16 May 2017
Thinking about planning
a ‘Brendan voyage’ in
his diocese on 16 May
Saint Brendan’s feast day is celebrated today [16 May]. I am in the Rathkeale and Kilnaughtin Group of parishes less than four months, and I regret that I have not organised something liturgically appropriate and special today to mark Saint Brendan’s Day.
Saint Brendan’s feast day is celebrated on 16 May and in Ireland he is the patron saint of sailors, boatmen, mariners, travellers, elderly adventurers, and of the dioceses of Ardfert and Clonfert.
Saint Brendan is the patron saint of Saint Brendan’s Church in Kilnaughtin, Tarbert, Co Kerry, but is also the patron saint of Saint Brendan’s Cathedral, Clonfert, Co Galway, one of the three cathedrals of which I am the precentor – the other two are Saint Mary’s Cathedral, Limerick, and Saint Flannan’s Cathedral, Killaloe, Co Clare.
Another cathedral in the diocese was also named after him, but Saint Brendan’s Cathedral in Ardfert, Co Kerry, was destroyed by fire almost 400 years ago in 1641.
Saint Brendan of Kerry, or Saint Brendan of Clonfert, is also known as Brendan moccu Altae, Brendan the Navigator, Brendan the Voyager, and Brendan the Anchorite. He is known for his legendary journey to the Isle of the Blessed, narrated in The Voyage of Saint Brendan, and is described as one of the ‘Twelve Apostles of Ireland.’
However, many of the details of Saint Brendan’s life come to us from myth and legend in the Irish annals and genealogies rather than having reliable historical evidence.
He is first mentioned in Adamnan’s Vita Sancti Columbae, written sometime between 679 and 704. The first reference to him as a seafarer appears later in the ninth century in the Martyrology of Tallaght.
The several Latin and Irish versions of the Life of Brendan and the Voyage of Saint Brendan the Abbot (Navigatio sancti Brendani abbatis) date from the end of the 12th century, although earlier versions may have been composed around the year 1000. This makes it difficult to reconstruct details of the life of the real Brendan or to understand the nature of the Brendan legends.
It is said that Saint Brendan was born in Tralee, Co Kerry, in 484 and was baptised at Tubrid, near Ardfert, by Saint Erc, and that he was later tutored by Saint Finnian of Clonard.
At the age of 26, Brendan was ordained priest by Saint Erc, and he later founded a number of monasteries. His first voyage took him to the Arran Islands, and he also visited Iona, where he is said to have met Saint Columcille or Columba. His travels also brought him to Wales and Brittany, on the northern coast of France.
But Saint Brendan is best known for a legendary journey with 16 pilgrims to the Isle of the Blessed, supposedly in search of the Garden of Eden. This group fasted for 40 days before embarking in the name of the Trinity, and their voyages created one of the most remarkable and enduring European legends.
Over the years there have been many interpretations of the possible geographical location of Saint Brendan’s Island, from places in the southern part of Ireland, to the Canary Islands, the Faroes or the Azores, and Madeira, or even the Americas. It is difficult to tell what is factual and what is folklore, but it is a story of salvation, monastic obedience, pilgrimage.
The Navigatio was known widely throughout mediaeval Europe. Some maps in the time of Christopher Columbus included an island called Saint Brendan’s Isle in the western Atlantic Ocean. But there was never any reliable evidence that Saint Brendan ever reached Greenland or America.
Tim Severin’s film The Brendan Voyage (1978) inspired the Irish composer Shaun Davey to compose his orchestral suite The Brendan Voyage.
The ruins of Saint Brendan’s ... probably the site of the early monastic settlement in Birr, Co Offaly (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)
It is said that after his voyages and after establishing a bishop’s see at Ardfert, Saint Brendan founded a monastery at Annaghdown, where he lived the rest of his life.
Among the many churches associated with Saint Brendan, the name of the Church of Ireland parish church in Birr, Co Offaly, continues the name of a monastery founded nearby on the banks of the River Camco, in the 6th century AD. An important work from this monastery is the illuminated text known as the Macregol Gospels or the Book of Birr, now in the Bodleian Library, Oxford.
In the late 12th century, Giraldus Cambrensis referred to the Birr Stone as umbilicus Hiberniae or the navel of Ireland.
Saint Brendan is also said to have founded the church and monastery in Clonfert, Co Galway, around 557. He died ca 577 at Annaghdown, Co Galway, and he arranged before his death to have his body carried back to his monastery at Clonfert, where he is buried at Saint Brendan’s Cathedral.
Saint Brendan’s Cathedral, Clonfert, is one of four cathedrals still open in the United Dioceses of Limerick and Killaloe, and the monastic site predates the stories of the saint’s voyages. Clonfert became one of the foremost monastic schools in Ireland and the inspiration for many great missionary ventures across Europe.
The monastery was burned in 1016, 1164, and again in 1179, but in its heyday Clonfert may have had 3,000 monks. The centuries-old Yew Walk, with its cross-shaped paths, looks like church transept with a green ceiling. Local lore says the monks walked under the trees in silence, reading their daily office. However, the Diocese of Clonfert was not organised until 1111 and the diocesan boundaries were not fixed until 1152.
The first stone cathedral here was built around 1167 by Bishop Petrus Ua Mórda, and the earliest part of the cathedral dates from this period. The West Doorway is the crowning glory of the cathedral and the greatest masterpiece of Hiberno-Romanesque work, and the cathedral is listed in the 2000 World Monuments Watch.
The doorway has eight orders of jambs, surmounted by seven orders of arches and crowned by a triangular pediment bordered by carved ropes. The triangular pointed hoods and decorations form a unique mediaeval gallery with a truly fabulous variety of motifs, including human faces, bizarre beasts, formalised flowers and interlacing geometrical shapes, representing the way all creation points to the Trinity.
At Ardfert, the ruins of the ancient Cathedral of Saint Brendan, with its chantries and chapels, form a complete reliquary of Irish ecclesiastical architecture, in its different orders and ages, from the seventh or eighth century to mediaeval Gothic. The cathedral was finally dismantled in 1641.
So, from the south-west of this diocese in many parts of Kerry, to the centre around Birr and the north-east at Clonfert, Saint Brendan is associated with many of the churches, cathedrals and early ecclesiastical centres.
It might be a good idea to organise something appropriate on Saint Brendan’s Day, 16 May, in Kilnaughtin next year, and it seems there is potential for a Saint Brendan’s Way or pilgrim-tourist trail through the diocese, from Ardfert, Tralee or Killarney, through Tarbert, to Birr and on to Clonfert.