the 2/th of October,"St. Erc of Domhnach-mor-Mainech," where the gloss adds : "i.e., in Magh-Luadath, in the north of Uibh-Faelan." Again, on the 2nd of November, the feast of St. Erc of Slane, we have the following sweet strophe:
" The chief Apostle of our land
Patrick, the illustrious Pillar,
Bestowed a gifted Blessing
Upon Bishop Erc of Slane."
Colgan, more than once, refers to this last-named St. Erc, of Slane, as the tutor of St. Brendan, and Lanigan has adopted the same opinion. This is further confirmed by the fact, that St. Erc of Slane was united by close family ties with the south-western districts of our island.
St Erc of Slane, "the sweet-spoken Judge," as he is styled by our annalists, was one of the royal household of Leoghaire, and was present when that monarch summoned our apostle St. Patrick to give an account of his mysterious preaching. It was on this occasion enjoined on all the courtiers to show no sign of respect to the stranger. Erc alone disobeyed the order. He arose from his seat when St. Patrick entered, and, reverently saluting him, received his benediction in return. The blessings of Faith accompanied the benediction of our apostle, and St. Erc was soon reckoned among the most illustrious of his disciples.
The monastery of Slane was, in after years, founded by St. Erc, and under his wise rule became famed throughout our island as an abode of sanctity and learning. His labours, however, were not confined to that district. Thus, we meet with him at the Synod of Magh-Femyn, in Tipperary, where he recounted the praises of St. Brigid, and the miraculous powers with which she was enriched by the Almighty. His name is also mentioned among those who assisted at the consecration of St. Conleth of Kildare. Towards the close of his life he erected a small hermitage on the banks of the Boyne, where, in the deepest solitude, he, by prayer and penitential deeds, prepared himself for eternity. This hermitage of St. Erc is still, to be seen on the northern bank of the Boyne, and a more romantic or enchanting spot can scarcely be imagined. "The old walls, clothed in ivy, are situated at the foot of a swell of ground which gradually rises until it reaches the hill of Slane, and are almost washed by the blue waters of the Boyne, which sweep by the southern basement. A rich grassy plain stretches along the south of the river, and the horizon is bounded on the one side by the castle of Slane, on the other by the gray walls of Fennor church, and by the green hills and woods which rise in the distance. Near the hermitage is a large sculptured stone, having figures of the crucifixion and the twelve apostles. It is difficult to conjecture now what may have been its peculiar use, but it is held in great respect ; for, pilgrims after performing their stations at our Lady's Well, which is near, usually repeat the Pater Noster, Ave Maria, and Credo, twelve times around the stone." The monumental stone, here referred to, probably marks the spot where St. Erc's remains were at first deposited. They were, after a little while, translated to Slane, and Probus, in his " Life of St. Patrick," writes that in his day they were held there in the greatest veneration: "Hercus, filius Dago, cujus reliquiae nunc venerantur in civitate quae vocatur Slane."
The Four Masters record the death of St. Erc on the 12th of November, in the year 512, and add:" This Erc was judge to St. Patrick." It was in his praise that Patrick composed this quatrain :
Everything he judged was just ;
Every one that judges justly
Shall have the blessing of Bishop Erc."
The Martyrology of Donegal, at 2nd of November, styles St. Erc " the Brehon of St. Patrick": the curious tract of St.Oengus, "On the Saints of Similar Life," published in the IRISH ECCLESIASTICAL RECORD for last June, page 405, states : "In his habits and life St. Erc of Slane was like unto St. Martin of Tours."
The connection already referred to of St. Erc of Slane with the great patroness of Ireland, St. Brigid, serves to identify him with the Bishop Erc who is mentioned in the following passage of the Irish Life of St. Brigid; and, perhaps, we may be permitted to conjecture that the disciple of St. Erc introduced there was one of the companions of the youthful St. Brendan: "A certain time Brigid and Bishop Erc were in Leinster: Brigid said to Bishop Erc, 'a war has broken out among your people, and they are at this moment engaged in deadly strife.' A clerical student, disciple of Bishop Erc, said :' this cannot be true.' But Brigid blessed the eyes of the student, and he then exclaimed: 'behold, my brothers are even now being slain :' and he did great penance for his incredulity."
Only a few facts have been handed down to us connected with the life of St. Brendan whilst in the school of the holy bishop, St. Erc. We will mention them as they are narrated in the ancient records of his life. On one occasion, whilst the tutor and his disciple were at the foot of Sliabh Luachra,Brendan asked for a little milk, but the holy bishop " had no milch cow, for he always refused to accept any gifts, except some trifling offerings from religious people." He could not, therefore, satisfy the desire of Brendan. He said, however : "God is able to give milk to thee, my child," and as he spoke a wild deer, with her fawn, coming down from the mountain, stopped to be milked for Brendan : "thenceforward, each day, the wild deer hastened to that spot, and when milked, again returned to the mountain."
Among those who were companions of Brendan under the care of St. Erc, is especially mentioned his own sister, St. Briga, who, like her brother, soon attained great eminence in sanctity, and we will hereafter meet with her presiding over the great monastery of nuns at Enachduin. The ancient writer adds, that "great was the affection of Brendan for St. Briga ; for he saw, in a vision, the angels ministering unto her ; and whilst the face of his tutor seemed bright as the radiance of the summer sun, her countenance shone with the mild effulgence of the moon."
Some reader, imbued with rationalistic ideas, may smile, perhaps, at the frequent mention that is made of the vision of angels accorded to our early saints. And yet there is nothing in such visions not fully conformable to true Christian philosophy.
Physical science teaches us that there are waves of material light so small that the human eye is insensible to them, and that myriads of organized beings may exist imperceptible to our vision, though we are in the midst of them. Even so, angels may be present in the midst of us without our knowing it, and the air around us may be musical with the melody of heavenly voices, though our human faculties are too material to apprehend it. It was thus that the Prophet's servant could not see the angelic hosts which guarded his master until his eyes were supernaturally opened ; and we do not read that the vision vouchsafed to St. Stephen, at the time of his martyrdom, was visible to his persecutors. So, too, as St. Chrysostom writes :"each time the holy Sacrifice of the Mass is offered up, the choirs of angels chaunt their heavenly anthems and prostrate themselves in adoring love around our altars." Yes, thanks to the " Communion of Saints," mercifully granted to us by Providence, the angels are no strangers to their brethren of the Church militant ; we know that they are present to us, and when it pleases God, He can purify the earthly grossness of our faculties which hides them from our view.
