The Isle of the Saints and Wise

  The Continent was amidst Sturm und Drang during the fourth - fifth centuries. After the attacks in waves by Germanic tribes from the northern regions and others, the Western Roman Empire was collapsed in 476. In these turbulance, many of intellectuals of the Greek or Roman fled across the sea toward an island off far west which had been unknown to the nortern barbarians. This is Ireland, where the founder saints of Irish Church had been working hard for building their monasteries or churches across the country. The intellectuals from the Continent relied upon such people, because some of them had studied at the monasteries in Rome or Gaul, and they delivered their rich reservoir of knowledge or their intellectual legacy. When the Continent was back in order, it was the Irish monks who absorbed the classical, scientifical, religious background from the refugee scholars, who spread the Christianity and classical or cultural heritage back to the Continental people, and their influence was huge. Without Ireland, the cultural shelter of 'the Continental legacy', and the efforts of returning it to its home which Irish monks had made, now we would have a different Europe, I presume.

The birth of Celtic Christianity

  In 5th century, one missionary returned to Ireland where he spent his boyhood as a slave: his name is Patrick(AD372?-492?), and according to his Vita composed by Muirchu mocc Mactheni or other records, he started his mission from Armagh, spreading the Good News across the kingdom of Leinster, the south realm of Munster as far as Waterford, or farthest northern remote regions. Ireland then had so many 'kingdoms' or túatha, so there was no such thing as one united 'nation'. Around the same period, many other Irish monks who had studied at Candida Casa('White House') established by Saint Ninian(360?-432?)in Whithorn(Galloway)of Scotland, or at Saint David's monastery in Wales began to return home and settled themselves in their own hermits, whence more of the Irish monks were produced. Saint Finnian(?-c.549)established the Clonard monastery after his return from Saint David's monastery, and Saint Enda(?-530?)who had studied at Candida Casa built his own hermit, from which many of Irish monks were educated. Saint Brendan was among his pupils there.

  In the early mediæval priod, Ireland was mainly divided into five realms, in which about 150 sub-kingdoms existed and ruled by many small clans, competed against each other. One of the five main regions were Munster(the land of Mumha in old Irish, pronounced 'muun'), and the ruler of this feud was the Eóganachta clans. In those days, there was the title called the 'High-King of Ireland', but the king himself had no power over other feudal lords, so it can be said that the mediæval Ireland had no united state, nor anything called 'city', until the Norsmen raid and the Angro-Norman Conquest after that in 1169. Clearly this rustic, nomadic society of Ireland did not suit the formula of the 'episcopal system' set by the Roman Catholic Church, so each small feuds turned into 'monastic territories'. This characteristic monastery system fitted in with the early Irish society. The feudal lords often took over the positon of the abbots of their monasteries by succession.

  These Irish monasteries had their own canons or rules, and the monks practised asceticism in strict discipline. In effect, Irish monasticism developed in quite unique manner, which was said to have been brought by monks from St Martin's monastery of Tours, not via Rome, directly from Egyptian church, such as one of Alexandria. This separate development of Irish Christianity would become the cause of conflict between the parties, as well as so-called Peregrinatio pro Christo derived from such austerity, through which the 'wondering' monks established the daughter monastic communities across the Continent.

  In other words, the communities of the clans in Ireland turned themselves into the monasteries: a feudal lord became an abbot, likewise the members of each clan the monks. The Latin Navigatio's statement that the Clonfert monastery held 'three thousand monks' correctly reflects the historical fact about the early Irish monastic hamlets.

  The illustration below shows the typical 'monastic community' in early mediæval Ireland: an oratory would have been built in the center, surrounded with the monks' bee-hive cells. The recent aerial surveys revealed that the monastic hamlets in early mediæval Ireland would have been mere small, scattered settlements of the monks' hermitages, rather than the magnificent monastery buildings around the Continent which showed up in the later periods.

  Also the Celtic monks were expert sailors themselves, and they set sail in their curraghs or 'naomhogs' for Christ, in quest of unknown islands to spread the Gospel. In such voyages, they established Celtic Christianity communities and converted the pagan natives.

  The Irish monks, however, never diminished their own literary legacy; indeed they even tried to cherish it in a new guise: perhaps they would have recorded such intellectual heritage of the Irish mythologies and legends from Druids or 'Filid', the traditional and pagan poet class, retelling them with many other literary sources intertwined, such as the works by the classical authors or the Church Fathers. In other words, the Celtic mythology would have been lost forever, without their efforts to write down them on the parchment.

  Among the writings created by such Celtic monks, there is an idea called Thír na nÓg, just like that of 'Pure Land lying in far West' from Japan. The excellent sailor-monks recorded their own experiences aboard, adding the real features of the geography seen around the North Atlantic Ocean, created the genre of immrama or 'the voyage tales'. In this context, the Navigatio Sancti Brendani Abbatis, The Voyage of Saint Brendan the Abbot, was to be born(henceforth the Navigatio).

an example of the early Irish monastical community

from Thomas Cahill, How the Irish saved civilization, Doubleday, New York, 1995.

