The Voyage to the Land of the Blessed
Many would know this story from the advantage of Tim Severin who showed in sailing in a leather clad boat that it was possible to reach North America. Others might know Shawn Davey’s orchestral suite “The Brendan Voyage”. What we did here is to recount the Voyage as told in the sources.
This is a story of a holy man known for his great abstinence and his many virtues as well as being the patriarch of 3000 monks. He hears from Saint Barrid of a journey he had undertaken to a certain island, one full of delight. It is the Island of Paradise, one in which God has worked many marvels. St. Barrid could only weep when he spoke of his experience.
Inspired by the desire to experience paradise himself, Brendan assembles a party of 14 monks to go in search of the island. In preparation they fast for 40 days as well as visiting Saint Enda for 3 days and 3 nights. Just before setting off 3 more monks beg to join the voyage. He lets them join in spite of it breaking the sacred number he was to follow. So they set off for the land of Promise of the Saints, set off to Paradise.
On the first island they come to they encounter a dog. There are no people but a strange sense of extensive hospitality. A demon, as a devious little boy, enters and he steals a bridal he was given by the devil. He is challenged and admits to his theft. The demon/devil leaves his chest after he admits his wrong doing and Brendan exorcises the demon. The later comer still dies and is buried.
At the next island there are flocks of sheep and lambs. They are ample nourishment for the party who stay on for Holy week as it is coming up to Easter. They move into the Island of Jasconius where they celebrate Easter Mass. And on to another island. They find another island where a man brings them baskets of magic loaves which do not age. Their boat was now stocked for the next stage of the journey.
The next island had no grass, nor wood and no driftwood or sand. Monks spent the night in prayer. They cooked a stew and as they did the whole island began to shake and sink beneath the water. The stew was still burning beneath the water. Brendan reveals that a great whale with the name Jasconius, he shook us off when we lit the fire.
At the next island was a large squashed tree, covered with snow while birds. Brendan wondered what was going on; He prayed for an answer. Birds spoke, we used to be in human form but we lost our faith after a battle. The lord decided to have us singing his praises. This island is a Paradise of Birds. They then spent 3 months on the high seas without sight of land and ate every second day. The next island they had to sail around for 40 days before finding a place to land. They were very tired. They still fasted for 3 days and nights. They found 2 fountains.
Brendan told them to hold back from drinking. Brendan goes to the top and finds an old hermit weaving no clothing only the hair on his head. He did not speak as silence was the rule. They came to a church where 12 monks greeted them with a kiss of peace and washed their feet. A chant of welcome was sung. Huge loaves of bread and boiled root vegetables were provided to feed for them. They sang vespers.
At the church on the alter there were 7 lamps that put themselves on and off. A flaming arrow came through window and hlt all 7 lamps. Monks only sound were signing voices. Brendan was tempted to join these monks such was the simplicity of their lives but they were told it is your destiny to find the Island of the Blessed and bring the story back to your people in Ardfert.
They come to another island, which Brendan points out they visited the year before and the provider led them to the same landing placing and they celebrated with great diligence the Festival of the Passion of the Lord. They then sail to the Paradise of Birds. All the birds sing in wondrous concert. The birds tell them they must continue this cycle for 7 years until they are holy enough to go to the Island of Paradise. You will celebrate Easter on the back of the great whale. You will abide for 40 days on the Island they sought.
One day they are pursued by a massive fish. They cried out that the monster did not destroy them. St. Brendan prayed to be delivered. As he finished praying a flame breathing monster cut up the fish into 3 parts. They next day they devoured the dismembered flesh of the monster.
They set off again. They see an island which St. Brendan says on that island there are 3 classes of people, boys, young men and elders and one of the brothers will have his pilgrimage there. They then come to a very flat island covered in white and purple flowers. There were indeed 3 troops of monks. They chanted wondrous songs. The monks bring fruit.
They come to an island of grapes. There were 6 fountains on the island. They stay for 40 days feasting on all the fruit watered by the fountains. They then see a great gryphon bird comes to attack them. But another bird comes. A bird battle ensues and the gryphon is killed.
They see a great pillow rise from the waves wrapped in a canopy. They then find the sea as clear as glass so they could see everything beneath them. They sail around the great pillow for four days finding a beautiful chalice of the same material as the canopy – a gift from God.
They then see a very rugged and rocky island full of smith forges. They hear bellows like thunder. They are frightened. Brendan crosses himself. A hideous sooty man. Brendan says we need to get away. The man throws the slag at them, the slag burns and churns up the water. The rest of the inhabitants throws slag at them. They sail away.