When Brendan had attained his tenth year he was permitted to accompany St. Erc when the holy bishop journeyed from district to district to break the bread of life to those entrusted to his care. On one occasion, whilst St. Erc was engaged in preaching, Brendan remained in his chariot chanting the psalms alone. A fair-haired child, daughter of royal parents, happened to pass by, and attracted by his chant and the sweetness of his countenance, stopped to play with him. Brendan, however, would not permit her to enter the chariot, and when she persisted in doing so, he took the whip and gave her several strokes with it. Crying, she ran to her parents, who complained to St. Erc of the conduct of his pupil. St. Erc, when reprimanding him, said :"Why didst thou thus strike this pious child, whose heart is free from every guile?" Brendan replied: "Indeed, it was not through anger that I drove her away from the chariot, but merely to free myself from being distracted whilst engaged in sacred reading." He added, however, a request that St. Erc would impose a penance on him commensurate to the fault he had committed. St. Erc enjoined on him to pass the coming night in prayer, in a neighbouring cave, which the holy bishop himself frequently chose as a place of silent retreat. Brendan joyously hastened to the cave, and till the following morning remained there absorbed in contemplation or chanting psalms and sacred hymns. St. Erc, who had imposed this penance only as a trial of obedience, himself kept vigil at the entrance of the cave, and throughout the night he saw the glory of heaven descending upon the cave, and choirs of angels repeating those psalms and canticles before the throne of God.
Another time, whilst the holy bishop and his pupil were journeying on, a poor fugitive, who was pursued by a band of enemies, joined them, hoping to find protection in their company when the pursuers were at hand. The youthful Brendan told his doomed companion to fly to a rock which stood close by, and at the same time raising his hands in prayer, blessed both the rock and the fugitive. When the pursuers approached, the rock appeared to them as the man they sought, whilst the fugitive appeared to them as the rock. They at once rushed on their victim and bore away his head as a trophy of their vengeance. When they had gone away a good distance, St. Erc said to them : " O wretched men ! see how God has played with your sinfulness: you listened not to the voice of His servants, but He has blinded you in your wickedness, and it is a mere lump of stone you have carried off as a trophy of your folly." At these words the eyes of the wicked men were opened, and recognising the miracle which had been wrought, fifty of that band entered on a life of penance, and devoted themselves to the service of God under the rule of St. Erc.
The "Irish Life" next tells us, that " when Brendan had read the Canons of the Old and New Testament, he was filled with a holy desire to learn the rules of the great saints of Erin : and bishop Erc, recognising the inspiration of God in this desire, permitted him to go visit the saints of Ireland and to learn their rules ; and he said to his disciple : ' When you have learned these rules of holiness, return to me again that you may receive your grade (i.e., ordination) at my hands.'"
The first visit of Brendan was to his own foster-mother, St. Ita. She, too, commended his pious purpose, but added the admonition : "Be careful that your visits to the virgins of Christ be not too frequent, lest your good name be lost, and the honour of God be blasphemed by men."
The only one of the great founders of religious rules mentioned in the ancient records as at this time visited by St. Brendan, is the patron of Tuam, St. Jarlathe. The " Irish Life" thus writes : " Brendan went into Connaught, for he had heard of a certain pious man who was there, named Jarlathe, son of Loga, son of Tren, son of Fiach, son of lomchadha, son of Breasal, son of Fiacha Finn and Brendan learned with him all the rules of the saints of Erin."
St. Jarlathe had been trained to piety by St. Benen, disciple of St. Patrick, and hence no happier choice could have been made by Brendan of a master in the rules of perfection. The great monastery at Cluain-fos, i.e., "the plain of retreat," was as yet the most celebrated in Connaught : and here I may be permitted to remark, that throughout these pages the word "monastery" is to be understood, according to the usage of our early Irish writers, not in its strict modern acceptance, but rather as corresponding for the most part with the collegiate institutions of the present day. The sanctity and penitential deeds of St. Jarlathe are commended by all our ancient chroniclers. St. Cuimin, of Connor, thus commemorates him:
"Jarlathe the illustrious loved
A cleric he who practised not niggardliness
Three hundred genuflexions each night,
Three hundred genuflexions each day."
It was at Cluainfos that Brendan became the disciple of St. Jarlathe, and before taking his departure thence he said to his holy master : "It is not here your resurrection shall be." Then Jarlathe said (thus runs the "Irish Life"): "O fervent youth, why dost thou seek to conceal the divine grace of the Holy Ghost, and the wondrous power of God, abiding in thy undefiled soul. Thou hast come to me to be my disciple : henceforward I will be thy disciple for evermore." Brendan said : " You shall have a chariot made, and when you make a journey in it, where its shafts shall break there shall be the place of your resurrection, and the resurrection of countless souls to a blessed life." This was verified in after times: for having entered his chariot, its shafts broke at a short distance at a place called Tuaim-da-Ualann (the modern town of Tuam). It was on the above occasion that they both composed the following poem whilst viewing at a little distance the Reilig (i.e., the church and cemetery) and the ministrations of the angels around it. The first five quatrains were composed by Brendan, the remainder was spoken by St. Jarlathe:
"The high church of Reilig-na-n-Aingel,
Bright is its splendour before my eyes ;
Hell's torments shall not be endured
By those who are interred in its clay.
" It was the Archangel who marked it around with crosses,
And consecrated the green little sod:
It is not the abode of the hideous demon
That shall be made known to us therein."
It shall be a noble church: numerous its congregations,
There great synods will be held,
It will be a refuge for the great and the poor ;
It will be a place for subduing sins.
" Should your faithful forsake your church,
Their time will be a time of tribulation;
Evil customs will prevail in it ;
It shall be changed from Paradise to hell.
" When in future time your brethren shall come
Summoned to the judgment seat,
It is you that will pronounce their sentence :
They shall be subject to your will."