Who is Saint Brendan?

  First of all, the real, historical Brendan was indeed not only one Brendan but two of them ; one was Saint Brendan 'the Navigator', of 'Clonfert(Cluain Ferta in Irish)', the other Saint Brendan 'of Birr(meaning "well" or "spring")', and the former was a bit of younger than the latter. The two Brendans might have been related or descended from the same kin group. It is said that the senior Brendan of Birr would have advised Saint Columba(Colmcille in Irish)as to where he should have headed for as an exile from the Irish Church.

  So famous has his name become though, we have to admit that there is very little secure information in regard to his life, but at least some of the details of his life are found in the Irish annals and genealogies.1 The birth place of Saint Brendan of Clonfert, 'the Navigator' might have been around Fenit or Tralee region, Co. Kerry. According to Vita Sancti Brendani, his father was Finlug(in Latin ; Fynlogus, Findluagh, Findlogh in Irish)and his mother was Cara or Broinngheal. Brendan was of the Alltraighe Caille, who were a sept of the Ciarraige Luachra, who have given their name to the present Co. Kerry(Chiarraí in Irish), so he was well-born and of high rank. At first he was called Mobhí or Mobí, but on his birthday when 'a shining mist(Broen Finn in Irish)lay over his native region', so he was named Broen Finn, and baptized by Bishop Erc(? -514)of Tearmon Eirc, near Ardfert. After his birth he remained with his parents for one year, then in accordance with the old custom, he was fostered in a religious community by Saint Ita, of Cluain Credhail, south-west Limerick, until the age of five. At ten, he was in turn brought up by Bishop Erc, who taught him the rudiments of Latin and Holy Scriptures and the Psalms, along with 'the Rules of the Irish Saints'. He must have been good at handling of curraghs and a great sailer as well as a monk, because all of his kinsmen would have been a great sailor off the western coast of Ireland, so he also learned the ways of seas and the building and navigation of the curraghs.

  Then he alone set out for the remote region Connaught in Galway in order to be a full-fledged monk himself under a famous teacher Jarlath, who drilled him in more of Latin, works by the patristics. In 512, he returned to Bishop Erc to be ordained as a priest. Then he established the see of Ardfert, just a few miles away from where he was born. He also reportedly made the difficult journey to Skellig Michael, eight miles west off the Kerry coast across the very rough waters, or visited Saint Enda of Inishmore, the Aran Isles., off the Galway coast, or after finished his term at Jarlath, he went north to the great monastery school of Saint Finnian of Clonard, Co. Meath(Saint Finnian is known as 'Tutor of the Saints of Ireland').

  He would have seemed a man of deep seeker for the unknown world surrounding his native region by the North Atlantic, so he often set sail in his curragh to and fro, from the Orkneys, Hebrides or Shetlands, and less documented sources spoke of him going even as far afield as the Faeroes, all of which have the place names after the Irish.

  He also travelled to Wales, where he tutored Saint Malo(Macutus in Latin)at Llancarfan monastery of Saint Cadoc(he was the abbot there during his stay), then he took Malo along with him to land and spread the Gospel in Brittany.

  In 554(or 561), he founded the most famous abbey and school at Confert, Co. Galway, which had enjoyed its fame among Clonmacnoise, Bangor and Clonard for the next seven hundred years. His other oratories or foundations are found at Inish Grola and Inisquan, both west off the Connemara coast, Ballynavenoorah, at the foot of Mt Brandon, whose summit has a tiny oratory built by the saint himself, and Annaghdown for a convent on behalf of his sister Briga, and so forth ; all are found scattered around the western coastal region of Ireland.

  He must have survived the very long span of his life, as at over 90 years of age, he went to see Briga at Annaghdown, where he would have passed away. His body, however, might have buried at Clonfert.

  The local place names of Dingle peninsula(Corca Dhuibhne in Irish), Co.Kerry are also named after Saint Brendan. For example, Mt Brandon(in older Irish spelling, 953m), Brandon Head or Brandon Point, Brandon Bay and Brandon Creek(Cuas an Bhodaigh in Irish), where the local tradition says his departure point for his quest of 'Terra repromissionis sanctorum'.

  • 1. The entries of Saint Brendan of Clonfert are found in Dá apstol décc na hÉrenn, The poem of St Cuimin of Conor, or The litany of St Aengus the Culdee, etc.

External link1 : Map of Dingle peninsula

External link2 : View of Brandon Creek from Mt Brandon, found at the University of Wales Lampeter site.

External link3 : Brandon Creek, found in a Flickr user page.

External link4 : View from the end of the quay of Brandon Creek.

Top Next→
left button icon return to HOME go to Irish Immrama