1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Brendan

BRENDAN, Brandon, or Brandan (c. 484–578), Irish saint and hero of a legendary voyage in the Atlantic, is said to have been born at Tralee in Kerry in A.D. 484. The Irish form of his name is Brennain, the Latin Brendanus. Medieval historians usually call him Brendan of Clonfert, or Brendan son of Finnloga, to distinguish him from his contemporary, St Brendan of Birr (573). Little is known of the historical Brendan, who died in 578 as abbot of a Benedictine monastery which he had founded twenty years previously at Clonfert in eastern Galway. The story of his voyage across the Atlantic to the “Promised Land of the Saints,” afterwards designated “St Brendan’s Island,” ranks among the most celebrated of the medieval sagas of western Europe. Its traditional date is 565–573. The legend is found, in prose or verse and with many variations, in Latin, French, English, Saxon, Flemish, Irish, Welsh, Breton and Scottish Gaelic. Although it does not occur in the writings of any Arabian geographer, several of its incidents—such as the landing on a whale in mistake for an island—belong also to Arabic folk-literature. Many of Brendan’s fabulous adventures seem to be borrowed from the half-pagan Irish saga of Maelduin or Maeldune, and others belong also to Scandinavian mythology. The oldest extant version of the legend is the 11th century Navigatio Brendani.

St Brendan’s island was long accepted as a reality by geographers. In a Venetian map dated 1367, in the anonymous Weimar map of 1424, and in B. Beccario’s map of 1435, it is identified with Madeira. Columbus, in his journal for the 9th of August 1492, states that the inhabitants of Hierro, Gomera and Madeira had seen the island in the west; and Martin Behaim, in the globe he made at Nuremberg in the same year, places it west of the Canaries and near the equator. During the 16th century the progress of exploration in these latitudes compelled many cartographers to locate the island elsewhere; and it was marked about 100 m. west of Ireland, or afterwards among the West Indies. But in Spain and Portugal the older belief as to its situation was maintained. In 1526 an expedition under Fernando Alvarez left Grand Canary in search of St Brendan’s island, which had again been reported as seen by many trustworthy witnesses. In 1570 an official inquiry was held, and a second expedition undertaken, by Fernando de Villalobos, governor of Palma. Similar voyages of discovery were made by the Canarians in 1604 and 1721; and only in 1759 was the apparition of St Brendan’s island explained as an effect of mirage.

Among the numerous books which deal with the legend, the following are important: Die altfranzösische Prosaübersetzung von Brendans Meerfahrt, by C. Wahlund (Upsala, 1900); La “Navigatio Sancti Brendani” in antico Veneziano, by F. Novati (Bergamo, 1892); Zur Brendanus-Legende, &c., by G. Schirmer (Leipzig, 1888); Les Voyages merveilleux de St. Brendan, &c., by F. Michel (Paris, 1878); and Acta Sancti Brendani . . . . Original Latin Documents connected with the Life of St Brendan, by P. F. Moran (Dublin, 1872).