So, back in the day when I was a wee child, I learned a bit of doggerel that ran like this, "Columbus sailed the ocean blue, in fourteen-hundred, ninety-two." And I was certain that before Columbus, not a single Old World soul had the slightest idea that there was another land across the ocean. Of course, Columbus did not discover the New World - he re-discovered it. Exactly who it was that first found the American continent is up for debate. There is a theory that the Chinese reached the New World in 1421. Indeed, there is a whole book dedicated to the idea. The Vikings, under the leadership of Leif Erickson, almost certainly reached North America in the year 1000. But if you ask the Irish, they will tell you that it was an Irish monk that got here first - sometime during the first half of the 6th century, and that monk is St. Brendan, whose feast day was today.
When Ireland was converted to Christianity by St. Patrick, the Age of Martyrs was passed, and the Faith came into small land at the far edge of the Known World, accompanied by very little in the line of persecution. Many of the Irish, on fire with the zeal of the newly converted, longed for martyrdom, but since that was denied them, they settled instead for something they termed a White Martyrdom - a complete, voluntary renunciation of the World; a continual, daily dying to one's self. There were various methods of accomplishing this. The most common, was simply to go out into the deserts (here used in the old sense of meaning uninhabited) and live in complete simplicity and poverty. The West Coast of Ireland, in particular, is dotted with tiny, dry stone, beehive structures, set up by early monks:
However, another method was one of exile. Some early Irish monks, such as St. Columcille, imposed exile upon themselves, and wandered about as missionaries to the Pagan tribes of Europe. In St. Brendan's case, he became a voyager. He and his monks, 'cast themselves upon the sea' in the small, leather curraghs, which are similar to the boats Irish fishermen can still be found to use. They lived monastic lives, praying, labouring, fishing, enduring the hardships of life upon the sea, and leaving their lives in the hands of God. And at one point, they set sail to the West, in search of the Blessed Realms, which they found after a voyage of seven years. Their adventures are set down in an ancient text, the Navigatio Sancti Brendani.
For a long time, the Navigatio was dismissed as unreliable legend, as it is full of fantastic stories. It told of islands upon which lived giants smiths, who worked at huge forges, the fires of which shot into the sky; islands, big enough for the monks to land upon, but which were actually enormous fish; crystal pillars towering up out of the sea. For all that, it was widely accepted that a land mass of some sort existed out in the wilds of the vast Atlantic Ocean. St. Brendan's Isle showed up reguarly on maps until as late as the 16th century, and there were reported sitings of it into the late 18th century, long after the New World was well on its way to being settled by Europeans.
So, did St.Brendan actually discover America? There is,at present, no way to be certain of it. However, in 1976, a man named Tim Severin re-created the sort of medieval leather boat that St. Brendan would have used to make his legendary voyage.
He and a crew of sailors were able to sail from Ireland to New Foundland in the craft, which proved, at least in theory, that is was certainly possible for a sea-faring people, as the Irish have always been, to have made the journey. He also came up with some very plausible theories to explain some of the more outlandish details recorded in the Navigatio. The easiest way to cross the Atlantic, is to stay as close as possible to known land masses, which means keeping a somewhat northerly bent to the sailing. It also means that the sailors will come very near to Iceland, which is famous - or infamous, depending on your view of the matter - for its volcanoes. The story of the giant smiths is pretty fantastic, but the descriptions of their fires could just as easily be applied to an erupting volcano. Several times during the Brendan Voyage, Severin and his crew encountered great pods of whales, whose backs broke the surface of the sea, so that the water appeared to be dotted with hundreds of islands, so perhaps the story of landing upon the back of an enormous fish is not so far-fetched as all that. And, they saw icebergs as well, which could very well be taken as pillars of crystal be men who had never seen such things before. Tim Severin wrote a book about the adventure, called simply, The Brendan Voyage which I highly recommend, as it is a great, adventuresome book, which often reads like fiction.
Finally, here is the prayers St. Brendan is to have said before he set out on his voyage:
Shall I abandon, O King of mysteries, the soft comforts of home? Shall I turn my back on my native land, and turn my face towards the sea?
Shall I put myself wholly at your mercy, without silver, without a horse, without fame, without honor? Shall I throw myself wholly upon You, without sword and shield, without food and drink, without a bed to lie on? Shall I say farewell to my beautiful land, placing myself under Your yoke?
Shall I pour out my heart to You, confessing my manifold sins and begging forgiveness, tears streaming down my cheeks? Shall I leave the prints of my knees on the sandy beach, a record of my final prayer in my native land?
Shall I then suffer every kind of wound that the sea can inflict? Shall I take my tiny boat across the wide sparkling ocean? O King of the Glorious Heaven, shall I go of my own choice upon the sea? O Christ, will You help me on the wild waves?