The Voyage of St. Brandan by Thomas Wentworth

The young student Brandan was awakened in the morning by the crowing of the cock in the great Irish abbey where he dwelt; he rose, washed his face and hands and dressed himself, then passed into the chapel, where he prayed and sang until the dawn of the day. "With song comes courage" was the motto of the abbey. It was one of those institutions like great colonies,—church, library, farm, workshop, college, all in one,—of which Ireland in the sixth century was full, and which existed also elsewhere. Their extent is best seen by the modern traveller in the remains of the vast buildings at Tintern in England, scattered over a wide extent of country, where you keep coming upon walls and fragments of buildings which once formed a part of a single great institution, in which all the life of the community was organized, as was the case in the Spanish missions of California. At the abbey of Bangor in Wales, for instance, there were two thousand four hundred men,—all under the direction of a comparatively small body of monks, who were trained to an amount of organizing skill like that now needed for a great railway system. Some of these men were occupied, in various mechanic arts, some in mining, but most of them in agriculture, which they carried on with their own hands, without the aid of animals, and in total silence.

Having thus labored in the fields until noonday, Brandan then returned that he might work in the library, transcribing ancient manuscripts or illustrating books of prayer. Having to observe silence, he wrote the name of the book to give to the librarian, and if it were a Christian work, he stretched out his hand, making motions with his fingers as if turning over the leaves; but if it were by a pagan author, the monk who asked for it was required to scratch his ear as a dog does, to show his contempt, because, the regulations said, an unbeliever might well be compared to that animal[1]. Taking the book, he copied it in the Scriptorium or library, or took it to his cell, where he wrote all winter without a fire. It is to such monks that we owe all our knowledge of the earliest history of England and Ireland; though doubtless the hand that wrote the histories of Gildas and Bede grew as tired as that of Brandan, or as that of the monk who wrote in the corner of a beautiful manuscript: "He who does not know how to write imagines it to be no labor; but though only three fingers hold the pen, the whole body grows weary." In the same way Brandan may have learned music and have had an organ in his monastery, or have had a school of art, painting beautiful miniatures for the holy missals. This was his early life in the convent.

[Footnote 1: Adde ut aurem tangas digito sicut canis cum pede
pruriens solet, quia nec immerito infideles tali animati comparantur
—MARTÈNE, De Antiq. Monach. ritibus, p. 289, qu. by Montalembert,
Monks of the West (tr.) VI. 190.]

Once a day they were called to food; this consisting for them of bread and vegetables with no seasoning but salt, although better fare was furnished for the sick and the aged, for travellers and the poor. These last numbered, at Easter time, some three or four hundred, who constantly came and went, and upon whom the monks and young disciples waited. After the meal the monks spent three hours in the chapel, on their knees, still silent; then they confessed in turn to the abbot and then sought their hard-earned rest. They held all things in common; no one even received a gift for himself. War never reached them; it was the rarest thing for an armed party to molest their composure; their domains were regarded as a haven for the stormy world. Because there were so many such places in Ireland, it was known as The Isle of Saints.

Brandan was sent after a time to other abbeys, where he could pursue especial studies, for they had six branches of learning,—grammar, rhetoric, dialectics, geometry, astronomy, and music. Thus he passed three years, and was then advised to go to an especial teacher in the mountains, who had particular modes of teaching certain branches. But this priest—he was an Italian—was suffering from poverty, and could receive his guest but for a few weeks. One day as Brandan sat studying, he saw, the legend says, a white mouse come from a crack in the wall, a visitor which climbed upon his table and left there a grain of wheat. Then the mouse paused, looked at the student, then ran about the table, went away and reappeared with another grain, and another, up to five. Brandan, who had at the very instant learned his lesson, rose from his seat, followed the mouse, and looking through a hole in the wall, saw a great pile of wheat, stored in a concealed apartment. On his showing this to the head of the convent, it was pronounced a miracle; the food was distributed to the poor, and "the people blessed his charity while the Lord blessed his studies."

