Some serious scholars believe that an Irish cleric, St. Brendan the Navigator, and a small group of Irish monks, travelled to North America sometime between 512 and 530 AD.
Some believe that the flat, verdant and warm land that Brendan described was Florida. Scholars, who claim that St. Brendan may have “discovered” America, base this claim upon many written accounts of Brendan’s voyages, contained in ancient documents from Ireland, England, Spain, France, Germany, and even from the Norsemen, who found a region south of Vinland and Chesapeake Bay that they named "Hvitramamaland" (Land of the White Men) or "Irland it mikla" (Greater Ireland), and upon the oral tradition of Native Americans that Florida was once inhabited by a white tribe that used iron implements. According to this Native American tradition, “there dwelt white men, who clothed themselves in long, white garments, carried before them poles, to which cloths were attached, and they called-out with a loud voice.” This ancient account was interpreted by the Norsemen to indicate religious processions, in which banners were borne, accompanied by singing. With regard to Brendan himself, the point is made that he could only have gained knowledge of the exotic foreign animals and plants, which are described in detail in the legend, by having visited North America.
But is any of this true? To those who believed in the legend of St Brendan’s Voyage, skeptics said that, even if one could explain all of the bizarre, mythical creatures mentioned in the legend, there is still the question of a small Irish curragh (a canoe-like, leather-clad boat) being able to make it across the fierce North Atlantic. Several passages in the legend seem utterly unbelievable: “they were raised up on the back of sea monsters”; “they passed by crystals that rose up to the sky”; and “they were pelted with flaming, foul-smelling rocks by the inhabitants of a large island on their route”. Skeptics also could not believe that such a small, fragile vessel possibly sailed across the open Atlantic. Adventurer Tim Severin said that it could be done. Few believed him; so he set out to prove it.
Severin is an interesting person. He regularly risks his life retracing legendary voyages. He had previously retraced Marco Polo’s trip, and later went on to retrace the voyage in the “Odyssey”, Sinbad’s voyage, and even searched for Moby Dick. He could not pass up St. Brendan’s voyage. Severin went on to demonstrate that it is possible for a leather-clad boat, such as the one described in the Navigatio, to reach North America from Ireland.
In 1976, he and a few buddies built an Irish curragh, using the construction details described by St. Brendan, and using the same methods that St. Brendan and his monks would have used. Severin and his team tanned ox-hides with oak bark, stretched them across wood frames, sewed them with leather thread, and smeared the hides with animal fat to impart water resistance. Upon finishing the leather and wood boat, he christened it “Brendan.”
Examination of nautical charts led Severin to believe that Brendan’s route would be governed by the prevailing winds that could take him across the northernmost part of the Atlantic. This would take him close to Iceland and Greenland with a probable landfall at Newfoundland. In 1976, they set sail from Brendon Creek on Ireland’s Dingle Peninsula, to determine if the voyage of Brendan and his fellow monks was possible.
Severin and his crew were surprised at how friendly the whales were that they encountered. The whales swam around and even under their boat. The whales could have been even friendlier in Brendan’s time, before motorized ships would make them leery of man, so friendly, that perhaps they may have lifted the monk’s boat in a playful gesture!
After stopping at the Hebrides islands, Severin proceeded to the Danish Faroe Islands. At the island of Mykines, they encountered thousands of seabirds. Brendan called this island “The Paradise of Birds.” He referred to the larger island as the “Island of Sheep.” The word Faroe itself means Island of Sheep. There is also a Brendon Creek on the main island of the Faroes, which the local people believe was an embarkation point for Brendan and his crew.
Severin’s route then carried them to Iceland, where they wintered, as did Brendan. The volcanoes on the island have been active for many centuries and might well have been erupting when the monks stayed there. This could have accounted for the “pelting with flaming, foul smelling rocks”, referred to in the ninth century text.
The monks had never seen icebergs before, so their description of them as “towering crystals” would make sense. Severin’s boat was punctured by floating ice off the coast of Canada. They were able to make a repair with a piece of leather sewn over the hole. They landed on the island of Newfoundland on June 26, 1977, proving that such a voyage was possible, and moving St. Brendan’s Voyage out of the realm of impossible myth and back into the realm of possible reality.
Severin’s journey did not prove that St. Brendan and his monks landed on North America. However, it did prove that a leather curragh, as described in the Navigatio, could have made such a voyage, as mapped out in the text. There is also no doubt that the Irish were frequent seafarers on the North Atlantic currents 900 years before the voyage of Columbus.
The following video about St. Brendan and his voyages was animated and narrated by young students from Craigbrack Primary School in Londonderry, Northern Ireland. This video is delightful for both young and old:
This blog article is only a small summary of the full, 25-page story of St. Brendan and his voyages. To read the entire story, click HERE.
Modern St. Brendan Sites in Florida
You may think that the story of St. Brendan and his voyage to Florida is only legend or myth, but consider the number of places in Florida named after him:
St. Brendan High School
2950 S.W. 87 Avenue
Miami, Florida 33165
St. Brendan Elementary School
8755 Southwest 32nd Street
Miami, FL 33165-3291
St. Brendan the Navigator Roman Catholic Church
1000 Ocean Shore Boulevard
Ormond Beach, FL 32176
St. Brendan Catholic School
1000 Ocean Shore Boulevard
Ormond Beach, FL 32176
St. Brendan Church
245 Dory Passage
Clearwater Beach, FL 33767
St. Brendan’s Isle, Inc. (A mail service for RV residents)
411 Walnut Street
Green Cove Springs, FL 32043-3443