Do you know the story of St Brendan? He – ‘The Navigator’ – went to North America long before Columbus. Nearly a thousand years before, in fact: Brendan was born in the fifth century. The story of his voyage, and his remarkable adventures with his fellow monks, has inspired art, music and song ever since then. Here’s the beginning of Christy Moore’s version:
A boat sailed out of Brandon in the year of 501
’twas a damp and dirty mornin’ Brendan’s voyage it began.
Tired of thinnin’ turnips and cuttin’ curley kale
When he got back from the creamery he hoisted up the sail.
He ploughed a lonely furrow to the north, south, east and west
Of all the navigators, St Brendan was the best . . .
We went to Tralee, Co Kerry, to visit the Church of Our Lady and St Brendan: Finola was looking for windows by Murphy Devitt (which are spectacular) and I chanced upon a set of bronze roundels laid into the paving leading up to the main entrance (above). I felt I had to record them here, as they illustrate and tell the whole story of the Saint so wonderfully well. The large medallions were designed and made by Eithne Ring and Liam Lavery, and were installed in 2010. As far as I know this is a unique record of the voyage: well worth a visit – but don’t miss the windows!
St Brendan: part of a huge stained glass installation by Murphy Devitt in this Kerry church
I’m showing the roundels in the order in which you encounter them as you approach the main doors to the church, and giving a very brief description of the subject of each. At the end you will find a commentary provided by the designers, which gives more detail.
1 St Brendan visits St Enda prior to building his boat
2 On a rocky island, Brendan’s crew are led by a hound to a miraculous hall of food
3 The monks find an island inhabited by giant sheep
4 Brendan and his companions land on an island, light a fire and celebrate Mass; they discover that they are on the back of a whale!
5 An island of white birds: one is ringing a bell
6 The monks take meat from a beast that has been slain by a monster
7 On the Island of Grapes the monks witness a battle between a gryphon and a bird: the bird is victorious
8 All the fish in the ocean come to listen to Brendan while he sings
9 Brendan finds a huge crystal pillar rising out of the sea
10 The sea is boiling like an erupting volcano
11 Brendan and his companions meet the unhappy Judas chained to a rocky island
12 The travellers find a hermit who has been fed by an otter for forty years
13 Brendan returns to Ireland to prepare for his death
So now you know the bones of Brendan’s story. Now listen to the music! Saun Davey’s Brendan Voyage, a suite for uillinn pipes and orchestra, is a masterpiece inspired partly by the Saint himself, but also by Tim Severin’s 1976/77 recreation of the journey across the Atlantic in a leather clad boat:
Tim Severin pictured with a model of the boat in which he recreated the Saint’s journey
Let’s give the last words to Christy Moore, and the chorus of his Brendan song (you can find all the lyrics here):
“Is it right or left for Gibraltar?”
“What tack do I take for Mizen Head?”
“I’d love to settle down near Ventry Harbour”,
St Brendan to his albatross he said . . .