A smaller island appears. It is home of Paul the spiritual. They find a narrow creek to land and climb the sheer cliff. They see the hermit. Come to a cave with two springs. Paul wear only the hair on this body. They want to stay but he tells them it is not their destiny.
The hermit tells them of a creature who brings a file, on top a hill and kindlewood below. It helped him to cook a fish and survive for 60 years. He tells them he sends them blessings.
They sail South. On Holy Saturday they meet the procurator and he helps them out of the boat. They head to visit Jasconius, the great whale. The whale brings them to the Paradise of Birds. The procurator offers to guide them to their destination which he does.
On the 41st day darkness descended upon them. They can’t see each other. The procurator tells them this darkness surrounds the Island of the Saints. The darkness lifts and they arrive at the Promised Land and see wonderful sights.
They come to a river which divided the island in two halves. A beautiful man tells them the other half of the island is equally bountiful. He tells them that this half of the island will not be available until all humanity comes under the knowledge of Christ.
Brendan deems he must return to Ardfert. He says goodbye to the procurator. They pass through the darkness. They reach the Island of Delights, remain 3 days as guests in the monastery of silent order. Makes direct course to Ardfert where he is welcomes by his congregation and tell them of his wondrous journey.
The Connections and insights from Participants on the Brendan Voyage
Connection 1 – Link to Máel Dúin
The group had heard the story of Máel Dúin the week before so many pointed out the similarities, some parts being so similar that it was almost plagiarised. Is the Máel Dúin story the template, but now Christianised.
Connection 2 – Christianisation and Control
Some saw this as an attempt to control the Irish spiritual mind. They noted a lack of vibrancy and even mysticism and that it had a very manufactured feel.
Connection 3 – Appropriation of Time and Ritual
What was clear, especially in comparison to the Máel Dúin Story was how the Brendan world was operating very much to a Christian Calendar and indeed the Christian Rituals associated with key moments in the year. The Celtic Calendar is built on a cyclical basis around Imbolg, Bealtaine, Lughnasa and Samhain. Here the year is built around the birth, life and death of the central figure of Jesus.
Connection 4 – Outside Time
There was a sense of this as a story about travelling outside time and to a space where time works differently (almost time travelling). In a way there are realms where time does work differently. Echoes of Children of Lir and Oisin and Niamh.
Connection 5 – Christian Propaganda
Some participants saw the story as propaganda, that the Irish stories were being taken and turned to another belief system in order to convert. A comment was made that the Irish spirit is about being wild, having fun and enjoying yourself, whereas this story took all the fun out making having fun and enjoyment wrong. For some there was a visceral reaction, that the Brendan story had no purpose and meaning in this generation. That it was a redundant story.
Connection 6 – Where Mythology ends?
In this context, the Voyage of Brendan can be seen as a story where mythology ends. We have now moved into the realm of religion. That is even though there were many elements that are very mythical in form, gigantic whales, arrow that light 7 lights, enormous sheep etc. in this context perhaps the gryphon and the holy bird was the whole story in one scene.
Connection 7 – Absence of Personality
There was a marked absence of personality in the characters. This was in huge contrast with Máel Dúin where the story was all about his personality. There was no internal journey with Brendan. Does this mean that the loss of personality is part of the religious and monastic process?
Connection 8 – From feasting to fasting
There was an extreme change in the relationship to food and our desires. In Máel Dúin there was far more of a sense of abundance and the story even ends up with a feast. Brendan’s voyage in marked contrast is far more about abstinence and fasting. Boiled root vegetables was one of the meals and a more unappetising meal is hard to imagine.
Connection 9 – From concrete to abstract
Right through the Brendan story there is the continual presence of an abstracted figure, our Lord. He is not clearly defined in any way yet. Plays a major role in determining the motivations and actions of Brendan and his party. The actors in Máel Dúin play a much more concrete role. Our Lord is an abstraction.
Connection 10 – Narrative Elements
Here we moved from the kind of story passed on in an oral tradition from generation to generation to an authored story. Is Brendan written as opposed to told and is it copied from the Máel Dúin structure and detail.
Connection 11 – Decline in Freedom
Here it seems there is a decline in freedom and flexibility and indeed of the imagination. Is this a teaching profession that is now suppressing independent and critical thinking?
Connection 12 – Physical Possibility
Are we now moving to a story where there was a very real physical possibility of the story having taken place – the Jim Severin experiment. Is this where history meets myth?
Connection 13 – The Nature of Paradise
What kind of a paradise is this? A paradise of abstinence? A paradise devoid of women? A paradise of boiled root vegetables?
Connection 14 – The Ending
Was the Island of Paradise one that reflected expectations? Were the islands to be seen as mirrors? Mael Duin was clear. For some participants the purpose/takeaway was not really clear?