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

Today 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]

Cell phone signal helps rescue five American sailors

After missing for more than a week, five American sailors are safe today. Their sailboat, the Pineapple, developed engine and communication problems after running into bad weather off the coast of Guam. They were lost at sea. A massive search produced no results. Finally one of those on board was able to grab a cell phone signal long enough to call for help.

Relatives and friends of the crew, four male and one female, had reported them missing when the 38-foot catamaran failed to arrive in the Philippines by January 18. Coast guards and rescue authorities from the Philippines, United States, Palau, and the Northern Marianas all searched for the missing sailboat with no results. Yesterday the one female on board managed to contact her husband using her cell phone when the vessel drifted within signal range. The husband called rescuers in Guam to give the boat’s coordinate and the US Coast Guard took it from there.

“The husband confirmed the vessel ran into bad weather and suffered a rudder and radio casualty.” said a statement from the US Coast Guard, adding “This delayed the Pineapple’s voyage but it was never in danger of sinking.”

It sounds like they were pretty lucky though. After searching for 63 hours, the US Coast Guard had found nothing on it’s own. It turns out that the rescue attempt could have been made much easier with some advance planning on the part of the Pineapple’s crew.

“I’m elated for the family and friends of the Pineapple, but compelled to point out that this voyage was made without taking basic, common-sense precautions.” warned Captain Thomas Sparks, U.S. Coast Guard Guam commander.

Apparently no one bothered to file a comprehensive sailing plan which is not required but customary on long sea voyages. Also, the ship had no long-distance communication or emergency distress equipment, also standard on world-class voyages.

They did have a good cell phone signal though.

It is hard not to ask “So, who was service provider?” and/or “What brand was that phone?” Neither have been identified. You can bet we’ll see that one on a future Gadling Gear review though.

Flickr photo by smith

Naval officer finishes flight in restraints

Something happened between Melbourne, Australia and London, England. A Lieutenant Commander from Canberra “became rowdy” in the sky and “accosted” another passenger. The details of the encounter were not revealed, but the Sydney Morning Herald reports that it involved a scuffle, landed the sailor in restraints and ended with arrest when the plane touched down at Heathrow Airport.

During the flight, the crew was able to subdue the naval officer to keep him from further scuffling with other passengers. What the team in the sky began, Metropolitan Police finished, when they took the 57-year-old into custody in London.

Apparently, the alleged perp was said to be “behaving oddly.”

Undiscovered New York: Staten Island’s Snug Harbor

Welcome to Undiscovered New York. This week we’re returning to one of New York City’s least-visited tourist spots: Staten Island. Despite its reputation as the “Forgotten Borough,” Staten Island is home to some of New York’s most delicious food, unique sites and friendly residents. Not least of these sites is Snug Harbor.

Originally founded as a residence for aging sailors, the sprawling 83 acre grounds of Snug Harbor are host to a majestic collection of 19th Century Greek Revival buildings, interesting art museums and serene botanical gardens. What’s perhaps most amazing about this fascinating site is just how easy (and cheap) it is to get here from Lower Manhattan. A scenic (free) ride on the Staten Island Ferry plus a quick 10 minute bus trip and you’re there.

Want to get lost in a hedge maze and an authentic Chinese garden? How about some panoramic views of New York Harbor and the city’s skyscrapers? Click below to go inside Staten Island’s Snug Harbor.
Snug Harbor Grounds

The centerpiece of Snug Harbor is the site’s beautiful 19th Century architecture. A complex of five buildings comprise the area’s main focal point, with the huge Randall Memorial Chapel as the anchor. Each building presents a front of soaring columns and a spacious portico in a style similar to that of the ancient Greek temples. On all sides the buildings are surrounded by other unique landmarks: an original wrought-iron fence, an 1890’s zinc water fountain and some beautifully manicured grounds.

The careful placement of each building along with the landscaping have led many visitors to describe the site as reminiscent of a college quad. The whole scene, taken together, represents a surprising oasis of calm in the typical hustle and bustle of New York City.

Staten Island Botanical Garden
Also on the site of the Snug Harbor complex are the Staten Island Botanical Gardens, one of the more interesting landmarks in the area. Kids will be easily entertained by the Connie Gretz Secret Garden, one of only a handful of European style hedge mazes in the United States, and one that is modeled on the well known children’s book, The Secret Garden. The maze winds its way to a miniature castle, complete with its own drawbridge and moat.

The gardens are also home to The New York Chinese Scholar’s Garden, a unique Chinese-style space modeled on the famous green spaces of the Chinese city of Suzhou. The beautifully landscaped courtyard with pond, terraced rocks and authentic Chinese pavilions was constructed by 40 artisans brought in from Suzhou to ensure accuracy and authenticity.

Newhouse Center for Contemporary Art
With all the beautifully preserved architecture and authentic gardens, one could be forgiven for thinking Snug Harbor is purely a historical sight. But in fact, Snug Harbor is also home to one of New York’s many galleries of contemporary art. The Newhouse Center for Contemporary Art, a Smithsonian-affiliated museum that is home to around 15,000 square feet of gallery space. Depending on when you pop in, you’ll be treated to exhbitions by a diverse range of artists, ranging from both the international to the local.