The Irish saint Brendan of Clonfert, otherwise known as Brendan the Voyager, is believed to have been born around 484 near what is now Tralee in County Kerry. Following his baptism, he spent five years studying under St Ita, ‘the St Brigid of Munster’ before being ordained a priest by St Erc in 512. Between that date and 530 he travelled around Ireland preaching, and established monastic foundations at Ardfert and in Shanakeel at the foot of Mount Brandon. He also began to undertake longer journeys, visiting the Arran Islands where he founded another monastery, Brittany and, it is related, Hinba an island of now unknown location off the Scottish mainland where he met St Columcille. His legendary longer boat journey is discussed below, but supposedly on returning from this Brendan was still restless and accordingly went to Wales, and thence to Iona and several other places. After three years’ missionary work in Britain he returned to Ireland, and spent time in the province of Leinster. Thence to Connaught where he founded yet another monastery in Annaghdown, as well as a convent for his sister Briga: here he died in 577. However, concerned lest followers would try to keep his remains, he arranged before death that his corpse be secretly carried away concealed in a luggage cart. He was subsequently buried at Clonfert, County Galway, another religious house he had founded.
St Brendan is known as ‘the Voyager’ owing to a journey he is said to have made with a number of companions, one that took seven years and brought them across the Atlantic to the shores of North America. References to an account of this voyage occur as early as the ninth century although extant texts of the Navigatio sancti Brendani abbatis (Voyage of St Brendan the Abbot) are somewhat later. These describe the journey in considerable detail, outlining how the saint and his intrepid fellow passengers construct a vessel not unlike the Irish curragh (otherwise known as a coracle) and after forty days of prayer and fasting set off in search of a promised land. En route they experience a series of adventures: on one occasion the boat was ‘raised up on the back of sea monsters’, while the group are also recorded as passing by ‘crystals that rose up to the sky’ and being ‘pelted with flaming, foul smelling rocks by the inhabitants of a large island on their route.’ Finally they reached a beautiful land they named the Promised Land of the Saints. After exploring this as far as a great river that divided the land they turned back and slowly returned to Ireland. The Navigatio was well-known in the Middle Ages and cartographers of the period in their attempts to map the world included a place called ‘St Brendan’s Island.’ Following the voyages of Columbus and other seafarers, the story of St Brendan lost veracity, but almost forty years ago in 1976 the explorer Tim Severin determined to see whether such a passage across the Atlantic was feasible. Having constructed a replica of the boat described in the Navigatio, he likewise set off and over the course of more than a year underwent not dissimilar trials before arriving at Newfoundland. Along the way, he and his crew saw icebergs (‘crystals that rose up in the sky’), the volcanoes of Iceland (‘flaming, fold smelling rocks’) and whales (‘sea monsters’), thereby demonstrating the story of St Brendan’s journey to North America was not so fanciful after all.
Such was the fame of St Brendan that the monastery he founded and where he was buried at Clonfert soon became a place of pilgrimage and a centre of study under the authority of an abbot-bishop: at one time, it is claimed, the resident population of monks numbered some three thousand. None of the buildings in which they would have worked and lived now survives. Like many other religious settlements, wealthy but vulnerable, Clonfert was subject to regular attack first by the Vikings and then by Irish chiefs. Nevertheless it continued to thrive: in 1392 the Bishop of Clonfert paid three hundred florins to the Papal Treasury on his appointment, compared to the two hundred florins expected of the Archbishop of Tuam. Following the suppression of the monasteries in the 16th centuries, the cathedral church was retained for worship by the Anglican community (as is still the case) but it has since much shrunk in size and now measures just fifty-four by twenty-seven feet; the Romanesque north transept is in ruins and a Gothic south transept entirely gone. What remains is an enchantment. Inside the building, the most notable feature are the early 13th century east windows and the limestone chancel arch inserted in the 15th century, the latter decorated with various figures including angels and a mermaid holding a mirror. The glory of Clonfert Cathedral is its late 12th century west door, often considered the finest example of Hiberno-Romanesque workmanship extant. Of sandstone, it is in six orders and is densely carved with an extraordinary selection of motifs including foliage, and animal and human heads: the innermost order was added in similar style in the 15th century. Above the doorway, a triangular hood has ten human masks enclosed within small triangles which alternate with other small triangles. Below is a blind arcade of five arches each of which has a human head within it. A wonderful survivor in a part of the midlands of Ireland now little visited, the doorway of Clonfert Cathedral, like the Navigatio sancti Brendani abbatis, serves as testimony to the imagination of the Irish people more than a millennium ago.