St Brendan The Navigator

St Brendan The Navigator

St Brendan of Clonfert or in Irish; Naomh Breandán, is known as “the Navigator”, “the Voyager”, or “the Bold” and is one of the early Irish monastic saints and was one of the Twelve Apostles of Ireland.

He is chiefly renowned for his legendary quest to the “Isle of the Blessed,” also called St. Brendan’s Island which is known as the Voyage of St. Brendan.

Saint Brendan’s feast day is celebrated on May 16th in the Eastern Orthodox Church, Roman Catholic Church and within the Anglican Communion.

St Brendan’s early life

He was baptized at Tubrid, near Ardfert, by Saint Erc. For five years he was educated under the care Saint Ita, who is known as “the Brigid of Munster”, and he then went on to complete his studies under Saint Erc, who ordained him as a priest in the year 512.

Between the years 512 and 530 St Brendan built monastic sites at Ardfert at the foot of Mount Brandon. After these years he is supposed to have set out on his famous seven-year voyage for Paradise.

The old Irish Calendars assigned a special feast for the “Egressio familiae S. Brendani”, on March 22nd; and St Aengus the Culdee, in his Litany composed at the close of the eighth century, called upon “the sixty who accompanied St. Brendan in his quest for the Land of Promise”.

The Voyage of St Brendan the Navigator

St Brendan and the whale from a 15th century manuscriptSt Brendan is famously renowned for his legendary journey to The Isle of the Blessed as described in the ninth century as the Voyage of St Brendan the Navigator.

Many versions of this story exist, passed down through the centuries, which tell of how he set out onto the Atlantic Ocean with sixty pilgrims, however, some other versions have fourteen pilgrims, plus three unbelievers who join at the last minute. The purpose of their voyage was to search for the Garden of Eden.

One of these companions is said to have been Saint Malo.

If the voyage did take place, it would have occurred sometime between 512-530 AD, before Brendan traveled to the island of Great Britain.

He is said to have also encountered a sea monster, an adventure he shared with his contemporary St. Columba. This most commonly illustrated adventure is his landing on an island which turns out to be a giant sea monster called Jasconius or Jascon. This too, has its parallels in other stories, not only in Irish mythology but in other traditions, from Sinbad the Sailor to Pinocchio.

Later life of St Brendan

Later in his life, Brendan traveled to Wales and the holy island of Iona, where St Columba spent his exile from Ireland. It is situated off the west coast of Scotland.

On returning to Ireland, he founded a monastery at Annaghdown, where he spent the rest of his days.

St Brendan’s Legacy

Saint Brendan is featured as well known inspiration in popular culture also, such as; “The Brendan Voyage”, which is an orchestral suite for the Uilleann pipes, written by Irish composer Shaun Davey in 1983 and based on Tim Severin’s book of the same name.

Novelist Frederick Buechner retold the story of Brendan’s travels in his 1987 novel, “Brendan”.

The Celtic band, “Iona”, made an entire recording inspired by the voyage of Saint Brendan called, “Beyond These Shores”, now available as part of the recording, “The River Flows”.

Singer-songwriter, Sarana Verlin, wrote an instrumental song titled, “St. Brendan’s Reel”, that appears on several albums including, “Amadon Crest”.

In the 2005 film, “Beowulf & Grendel”, a traveling monk named Brendan the Celt sails to Denmark circa 521 A.D.

The cream liqueur “Saint Brendan’s”, which is a whiskey-based drink and has a factory in Derry, is named after him.

Further reading

Last updated March 2, 2020.

About the Author

Brian O’Neill
Camera shy Brian is a proud Donegal man and regular contributor to our site.