In the course of years, Brandan became himself the head of one of the great abbeys, that of Clonfert, of the order of St. Benedict, where he had under him nearly three thousand monks. In this abbey, having one day given hospitality to a monk named Berinthus, who had just returned from an ocean voyage, Brandan learned from him the existence, far off in the ocean, of an island called The Delicious Isle, to which a priest named Mernoc had retired, with many companions of his order. Berinthus found Mernoc and the other monks living apart from one another for purposes of prayer, but when they came together, Mernoc said, they were like bees from different beehives. They met for their food and for church; their food included only apples, nuts, and various herbs. One day Mernoc said to Berinthus, "I will conduct you to the Promised Isle of the Saints." So they went on board a little ship and sailed westward through a thick fog until a great light shone and they found themselves near an island which was large and fruitful and bore many apples. There were no herbs without blossoms, he said, nor trees without fruits, and there were precious stones, and the island was traversed by a great river. Then they met a man of shining aspect who told them that they had without knowing it passed a year already in the island; that they had needed neither food nor sleep. Then they returned to the Delicious Island, and every one knew where they had been by the perfume of their garments. This was the story of Berinthus, and from this time forward nothing could keep Brandan from the purpose of beholding for himself these blessed islands.

Before carrying out his plans, however, he went, about the year 560, to visit an abbot named Enda, who lived at Arran, then called Isle of the Saints, a priest who was supposed to know more than any one concerning the farther lands of the western sea. He knew, for instance, of the enchanted island named Hy-Brasail, which could be seen from the coast of Ireland only once in seven years, and which the priests had vainly tried to disenchant. Some islands, it was believed, had been already disenchanted by throwing on them a few sparks of lighted turf; but as Hy-Brasail was too far for this, there were repeated efforts to disenchant it by shooting fiery arrows towards it, though this had not yet been successful. Then Enda could tell of wonderful ways to cross the sea without a boat, how his sister Fanchea had done it by spreading her own cloak upon the waves, and how she and three other nuns were borne upon it. She found, however, that one hem of the cloak sank below the water, because one of her companions had brought with her, against orders, a brazen vessel from the convent; but on her throwing it away, the sinking hem rose to the level of the rest and bore them safely. St. Enda himself had first crossed to Arran on a large stone which he had ordered his followers to place on the water and which floated before the wind; and he told of another priest who had walked on the sea as on a meadow and plucked flowers as he went. Hearing such tales, how could St. Brandan fear to enter on his voyage?

He caused a boat to be built of a fashion which one may still see in Welsh and Irish rivers, and known as a curragh or coracle; made of an osier frame covered with tanned and oiled skins. He took with him seventeen priests, among whom was St. Malo, then a mere boy, but afterwards celebrated. They sailed to the southwest, and after being forty days at sea they reached a rocky island furrowed with streams, where they received the kindest hospitality, and took in fresh provisions. They sailed again the next day, and found themselves entangled in contrary currents and perplexing winds, so that they were long in reaching another island, green and fertile, watered by rivers which were full of fish, and covered with vast herds of sheep as large as heifers. Here they renewed their stock of provisions, and chose a spotless lamb with which to celebrate Easter Sunday on another island, which they saw at a short distance.

This island was wholly bare, without sandy shores or wooded slopes, and they all landed upon it to cook their lamb; but when they had arranged their cooking-apparatus, and when their fire began to blaze, the island seemed to move beneath their feet, and they ran in terror to their boat, from which Brandan had not yet landed. Their supposed island was a whale, and they rowed hastily away from it toward the island they had left, while the whale glided away, still showing, at a distance of two miles, the fire blazing on his back.

The next island they visited was wooded and fertile, where they found a multitude of birds, which chanted with them the praises of the Lord, so that they called this the Paradise of Birds.

