May 16, 2013 - St. Brendan's Day

Did he, or didn't he?

Probably Saint Brendan of Ireland didn't actually sail to North America early in the sixth century. But he might have—and if he did lead such an expedition, he and his crew would have been the first Europeans to see North America!

It's just a tall tale...

There is a kind of Irish folktale called an immram. It is a series of adventures that the hero of the story has on a boat. The story of the voyage of St. Brendan has a lot of similarities to other immrams. For example, at one point in the journey the boat lands on an island—but the island turns out to be a giant sea monster! Later they light a fire on another island, and the island sinks into the sea; it turns out that this island is a whale! In addition to visiting islands full of people and animals and plants, Saint Brendan and his crew see a gryphon, a devil, magic loaves, and a silver pillar in the sea.

Sounds like a folktale to me!

It could be based on a real voyage...

Many legends do have something real at the very center of story. For example, the tales about Robin Hood probably got their start with a real bandit or rebel—but surely most of the details of all the variations of the Robin Hood legend are additions the real man and his exploits.

A British explorer and writer named Tim Severin was convinced that the Brendan voyage was based on some truth. In 1976 he used traditional tools to build a currach, a two-masted boat based on the description in Brendan legends. The boat was made of Irish ash and oak wood, and it was hand-lashed together with leather thong (actually, almost two miles of leather thong!!!). Severin wrapped the boat with tanned ox hides and water sealed it using wool grease, just as described.

Severin and his small crew sailed the currach 4,500 miles (7,200 km) from Ireland to an island in Newfoundland, Canada. They made some stops along the way, just as the Brendan voyage did. Severin made the point in his book that their stops at the Hebrides Islands and Iceland could account for some of the adventures recorded in the tale of St. Brendan.

By the way, the voyage took a bit more than a year to complete! I imagine that they stopped for a while at each island, perhaps overwintering in Iceland.

So...what do you think...?

Did St. Brendan travel from Ireland to North America...or didn't he?

Find out more...

Watch some or all five parts of the video about Severin's voyage that was supposed to copy St. Brendan's voyage. 

Plan Ahead...
Check out my Pinterest boards of May holidays, historical events in May, and May birthdays.

Also on this date:


  1. This is a great blog we are making it a point to read up on your posts daily to find out about all the special days in our history.

    "St. Brendan belongs to that glorious period in the history of Ireland when the island in the first glow of its conversion to Christianity sent forth its earliest messengers of the Faith to the continent and to the regions of the sea. It is, therefore, perhaps possible that the legends, current in the ninth and committed to writing in the eleventh century, have for foundation an actual sea-voyage the destination of which cannot however be determined. These adventures were called the "Navigatio Brendani", the Voyage or Wandering of St. Brendan, but there is no historical proof of this journey. Brendan is said to have sailed in search of a fabled Paradise with a company of monks, the number of which is variously stated as from 18 to 150. After a long voyage of seven years they reached the "Terra Repromissionis", or Paradise, a most beautiful land with luxuriant vegetation." New Advent Catholic Encyclopedia

    1. Joanne - Glad you enjoyed it. I am always intrigued to learn various theories of the origins of stories and legends, and I try to find out how we can know, or at least make educated guesses, about what is historically true. When I wrote this post I found myself wondering if Severin really thought that the St. Brendan voyage happened, of if he just wanted to make it seem possible in order to justify his own adventure--and of course to sell books. (The latter is fine with me--I just found myself wondering about his wanderings.)