Saint Brandan Island

11/12/2013 10:48

In the tiny and dispersed village of Clonfert, in the district of Galway, and near to the cathedral is a small and silent forest, which easily awakes the desire to walk in. A metal door in the wall gives access. On the fence a sign posts San Brandan Tree and Nuns Walk. No need to walk far in the shade provided by the grove to reach the oak studded with dolls, postcards, rosaries, sunglasses, bibs and all kinds of votive offerings necessary to request a wish. Probably the origin of this kind of trees is more related to ancient pagan cults than to St. Brandan himself. Beside the forest the cathedral hosts a small cemetery. Onto one of the graves the indelible footprints left by a cat in a distant day reveal the tomb of the founder.

St. Brandan, Bréanainn, Brendan, Brendan, Barandán or Borondón, son of Finnlug Ua Alta, from Eoghan lineage, came to this world in Ciarraighe Luachra, a place on the north coast of the Bay of Tralee, between Fenit and Barrow harbours in the year 484. Ordained monk in 510, belonged to the group of the Twelve Apostles of Ireland, who would bring Christianity to the island in their monastic character. He founded, between the years 512 and 530 the Ardfert, Shanakeel or Baalynevinoorach monasteries, near current Mount Brandon in south-western Ireland. According to the Catholic Encyclopedia also travelled to Wales and Scotland, returning after three years. In 560 he became abbot of Clonfert founded by him. Clonfert, Cluain Fearta or meadow of miracles, close to the waters of the river Shannon, became a place of rest at the end of his days, and once finished them on a Sunday 16 June 578.

However the Irish monk and saint would be famous for their long evangelization journey in the North Sea waters in pursuit of Earthly Paradise of Saints. The history was collected a couple of centuries later by a monk named Benedeit into an 1840 verses incunable. The work, the Navigatio fabulosa Sancti Brendani ad terram repromissionis scripta est ab ignoto irlandico circa annum 900, was translated from the original Latin to the European Romance languages ​​and became, as it were so, in a medieval bestseller. What at first was just a hagiography joined to the literature of the Middle Ages on the same basis archetypal tales of chivalry: a voyage of discovery in search of a mythical goal through a stage in which the parables and metaphors build an exemplary didactic discourse.

The pretext to begin the trip is St. Brandan meeting with the monk Barinthus, according to some sources grandson of the Irish king Niall, who along with his godson Mernoc had travelled beyond the Island of Delights. He relates his nautical expedition to Eden: We only saw blooming plants and trees laden with fruit, and even stones were beautiful. San Brandan tells his monks: Tantum si Dei voluntas est terram de qua locutus est pater Barinthus repromissionis sanctorum in corde meo proposui querere.. (If it is the will of God, is the purpose of my heart finding the promised land of saints San Barinthus spoke to us.)

Convinced, is preparing to make the trip. For forty days, in which one in three fast, store the supplies necessary, and construct a curragh, whips fir coated in oxhide and caulked strips sailboat, which they would name Trinity and where they will spend seven years ahead.

Brandan with his fourteen monks, plus three newcomers who were added at the last minute, departed March 22, 516. The journey is plagued with a series of meetings, tests and allegorical events. Some have trying to figure out the path, seeing on the Lambs Island the Faroe and the Icelandic volcanoes in the blacksmiths islands. The glass pillar episode often is interpreted as an iceberg in sailing along the coast of Greenland. The land of grapes would be none other than the Vinland that four centuries later the Viking Leif Erikson discovered on the east coast of Canada. In 1976 the adventurer Tim Severin built with the same methods and similar materials one curragh to recreate Irish saint's journey, getting ashore in Newfoundland. The remaining Navigatio episodes affect some monastic character pedagogy where often are encounters with monks, hermits or anchorites and episodes derived from scriptures. On the island of birds they recognize these are souls in limbo having remained neutral in the struggle between the Archangel Gabriel and Lucifer. Judas pays his sentence in hell but is relieved just enough time to talk with St. Brandan. One of the chapters closer to medieval imagery was Jasconius encounter with the whale. The expedition arrived to a dark uncharted island where they lit a fire to start the Easter celebrations with a Mass. Soon the island shake and forced the monks to return to the curragh, yet the whale allowed the monks during the years after celebrating Mass in his back. The Navigatio ends with the meeting of the Promised Land in an island surrounded by fog, so thick they could barely see each other.