This was the description given of this island by an old writer named
Wynkyn de Worde, in "The Golden Legend":—

"Soon after, as God would, they saw a fair island, full of flowers, herbs, and trees, whereof they thanked God of his good grace; and anon they went on land, and when they had gone long in this, they found a full fayre well, and thereby stood a fair tree full of boughs, and on every bough sat a fayre bird, and they sat so thick on the tree that uneath [scarcely] any leaf of the tree might be seen. The number of them was so great, and they sang so merrilie, that it was an heavenlie noise to hear. Whereupon St. Brandan kneeled down on his knees and wept for joy, and made his praise devoutlie to our Lord God, to know what these birds meant. And then anon one of the birds flew from the tree to St. Brandan, and he with the flickering of his wings made a full merrie noise like a fiddle, that him seemed he never heard so joyful a melodie. And then St. Brandan commanded the foule to tell him the cause why they sat so thick on the tree and sang so merrilie. And then the foule said, some time we were angels in heaven, but when our master, Lucifer, fell down into hell for his high pride, and we fell with him for our offences, some higher and some lower, after the quality of the trespasse. And because our trespasse is so little, therefore our Lord hath sent us here, out of all paine, in full great joy and mirthe, after his pleasing, here to serve him on this tree in the best manner we can. The Sundaie is a daie of rest from all worldly occupation, and therefore that day all we be made as white as any snow, for to praise our Lorde in the best wise we may. And then all the birds began to sing evensong so merrilie that it was an heavenlie noise to hear; and after supper St. Brandan and his fellows went to bed and slept well. And in the morn they arose by times, and then those foules began mattyns, prime, and hours, and all such service as Christian men used to sing; and St. Brandan, with his fellows, abode there seven weeks, until Trinity Sunday was passed."

Having then embarked, they wandered for months on the ocean, before reaching another island. That on which they finally landed was inhabited by monks who had as their patrons St. Patrick and St. Ailbée, and they spent Christmas there. A year passed in these voyages, and the tradition is that for six other years they made just the same circuit, always spending Holy Week at the island where they found the sheep, alighting for Easter on the back of the same patient whale, visiting the Isle of Birds at Pentecost, and reaching the island of St. Patrick and St. Ailbée in time for Christmas.

But in the seventh year they met with wholly new perils. They were attacked, the legend says, first by a whale, then by a griffin, and then by a race of cyclops, or one-eyed giants. Then they came to an island where the whale which had attacked them was thrown on shore, so that they could cut him to pieces; then another island which had great fruits, and was called The Island of the Strong Man; and lastly one where the grapes filled the air with perfume. After this they saw an island, all cinders and flames, where the cyclops had their forges, and they sailed away in the light of an immense fire. The next day they saw, looking northward, a great and high mountain sending out flames at the top. Turning hastily from this dreadful sight, they saw a little round island, at the top of which a hermit dwelt, who gave them his benediction. Then they sailed southward once more, and stopped at their usual places of resort for Holy Week, Easter, and Whitsuntide.

It was on this trip that they had, so the legend says, that strange interview with Judas Iscariot, out of which Matthew Arnold has made a ballad. Sailing in the wintry northern seas at Christmas time, St. Brandan saw an iceberg floating by, on which a human form rested motionless; and when it moved at last, he saw by its resemblance to the painted pictures he had seen that it must be Judas Iscariot, who had died five centuries before. Then as the boat floated near the iceberg, Judas spoke and told him his tale. After he had betrayed Jesus Christ, after he had died, and had been consigned to the flames of hell,—which were believed in very literally in those days,—an angel came to him on Christmas night and said that he might go thence and cool himself for an hour. "Why this mercy?" asked Judas Iscariot. Then the angel said to him, "Remember the leper in Joppa," and poor Judas recalled how once when the hot wind, called the sirocco, swept through the streets of Joppa, and he saw a naked leper by the wayside, sitting in agony from the heat and the drifting sand, Judas had thrown his cloak over him for a shelter and received his thanks. In reward for this, the angel now told him, he was to have, once a year, an hour's respite from his pain; he was allowed in that hour to fling himself on an iceberg and cool his burning heat as he drifted through the northern seas. Then St. Brandan bent his head in prayer; and when he looked up, the hour was passed, and Judas had been hurried back into his torments.

