Christian History Project. This site contains the text of 12 volumes on the history of mankind over the last 2,000 years written from a 'collectively-denominational' Christian perspective.

Brendan |
The myth that may not be mythical

Brendan is drawn from Chapter Nine, beginning on page 250, of Volume Four, Darkness Descends of the twelve-volume historical series The Christians: Their First Two Thousand Years. If you would like to order this book please visit

Brendan, the monk, crossed the Atlantic in his leather boat, they said, and scholars scoffed, until a gutsy sailor proved it could be done

Brendan - The myth that may not be mythical

Brendan - The myth that may not be mythical
The twentieth-century leather curragh Brendan confounds doubters by duplicating, in 1976, the legendary and supposedly impossible thirty-five-hundred mile Atlantic crossing of her saintly namesake.

Brendan of Clonfert, sixth-century priest and monk from Ireland’s Galway area, is a famous founder of monasteries and churches. What chiefly caught the medieval imagination, however, was his reputed missionary expedition across the Atlantic Ocean, to what was called “The Land Promised to the Saints,” as described in the ninth-century saga The Voyage of St. Brendan.

On this voyage, said to have lasted seven years, the saint and his monks encountered many wonders. There was the Isle of Temptation, where one monk was tricked by Satan into stealing; celebration of the Easter Liturgy on the back of a whale; fallen angels who appeared as talking birds; an island of towering crystal occupied by silent monks; and a smoking mountain Brendan proclaimed to be hell. Equally amazing, they reached the Atlantic’s farthest shore–and returned.

Over the centuries, this tale would become entirely incredible to enlightened scholars. By modern times Brendan’s transatlantic trip had been entirely dismissed as myth–until, that is, a twentieth-century skipper duplicated it. Using primitive tools, wood, flax and ox hides sewn together, all available to the saint, Timothy Severin supervised the replication of a traditional Celtic curragh, thirty-six-feet long, which he named Brendan.

Christened with a bottle of Irish whiskey and blessed by a bishop, Brendan departed for North America in May 1976. Fierce storms and extreme discomfort, as Severin writes in The Brendan Voyage (New York, 1978), made him and his four-man crew begin “to appreciate the lives of medieval sailors, who had to trust in God, keep patience and faith alive, and risk death by storm, starvation and thirst.”

But by July they reached Iceland, closely accompanied by a procession of whales that at one point numbered one hundred and forty. They observed smoking mountains and crystal islands too, under less-fanciful names. The next spring, navigating through darkness and high waves (and among some of the saint’s crystal islands), Brendan rounded the southern tip of Greenland, and landed on the Newfoundland coast, leather hull intact.

She had shown, Severin writes, “that the saga of her namesake was no mere splendid medieval fantasy, but a highly plausible tale.” St. Brendan could indeed have crossed the Atlantic, before even the Norsemen, and a thousand years before Columbus.

This is the end of the Brendan category article drawn from Chapter Nine, beginning on page 250, of Volume Four, Darkness Descends. To continue reading more about Brendan from The Christians, Their First Two Thousand Years we suggest experiencing the rest of the book, complete with hundreds of magnificent illustrations, by ordering it at