On this day, 16 May, we celebrate the Feast Day of St. Brendan.

By Ian Brophy, Dúchas na Gaillimhe

Brendan was born during the Middle Ages in 484 A.D.in Co. Kerry. He was baptised near Ardfert,Co. Kerry by Bishop Erc. At the tender age of one, he was sent to the care of St. Ita nearby. He was nurtured under her care and instruction for five years. When he was 6 years of age, he was sent to St. Jarlath’s Monastery school in Tuam, Co. Galway. Here, he received a theological education leading to his ordination by Bishop Erc in 512 A.D.

There is very little information concerning Brendan’s life, although some accounts of his life can be found in the Irish annals. The principal works regarding Brendan and his life are a ‘Life of Brendan’ in several Latin and Irish versions, and the better known ‘Navigatio Sancti Brendani Abbatis’ (Voyage of St. Brendan the Abbot).

Throughout his lifetime, he founded a number of religious communities and monasteries. He built monastic cells at Ardfert, near his birthplace. He also built foundations near Ennis in Clare; on Inchiquin Island on Lough Corrib, Annaghdown near Lough Corrib, and at Clonfert near the river Shannon. His most celebrated foundation was the monastic community in Clonfert which he established in 557 A.D. Biographies say that this community had at least 3,000 monks; and their rule of faith was dictated by an angel.

However, Brendan is more renowned for his travels. More commonly known as Brendan the Navigator, he is renowned for his legendary voyage to find the ‘Promised Land’. On the Kerry coast, Brendan built a boat of wattles, covered it with hides tanned in oak bark and softened with butter, and set up a mast and a sail. He, and a group of monks, took to the waters in this currach-like boat, and set sail under the sign of the Cross. This 7-year voyage took them across the Atlantic, and there is a possibility that they reached the Americas long before Christopher Columbus. Indeed, Columbus visited Galway in 1477; and there is a strong possibility that he came to Galway to find out more about the legendary exploits of Brendan. Perhaps Columbus also visited St. Brendan’s Well near the Hall of the Red Earl in Galway. Perhaps, as he dropped a coin into the well, he made a wish for his upcoming voyage.

The 1651 map of Galway depicts the ruins of the Hall of the Red Earl with a cross placed on top of its southern gable end. It would have been placed there to mark the site of St. Brendan’s Well. St. Brendan, patron of Annaghdown diocese, whose Feast Day, 16 May, is ‘usually kept holy by the key-street dwellers of old’. This well is situated under the current Custom House building. There is a small medieval stone carving of a curled-up deer on the front of the Custom House to mark the position of the well. This carving has been moved from its original position, which was just to the right of the Custom House’s car park gate.

Indeed, as I write this article at my office desk, I am reminded of the ironworkers who built the iron smelting works in the shape of a Cross in the Hall of the Red Earl. This cruciform-shaped works was to appeal to St. Brendan to bless their work. As I sit at my desk, I appeal to St. Brendan to bless my work; for it is very possible that the original Well is just beneath my feet. Perhaps Columbus stood at this very spot.

St. Brendan died in 577 A.D. at the monastery of Annaghdown while visiting his sister Briga. He was buried in Clonfert, where his grave is simply marked outside the Cathedral.
St. Brendan, one of Ireland’s most revered saints, and one of the 12 Apostles of Ireland, has his Feast Day today, the 16 May.


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