Sing praises to the Lord, O you his saints, and give thanks to his holy name. (Psalm 30:4)
Feast Day, May 16th
The claim has often been heard that America was discovered not by Columbus or Leif Ericson, but by an Irishman named Brendan in the sixth century.
St. Brendan was born about 494 AD in Annagh near Tralee, of the line of Fergus MacRoy, an Irish King of the First Century.
According to old Latin manuscripts, of which 120 copies survive, St. Brendan and a crew of other Irish monks voyaged across the Atlantic to America in a ship made of oxhides 400 years before the Vikings and almost 1000 years before Columbus. The manuscripts included specific details: how the oxhides were tanned in oak bark and water-proofed with wool grease, how the leather was sewed over wood laths with flax thread to form the hull and how other problems of planning and carrying out the expedition were overcome.
Tim Severin, an Oxford University graduate who is an expert on exploration and history, decided the Brendan story sounded plausible and built a replica of the ship, following the instructions from the old manuscripts.
The ship was an oversize curragh, similar to fishing boats still used on the west coast of Ireland. It was 36 feet long and eight feet wide with two square-rigged masts. Although leather seemed an unpromising material for a ship hull, tests showed that oxhide tanned and water-proofed according to the ancient formulas stood up well in the cold seawater of the North Atlantic.
When Severin took the ship - named the Brendan - to sea, he found that it couldn't be sailed or rowed against the wind without a large crew. (The old chronicle said that St. Brendan took a crew of 17 and spent seven years going and coming.) Downwind, the Brendan rushed through the water, rising buoyantly to slide over large waves despite a freeboard of only 16 inches, with certain limitations, she was a surprisingly capable vessel.
The St. Brendan legend spoke of several unlikely events. The monks sailed past an island of sheep and a paradise of birds. They unknowingly landed on the back of a huge whale and built a fire before the whale began to swim away. They were chased by a fire-breathing monster until it was attacked by other monsters. They came upon a pillar of crystal rising out of the sea. They passed through a shower of hot rocks.
During the summers of 1976 and 1977, sailing the same waters, Severin observed that most of the events in the legend could be related to his own experiences. Now as then, the Facroes are a good place for sheep and can be described as a paradise for seabirds.
Whenever the Brendan lay becalmed, she was snuffed at by whales. The Brendan's crew witnessed an attack on a spouting whale ("fire-breathing monster"?) by killer whales. The pillar of crystal no doubt was an iceberg. The shower of hot rocks could have been an example of the frequent volcanic activity around southern Iceland, such as the eruptions that brought the new island of Surtsey above the waves in 1963.
The supreme test of the Brendan came in a southwest gale when the ship seemed in danger of being swamped by huge waves. The men pumped frantically to eject the icy water that broke over the stern as the ship ran before the wind, but they were nearing exhaustion and the waves kept coming with the traditional mindless malice of the sea.
Then Severin recalled that, following the instructions in the old manuscripts, he had brought along extra oxhides without knowing exactly why. This was what they were for. Rigged as cockpit shields, the spare oxhides turned back most of the water that splashed above the gunwales.
As Severin wrote in his book about the voyage, the St. Brendan legend is "more than a splendid medieval romance, it is really a story hung upon a framework of facts and observations which mingles geography and literature, and the challenge is to separate one from the other. The mixture is hardly surprising. Scholars of epic literature know from experience that many of the truly durable legends ... are founded upon real events and real people which the later story-tellers have clothed in imaginative detail."
Brendan later returned to Ireland, by the direct route, following the Gulf Stream. This was south of the "Stepping Stone" route by which he arrived at the Promised Land.
Before the trip to the Promised Land, Brendan had made many voyages, over a period of some seven years, visiting and establishing religious communities. Now he remained in Ireland where, at the age of 93 he died on May 16, 577. St. Brendan was buried at Clonfert, Galway, on the banks of the River Shannon.
St. Brendan's Catholic Church of Clearwater, FL, located on Island Estates, is a loving, vibrant Catholic Church seeking for each and every member a growing relationship with Jesus Christ and His Church.