Then St. Jarlathe added as follows:
"As long as they live obedient to me,
And while the cross remains,
They will banish the enemies afar;
They will shine like the sun.
"As long as they live in obedience to me,
I speak the truth, it is no falsehood,
Their sons shall survive them ;
They will not suffer pain in the world to come.
" Happy he who takes the cross
On the hill of the rich yews:
He will not be hell-doomed after judgment,
Whosoever shall be buried in its clay.
"Be not vengeful, O Mac Duach!
I will give you its full price,
Heaven and abundance without loss,
And my cuile without end.
"The gift of heroes, the gift of clerics,
So long as they are obedient to me,
No man shall beard their hostages ;
They will overcome every assailant."
III. St. Brendan visits the chief Fathers of Monastic Life in Ireland. He restores a dead youth to life in Magh-Aoi. His religious Rule dictated by an Angel at Moyenna. The Rule of St. Ailbhe: its importance: where preserved: its complete text. St. Brendan is promoted to the Priesthood.
BRENDAN, having taken his leave of St. Jarlathe, proceeded towards the north to visit some of the other great Fathers of a spiritual life who then adorned our Church by their learning and sanctity. As he passed through the Magh-Aoi, a vast plain lying between Roscommon and Elphin, he met an afflicted family, who, in tears and mourning, were carrying a deceased friend to the grave. Moved to compassion at their sorrow, he sought to comfort them, and said : "Place your confidence in God, for it is in His power to restore the dead youth to life;" and then St. Brendan prayed with them for a long time, till the deceased rose up, and returned home with his friends in great joy.The fame of this miracle soon spread far and wide. Brendan was conducted to the chieftain of that territory, who offered him a Ferand, i.e., a tract of land on which to erect a monastery, wheresoever he might choose to reside: but the saint replied that he would not presume to erect a religious house without the permission of his own spiritual Father St. Erc. Wherefore, bidding farewell to the chieftain and people of Elphin, he hastened back towards his own monastery.
At Magh-Enna, which name still marks a spot near Turlough, in the county Mayo, an angel appeared to him, and, as we read in the " Irish Life," said to him : " Write the words of eternal life which I shall dictate to thee :" and Brendan, at the angel's dictation, wrote the whole of the Ecclesiastical Rule, which was afterwards followed in his religious houses, and led innumerable souls to heaven. It was on account of this Religious Rule that St. Brendan was reckoned among the eight great Patriarchs of the monastic life in our early Church. No fragments of this "Rule of the Angel" have been preserved to us : and yet, when the writer of the Latin Life of St. Brendan compiled his work, it was still extant: "According to that Rule," he says, "St. Brendan shaped his life, and it is still preserved by the successors of the Saint." The "Irish Life" also attests that " St. Brendan wrote from the angel the whole of the Blessed Ecclesiastical Rule, and that Rule is still extant." The only monastic Rule that has come down to us from those immediate disciples of our apostle St Patrick, who at this early period of St. Brendan's life were the Fathers and guides of religious observances in our island, is the Rule of St. Ailbhe. It is addressed to Eoghan, son of Saran, abbot of Cluain-Caolain, in the county Tipperary, and is written in the earliest Celtic dialect, so that even the great scholars who compiled the " Annals of the Four Masters" and the "Martyrology of Donegal," deemed it a difficult task to interpret it. Thus, when mentioning St. Eoghan, who is venerated on the 15th of March, the "Martyrology of Donegal" writes: "I think this is Eoghan, son of Saran, of Cluain-Caolain, for whom Ailbhe, of Emily, composed the very hard Rule, which begins: 'Say for me to the son of Saran.' "
This Rule, though also referred to by Colgan, Usher, Ware, and Lynch, has never been published. We insert here in full a literal translation of it, as well on account of its venerable antiquity, which brings us back to the first century of the Faith in this island, as for the invaluable details which it presents regarding the daily exercises and duties of the monks at the time of St. Brendan. It is not too much to say that in this respect it is the most precious document that has been handed down to us by our fathers. It tells us the principles which guided the monks in their practices of religious perfection; it sets before us the daily routine of the community life; it mentions the various superiors, their special duties, the virtues to be practised, the faults to be shunned ; it descends to the minutest details connected with the religious, and gives even the quantity and quality of the food to be used at their frugal repasts. This ancient Rule consists of sixty-nine strophes, and the Royal Library, Brussels, preserves a very old and complete copy. Another ancient, but imperfect copy, may be seen in the R.I.A.(MSS. 23, p.3.): it begins with the third line of the 29th strophe. A third copy, also incomplete, is preserved in the Library of T.C.D. I was fortunate enough to discover, among the Colgan fragments in Rome, a Latin translation of the Rule made by that greatest of our hagiologists. It is in his own handwriting, and consists of 69 strophes, precisely as in the Brussels MS. Unhappily, however, the greater part of the writing is effaced by long exposure to damp and dust. I am indebted to our distinguished Celtic scholar, W. M. Hennessy, Esq., for a translation of the Rule, as preserved in T.C.D., and the R.I. Academy, which has enabled me to complete Colgan's text. Some verses wanting in these MSS. have been supplied from the O'Curry MSS. of the Catholic University through the kindness of Mr. O'Looney. The following is the complete text of this venerable Rule :
"The Rule of Ailbhe of Emily, instructing Eoghan, son of Saran :
"Say for me to the son of Saran,
That the charge he assumes is not light :
He should be zealous, pure of conscience,
Without assumption of pride, without vanity.
"Let him labour in silence:
Let the words he shall speak be few ;
Let him perform the desire of each infirm one,
And help every one that is in sickness.
"He should be sedate, without the fault of dullness :
He should be prompt to everything good :
He should be the servant of all,
And heal the wounds of every soul.
" Without haughtiness, without double-dealing, .
Let him be joyous without laughter, without shouting,
Without self-sufficiency, without arrogance ;
Let him shun pride and idleness.
"Without complaints, without grumbling at others'
Let him not go without shoes :
Let his mantle be without ruby-dye,
Without blue, without red, without variety.
"Without deceit, without cheating of others :
Without going unasked to an assembly,
Without revenge for injury in the heart,
Without dislike for those who love him not.
