Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Brendan (484-577)

BRENDAN or BRENAINN, Saint (484–577), of Clonfert, was born in 484, at Littus li, or Stagnum li, now Tralee, co. Kerry. He is termed son of Finnloga, to distinguish him from his contemporary, St. Brendan of Birr [q. v.], and Mocu Alta, from his great-grandfather, Alta, who was of the race of Ciar, descendant of Rudraighe, from whom were the Ciarraighe, who have given their name to Kerry. His parents, though free and well born, were in a relation of dependence, and under the rule of their relative, Bishop Ere. Some have thought this was the well-known bishop of Slane, co. Meath ; but there were many of the name, and he seems to have been rather the head of a local monastery, and permanently resident in Kerry. Here Brendan was born, and when a year old was taken by Ere and placed in charge of St. Ita of Cluain Credhail, in the south-west of the county of Limerick. Remaining five years with her, he returned to Ere to begin his studies, and in course of time, when he had 'read through the canon of the Old and New Testaments,' he wished also to study the rules of the saints of Ireland. Having obtained Erc's permission to go to St. Jarlath of Tuam for the purpose, with the injunction to return to him for holy orders, he first paid a visit to St. Ita, 'his nurse.' She approved of his design, but cautioned him 'not to study with women or virgins, for fear of scandal,' and he then pursued his journey, and arrived in due time at Tuam. On the completion of his studies there he returned to Bishop Ere, and was ordained by him, but never proceeded beyond the order of presbyter, such being the usage of the second order of Irish saints to which he belonged.

It seems to have been at this period that the desire took possession of him to go forth on the expedition which formed the basis of the 'Navigation of St. Brendan,' the most popular legend in the Middle Ages. Some difficulty has always been felt with regard to the date usually assigned to it, as he must have been then sixty years of age, and it is not easy to reconcile it with the other facts of his life (Lanigan) ; but this difficulty seems to arise from the belief that there was but one voyage, as stated in the versions current abroad. The unpublished Irish life, in the 'Book of Lismore' (A.D. 1400), removes much of the difficulty by describing two voyages, one early in life and the other later on. It states that at his ordination the words of Scripture (St. Luke xviii. 29, 30) produced a profound impression on him, and he resolved to forsake his country and inheritance, beseeching his Heavenly Father to grant him 'the mysterious land far from human ken.' In his sleep an angel appeared to him, and said, 'Rise, Brendan, and God will grant you the land you seek.' Rejoiced at the message he rises, and goes forth 'alone on the mountain in the night, and beholds the vast and dim ocean stretching away on all sides from him' (such is exactly the view from Brandon Hill), and far in the distance he seems to behold 'the fair and excellent land, with angels hovering over it.' After another vision, and the promise of the angel's presence with him, he goes forth on his navigation, but, after seven years' wandering without success, is advised to return to his country, where many were waiting for him, and there was work for him to do. That Brendan may have undertaken some such expedition, and visited some of the western and northern islands, is quite possible; for it is certain that Irish hermits found their way to the Hebrides, the Shetland and Faroe Islands, and even to Iceland (Dicuil). Somewhere about this time may be placed his visit to Brittany, which is not noticed in the Irish life. He is said to have gone thither between 620 and 530. After a considerable stay he returned home. But the desire to reach the undiscovered land was not extinct, and now it revived with new vigour, and once more, after consulting Bishop Erc, he went to St. Ita and asked her 'what he should do about his voyage.' 'My dear son,' she replied, 'why did you go on your [former] expedition without consulting me? That land you are seeking from God you shall not find in those perishable leaky boats of hides ; but, however, build a ship of wood, and you shall find "the far land.!' The vessel of the first voyage is described in the 'Navigation' as covered with hides (Schröder). He then proceeded to Connaught, and built 'a large wonderful ship,' and engaging artificers and smiths, and putting on board many kinds of herbs and seeds, the party, sixty in all, embarked on their voyage, and, after many adventures, reached 'that paradise amid the waves of the sea.'

The story of the 'Navigation' had 'taken root in France as early as the eleventh century, was popular in Spain and Holland, and at least known in Italy, and was the favourite reading, not only of monks, but of the widest circle of readers' (Schröder) ; but it had been altered from its original form, the two voyages compressed into one, and the adventures of other Irish voyagers worked into it. The legend in this form is traced by Schröder to the Lower Rhine ; but he is unable to conjecture why it was connected with Brendan's name. It was, however, only one of a class of Irish tales, known as ' Imramas,' or expeditions, of which several are still extant ; and the popularity of this particular legend abroad may be accounted for by the fact that when it was taken to the continent in the general exodus of Irish clergy in the ninth and following centuries, owing to the Danish invasions, the monks of Brendan's order in one of the numerous Irish foundations on the Rhine thought fit to exalt their patron by dressing up the legend in a manner suited to the popular taste.

Some of the adventures have been supposed to be derived from the 'Arabian Nights ;' but there is reason to think that the converse is more likely (Wright). There is proof of the intercourse of Irish monks with the East in the ninth century (Dicuil) ; and some of the stories, as that of the great fish, called in the 'Navigation' Iasconius (Ir. iasc, a fish), which Sinbad took for an island, are essentially of northern origin. It seems to have been after his return from this voyage that he founded, in 553 (A. F. M.), the monastery of Cluain Fearta, 'the lawn of the grave,' now Clonfert, in the barony and county of Longford, which afterwards became a bishop's see.

He subsequently visited St. Columba at Hy, in company with two other saints. This must have been after 563, when he was in his seventy-ninth, year. On this occasion he may have founded the two churches in Scotland of which he was patron (Reeves).

The last time we hear of him is at the inauguration of Aedh Caemh, the first Christian king of Cashel, in 570, when he took the place of the official bard, MacLenini, who was a heathen. On this occasion Brendan was the means of the bard's conversion, when he gave him the name of Colman. He is since known as St. Colman of Cloyne. Brendan died in 577, in the ninety-fourth year of his age. His day in the calendar is 16 May.

[Bollandists' Acta Sanctorum, Maii, tom. iii , Antverpiæ, 1680; Colgan's Egressio Familiæ Brendani, i. 72; Wright's Early English Ballads (Percy Society), vol. xiv., 1844; Schröder's Sanct Brandan, Erlangen, 1871; Reeves's Adamnan's Life of Columba, 1857, pp. 55, 220, 223; Lanigan's Eccl. Hist. ii. 22, &c.; Dicuil, De Mensura Orbis, Paris, 1814; O'Curry's MS. Materials of Irish History, p. 288, Dublin, 1861; Beatha Breanainn, MS., in the Book of Lismore, Royal Irish Academy, Dublin; the Book of Munster, MS. 23, E 26, in Royal Irish Academy.]

T. O.