It seems to have been only after seven years of this wandering that they at last penetrated within the obscure fogs which surrounded the Isle of the Saints, and came upon a shore which lay all bathed in sunny light. It was a vast island, sprinkled with precious stones, and covered with ripe fruits; they traversed it for forty days without arriving at the end, though they reached a great river which flowed through the midst of it from east to west. There an angel appeared to them, and told them that they could go no farther, but could return to their own abode, carrying from the island some of those fruits and precious stones which were reserved to be distributed among the saints when all the world should be brought to the true faith. In order to hasten that time, it appears that St. Malo, the youngest of the sea-faring monks, had wished, in his zeal, to baptize some one, and had therefore dug up a heathen giant who had been, for some reason, buried on the blessed isle. Not only had he dug the giant's body up, but St. Malo had brought him to life again sufficiently for the purpose of baptism and instruction in the true faith; after which he gave him the name of Mildus, and let him die once more and be reburied. Then, facing homeward and sailing beyond the fog, they touched once more at The Island of Delights, received the benediction of the abbot of the monastery, and sailed for Ireland to tell their brethren of the wonders they had seen.

He used to tell them especially to his nurse Ita, under whose care he had been placed until his fifth year. His monastery at Clonfert grew, as has been said, to include three thousand monks; and he spent his remaining years in peace and sanctity. The supposed islands which he visited are still believed by many to have formed a part of the American continent, and he is still thought by some Irish scholars to have been the first to discover this hemisphere, nearly a thousand years before Columbus, although this view has not yet made much impression on historians. The Paradise of Birds, in particular, has been placed by these scholars in Mexico, and an Irish poet has written a long poem describing the delights to be found there:—

  "Oft, in the sunny mornings, have I seen
  Bright yellow birds, of a rich lemon hue,
  Meeting in crowds upon the branches green,
  And sweetly singing all the morning through;
  And others, with their heads grayish and dark,
  Pressing their cinnamon cheeks to the old trees,
  And striking on the hard, rough, shrivelled bark,
  Like conscience on a bosom ill at ease.

  "And diamond-birds chirping their single notes,
  Now 'mid the trumpet-flower's deep blossoms seen,
  Now floating brightly on with fiery throats—
  Small winged emeralds of golden green;
  And other larger birds with orange cheeks,
  A many-color-painted, chattering crowd,
  Prattling forever with their curved beaks,
  And through the silent woods screaming aloud."


THE legend of St. Brandan, which was very well known in the Middle Ages, was probably first written in Latin prose near the end of the eleventh century, and is preserved in manuscript in many English libraries. An English metrical version, written probably about the beginning of the fourteenth century, is printed under the editorship of Thomas Wright in the publications of the Percy Society, London, 1844 (XIV.), and it is followed in the same volume by an English prose version of 1527. A partial narrative in Latin prose, with an English version, may be found in W. J. Rees's "Lives of the Cambro-British Saints" (Llandovery, 1853), pp. 251, 575. The account of Brandan in the Acta Sanctorum of the Bollandists may be found under May 16, the work being arranged under saints' days. This account excludes the more legendary elements. The best sketch of the supposed island appears in the Nouvelles Annales des Voyages for 1845 (p. 293), by D'Avezac. Professor O'Curry places the date of the alleged voyage or voyages at about the year 560 ("Lectures on the Manuscript Materials for Irish History," p. 289). Good accounts of the life in the great monasteries of Brandan's period may be found in Digby's "Mores Catholici" or "Ages of Faith"; in Montalembert's "Monks of the West" (translation); in Villemarqué's "La Legende Celtique et la Poésie des Cloistres en Irlande, en Cambrie et en Bretagne" (Paris, 1864). The poem on St. Brandan, stanzas from which are quoted in the text, is by Denis Florence McCarthy, and may be found in the Dublin University Magazine (XXXI. p. 89); and there is another poem on the subject—a very foolish burlesque—in the same magazine (LXXXIX. p. 471). Matthew Arnold's poem with the same title appeared in Fraser's Magazine (LXII. p. 133), and may be found in the author's collected works in the form quoted below.