"Let him be sedate without haughtiness,
Let him be a wise, devout sage,
Vigilant against anger :
Austere, humble, gentle.
"He should be mild, reserved, active ;
He should be modest, generous, bountiful ;
Against the darts of the world he should be watchful ;
With the world's bounty he should be generous.
"Though you possess the insipid world,
Give not love to its treasures :
For tribe-possessions be not importunate ;
My entire love is not a royal treasure-house.
" The path of Baptism and Communion,
And the precept of Requiems he shall observe:
A holy Confession to another he shall give ;
He shall be silent as to the things disclosed to him.
"Mourn with each man his sins ;
Should he err, give him aiding counsel :
Do not leave the poor without visitation,
Without the value of their love in all things.
"Without insult, without offence,
Without severe reproof,
Without converse with a passionate man,
Without a loud, high voice.
"Let not Satan take thee to his ways
Be submissive to every one who is over you :
It is this that is evil to Satan,
That you be smooth against everything rough.
"Always let your offerings be greater
To him that has affronted you ;
With food and gifts
To every one that refused you.
"With friendliness, devoid of harshness,
Without contention, without lust,
Humble, patient, gentle,
Without weakness, shall his countenance be.
" He should be active at praying ;
The Canonical Hours he should not neglect ;
In mind he must submit thereto,
Without vanity, without boasting.
" A hundred genuflections at the Beatus
In the beginning of the day before questions ;
Thrice fifty psalms with their prefaces,
A hundred genuflections every evening.
"A hundred genuflections every Matins
Are required, in a devout church,
If you celebrate from John's festival
To the heavy-fasting Easter.
"With diligence at prayers and Mass,
With devotion and great reverence,
Thirty Psalms every "Matins,"
Twelve Psalms at midnight.
"Lections and celebrations,
With invocation of the Son of God ;
'Deus in adjutorium' at the beginning of each Psalm,
With a lesson at the end.
"Be silent and recollected,
That your prayers may be fruitful :
Give thanks and ask the blessing in the beginning,
After that the Miserere is sung.
"The perfect observance of the Canonical hours
Is reckoned the chief rule ;
Correct "Matins," according to the Divines,
Is at the close and the beginning of day.
"Except you be a Ruler (i.e., Abbot) or Vice-Abbot
Till the hour of one you speak not ;
Afterwards, for those who perform penance,
Each one in his silence shall be silent.
"The Hymnum Dicat should be sung,
At striking the bell for Canonical Hours ;
All wash their hands carefully,
The brethren assume their habit.
"Prostrate yourselves thrice earnestly,
After journeying nobly to the chancel,
Without pride, and without anger,
Coming to meet the King of Angels.
"With fighill and prayers,
With frequent confessions,
Obeying the rules of the gospel,
And the chaste rule of the monks.
"A prostration at the door of a church
Is permitted in a devout place ;
Prayers and blessings
Whilst the brethren assemble.
"After 'the head monk, all proceed
To the cross with melodious choir,
With fast-flowing streams of tears
From humble emaciated cheeks.
"It is not permitted to the brethren to depart
Until the hour of Tierce ;
On the conscience of each one, let it be,
That he await in his place, with strength.
" The striking of the little bell should be long,
That all may be about it;
A ready step with joyfulness,
With profound humility.
" The noble God is their Father,
Holy Church is their Mother :
It is not humility
To serve your brethren in mere words.
"When all come to receive their tasks,
If anything seems most difficult,
Let that be the desire of the brethren ;
Such the rule I have observed.
" He shall be holy and pure of heart,
He shall be a test of heresy
Without controversy in words,
With peace in his actions.
"When duties are distributed around,
Let a task be given to every one :
Give to each brother easily
That which he desires.
" Advance to None, with a chorus of Psalms,
With fighill-geneflections, as enjoined :
When the Beatus has ceased at the altar,
Let the bell for the refectory be heard.
" At the Cross, before the head of the monks
That Demons emit not shouts of triumph
With humility, devoid of conflict,
Let each one confess there his sins.
" When they are seated at table, let the roots be brought,
Sprinkled with water, and on clean trenchers ;
Apples and mead for the seniors,
A slice of honeycomb for the inferiors.
" Let the bell be rung for thanksgiving
To the King who giveth food ;
From the festival of John of good gifts,
To the Easter of the glorious Lord.
"Thirty ounces of bread,
With a cup of twelve inches :
If hunger requires more
It is given to each brother at None.
"If the Airchinnech be a sage,
His rule will not be rigid :
As is the Vice-Abbot
So shall be the Order.
" 'Be not too strict, be not too lax,'
Is not a rule without knowledge ;
He to whom the brothers give obedience
Shall not go out of the enclosure.
" Without distraction in the place of prayer,
Without excess of fair strong aliment ;
Whether his food be fat or flesh,
Whether ale, or cream, or new milk.
" Whether mead or rich beer,
Though desirable for those who are sick:
It is dry bread and water-cresses
That is meet for the seniors.
"According to grade and obedience
It is so that distribution shall he made ;
Though a brother be retiring and humble
Beware that he be not neglected.
" Any one that suffers not correction,
And confesses not his fault,
The confessor shall appoint for him
To go to another monastery.
" Let there be no layman or woman
In the monastery with the religious :
Anger-full and discontented are the brothers
Where such people are found.
"Patience, exact submission to everyone,
Whether good, whether bad, whether poor,
Is no fault to a cleric of seven grades
Two-thirds of piety consist in silence.
" From the eighth of the Kalends of April,
According to the Rule, be it said ;
None is said in an open devout place
Until the end of October.
" When a person comes in friendships
To visit the servants of God,
Let their discourse be
All the good that they have seen.
" With modesty and shunning of faults,
Without reproaching any one ;
Let him be in silence as if he had not seen
And had not heard anything.
" Let the Econome be humble and frank,
Doing all things according to his ability ;
He shall receive with charity and salutation
All who present themselves.
" A clean house for the guests,
And a great fire ;
Refection, and washing,
With bed-preparation, without sadness.
"Let the Airchinnech be chaste and devout,
Mild and meek against every injury;
Let him so divide the tasks
That the brothers be not over-burdened.