As early as the twelfth century the first attempts were made to locate the islands described in the book. The priest and geographer Honorius of Autun or Regensburg, told in his Imago Mundi about an island called Lost, whether it’s sought never got to find it. The island, always in reference to the Promised Land, St. Brandan’s Paradise, also was called Apósitus, Non Trubada or Covered, before receiving the name of the Saint, Saint Brandan Isle. There was a symbiotic relationship between Jasconius, the whale island, and another hard to find, or difficult to point geographically. In Christopher Columbus Journal, the Admiral writes juraban muchos hombres honrados...que cada año vian tierra al Oueste de las Canarias, que es al Poniente; y otros tantos de la Gomera afirmaban otro tanto con juramento. (Many honest men who swore… that every year they saw land westward to the Canaries islands, which is to the sunset, and as many of from Gomera affirmed the same with an oath).

The New Continent discovery diverted attention to new lands, but did not dispel the myths of the islands of Brazil, Antilia, St. Brandan or the one of the Seven Cities. Moreover, not been discovered did not mean they did not exist. Indeed, one could justify the argument that was bewitched: when trying to approach disappears, as St. Brandan’s, in a fog ring.

And despite not being able to locate them on maps cartographers followed including in the letters and portulanos ... up to as late as the same nineteenth century. In the upper left corner of the famous Piri Reis map, rediscovered in the Topkapi Palace in Istanbul in 1929, is drawn, no other than Jasconius, with St. Brandan monks making fire on its back.

The island appeared on previous maps: XIII century World Map of Jacques Vitry, in the Hereford’s planisphere with the legend: Lost Island, St. Brandan discovered but no one has since then been again, or on the 1457 world map of Fra Mauro. During the sixteenth century the Ortelius Theatrum Orbis Terrarum, the Speculum Orbis Terrae or Atlas Cosmographicae place it above the 50th parallel, centred in the Atlantic. In the 1707 Mapa del Noroeste de África by William Delisle, is located west of westernmost Canary Island of El Hierro, with the French quote: En ce parage quelques auteurs ont placé la fabouleuse Isle de St. Borondon.

The Spanish-Portuguese Évora treaty, signed on June 4, 1519 ceded to the Crown of Castile the right to conquer the Canary Islands including the Non Trobada or Covered. In the late sixteenth Spanish king Philip II military engineer, Leonardo Torriani, is even bolder, daring to predict the size and position of the island ... without apparent success, but quoting than in 1569 il dottor Pietro Hortiz, inquisitore di Canarias, fece informazione che un certo Marco Verde di Tenerife, venendo insieme con molt’altri da Barbaria...capitó a una isola differente di tutte l’altre che si sanno; dalla quale alla bocca d’un fiume ancorarono su la sera, perciochè, non conoscendo la terra, non osarono a disbarcare. (Dr. Pietro Hortiz, Canary Island inquisitor take as true same informations coming from someone named Marco Verde from Tenerife Island, who arrived as many others from Barbaria lands…he saw an island unequal to any other known, where they anchored one evening close to an smoky bay, unknowing the place didn’t dare landing.)  

Fray Juan de Abreu Galindo in his Historia de la Conquista de las Siete Islas de Canarias (History of the Conquest of the seven Canary Islands), published in the early sixteenth century, says about its possible location and describe their appearance: esta isla que es la octava y final, a lo que se puede colegir del viso y sus apariencias, parece estar a 10 grados y 10 minutos de longitud, y en 29 grados y 30 minutos de latitud...siempre de un tamaño y mayor mucho que la isla del Hierro...porque hace esta isla en medio una ensilladura, y en cada un lado tiene una montañ la cual apariencia uniforme se colige ser tierra, y no celajes de la isla del Hierro, según me certifiqué de personas fidedignas, que la han visto muchas veces. (This island, which is the eighth and last one, may be inferred by its appearance, seems to be at 10 degrees and 10 minutes in length, and 29 degrees 30 minutes latitude... always in a much larger size than the island of El Hierro...this island has a valley in the middle, and with a mountain each side... which is inferred to be uniform land and not cloudscapes from the island of El Hierro, became certified by reliable people, who have seen it many times.)