The legends of St. Brandan, it will be observed, resemble so much the tales of Sindbad the Sailor and others in the "Arabian Nights"—which have also the island-whale, the singing birds, and other features—that it is impossible to doubt that some features of tradition were held in common with the Arabs of Spain.

In later years (the twelfth century), a geographer named Honoré d'Autun declared, in his "Image of the World," that there was in the ocean a certain island agreeable and fertile beyond all others, now unknown to men, once discovered by chance and then lost again, and that this island was the one which Brandan had visited. In several early maps, before the time of Columbus, the Madeira Islands appear as "The Fortunate Islands of St. Brandan," and on the famous globe of Martin Behaim, made in the very year when Columbus sailed, there is a large island much farther west than Madeira, and near the equator, with an inscription saying that in the year 565, St. Brandan arrived at this island and saw many wondrous things, returning to his own land afterwards. Columbus heard this island mentioned at Ferro, where men declared that they had seen it in the distance. Later, the chart of Ortelius, in the sixteenth century, carried it to the neighborhood of Ireland; then it was carried south again, and was supposed all the time to change its place through enchantment, and when Emanuel of Portugal, in 1519, renounced all claim to it, he described it as "The Hidden Island." In 1570 a Portuguese expedition was sent which claimed actually to have touched the mysterious island, indeed to have found there the vast impression of a human foot—doubtless of the baptized giant Mildus—and also a cross nailed to a tree, and three stones laid in a triangle for cooking food. Departing hastily from the island, they left two sailors behind, but could never find the place again.

Again and again expeditions were sent out in search of St. Brandan's island, usually from the Canaries—one in 1604 by Acosta, one in 1721 by Dominguez; and several sketches of the island, as seen from a distance, were published in 1759 by a Franciscan priest in the Canary Islands, named Viere y Clarijo, including one made by himself on May 3, 1759, about 6 A.M., in presence of more than forty witnesses. All these sketches depict the island as having its chief length from north to south, and formed of two unequal hills, the highest of these being at the north, they having between them a depression covered with trees. The fact that this resembles the general form of Palma, one of the Canary Islands, has led to the belief that it may have been an ocean mirage, reproducing the image of that island, just as the legends themselves reproduce, here and there, the traditions of the "Arabian Nights."

In a map drawn by the Florentine physician, Toscanelli, which was sent by him to Columbus in 1474 to give his impression of the Asiatic coast,— lying, as he supposed, across the Atlantic,—there appears the island of St. Brandan. It is as large as all the Azores or Canary Islands or Cape de Verde Islands put together; its southern tip just touches the equator, and it lies about half-way between the Cape de Verde Islands and Zipangu or Japan, which was then believed to lie on the other side of the Atlantic. Mr. Winsor also tells us that the apparition of this island "sometimes came to sailors' eyes" as late as the last century (Winsor's "Columbus," 112).

He also gives a reproduction of Toscanelli's map now lost, as far as can be inferred from descriptions (Winsor, p. 110).

The following is Matthew Arnold's poem:—


  Saint Brandan sails the northern main;
  The brotherhoods of saints are glad.
  He greets them once, he sails again;
  So late!—such storms!—the Saint is mad!