"Not too strict, not too sparing in correction,
He shall speak nought of evil :
He shall make known to the brothers their faults ;
Let none be idle in his house.
"A mild, industrious Econome,
A gentle, provident vice-Abbot,
A sensible, gladsome cook,
Doing all things under the Abbot's rule.
"Let the Priest be pious, clerical,
Always engaged at his ministry ;
The Rector accurate, without exception of persons,
He shall maintain the rules.
"A sedate and truthful messenger,
Who will treasure no ill ;
The things that are best that he hears
He shall relate in his monastery.
"The religious shall be humble, submissive,
Who will not say, I will not go;
A mild, indulgent Airchinnech,
Who covets not temporal things.
"All shall be obedient to the Airchinnech
In the kingdom of heaven,
Until the Abbot of Archangels shall say
' Come hither, my welcome to you.'
"How delightful 'twould be then to go,
To enjoy great constant pleasure,
If without any violation of humility,
Without transgression, till death.
"A precept to thee from Ailbhe,
That thy abode be not sorrowful ;
Thy soul shall be fixed there,
Though it be not agreeable to thy body.
"To enforce the clerical rules,
Thou shalt be always quick ;
In the Recles (the oratory) in prayer,
Not engaged in secular pursuits.
"Not to walk in the broad way
Is odious to Satan ;
The neglect of prayer
Will not lead to heaven.
"The muinter (i.e., monastic family) is ruled by Satan
If it be neglected ;
Therefore, we rule the clerics
That they may be saved.
"A blessing descend upon thee,
And journey not from place to place,
For exhortation 'or prayer,
Leave not your enclosure 'till death.
"It is befitting that you observe,
Being engaged until death,
Diligence in Mass-saying, with prayer,
And a body growing slender.
"If you practice all these observances
You shall live to old age ;
Your city (i.e., monastery) shall be great on earth,
Your monks many in Heaven.
"If you practice all these observances
You will daily grow better and better ;
You will be illustrious and noble
Until your cell is occupied by another.
"Read aloud these writings
In Cluain-Caelain, hide them not,
O Son, through reverence
Thou shalt bring them to Eoghan."
The Irish Tract thus concludes this period of St. Brendan's Life: " The Saint, having written the Rule of the Angel, and the Rules of the Saints of Erin, with their devout practices and duties, returned to Bishop Erc, and received ordination at his hands." The Latin Life (cap. xi.) merely states that "after a short time the holy Senior Bishop Erc ordained him Priest."
IV. St. Brendan founds some Monasteries. Extracts from Petrie's Letters on Corcaguiny. Letter of Burton. St. Brendan prepares for his First Voyage. Description of the Coracle. Examples from the Life of St. Columbkille, &c. Dichuil's Treatise. St. Enda of Aran. First Voyage of St. Brendan. The Islands of Kerry. Other Islands on the West Coast of Ireland. Some incidents of St. Brendan's Voyage.
[Note: The last instalment of the Notes is the longest, but as some of the length comes from Ordnance Survey letters and from contemporary poems, I have omitted these in order to keep the narrative flowing. There is a link to the original volume at the end of the piece if you wish to read this material. ]
IT was probably in the year 503 that St. Brendan was promoted to the Priesthood, for it was prescribed by the Canons of our early Church, that only those should be admitted to the holy order of Priesthood who had attained their thirtieth year. Being ordained priest, adds his Life, he embraced the monastic life ; and many persons forsaking the world came to him from every side, and received at his hands the habit of religion. He, moreover, " founded cells and monasteries in his own district, but these were not so numerous at this period. It was when he returned from his sea voyage in search of the land of promise, that his rule extended far and wide throughout the various kingdoms of Erin."
No territory of our island is so rich in ecclesiastical remains, dating back to the fifth or sixth century, as Kerry. We will hereafter have occasion to mention some of these in detail; for the present a few passages from the letters of Petrie, written in September, 1841, whilst he was engaged in the Ordnance Survey, will suffice to show how fertile in such monuments of former sanctity was the one small district of Corcaguiny (in Irish, Corcadhidne), at a very short distance from the birthplace of St. Brendan
[Please consult the original volume for details of Petrie's Letters].
It seems to have been soon after his ordination that St. Brendan began that wonderful series of voyages which rendered his name so popular in the mediaeval legends. It was but natural, indeed, that whilst he rested upon the hill or beside the bay which now bear his name in his native territory, his thoughts should wander beyond the western waves, and that he should sigh for some tranquil spot in the islands of the ocean, where, in peace and solitude, he might meditate on the truths of Heaven. The illustrious poet, D. F. M'Carthy, thus beautifully pictures the sentiments of our saint:
[Please consult the original volume for the text of this poem]
The description of the little boat, or coracle, in which St. Brendan set out on his holy expedition, as given in the curious tract entitled "Navigatio Sancti Brendani" gives us a glimpse of the nautical customs of our fathers. It was made, " as was usual in those parts," of wattled osiers, lined with thin boards of oak, and covered with hides which were tanned in oak-bark, and softened with butter. A rudder, a mast with a sail, six oars, and two additional sets of hides to provide against casual misfortune, completed the furniture of the tiny vessel. And yet it is nothing new in the lives of our Celtic saints to find these holy men braving the terrors of the deep in such fragile barks in search of a solitary life, or of a new field of labour for Christ. It was in such a boat that St. Columbkille set out to found his island monastery in lona ; and from this great centre of religion the disciples of that holy man quickly spread themselves, not only over the mainland of Scotland, but also to the desert islands off the coast ; even as far as the Orkneys and Shetland, and the Faroes. So fragile were these coracles that, Adamnan tells us, St. Berach and his religious crew well nigh found a watery grave between lona and Tiree, in consequence of the swell raised by a whale intent on pursuing its prey. Again, when St. Cormac, with his abbot's blessing, three times sailed forth to find a solitary place of prayer in the ocean, he each time failed in his purpose, owing to the storms which arose. In his last voyage he was driven towards the north by the wind for fourteen days, till he came where the sea was filled with a sort of jelly-fish, which clung to the oars, and beat against the sides of the boat in such numbers that Cormac and all his companions gave themselves up for lost. Adamnan, who records this fact, adds, that St. Columba, in Iona, had a vision of all that occurred, and summoning his monks together told them to pray for their brother monks who were far away in the midst of perturbations monstrous, horrific, such as had never been seen before. At their prayers a north wind sprung up which liberated Cormac from his tiny assailants, and brought him back safe to Iona to tempt the waves no more.
