Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of May 10, 2004
Writer sailed uncharted seas
Noted scholar searched for new lands to preach the word of God
St. Brendan -- Feast Day -- May 16
By TED FITZGERALD
Special to the WCR
Attending Mass at St. Brendan's is an experience. The faithful of all ages crowd the little church and are enthusiastic in their responses, particularly when the tradition of reciting the Lord's Prayer in the Irish language is respected.
The name of the church honours a familiar saint, the ancient, seafaring monk who travelled extensively in the North Atlantic, encountering strange phenomena and possibly visiting the New World.
A sailor's mission
The narrow interior of the little church leaves little doubt about the identity of its patron. He is portrayed, the centre of a large, colourful stained glass, gothic, fa‡ade window, standing tall, ancient tiller in hand, in his little boat, swathed in robes against the sea wind.
To the left of the sanctuary, a fine wood carving of the windblown, cowled monk has him in his curragh bearing a cross-topped staff.
St. Brendan's, in the hamlet of Curraheen, is six km west of Tralee, near the small port of Blennerville, which witnessed the exodus of many famine migrants in the 19th century. The church reposes in the shadow of the massive Slieve Mish Mountains, backbone of County Kerry's Dingle Peninsula. But for groves of trees, people at the front of St. Brendan's would be able to see, across marshlands and the great Bay of Tralee, the birthplace of their patron at Fenit.
The parish is said to have begun when fugitive monks from a nearby monastery that had been destroyed by Cromwell's troops secretly held Mass in area residences or "Stations." Later on, the Eucharist was celebrated on an outdoor "Mass Stone" at Curraheen, then in a crude chapel dedicated to St. Anne.
The present church, much renovated, was built in 1832 and formally acquired its name in 1962 when the tabernacle from St. Brendan's College in Killarney was installed here.
Born in 484, Brendan was educated by some of Ireland's famed holy people, including St. Ita. Of several monasteries that he founded in the west of the island, the largest was at Clonfert where, after 94 years in the service of God, he was buried. A noted scholar, his writings include a Life of St. Bridget. Brendan comes across as not only a daring adventurer and abbey-builder, but as a man of extraordinary faith and confidence in God's protection and the prayers of the Blessed Virgin Mary, as mentioned frequently in his reports of sailing on the uncharted sea.
The saint's voyages, as recounted in the Navigatio Sancti Brendani Abbatis, began when he left Clonfert with 17 fellow monks. Desiring to discover new lands in which to preach the word of God, they sailed in an ox-hide curragh from under a mountain called Brandan's Seat on the north shore of the Dingle Peninsula.
Moving with sail and oars and navigating by the stars, they skirted the northern ocean, reporting encounters with floating pillars of crystal, assaults by hot rocks and a low barren island that moved around.
They reached a "Blessed Land" and lingered there for several years until advised by a mystical, Irish-speaking stranger to return to their homeland.
First New World European?
For years there was debate as to whether Brendan might have reached the coast of North America. Then in 1976, adventurer and writer (The Brendan Voyage) Tim Severin, attempted to replicate the saint's voyage in a similar craft. He made landfall on the Newfoundland coast after a 50 day crossing. En route, his crew observed towering icebergs, volcanic phenomena and large whales, all described more colourfully by Brendan the Navigator.
If Severin's conclusions are correct, the evidence suggests that the patron saint of sailors reached the New World 1,000 years before Columbus and may not have been the first European to have done so.