Between the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries expeditions were organized with the confessed aim of discovering: Fernando de Viseu, Hernando de Troya and Francisco Alvarez. Will follow Fernando de Villalobos, military governor of La Palma, Gaspar Perez de Acosta, Canary Islands General Captain Juan Mur y Aguirre, in 1732 Gaspar Dominguez .... They found no more than fog.

Only some vessels encountered haphazard, like in 1560 when French sailors left there a letter, some coins and erected a cross. Ten years later a sailor from Setubal, named Pero Velo told to the Canary Islands regent of the Royal Audience Hernán Pérez de Grado, that on the return trip from Brazil, a storm brought them to that island, between the Western Canaries being none of the three. He described plenty of woods with two mountains split by a large valley where: saltó en tierra con otros de su compañía…se anubló la tierra con gran cerrazón y viento, que la gente que había quedado en el navío daban voces, que garraba el navío, que le cumplió embarcarse en el batel e ir a la carabela; y que en breve tiempo perdió la tierra de vista; y, que aplacada la refriega, tornó sobre la tierra, y por mucho que hizo no pudo tomarla ni la vió más; y allí quedaron los dos compañeros, que no supo de ellos. (jumped ashore with others ... land became deeply blight with great stubbornness and wind, people who had been on the ship cried, who embarked  on a small boat turned and went back to the caravel, which soon lost sight of land, and that appeased the fray, wanted to land again, but as much as they wished couldn’t anymore, not even saw it more, and those two guys who disembarked there were both left).

Joseph Vieira y Clavijo in his Noticias de la Historia General de las Islas Canarias, printed in 1772, lists the possible dimensions of the island which would be about 40 leagues far from La Palma. Vieira y Clavijo believed it could measure 87 leagues long by 28 wide, and reproduced the silhouette drawn by a Franciscan in La Gomera in 1759. Clavijo thought: si se ha de creer todavía existente el Paraíso terrenal en un sitio Inaccesible por voluntad Divina ¿qué otro mejor país para este efecto que la Isla de San-Borondon, que además de ser una de las Afortunadas, tiene la propiedad de presentarse a los ojos, y de huirse de entre las manos? (if we are to believe the Garden of Eden still exists in a inaccessible place by divine will what a better country for this purpose than Saint-Borondon Isle, besides being one of the lucky ones, has the property to be presented to the eyes, and run away from the hands?) Finally suggests, quoting critic opinions, the mystery of the appearance and disappearance of the island is due to the phenomenon of cloudscapes. Although also wonders: ¿Cómo desde la cumbre del elevado Pico de Tenerife (que comprende más de 70 leguas de mar) o de sus faldas, jamás se ha divisado tal Isla ni clara ni nebulosa?. (How high from the Tenerife summit -comprising over 70 leagues of sea- or their skirts, never spotted this island was clear or hazy?).

In 1958 ABC newspaper in its edition for the Canaries, published front-page photographs taken by Manuel Rodríguez Quintero, a resident of the island of La Palma, from the Llanos de Aridane, on the same island. There can be seen the two mountain peaks split by a valley as previously described. And even today there are passengers, on air routes between the islands, who believe recognizing some not contained in the maps, or perhaps only be new cloudscapes or refraction in the atmosphere.

In the south of Ireland, mainly in the Dingle Peninsula and its vicinity still stands the memory of the holy navigator. After Magharees small peninsula is Brandon Bay, and at the end is Brandon Point entering the sea. Hiding behind is Brandon Creek, the small and narrow natural harbour where supposedly left the monks in their long nautical journey. Above all Bréannain Cnoc, Mount Brandon, with its 952 meters high, is the second peak in Ireland. There, every last Sunday of July, following the small white crosses that mark the route, runs the pilgrimage. The path they walk is called Cosán na Naomh, the Saint’s trail,  between Cill Mhic in Domhnaigh and Sáipéilín Bréanainn, the Oratory of St. Brandan just on the top.

© J.L.Nicolas


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