The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle gives us another instance under the year 891 : " Three Scots," it says, " came this year from Ireland to King Alfred, in a boat without any oars, having left their country to be on pilgrimage for the love of God whithersoever Heaven might direct them. The boat in which they came was made of two hides and a half; and they took with them provisions for seven days. About the seventh day they came on shore in Cornwall, and thence journeyed on to King Alfred. Their names were, Dubhslane, Macbethadh, and Maelinnen."
Early in the ninth century, the Irish monk, Dichuil, composed his remarkable treatise, " De Mensura orbis terrae." In the seventh chapter he gives an account of some of the most remarkable islands: "Around the coasts of our island, Hibernia, there are other islands, some of which are small, and others are very small (aliae parvae, atque aliae minimae). Near the island of Britain, there are many large islands, some small ones, some, too, of a middle size: some of them are in the Eastern ocean, some in the Western, but they are most numerous towards the north. In some of these islands I have myself resided, others I have visited; some I have only seen afar off, some I have read of." Subsequently, he again writes : " In the northern ocean of Britain there are a multitude of island(the Faroes) which from the north British islands may be reached, with favorable wind, and prosperous voyage, in two days and two nights. A certain religious, named Probus, narrated to me that in summer time sailing in a little boat with two sets of oars, he landed on one of those islands after two days and one night. Some of these islands are small, separated from each other by narrow straits, and for almost a hundred years solitaries from our Erin dwelt in them. But as from the beginning of the world they were uninhabited, so now, in consequence of the Northman incursions, the anchorites have fled from them, but they are full of large flocks of sheep, and of innumerable different species of sea birds. I have never seen these islands mentioned by any authors."
In the life of St. Enda of Aran, we find another curious illustration of the wicker-work coracles which were used in those early times. This holy abbot, to test the sanctity of his religious, obliged each one of them to enter a coracle from which the skins had been removed, and thus put out to sea. If he was free from every fault he would escape unharmed by the waves, but if guilty of any transgression the coracle would not be sea-proof. Only one was found who did not escape a wetting in the coracle, and this was Gigniat, the cook of the community. St. Enda asked him what fault he had committed, and Gigniat acknowleged that when serving the repast of the brethren he had put a little to his own portion from the portion of Ciaran-mac-an-Tsaer, who subsequently founded the great monastery of Clonmacnoise. St. Enda at once obliged the cook to depart from the island, saying: " There is no room for a thief amongst us."
The account of St. Brendan's expedition, as given in the Irish life, is somewhat different from that which we have cited from the Latin tract. "The love of the Lord," it says, "grew intensely in the heart of Brendan, and he desired to abandon his territory, and home, and parents, and he fervently besought the Lord to make known to him some retired, mysterious, unknown land of delight, where he might live in solitude. And as he slept one night he heard the voice of an angel who said to him, 'Arise, O Brendan; the land of promise thou hast asked for, has been granted to thee." After this, Brendan, filled with consolation at the angel's words, proceeded alone to the summit of Sliabh-n-Aidche (now Mount St. Brendan), and looking on the broad, untraversed ocean, he saw in the distance a beautiful, noble island, with the ministration of angels around it. Then he fasted for three days, and again the angel came to him, promising to abandon him no more till he attained that beautiful island, the land of promise for which he yearned. St. Brendan, shedding tears of joy, gave thanks to God for the angel's message to him, and coming from the mountain, gave directions to his people to prepare three large ships, as is commemorated in the poem: [omitted]
This first voyage of St. Brendan, as the ancient document just referred to attests, extended only to the various islands which are scattered along the western coast of Ireland. Many of these islands were, even then, the abode of holy solitaries, and some of them still retain memorials and traditions connected with St. Brendan's voyage. One of the largest of these islands is Valentia, called in Irish Oilean-dairbhre, i.e., " island of the oak wood," and famed in profane history as the residence of the celebrated magician Mogh-ruth. It has still the ruins of an old church called Kill-more, i.e., "the great church," and two holy wells, one of which is called Tobereendowney, i.e., Tobar-righan Domnaigh, at which the patron is kept on 22nd March, and the other Tober Finan, i.e., "St. Finan's well," which is frequented on the 17th of May. The O'Gorman MS. (R.I.A., Dublin), written about the year 1750, whilst giving an account of some of the most remarkable places in Kerry, mentions several small islands lying along the coast. " There are many islands (it says), as Inishvernaird, Sherky, Rosmore, Ormond, and Dinish island ; besides the small islands of Dunkerron and Cappanacross, noted for quarries of marble and abundance of physical herbs and oysters. The most remarkable islands are the great Skeligs, formerly very much noted for pilgrimage over most part of Europe. The performing of said pilgrimage would be most impossible, had not Providence preserved and assisted those who undertook it. In said Skeligs is a well on the top of a hill that affords pure clear water, but is observed, as is said, to become dry in case of cursing, swearing, or blasphemy, &c. In said island there are two or three small stonework chapels, each as by appearance capable to stow no more at most than thirty persons, but by report would hold an hundred and more. . . . The other, called the small Skeligs, as well as Beginish, Scariv, and Dinish, are chiefly noted for the abundance of fowl and rabbits in them. Valentia, remarkable for the fort therein erected by Cromwell. The Durzies and Blaskets, chiefly noted as being landmarks generally taken by sailors coming from and going to sea, and other islands of less note."
The name Skellig or Skerry is said by Dr. Todd to be 'of Scandinavian origin. It properly means an island-rock, or "Scopulus maris." The ancient tract "The Wars of the Danes," narrates how, in one of the incursions of the northern pirates, the barren rock on the coast of Kerry, called Scellig Michael, the abode of a holy solitary named Etgall or Edgall, was invaded by them, " and Etgal of the Skelly was carried off by them into captivity; it was by miracle he escaped death at their hands, but he afterwards died of hunger and thirst among them." The Annals of Ulster register this hermit's death in A.D. 823. "Eitgail of Skellig was carried away by the Gentiles, and he soon after died from hunger and thirst."