  He heard, across the howling seas,
  Chime convent-bells on wintry nights;
  He saw, on spray-swept Hebrides,
  Twinkle the monastery lights;

  But north, still north, Saint Brandan steer'd—
  And now no bells, no convents more!
  The hurtling Polar lights are near'd,
  The sea without a human shore.

  At last—(it was the Christmas-night;
  Stars shone after a day of storm)—
  He sees float past an iceberg white,
  And on it—Christ!—a living form.

  That furtive mien, that scowling eye,
  Of hair that red and tufted fell—
  It is—oh, where shall Brandan fly?—
  The traitor Judas, out of hell!

  Palsied with terror, Brandan sate;
  The moon was bright, the iceberg near.
  He hears a voice sigh humbly: "Wait!
  By high permission I am here.

  "One moment wait, thou holy man!
  On earth my crime, my death, they knew;
  My name is under all men's ban—
  Ah, tell them of my respite, too!

 "Tell them, one blessed Christmas-night—
  (It was the first after I came,
  Breathing self-murder, frenzy, spite,
  To rue my guilt in endless flame)—

  "I felt, as I in torment lay
  'Mid the souls plagued by heavenly power,
  An angel touch my arm and say:
  Go hence, and cool thyself an hour!

  "'Ah, whence this mercy, Lord?' I said;
  The Leper recollect, said he,
  Who ask'd the passers-by for aid,
  In Joppa, and thy charity.

  "Then I remember'd how I went,
  In Joppa, through the public street,
  One morn when the sirocco spent
  Its storm of dust with burning heat;

  "And in the street a leper sate,
  Shivering with fever, naked, old;
  Sand raked his sores from heel to pate,
  The hot wind fever'd him five-fold.

  "He gazed upon me as I pass'd,
  And murmur'd: Help me, or I die!
  To the poor wretch my cloak I cast,
  Saw him look eased, and hurried by.

  "Oh, Brandan, think what grace divine,
  What blessing must full goodness shower,
  When fragment of it small, like mine,
  Hath such inestimable power!

  "Well-fed, well-clothed, well-friended, I
  Did that chance act of good, that one!
  Then went my way to kill and lie—
  Forgot my good as soon as done.

  "That germ of kindness, in the womb
  Of mercy caught, did not expire;
  Outlives my guilt, outlives my doom,
  And friends me in this pit of fire.

  "Once every year, when carols wake
  On earth the Christmas-night's repose,
  Arising from the sinner's lake,
  I journey to these healing snows.

  "I stanch with ice my burning breast,
  With silence balm my whirling brain;
  O Brandan! to this hour of rest
  That Joppan leper's ease was pain."

  Tears started to Saint Brandan's eyes;
  He bow'd his head, he breathed a prayer—
  Then look'd, and lo, the frosty skies!
  The iceberg, and no Judas there!

The island of St. Brandan's was sometimes supposed to lie in the Northern Atlantic, sometimes farther south. It often appears as the Fortunate Isle or Islands, "Insulae Fortunatae" or "Beatae."

On some early maps (1306 to 1471) there is an inlet on the western coast of Ireland called "Lacus Fortunatus," which is filled with Fortunate Islands to the number of 358 (Humboldt, "Examen," II. p. 159), and in one map of 1471 both these and the supposed St. Brandan's group appear in different parts of the ocean under the same name. When the Canary Islands were discovered, they were supposed to be identical with St. Brandan's, but the latter was afterwards supposed to lie southeast of them. After the discovery of the Azores various expeditions were sent to search for St. Brandan's until about 1721. It was last reported as seen in 1759. A full bibliography will be found in Winsor's "Narrative and Critical History," I. p. 48, and also in Humboldt's "Examen," II. p. 163, and early maps containing St. Brandan's will be found in Winsor (I. pp. 54, 58). The first of these is Pizigani's (1387), containing "Ysolae dictae Fortunatae," and the other that of Ortelius (1587), containing "S. Brandain."