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Searching for Saint Brendan’s Island

A stained glass window display of Saint Brendan with a ship and anchor.

J. & R. Lamb Studios, designer. Design drawing for stained glass memorial window showing St. Brendan with ship, and anchor. 1857-1999. Prints and Photographs Division.

Over the years I have noticed the placement of Saint Brendan’s Island on historical maps. I became curious about the mythical island and the story behind it. Saint Brendan’s Island was placed in different locations on maps of the Atlantic Ocean. The island was often placed west of England and Ireland. It was also placed further south near the Canary Islands. The island was named after an Irish monastic saint, Saint Brendan of Clonfert. Saint Brendan is often referred to as “Saint Brendan the Navigator” because of his extensive travels by sea.

Saint Brendan was born in Ireland sometime around 489 AD. He founded several churches and monasteries. The most famous was the Clonfert Monastery in County Galway where he served as the abbot.  Saint Brendan was buried at the Clonfert Monastery in 570 AD. The original building no longer exists; however, the Clonfert Cathedral was built during the 12th century at the site of the former monastery.

A 19th century ordnance survey map of the vicinity of the Clonfert Cathedral is featured below.

A detailed map showing the location of Clonfert, Ireland where St. Brendan is buried.

Detail from Galway County. Ordnance Survey,1881. Geography and Map Division.

Saint Brendan’s voyages were described in an early 9th century manuscript titled Navigatio Sancti Brendani Abbatis (The Voyages of Saint Brendan the Abbot). According to the manuscript, another monk told Saint Brendan about an island paradise named The Promised Land of the Saints. Saint Brendan and several Irish monks decided to search for the island. They built a small boat and supplied it with provisions. They began to run out of food during the voyage. The crew landed on a deserted island and followed a dog to an uninhabited building. Inside the building they found a banquet that someone had prepared for them.

Saint Brendan and his crew landed on several islands. The Island of Sheep, The Paradise of Birds, and The Island of Grapes are the names of some of the places that they visited. The monks saw a pillar of “bright crystal” and a mountain “spouting flames” during their travels. They landed on an island without sand or vegetation to celebrate Easter Mass. The monks rushed back to their boat when the ground beneath them started to move and they realized that they were celebrating Mass on the back of a whale and not an island.

Saint Brendan and his crew finally reached The Promised Land of the Saints (Saint Brendan’s Island) after traveling for several years. The island was described as a “wide land full of trees bearing fruit.”  They stayed on the island for forty days and gathered gemstones and fruit before they began their journey home to Ireland.

From the 13th to the 18th century cartographers placed Saint Brendan’s Island on their maps. Expeditions were launched to find the island. Some explorers claimed that they had seen Saint Brendan’s Island during their voyages. By the 19th century interest in the island waned and it was no longer shown on maps.

The Mappa Mundi deposited at the Hereford Cathedral in England is an example of an early map that shows Saint Brendan’s Island. The Hereford Mappa Mundi was created around the year 1300. An interactive view of the map is available here. Saint Brendan’s Island is shown as “Fortunate Insulae Sex Sunt Insulae Sct. Brandani” next to the lowest touch point at the bottom of the map.

The following images are from maps that are held in the Geography and Map Division. The maps may be viewed in their entirety by clicking on the images.

The image below is from a map of the North Atlantic that was published in 1570. Saint Brendan’s Island is located north of the merman. It is spelled S. Brandain.

Saint Brendan's Island is shown north of a merman playing a violin.

Detail from Scandia siue regiones septentrionales. Published by Abraham Ortelius, 1570. Geography and Map Division.

The detail below is from a world map that was published in 1602. The island is spelled S. Braindan. It is shown east of Newfoundland in the upper right corner of the image.

A map showing Saint Brendan's Island north of Newfoundland.

Detail from Orbis terrae novissima descriptio. Published by Jean le Clerc, 1602. Geography and Map Division.

Below is a detail from a world map  that was published in 1643. The island is shown in the North Atlantic as S. Brandan. It is located northeast of the giant fish and southwest of England and Ireland.

A map that shows Saint Brendan's Island northeast of a whale.

Detail from Vniversale descrittione di tvtto il monde by Giaseppi Rosaccio. Published by Giovanni Battista Mazza, 1643. Geography and Map Division.

The image featured below is from a map of the west coast of Africa that was published in 1792. Saint Brendan’s island is shown west of the Canary Islands. It is spelled Isle de St. Borondon.

A map of the west coast of Africa that shows St. Brendan's Island.

Guillaume de L’Isle. Detail from Carte de la Barbarie, le la Nigritie et del la Guinée. Published by Chez Ian Bt. Elwe, 1792. Geography and Map Division

Numerous theories exist about the voyages of Saint Brendan. The pillar of “bright crystal” may have been a description of an iceberg. The mountain “spouting flames” could have been a volcano. In my personal opinion, the crew may have reached Iceland or Greenland; however, the Canary Islands were too far from Ireland to reach in a small boat. The Navigatio Sancti Brendani Abbatis was written over a thousand years ago; we can only speculate about how far Saint Brendan and his crew traveled and which islands that they actually visited.

Learn more:

Read more about Saint Brendan’s Island in the following books:

 

 

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