Smith, in his "History of Kerry," gives some further particulars connected with these islands : " The first of the Skeligs, or that which stands next the shore, being within three miles of it, is called the Lemon, which is a round rock always above water, and consequently no way dangerous to ships. It hath little on it remarkable except its being stocked with several kinds of fowl, as in the second or middle Skelig, which stands about a league more to the west, and about six Irish miles from the shore. This rock is composed of a reddish kind of marble, and is frequented by an incredible number of gannets, and other kinds of birds. 'Tis remarkable that the gannet nestles nowhere else on the south coast of Ireland, and though multitudes of them are daily seen on all parts of our coasts, upon the wing and in the sea, yet they were never known to alight on any other land or rock hereabouts except on this island. . . . The great Skelig stands about nine Irish miles W.S.W. from Puffin Island. It is a most high and stupendous rock which was, until these few years past, visited by great numbers of people, ever since the time of St. Patrick, says Keating, by way of piety and devotion. The middle part of the island is flat and plain, consisting of about three acres of ground, that were formerly cultivated. This place is surrounded with high and inaccessible precipices, that hang dreadfully over the sea, which is generally rough, and roars hideously underneath. Upon the flat part of the island, which is about fifty yards perpendicular above the level of the sea, are several cells, said to have been chapels, for on this island stood anciently an Abbey of Canons Regular of St. Austin, said to have been founded by St. Finian. . . . The chapels or cells, with the wells of water, are dedicated to St. Michael the Archangel. Here are several stone crosses erected, at which the pilgrims perform certain stationary prayers, and have peculiar orisons to perform at each station. . . . The cells or small chapels are built, in the ancient Roman manner, of stone, closed and jointed without either mortar or cement, and are impervious to the air and wind, being circular stone arches at the top."
Inishmore and Inishtusker, on the Kerry coast, are often spoken of in the lives of our early saints ; and Gough, when treating of Ventry harbour, which is in the barony of Corcaguiny, writes that " in several of the islands off this point are certain stone cells erected, according to tradition, by the first preachers of the Gospel in these parts : within resembling the most ancient Roman arches, and, like them, built without mortar. They were probably the first edifices of stone in Ireland, and coeval with the round towers. There is one at Fane, in Ventry parish, the most westerly land in Ireland, and another at Galerus, near Limerick."
The most famous islands, however, with which St. Brendan's name has been associated, on the western coast of Ireland, are the three Aran islands, which, though now connected with the province of Connaught, originally belonged to Munster. The Life of St. Brendan expressly states that he went to Aran to receive the blessing of St. Enda, and remained three days and three nights in that land of paradise. How striking must have been the scene, when the venerable abbot, surrounded by the religious brethren, hastened to the beach to give the kiss of peace and welcome to the pilgrim sea-farer and his holy companions: [poem omitted]
The largest of the Aran islands had no fewer than thirteen churches, one of which, called Teglach-Enna, was in after times specially dedicated to God, under the invocation of St. Enda. Close by this church was the shrine of the saint, and one hundred and twenty other sepulchres in which none but saints were interred. The Life of St. Ailbhe states that " God alone knoweth the number of saints who are buried there ;" hence, its popular names, "Aran of Enda," and "Aran of the Saints." Colgan also writes that " each of the three islands bear alike the name of Aran ; they are separated from each other only by a narrow strait ; all three are full of cells, sacred relics of the saints, and tombs.". One eulogy, however, of these islands suffices for all. It is a poem in their praise, by the great St. Columbkille:
"Aran, thou sun! Oh ! Aran, thou sun, my heart is with thee in the west : to sleep beneath thy pure earth is the same as to be under the clay of Peter and Paul. Oh ! Aran, thou sun, my love lies in thee in the west : to be within the sound of thy bells is the same as to be in bliss."
Giraldus Cambrensis, in his usual style of exaggeration, writes regarding Aran : " In the western part of Connaught there is an island called Aran, which they say was blessed by St. Brendan. There human bodies are never buried, and never rot, but lie exposed under the air, proof against corruption. There the wondering mortal can see and recognise his grandfather, and great grandfather, and his grandfather's grandfather, and the long line of his progenitors." Lynch, in "Cambrensis Eversus," thus criticises this statement : " Camden demolishes with a single stroke this fabric of fiction regarding Aran, and the Island of the Living : 'the isles of Aran, he says, 'fabulously styled the isles of the Living.' My own opinion is that Giraldus bungled his narrative by applying to Aran what is told of Inisgluair, an island off the coast of Erris, in the county of Mayo, for the bodies buried in that island do not decay, so that one could recognise his grandfather."
It is said that St. Enda established ten religious communities on these islands, each one having its own superiors, and, independently of the rest, pursuing its routine of monastic exercises. St. Enda's own monastery was at Killeaney, to the east of the largest island. A book of the Gospels, and a chasuble, which was formerly covered with gold and silver, but in the fourteenth century only with brass, were preserved in the island with great care as relics of the saint. His life ends with the following narrative : St. Enda, when walking on the sea shore with some of his religious, a little before his death, was overwhelmed with sadness and burst into tears, because it was made known to him from heaven that the day would come when those islands would not be tenanted by monks, but with carnal and irreligious men. In a short time, however, he brightened up with joy when another vision was shown to him, that before the end of the world thousands would once more flock to these islands to escape the contagion of irreligion, and to walk in the paths of perfection.
The island of Inisgluair, situated about a mile west of the village of Cross, in the barony of Erris, was also visited by St. Brendan, and still honours him as patron. This island is famed in popular tradition as being, through his blessing, "the land of the living;" and O'Donovan tells us that the tradition that no bodies interred there were subject to decay, is still vividly remembered by the inhabitants of Erris and Inis-Seidhe. The island is now uninhabited, but retains the ruins of a church and other traces of ancient religious civilization.
