Saint Brendan the Navigator

May 16 is the feast day of Saint Brendan, one of the early Irish monastic saints. He is chiefly renowned for his legendary quest to the “Isle of the Blessed,” also called Saint Brendan’s Island. The venerated saint was one of the Twelve Apostles of Ireland.He is known as the patron saint of sailors and the United States Navy. He is the patron of those who are afraid because he himself was fearless in setting out into uncharted water and in uncertain circumstances.

Here is a short film about Ireland’s St Brendan’s Boat.
carved on the Kilnaruane Pillar Stone above Bantry Bay:

[Video – 04:27]

The carving is effectively an ikon of the Church,
carrying souls to Heaven across a sea of crosses.

Here is a short (haiku form) prayer I wrote on the ikon:


Brendan steering – aft.
Bearing Grace. Crossing whale’s race.
Christ! Favour this craft.

Here is a short documentary on Tim Severin’s attempt
(in 1977) to recreate St Brendan’s voyage to America.

[Video – 11:49]

Courtesy of Brendan.

The famous text, The Voyage of St. Brendan, is a work of fiction or fact depending on who is interpreting it. We know for certain that in 484, Saint Brendan was born near Tralee, in County Kerry.

What we also know for certain is that between the years 512 and 530, St Brendan built monastic forts around Ireland and then undertook a seven-year voyage which is the basis of the American legend. It is described as a hero’s journey in a boat and visits to an island far to the west which many modern historians believe is America. The island is called ‘Isle of the Blessed.’

Years later explorer Tim Severin retraced Brendan’s steps. Severin is a British explorer, historian, and writer who is noted for his work in retracing the legendary journeys of historical figures. Among his amazing journeys have been those of Marco Polo, Ulysses and that of Genghis Khan.

Some scholars believe that the Latin texts of Navigatio Sancti Brendani Abbatis (The Voyage of St. Brendan the Abbot), dating back to at least 800 AD, tell the story of Brendan’s seven-year voyage across the Atlantic Ocean. Convinced that the legend was based on historical truth Severin built a replica of Brendan’s leather currach.

The 36-foot double-masted boat was built with traditional tools. It was built with Irish ash and oak wood and hand-lashed together with nearly 2 miles of leather, wrapped with 49 traditionally tanned ox hides. The boat was sealed with wool grease.

Between May 1976 and June 1977, Severin and his crew sailed the 4,500 miles (7,200 km) from Ireland to Peckford Island, Newfoundland, stopping at the Hebrides and Iceland en route. This was Brendan’s route.

Severin considered that his recreation of the voyage helped to identify the bases for many of the legendary elements of the story: the “Island of Sheep,” the “Paradise of Birds,” “pillars of crystal,” “mountains that hurled rocks at voyagers,” and the “Promised Land.”

The British explorer’s book, “The Brendan Voyage,” was published in 1978 and became an international bestseller, translated into 16 languages. Severin’s boat is now featured at the Craggaunowen open-air museum in County Clare.

However, despite this the debate remains ongoing it has been difficult for scholars to interpret what is factual and what is folklore. Was the Isle of the Blessed that Brendan reached America or just a historical fable?

The truth may never be known but it remains a constant claim by many that St Brendan got to America first before Columbus arrived on its shores in 1492.

About GShep


  1. Thank you for the article, Gail;
    but on: “The truth may never be known”,
    perhaps some useful indicators may be found…

    Mike McCormack, AOH National Historian: Ogham writing
    and did the Dark Ages produce America’s first Christmas cards?

    ‘ In 1982, archeologist Dr. Robert Pyle investigated a petroglyph, or rock carving, in Wyoming County, West Virginia. Many such carvings exist whose origins are shrouded in mystery, but Pyle thought this one unique for the carving looked like early runic writing. He lychen-dated it as having been carved between 500 and 700 AD. He recorded every detail of the carving in 18 separate visits, and gave the story to a local newspaper. A reader clipped the article and sent it to the West Virginia Chamber of Commerce which published it in their periodical: Wonderful West Virginia. A copy of the magazine was sent to Ida Jane Gallagher – a native West Virginian working as a free-lance writer in Connecticut. She saw a similarity between the carving and one she had photographed in New England, and she contacted the editor for more information. She was invited to visit the petroglyph. In November 1982, Robert Pyle led her up a steep bank to a rock ledge, where Ms Gallagher took her first look at the 10-foot long inscription carved on a recessed portion of the cliff face beneath a natural rock overhang. She was convinced that it was a major find, and contacted Harvard Professor Barry Fell, an expert on ancient epigraphic inscriptions and President of the International Epigraphic Society. When Dr. Fell saw the carving he recognized it as Ogham — an ancient Celtic script he had studied in Ireland. He agreed to a translation.

    He translated the Ogham into Old Irish, from Old Irish into modern Irish and then into English. When the message was deciphered, it became obvious that its validity would be easy to confirm. It read,

    A ray will graze the notch on the left side, at the time of sunrise on Christmas Day, the first season of the year, the season of the blessed advent of the savior Lord Christ, behold he is born of Mary, a woman.

    It was decided to verify the accuracy of the translation by visiting the carving in December. In ancient times, Christmas was celebrated around the Winter Solstice, so a small group met at the petroglyph on the night of December 21, 1982. Quietly they waited as the dawn sun climbed behind them to a height where it spilled over the mountains and streamed its rays toward the cliff face before them.

    They watched in amazement as the first shaft of sunlight funneled through a previously unnoticed notch in the cliff overhang, and like a flashlight beam, struck the dead center of a sun symbol at the left end of the panel. Since the sun rises in a slightly different spot each morning, its rays directly hit that sun spot at no other time of the year.

