In honour of Canada Day, I thought it might be fun to share with you one of my favourite stories from the Britain’s Early Middle Ages; that of the 6th century monk known as Brendan the Voyager. This story has a Canadian connection because it has been speculated that Brendan and some fellow monks, not the Vikings, were the first Europeans to set foot on North America, specifically Newfoundland.
Some 50 years after St. Patrick died in 461 A.D., Brendan and other Irish monks continued Patrick’s work of converting the pagan Irish Celts to Christianity. Brendan was born in 484 A.D. in County Karee in the south-west of Ireland, and was ordained as a priest at the age of 28. He frequently sailed the seas to bring the gospel to not only Ireland but also Scotland, Wales, and Brittany, the Gaulish outpost in the north of present-day France.
This method of travel was not unusual at this time. Overland journeys were dangerous. The roads themselves may or may not be in repair, and one could easily get stuck or delayed by bad weather. The impressive roads that the Romans engineered as a means of moving their legions easily around the country were slowly falling into disrepair, making travel difficult. As they were the main highways they were often frequented by outlaws, which was another outcome of the absence of Roman government. The tribal kings were meant to keep their people safe in return for their tribute, but it wasn’t the same as having the might of Rome patrolling the roads.
The other small, rutted tracks that criss-crossed the country could be difficult to navigate, and what if you came across a bridge that hadn’t been kept up?
For all these reasons, plus speed of travel, people of the day often preferred travelling by boat along the rivers or in ships along the coastlines, and many were quite at ease handling their vessels on the open sea to get between Britain and the continent. It is astonishing to learn of the people who voyaged between Britain and Jerusalem, and to begin to understand the amount of trade that went on between Britain, the rest of Europe, and beyond to Asia, as shown by various archaeological finds.
For the Irish, the traditional vessel of choice was called the currach. This was a wooden-framed boat over which was stretched animal hides. The seams were sealed with tar, or animal fat and grease. This could be rowed, and for larger, sea-going vessels, a mast and sail would be attached.
There are two main sources of information about Brendan and his journey; The Life of Brendan, and The Voyage of Saint Brendan the Abbot. The second one, the Voyage is the more better-known of the two, and in fact became one of the most popular and enduring legends of the time. The earliest extant version of this dates from around 900 AD, but scholars feel that it was written sometime in the second half of the 8th century, due to references to it in other earlier manuscripts.
The Voyage is written as a type of immram, which was a genre of popular literature peculiar to Ireland at that time. These works were adventurous stories of seafaring heroes. The writer of the Voyage merged this type of story with that of the traditional stories of the aesthetic Irish monks who would travel alone in boats, just as the Desert Fathers of the 2nd and 3rd century used to isolate themselves in caves.
The Voyage is fantastical reading, and that’s what makes it so fun. According to the tale, sometime between AD 512-530 Brendan became inspired by the stories of another monk called St. Barinthus who claimed to have sailed to an island found beyond the horizon. Brendan gathered some other monks and after the requisite prayers and fasting set off to find this island. They journeyed for seven years, during which time they encountered various mysterious islands and creatures, including an Ethiopian devil, birds that sing psalms, magical water that put them to sleep for a number of days, a huge sleeping whale they mistake for an island which is roused when they build a fire on it, gryphons, crystal pillars floating in the ocean, giants tossing fireballs, sea creatures, and my personal favourite – Judas, sitting on a rock in the middle of a cold, dark sea, on his weekly respite from Hell.
It is a religious work, meant to teach others about salvation,obedience, and faith. But there have been many scholars who have attempted to determine if Brendan actually took this voyage by trying to figure out the places mentioned in it. And this is where it gets interesting.
Trying to sift through the legends and myths in the story is difficult, but there are suggestions that make sense. The great crystal pillars could be icebergs. The giant demons tossing fireballs could be volcanic eruptions on Iceland. And when you look at a map, you can start to see that the journey from Ireland to present-day Canada actually might have been possible, for it is not just heading out in the open sea, but a series of navigations to the Faroe Isles, and then along the coasts of Iceland and Greenland, and finally to the shores of Labrador. This type of coastal navigation interspersed with short hops in-between would have been quite familiar to sailors of that time, as previously explained.If you are still skeptical that such a small and fragile vessel could survive such a journey, consider that in 1976 explorer Tim Severin built a currach using traditional methods and materials such as would be common in Brendan’s time and successfully used it to travel from Ireland to Canada in an attempt to recreate Brendan’s journey. There has also been arguments made that Christopher Columbus learned from the Voyage the directions of the prevailing winds and therefore the most favourable routes to take to and from North America on his famous journey of discovery.
It’s all fascinating stuff. So, today on Canada Day I’m hoisting my cup of tea to St. Brendan the Navigator, who possibly was the first European to set foot on our shores.
Here’s to you, Brendan, an honorary Canadian if there ever was one!
Featured picture is the marvellous bronze statue of St. Brendan crafted by Tighe O’Donaghue/Ross, found on Fenit Harbour on Great Samphire Island, in Ireland. He is depicted in traditional dress, clutching a Gospel book, leaning into a force 10 storm such as he might have faced on his travels, his cloak streaming out behind him. He points out to sea, urging us ever forward to spread the word of God. Picture from vanderkrogt.com