St. Brendan: Did An Irish Monk Come To America Before Columbus?

St. BrendanToday is St. Brendan’s feast day. To the Irish, St. Brendan needs no introduction. For those less fortunate in their birth, let me tell you that he may have been Ireland’s first adventure traveler.

Saint Brendan was an Irish holy man who lived from 484 to 577 AD. Little is known about his life, and even his entry in the Catholic Encyclopedia is rather short. What we do know about him mostly comes from a strange tale called “the Voyage of St Brendan the Navigator,” written down in the ninth century and rewritten with various changes in several later manuscripts.

It’s an account of a seven-year journey he and his followers took across the Atlantic, where they met Judas sitting on a rock, landed on what they thought was an island only to discover it was a sea monster, were tempted by a mermaid, and saw many other strange and wondrous sights. They got into lots of danger, not the least from some pesky devils, but the good Saint Brendan used his holy might to see them through.

They eventually landed on the fabled Isle of the Blessed far to the west of Ireland. This is what has attracted the attention of some historians. Could the fantastic tale hide the truth that the Irish came to America a thousand years before Columbus?

Sadly, there’s no real evidence for that. While several eager researchers with more imagination than methodology have claimed they’ve found ancient Irish script or that places like Mystery Hill are Irish settlements, their claims fall down under scrutiny.

But, as believers like to say, absence of evidence is not evidence of absence, and there are some tantalizing clues that hint the Irish really did journey across the sea in the early Middle Ages. It’s firmly established that Irish monks settled in the Faroe Islands in the sixth century. The Faroes are about halfway between Scotland and Iceland. Viking sagas record that when they first went to settle Iceland in the late ninth century, they found Irish monks there. There are also vague references in the Viking sagas and in medieval archives in Hanover hinting that Irish monks made it to Greenland too.

%Gallery-155425%From Greenland, of course, it’s not much of a jump to North America. The monks wanted to live far away from the evils of the world and were willing to cross the ocean to do so.

How did they sail all that distance? In tough little boats called currachs, made of a wickerwork frame with hides stretched over it. One would think these soft boats with no keel wouldn’t last two minutes in the open ocean, but British adventurer Tim Severin proved it could be done. In 1976, he and his crew sailed a reconstruction of a medieval currach on the very route I’ve described. The boat, christened Brendan, was 36 feet long, had two masts, and was made with tanned ox hides sealed with wool grease and tied together with more than two miles of leather thongs. While Brendan says sailing it was like “skidding across the waves like a tea tray,” the team did make it 4,500 miles across the ocean. His book on the adventure, “The Brendan Voyage,” is a cracking good read.

Although Severin proved the Irish could have made it to America, it doesn’t mean they did. Severin had the advantage of modern nautical charts and sailed confident in the knowledge that there was indeed land where he was headed. So until archaeologists dig up a medieval Irish church in North America, it looks like St. Brendan’s voyage will remain a mystery.

[Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons]

Historic structures in Ireland may lose protection

Ireland, milestoneArchaeologists are speaking out against a plan by the government of the Republic of Ireland to “delist” historic and archaeological sites that date to after 1700.

This would mean there will be no government protection for many of Ireland’s historic homes, holy wells, and other bits of architecture, such as this funky milestone at Howth, photographed by William Murphy.

The Institute of Archaeologists of Ireland said in a public statement at the end of last year that deep cuts in heritage management threatened to undermine the government’s plan to promote tourism as part of Ireland’s economic recovery. While funding to protect historic structures has gone down, funding to promote cultural tourism is up. Not funding some of the very things that tourists come to Ireland for, the Institute says, “is akin to spending money on a new car but finding that you can’t afford to pay for the petrol.”

The economic crisis has led to belt tightening in many countries. Some Dutch museums are planning to sell part of their collections to survive, while the Edgar Allan Poe House and Museum may close in Baltimore.

Discoveries at a Templar abbey in Ireland

Ireland, Mourne Abbey
Mourne Abbey in County Cork, Ireland, has been the focus of an archaeological excavation to discover more about the history of this medieval religious center.

The abbey was built around 1199 by the Knights Templar. After the rulers of Europe turned on the Templars and destroyed the order in 1307, resulting in 700 years of conspiracy theories, the abbey was handed over to the Knights Hospitaller. This knightly order got its name because its original purpose was to care for sick pilgrims in Jerusalem after the First Crusade, but soon they acquired more land and more power to become one of the leading forces in the Holy Land and Europe. They owned some of the toughest castles in the world.

Their power waned after the Muslims reconquered the Holy Land but the order still exists today. The abbey was abandoned when Henry VIII dissolved the monasteries as part of his break from Rome in 1541. It has since fallen into picturesque ruin.

Now a team of archaeologists has excavated the site and discovered remains from the Hospitaller’s stay in the abbey. The team uncovered the foundations of a 13th century preceptory, the local headquarters for the knights. Very few remains of the Knights Hospitaller have ever been found in Ireland. The archaeologists discovered decorated floor tiles, the tomb of a 16th century knight, and several artifacts.

The abbey is open to the public and there’s a medieval castle and town an easy walk away. For more images of this historic abbey, click here.

[Photo courtesy John Armagh]

American Civil War anniversary remembered. . .in Dublin

Civil War, Irish Brigade, American Civil War
As the United States begins a series of commemorations of the 150th anniversary of the Civil War, this momentous conflict is even being marked beyond the nation’s borders.

This weekend the National Museum of Ireland in Dublin is having a series of events to mark the contribution of Irish immigrants on both sides of the Civil War. While most Irish immigrants went to the industrial North and thus ended up in the Union army, there were a significant number of Irish Confederates as well. Also, the famous New York City draft riots were mostly instigated by poor Irish immigrants who objected to the fact that rich people could buy their way out of the draft.

Unless you’re in Dublin at the moment you’ll miss the lectures and free live music, but if you’re going to Dublin check out the museum’s permanent Soldiers & Chiefs exhibition at Collins Barracks, which outlines Irish military history including the Irish people’s part in the American Civil War.

[Image of Lt. Col. James J. Smith and officers of 69th New York Infantry (Irish Brigade) courtesy Library of Congress]