Legend of the Isles:
Saint Patrick & Brendan

(Acorn, 1998)

Legends of the Isles, Vol. I explores the lives and legends of two of Ireland's most famous personages, St. Patrick and Brendan the Navigator. Knowing little about the actual life of the first and next to nothing about the latter, I found this 52-minute video extremely informative and interesting. Not only does it tell the stories of two incredible men, it also provides the reader with a small window into the ancient culture of the Irish.

The most surprising thing I learned in this video is the fact that St. Patrick, the patron saint of Ireland, was not Irish. He was born in Wales, but, during his teens, was captured by pirates and sold into slavery in Ireland. Despite his slave status and the fact that he was a Christian surrounded by pagans, he came to love the Irish people a great deal -- and so it was that, some time after escaping the land altogether, he returned with a personal mission to convert the Irish pagans to Christianity.

Legend credits him with much more than one man could ever have achieved, but for all intents and purposes he can be credited for Christianizing the Irish. He also gets the credit for producing the first written document in Irish history, his own The Confessions of Saint Patrick written toward the end of the 5th century.

Beyond his own humble account of his life, the video goes on to explore some of the many legends that have come down through the generations, such as the claim that he drove all of the snakes out of Ireland (which we know is not true) and that he earned the right to judge the Irish people when Armageddon comes. As for the business with the clover, the documentary suggests that he actually used a different plant, one used in druidic love potions, rather than the then-rare clover to illustrate the concept of the Trinity to the pagans. Another interesting tidbit is the fact that the first St. Patrick's Day parade took place in America, not Ireland.

I knew almost nothing about Brendan, but his is certainly a most fascinating story. This 6th-century monk was a master navigator, sailing with several of his brethren on boats made of wood and animal skins as far north as Scandinavia, as far south as Africa and -- just possibly -- as far west as the Americas. It hardly seems possible that Brendan could have set foot on the New World almost a millennium before Columbus made his famous arrival there -- yet there is certainly food for thought involved here. An 8th-century manuscript tells the story of that voyage, describing the monks' encounters with pillars of ice, a land from which hot rocks were hurled down around them, an island that was actually a creature and the promised land Brendan was said to have discovered. Even in the 8th century, no one knew what an iceberg was, nor had anyone sailed to the volcanic island of Iceland. The moving island could refer to a giant whale. As for landfall, the document states that the monks found themselves inside a thick mist before landing, the kind of mist that still appears off the coast of Newfoundland.

Columbus himself apparently found the story of Brendan's incredible voyage creditable, paying a visit to Brendan's monastery to consult the ancient account a decade before officially discovering the New World in 1492. In the 1970s, a man set out to recreate Brendan's legendary voyage, proving that a boat of 6th-century design could indeed cross the Atlantic Ocean. During the journey, he encountered some of Brendan's reported sightings in the same order as they are detailed in the ancient document.

The one issue the video does not touch on is what in the world these monks did for food and, more especially, water during their voyage -- a voyage that lasted seven years. No one is going to rewrite the record books any time soon, but the story of Brendan the Navigator definitely makes for stimulating discussion and speculation.

by Daniel Jolley
15 July 2006

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