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  • Writer's pictureLolly Spence

St Brendan the Navigator

Today (16th May) is the annual Feast Day of my favourite Irish saint. I have soft spots for St Francis (animals), St Kevin (blackbirds) and St Brigid (wee lambs) - but above them all I like St Brendan.

Brendan is given various titles but the most fitting is Brendan the Navigator. He was the tour guide and travel blogger of his day, believed by some to have discovered Newfoundland long before America was even a thing...

Born in the 5th century at Fenit (near Dingle) in County Kerry in the south-west of Ireland, Brendan is an early Irish monastic saint and one of the Twelve Apostles of Ireland.

Never content on land, he was forever building wee boats and heading off on adventures. He is primarily renowned for his legendary quest to the "Isle of the Blessed" - today we'd call it 'Brendan in the Wild West'.

He kept a detailed travel journal - the Navigatio Sancti Brendani Abbatis ("Voyage of Saint Brendan") - which became a medieval best-seller.

That voyage is dated to AD 512–530 and Brendan encountered a sea monster, walruses, great crystal pillars rising out of the sea (icebergs) and demons throwing rocks (Icelandic volcanic eruptions).

Brendan and his companions were in a wee, single-masted, currach-like boat of wattle, covered with hides and tanned in oak bark, softened with butter.

There is a really great book by the explorer, Tim Severin who sadly died last December. Tim and some companions recreated St Brendan's voyage as authentically as possible in the 1970s and demonstrated that it is possible for a leather-clad boat to sail from Kerry to North America, via the Faroes and Iceland.

Severin's 1978 film inspired Irish composer Shaun Davey to write his orchestral suite "The Brendan Voyage" - which was the first time the uilleann pipes had led a full ensemble. It is an astonishing score and captures all the moods of the landscape and the voyagers.

St Brendan is featured on the Stella Maris mosaic in Belfast (corner of Garmoyle Street and Dock Street) created by Des Kinney - but I kind of suspect I will be alone in celebrating him here today lol.

One of my ambitions for this summer is to climb Mount Brandon in Kerry - if Ann Curran will take me.

Happy St Brendan's Day, friends :)

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