The Irish Folklore Centre

Providing a focus for the whole Irish folk tradition

This is the St Brendan of counties Clare, Galway and Kerry of the sixth century.  The story of his voyage is dated to the ninth or early tenth century.  To have included two voyages may seem excessive, but it shows the evolution of traditional/pagan stories into christianised ones.  I have chosen to cover all the magical islands that he is said to have visited as the imagery is wonderful.   Written to glorify the Church, it follows the Christian calendar.

The story of Brendan’s voyage starts with him being visited by another monk who tells him of the Promised Land of the Saints, ‘which God will give to those who come after us at the end of time’.  He and fourteen brothers resolve to find this island.  Having fasted for forty days they set out to visit another holy father named Enda who lived on an island (Inishmor of the Aran Islands off the Galway coast).  Near the home of his parents they built their boat and were ready to launch when three monks from Brendan’s monastery approached and asked to join them. Brendan accepted them, but said that only one was truly worthy.

The sail was spread and they began to steer westwards.  After fifteen days the wind failed and they rowed.  When exhausted, they let the boat drift until the wind returned, by which time they ‘did not know from what direction it came, or in what direction the boat was going’.  When their food and drink was exhausted, they spotted an island, but it took three days to find somewhere to land.  They were led to a town by a dog where they found a hall with a loaf and fish for each person.  Enjoining his brothers to take nothing else from the place they ate in this way and rested for three days and nights.  One of the three latecomers disobeyed his instruction, and his soul left his body, which they buried on the island.

They set sail again, having been blessed by a youth who said that they would not lack for food for the rest of their long journey.

On Maundy Thursday they came to The Island of Sheep, which were bigger than cows, and where they stayed until Holy Saturday.  They took only enough meat for their needs.  A man brought them a basket full of bread and told them that he would bring them more after eight days because he knew where they would be.  They thought of him as their steward.  They sailed to a nearby island and unloaded the boat. This island turned out to be a large fish called Jasconius, who took exception to them lighting a fire on his back and they had to leave in a hurry without any of their provisions.

Sailing near the island where they had spent three days, they saw another one and disembarked in a river.  They hauled the boat, with Brendan in it, to the river’s source where there was a spring.  Brendan said ‘Our Lord Jesus Christ has given us a place in which to stay during his holy Resurrection.’

Over the spring was a very large tree which was covered with white birds.  Brendan was full of wonder and said in his prayers ‘God…reveal to me, a sinner, through your great mercy your secret that I now look upon with my eyes’.  One of the birds flew down and sat next to him on the side of the boat.  Brendan asked the bird why so many of them were congregated there and she replied that they were victims of the great battle with Lucifer, and although they were now spirits, God had allowed them to take corporeal form on holy days and Sundays.  The bird also said ‘You and your brothers have now spent one year on your journey.  Six still remain.  Where you celebrated Easter today, there you will celebrate it every year.  Afterwards you will find what you cherish in your heart, that is, the Promised Land of the Saints’.

They set sail from The Island of Birds and were driven hither and thither for three months until they sighted another island.  It took them forty days to find a landing-place after having pleaded with God to help them.  There were two wells, one clear and one muddy.  Brendan cautioned them not to drink until they had received the permission of the elders of the place, one of whom appeared to them.  His hair was snow white and his face was shining; he knelt before Brendan and then took his hand, guiding him silently to a nearby monastery where they were greeted by the abbot and eleven chanting brothers, and they washed the voyagers’ feet.  They were led in silence to the refectory where on the sounding of a signal they were served with wonderfully white loaves and very sweet fruit, which was followed by water from the clear well.

Then the abbot told them that twenty-four of them had been there for eighty years since St Patrick and St Ailbe, their father figure, and were fed by Christ because the food arrived by means unknown.  Their church was furnished with crystal and they suffered no excesses from heat or cold.  Brendan asked if they could stay and was told ‘You may not, because it is not the will of God.  You must return to your own place with fourteen of your brothers.’  He also prophesied the fate of the two remaining latecomers.  As they were chatting a fiery arrow flashed in and lit all the lamps before the altar and then sped out again.  The travellers stayed on The Island of the Community of Ailbe until Christmas; then they provisioned their boat and moved on.