Ardillaun, or "High-island," also lies at a short distance from the western coast of Connaught. The ruins of its beehive houses, cloghauns, churches, and enclosures, prove it to have been at a very early period inhabited by an ecclesiastical colony. O'Flaherty, in his account of lar-Connaught, describes it as "anciently called Innishiarther, i.e., the West-island, inaccessible except in calm, settled weather, and so steep that it is hard, after landing in it, to climb to the top !" He mentions an abbey founded there by St. Fechin, of Omay, and gives the names of eleven holy hermits, famed for sanctity, interred within its precincts. Towards the centre of the island is a holy well, and near it is still preserved a sculptured cross, in the earliest style of Celtic Christian art. The remains of many other rudely engraven crosses are scattered through the island. Two of these are represented in the plates of the tenth volume of the Proceedings of R.I.A. (1870), and with them may be seen two other crosses of the little island called Illaun McDara, which is also situated on the west coast of Galway.
I will only mention one other of the many islands on our western coast celebrated in the early records of our saints. This is the island of Innishark, which, though situated off the coast of Galway, belongs to the county Mayo. St. Leo is honoured as its patron, and among the monuments which it retains connected with his name are a ruined church, a leabuidh, i.e., a penitential bed, a tubber-banagh, or holy well, a stone cross called leac Leo, and a clochan, or stone-built cell : " of the church, which seems to have been of the usual rectangular shape, there remain parts of the north and south walls, with the east gable. In the latter there are the remnants of what must have been a rather handsome single lancet-shaped window. The clochan is situated (within an enclosure, 60 feet in length, and 45 in breadth) at some distance to the southward of the church, on a cliff overlooking the sea. It appears to have been an extremely primitive structure, built without any regard to regularity of form. . . . The outside of the clochan appears to have been of a bee-hive shape ; however, it is now much dilapidated, more than half of its roof and front being destroyed. The stone cross is much broken and disfigured. In the time of O'Flahertie, the historian, there was a bell belonging to St. Leo on Innishark, but Hardiman, in his notes, written in 1846, mentions that it has long disappeared."
It was during his first voyage that St. Brendan was favoured with a vision of the torments of the damned, the details of which are described in the Irish life of our saint, with all the vividness of Celtic poetry: " The door of hell (it thus begins) was revealed to Brendan, and he saw within the rough blue prison, full of stench, full of flame, full of nastiness; full of the camps of poisonous demons: full of crying, and of wailing, and of wounds: wretched shouts and great voices of lamentation and moans, and beating of hands of the sinful tribes: a life heavy, sorrowful in the hearts of pain, in prisons of fire, in streams of unceasing flames: in rocks of continual woe ; in black gloomy puddles, in chairs of heavy flame, in an abundance of woe, and death, and crosses, and chains; in oppressive fights and terrible shrieking of demons: an abode of eternal cold, eternal night, eternal sorrow, eternal pain, eternal avenging flames from the depths of the abyss."
One of St. Brendan's companions expressed a desire to have a vision of this place of dreadful torments : "Obtain the favor for me," he said, " that I may see some of these pains." And St. Brendan having prayed for him, he almost immediately expired, crying out : " Woe, woe, woe, to those who have come, who shall come, and who at this moment come into this abode of torments ;" but St. Brendan again prayed to God in his behalf, and ceased not to pray till the dead man was quickened into life, and resumed his duties among the brethren.
The legend of the mermaid is next told. They met her dead body on the waves, and Brendan having restored her to life, asked her who she was, and whence she came. She replied : "I am one of the inhabitants of the sea : we pray and await the Resurrection." Brendan then baptized her and asked her what was her wish : did she desire to go to heaven or to return to her company of the deep. She replied, but none except Brendan could understand her words : "I desire to go to heaven, for I hear the voices of the angels praising the all-powerful Lord." And then this daughter of the sea peaceably closed her eyes in death.
The account of one island which they visited agrees perfectly with the description of Ardillaun given above." On a certain day they saw a beautiful island rising high above the waves. They rowed towards it, but could not find an easy harbour. For twelve days they sailed around it, but were not able to enter it during all that time. They heard, however, the voices of people praising the Lord, and they saw a lofty noble church within the island. As they were unwilling to depart from the island, a waxed tablet was let down to them from the rocks, and on it were inscribed the words:' Do not seek to enter this island : this is not the island granted to you by God : return to your country: multitudes there await you, and hold in mind the words of holy scripture : Mansiones Domini multae sunt'. Then sailing away from that island, they bore with them the waxed tablet as a memorial of its people, and each day they read it with joy, as if it had been divinely sent to them."
Another day, whilst rowing on the sea, they were seized with intense thirst, so that they were nigh unto death. They then saw, at a distance, a small island with clear, pure streams gushing forth from its rocks. The brethren asked : " May we drink of this water ?" But Brendan replied : "Let it first be blessed." And when they had given their blessing to it, and chaunted the Allelujas over it, the stream flowed back, and they saw the demon seated on the rocks awaiting to kill those who would drink of its waters. Thus they were saved by the prayers of Brendan; their thirst, too, ceased immediately, and by their blessing that island was thenceforth closed to Satan, and its waters were harmless to man and every other living being.
Notes on the Life of St Brendan, Irish Ecclesiastical Record, Vol.VIII (1872), 17, 79, 178, 193.
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Dear Marcella. Dear Marcella:
Sou brasieiro, historian, retired professor, and author of 28 books about History of Brazil and History of Mato Grosso, state where I live. For some years I have been researching about St. Brendan and the Navigatio and I wrote a book, "Saint Brendan and the discovery of Brazil in the 6th century" where I give Brazilian and Irish indications about this discovery. I wrote an article on this topic where you can find the link:
I found your article on the internet, "Notes on Life on Saint Brendan", an excellent article.
I need more data about the article so I can reference it in the bibliography of my book. For example, your full name.
I am also providing the translation of the book into English.
It was a great pleasure to meet you and your Brendanian article.
Thank you very much for your comment, I will have a look at your site. These Notes on the Life of Saint Brendan appeared in the Irish Ecclesiastical Record, Vol VIII (1872) and I have posted a hyperlink at the end of them to take you straight to the source volume. I am not sure who authored them, they seem to end quite abruptly but I have not been able to find any further instalments. Glad they were of interest to you, but I merely reprinted them from this 19th century journal.
Greetings from Ireland,
Beannacht Dé leat
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