    Transfixed, they watched the beam expand as the sun rose, pushing the shadow from left to right, slowly bathing the entire message in sunlight like a prehistoric neon sign announcing yet another Christmas as it had done for centuries.

    Before their eyes, they had received a Christmas message across the ages. Here was a message that was definitely Christian, carved in the 6th century and carved in Ogham — a cipher used at that time only by the Irish!

    Shortly after publishing their remarkable find, the investigative team learned of another petroglyph at Horse Creek in nearby Boone County. This one was larger than the first. Dr. Fell called it a sensational find. He believed it to be the world’s longest Ogham message and dated it between the 6th and 8th century. This 3-line message, when deciphered, read, A happy season is Christmas, a time of joy and goodwill to all people. The second line read; A virgin was with child; God ordained her to conceive and be fruitful. Behold a miracle. The third line read, She gave birth to a son in a cave. The name of the cave was the Cave of Bethlehem. His foster father gave him the name Jesus, the Christ, Alpha and Omega. Festive season of prayer.

    We may never know the names of those who carved these messages, but their existence provides important proof of an old claim. It has long been known that in the sixth century, Irish monks sailed to distant lands to spread the gospel, and a monk named Brendan wrote of his travels to North America, but the lack of hard evidence made skeptics call his story legend. In 1977, author Timothy Severin duplicated St Brendan’s voyage in a leather-covered curragh (Irish sailing boat) built to Brendan’s specifications just to prove that it could have been done. Yet, still the skeptics argued that possibility and probability are not proof. Today, the West Virginia petroglyphs provide irrefutable evidence of religious messages, left on these shores between 500 and 800 AD, by Irish Christian missionaries. And each year, at yule tide, the rising sun places a fresh stamp of authenticity on America’s first Christmas Cards. … ‘

    The full article contains photographs of both
    the American and the Irish petroglyphs.

    • Many years, Brendan!

      And thanks for this wonderful story! Personally, I love to examine the possibility of pre-Columbian explorations to America. In Heavener, OK, about 130 mi from Tulsa, is the famous Heavener Runestone. Controversial to say the least.

      There are also other runestones scattered throughout Oklahoma, as well as Phoenician glyphs on Turkey Mountain (just 7 miles from where we live) but a closely guarded secret. The objections boil down to this: how did the Phoenicians and/or the Vikings make it all the way (2000 mi) from the Atlantic to what is now Oklahoma?

      • Thank you George.

        On “…the possibility of pre-Columbian explorations to America”:
        if Polynesians could sail around the Pacific in canoes (and they did),
        there is no reason Phoenicians in ships could not sail the Atlantic.

        Indeed, according to Herodotus, they did circumnavigate Africa.
        See: The First Circumnavigation of Africa

        [Video – 01:05]

        The technical possibility being admitted, all that remains
        is to find and evaluate evidence – while excluding forgery.

        To your question: ” … how did the Phoenicians and/or the Vikings
        make it all the way (2000 mi) from the Atlantic to…Oklahoma?”;
        I would simply say: “Where men can walk once, men can walk again.”

        Whether or not they did is, of course, another matter.

  2. Christ is risen!
    For those who love reading about the lives of the saints, as well as good old fashioned adventure novels, Voyage to the Rock by Fr Matthew Penney is a must read!

    For those who love to support growing Orthodox Missions, please consider supporting the only Orthodox parish on the island of Newfoundland (in fact, the only Orthodox parish in the entire province of Newfoundland and Labrador), Holy Lady of Vladimir:

    For those who love adventure AND visiting small pan-Orthodox missions, why not make your own voyage to “the Rock”, the island of Newfoundland, for a visit? Our parish loves meeting visitors!

    Holy father among the saints, Brendan, pray to God for us!

  3. Mark E. Fisus says

    Well, it’s more believable than ancient Jews sailed for America. (Nothing against ancient Jews, just that the Book of Mormon is pure fiction.)

    • According to the Book of Mormon, when said Jews went ashore
      in what is now the eastern coast of the United States of America,
      they found vast herds of wild cattle and horses running about.
      “Now,” as I said to the Mormon Missionary standing at the door,
      “I’m a reasonable man and am therefore quite prepared to accept
      that to a Jew from ancient Palestine who’s never seen a bison before,
      well it’s big an’ it’s got horns an’ it makes some kinna ‘Moo’ sound,
      so it’s therefore very likely some kinda coo. But Horses? Horses?
      Naw. There wis nae horses there till the Spaniards took them there.
      Goodbye!” I said, and shut the door.

  4. Sean Richardson says

    There is much about Irish religious history and faith to be admired.

    • The Irish monks did not have deserts in which to seek solitude
      and nearness to God, unlike their counterparts in Egypt;
      but they did have sea and ocean, island, cliff and rock;
      and nowhere more spectacularly than at Skellig Michael,
      a twin pinnacled rock rising up to 700 feet above the sea;
      of which Lord Dunraven wrote in his 1871 Notes on Irish Architecture,
      “the scene is one so solemn and so sad that none should enter here
      but the pilgrim and the penitent. The sense of solitude, the vast heaven
      above and the sublime monotonous motion of the sea beneath
      would oppress the spirit, were not that spirit brought into harmony.”
      Photo Gallery:

      • Jeff Moss says

        I’m not sure if this is a good or a bad thing, really, but Skellig Michael is now known to a wide audience—at least visually—by its inclusion as a significant setting in all three films of the Star Wars sequel trilogy (2015-2019).

        • Well, not having seen the originals, far less the sequels
          or even the prequels – and certainly not the post-quels,
          I am entirely unable to say whether that is good or bad.