By the beginning of Lent they were out of food and drink and getting desperate.  Then one day they saw an island and, landing, found a clear well with a variety of plants and roots in a circle round it; there were lots of fish in the river swimming out to sea.  Brendan advised his brothers to be careful not to drink too much of the waters ‘lest they lie heavily on your bodies’.  Of course this was interpreted differently by the monks and they all fell into a deep sleep, the length of which was deteremined by how much they had drunk.  When they were all awake Brendan told them that their lives were under threat from The Soporific Well and that they must flee.

After three days the wind dropped and the sea became incredibly smooth.  They stopped rowing and set the sail to go from The Coagulated Sea, preserving their food carefully.  It was Maundy Thursday again and, as was foretold, they found themselves back on the Island of Sheep.  As before, they spent Easter on the back of the whale and the Easter feast until Pentecost on the Island of Birds.  The bird perched on the boat again and said that this would be their pattern, with Christmas with the Community of Ailbe, until the period of seven years was up.

After forty more days they saw a gigantic beast, breathing foam, following them at a great speed and they were very frightened.  Brendan cried out at the sight of The Devouring Beast ‘Lord, deliver us, as you delivered Jonah from the belly of the whale.’  On his call a mighty monster, belching fire from its mouth, appeared, cut the beast into three pieces and returned from whence it had come.  Another day and they saw a tree-covered island, and they found the end portion of the beast there.  Brendan told them to take enough meat from it to last them for three months, and to go to the southern end of the island where they would find clear water, plants and roots.  The weather was awful, and there were storms at sea, so they did not leave for the whole three months.  Then Brendan told them that a big fish would be left where the beast had been and they were to take as much as they could carry, because they would leave in three days.

Going north, Brendan pointed out an island in the far distance and said that there were three choirs of people on it: one of boys, one of youths and another of elders.  It was very flat, wide and covered with white and purple fruit.  The choirs were moving over it, close together, and chanting psalms for various times of the day.  The voyagers saw all this from their boat and after the choristers had sacrificed a lamb they came to the boat and offered the brothers some purple fruit.  They asked Brendan to let one of the two remaining latecomers to remain with them on The Island of Strong Men, and so it happened.

After some days Brendan prescribed a three-day fast.  On the third day a great bird flew over the boat and dropped a cluster of enormous red grapes into Brendan’s lap, and these sustained them for twelve days.  Then they fasted for another three, and on the third, saw an island covered with trees bent low by the weight of grapes on them.  Brendan went ashore and when he returned he told the brethren to refresh themselves of the good fruits.  And they did so for forty days on The Island of Grapes.

After they had sailed they were attacked by a bird called The Gryphon but the bird that had brought them the grapes appeared again and they were saved.

They celebrated Christmas again on the island of the Community of Ailbe and after that they sailed around on the ocean for a very long time only landing on the islands where they had to celebrate Easter and Christmas.  They came to The Clear Sea where they could see right to the ocean floor which was covered with fish.  Brendan began to intone the Mass and all the fish came to the surface and swam in a circle round the boat until Brendan stopped when they swam away.  It took eight days to cross this sea.

On another day they sighted a pillar in the sea and coming closer they found that it was made of bright crystal and higher than the sky.  It was surrounded by a wide-meshed net through which they could sail.  Brendan sailed all the way round for four days so that he could measure The Crystal Pillar.  On the fourth day they found a chalice and a shallow dish used for the Eucharist in a window.  Brendan said ‘Our Lord Jesus Christ has shown us this wonder, and given me these two gifts, so that the wonder be manifested to many in order that they may believe.’ 

After eight days they saw a rough, rocky island covered in slag and in smiths’ forges.  They could hear the bellows and the blows on the anvils.  They saw one of the inhabitants who was very shaggy and full of fire and darkness at the same time.  Brendan said ‘My sons, raise the sail higher still and row as fast as you can and let us flee from this island’.  However they were nearly too late because the savage came to the shore and started hurling great fiery lumps of slag at their boat so that the sea boiled.  He was joined by others and the fire was all around them, but they escaped from The Island of Smiths.

