Brendan the Navigator
The date of Brendan's birth is somewhere between 460 and 486 A.D. He was born into a noble family, near Tralee in County Kerry, an event reputedly marked by angels hovering in a bright light over the house. He was baptised by Bishop Erc, who ensured that a year later Brendan was delivered into the care of Saint Ita the mystic, at Killeedy. At the age of six Brendan returned to Erc, who educated him for several years before indulging the boy's desire to travel and study under other holy men. Erc asked only that he could perform his pupil's ordination as a priest, and Brendan duly returned for this ceremony.
The facts of his life are threaded through the fanciful stories that surround him. We know that he founded many monasteries, even when he was well into his 80's. He is associated with several monastic sites around the River Shannon and the west coast of Ireland. He founded several monasteries in Scotland, is said to have met Saint Columba, and to have gone to Brittany with Saint Malo, a Welsh monk. He may also have stayed at Llancarfan, the Welsh monastery founded by Saint Cadoc.
Of all Irish saints, Saint Brendan, known as the Navigator, is considered to have been the greatest traveller. His reputation comes from an account written by an Irish monk in the ninth or tenth century. More than 100 medieval manuscripts of his "Voyage of Saint Brendan" still exist, in many different languages. But the story has been much embroidered from the original facts until it is impossible to separate fact and fiction.
One version of the story, goes like this - Once, Brendan asked his friend Barinthus, grandson of the great King Niall, to encourage him with some words from God. Barinthus told how he and his had discovered an island of saints radiant with the light of Christ. This they briefly visited, but were told not to stay.
Brendan was captivated. He took fourteen brothers into a retreat to wait on God, and his family also fasted and prayed. Everyone agreed that God wanted Brendan to sail to this "land of Promise". Eventually sixty people left in three large coracles piled high with necessities. After skirting round or visiting various islands some inhabited by holy hermits, and surmounting whirlpools and riding on dolphins, Brendan and his crew returned to Ireland.
After gathering their strength they left on a second voyage, which included hair-raising experiences, illness, death, fellowship with island hermits, and a rapport with creatures of sea and land. After seven years they found an island where a holy man lived. He was naked like Adam, and they took this to be the island of Paradise. But the holy man made them understand that if they settled there, they would spoil the innocence of the island, by bringing speech and with it sin, to the island, and he urged them to leave.
Brendan seems to have returned to Ireland a chastened, even angry man, where it took some years for him to come to terms with his "shadow" side, and there are stories of him "taking it out" on others. Ita advised him to travel abroad again, and there God began to work miracles through him. Brendan founded monasteries, in Britain and Gaul, and during visits home and away is said he met both St Brigid and St Columba, who perhaps acted as spiritual guides.
Gradually Brendan mellowed. He became a major, though unsmiling, Christian leader. He founded the great Clonfert Monastery, which attracted three thousand brothers. Clonfert became one of Ireland's greatest monastic schools and endured until the sixteenth century. It was a missionary centre, and from there Brendan sailed to Wales, England, the Scottish islands, Brittany, and northern Europe, founding monasteries where he travelled.
Brendan died in his 90's in his homeland, at the convent of his sister Briga. His last words were, "into Your hands, O Lord".
Brendan stands out in a dark age as the captain of a Christian crew. Like the Greeks and the Vikings, he had a craving for the sea, but he built and launched his boat in the name of the Lord, and sailed it under the ensign of the Cross.
In art, Brendan is often shown saying Mass on board ship as the fish crowd round to listen to him. He may also be shown holding a candle.
Brendan is the patron saint of seafarers and travellers.
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