On another day a high mountain appeared through the clouds and they could see smoke coming from it.  The wind drew them to within a short distance of the shore, which was dominated by a high cliff the colour of coal.  The last of the latecomers jumped out of the boat and walked up to the base of the cliff where he cried out ‘Alas for me, father, I am being snatched from you and am powerless to come back to you’.  Brendan and his brothers saw how the man was carried off by a multitude of demons to be tormented and set on fire by them.  They fled from that land and when they looked back they saw The Fiery Mountain was no longer covered in smoke but was spouting flames, and from the summit down to the sea looked like one big pyre.

They sailed south for seven days and suddenly the form of a man sitting on a rock, with a cloth suspended in front of him, appeared before them.  The waves and the wind were buffeted him terribly.  Brendan asked who he was and he replied that he was Unhappy Judas, and had been sent to Hell but, because of Christ’s mercy, was allowed to sit on his rock every Sunday and on other feast days.  Judas asked Brendan to plead with the Lord to allow him a little longer, until sunrise, on the rock this Sunday, and Brendan said he would be granted his request.  At sunset the demons came from the Fiery Mountain for Judas and covered the surface of the sea.   But Brendan told them to leave Judas until morning, at which they cursed him and told him to go away so that they could carry out the instructions of their master, Leviathan.  They threatened Judas with double punishment but once again Brendan called on the Lord’s mercy to forbid it and they sailed on in a southerly direction.

A small island appeared far away and Brendan told them that it was The Island of Paul the Hermit.  He said ‘You will now see Paul the spiritual hermit who has lived on this island for sixty years without any bodily food.  For the previous thirty years he got food from an animal’.  They could only find a very difficult landing place and Brendan went ashore alone; the others were told to wait in the boat.  He climbed until he came to two caves facing each other, in front of which was a small spring.  An elder completely covered in his own white hair came out to greet him and told him to call the other brothers. Brendan asked him how he came to be on the island and the hermit said that he had been brought up in the monastery of Saint Patrick for fifty years.  Saint Patrick had come to him the day after the saint had died, and told him to get in a boat, which would take him to the place where he would await the day of his death.  So he arrived at this island and for thirty years had been fed by an otter and tehn he found the caves and had lived from the well.  He foretold all that would happen to the voyagers and they bade him farewell.

After forty more days they returned to the places where they had celebrated Easter for the last six years.  The steward from the Island of Sheep joined them and said ‘Embark in your boat and fill your water vessels from this well.  This time I shall be the companion and guide for your journey.  Without me you will not be able to find the Promised Land of the Saints’.  As they left the birds sang ‘May God, the salvation of all of us, prosper your journey’.

They sailed to the steward’s island and took on board provisons for forty days; they sailed east.  The steward showed them the way and after forty days they found themselves enveloped in a great fog, which the steward told them encircled the island for which they had been searching for seven years.  After a short while a great light shone all around them and they reached the shore.   They had reached The Promised Land of the Saints.  For forty days they searched the land but could not find an end of it.  One day they came upon a wide river flowing through the middle of the island.  They were considering what to do when a youth appeared and calling each of them by name said ‘Happy are they that live in your house.  They shall praise you from generation to generation’.  He said to Brendan that God had wanted to show them his varied secrets before they reached their goal.  He told him ‘The final day of your pilgrimage draws near so that you may sleep with your fathers’ and instructed them to collect the fruit and precious stones of the land and to return home.

Taking leave of the steward and the youth, they sailed back through the fog and came to The Island of Delights where they availed themselves of three days hospitality.  Receiving a blessing, Brendan and his brothers came home to be greeted with thanksgiving by the rest of the brothers.  Brendan told them the story of their adventures and the great and marvelous wonders that they had seen.  Finally he told them of his impending death as prophesied by the youth in the Promised Land of Saints.  And so it came to pass.

Source: O’Meara, John J – The Voyage of Saint Brendan, Portlaoise, 1976



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