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The Voyage of Beyond the Sea

Of all the peoples credited with the discovery of the Americas, the Irish usually come way down the list. This is unfair, argues Simon Young, as the sea-going exploits of Irish monks a thousand years before Columbus took them across the Western Ocean, beyond the known edge of the world. Unusually, their search for new lands had nothing to do with politics, empire-building or converting heathens, but a yearning to practise their faith as far away from noisy civilisation as possible.

Columbus, we are told, sailed over the ocean blue and discovered North America in 1492. However, the jingle is widely disputed; behind Columbus there is a long queue of explorers who are, from time to time, pushed forward as the ‘real’ discoverers of America – the Portuguese, who are alleged to have arrived a generation before Columbus; the English, more specifically a Carmelite Friar, Nicholas of Lynne, who ventured into the polar region in the 14th century; Madog, the Welsh prince who is said to have set up a Welsh colony in Alabama in the 12th century; and the Vikings, whose ‘Markland’ is widely thought to be Labrador, Canada. And then come various other peoples, including the Carthaginians, the Egyptians, the Arabs, the Venetians, the Basques and the Picts. However, this article is dedicated to those often forgotten pioneers of exploration, the Irish, whose ancient histories include intriguing references to great islands in the western ocean.

The Irish claim to America rests primarily on a mediæval work named The Voyage of Saint Brendan. This text describes Atlantic trips made by Brendan, an Irish saint from Munster, in the sixth century, in which Brendan lands on several different islands, some of which can be identified. After years of such landfalls, Brendan finally comes to ‘The Land of Saints’ somewhere in the Western Ocean...

“Then getting down from the boat they saw a spacious land with apple trees bearing fruit. While they were there it was never night. They took as many of the apples as they wanted and they drank from springs, and then for forty days they wandered over the land but they could not find an end to it. A certain day they came to a great river flowing through the middle of the island. Then Saint Brendan told his companions ‘We cannot cross this river, and we will never know how big this island is.’ ” 1

Some of this description is straight out of Celtic legend; the
perpetual light, for example, or the apple trees. One of the Welsh otherworlds, Avalon has been translated as the ‘land of apples’. But for many years there has been a suspicion that this final “spacious land” – treated by Brendan as the climax of his voyages and as the ‘Land of Saints’ – may in fact be an Irish description of America about 1,000 years before Columbus.

In the early 1960s, Geoffrey Ashe, a writer well known for his work on the Arthurian legend, set out to systematically examine the Voyage. In his resulting book Land to the West (1963), Ashe declined to confirm Brendan’s discovery of America but, in the course of his examination, made several valuable points:

The Voyage is often ignored by historians of exploration because it is considered a folk-tale. However, the Voyage has far fewer fantastic details than a standard Irish legend and many of these are best read as confused accounts of real events: a crystal tower (an iceberg); the gates of hell (an Icelandic volcano); the ocean where you could see into the depths (a coral sea); the sluggish ocean (the Sargasso Sea).

Giving the Voyage the benefit of the doubt, and using the information about the islands Brendan visits, it is possible to draw a series of itineraries that take the saint around the northern two thirds of the Atlantic: the first, St Kilda, the Faeroes, Madeira, the Azores, the Faeroes; the second, the Faeroes, Greenland; the third, the Caribbean, Madeira; the fourth, an iceberg, Iceland, Jan Mayen Island, Iceland, Rockall, the Faeroes; the fifth, the Faeroes and America. The distances given in the text – the Voyage’s author describes the journey in terms of days – approximately fit these itineraries.

Ashe also pointed out that Brendan’s voyage may not have been completed by the saint himself. The Voyage could instead be based on knowledge of the Atlantic culled from various sources over the centuries.One can disagree with details in Ashe’s thesis, but still find the general direction of his arguments interesting. Indeed, this was what happened in the academic community following the publication of Land to the West. Nothing, as Ashe himself accepted, had been proved. But professional celticists mused – sometimes in print, but more often in conversation – that there might just be something to the claim that mediæval Irish sailors had made it across the Atlantic in the early Middle Ages.

If the Irish discovered America in the sixth century they did so because of Christianity. The religion of the Cross – that had arrived in Ireland, at the latest, in the fifth century – was a package deal. With it, as well as a creed and dogma, Heaven and Hell, came libraries of books from Greece and Rome with new ideas and new worlds of knowledge for the intellectually hungry Irish. The history of early Irish culture is largely the history of the absorption of these ideas into Irish lore. An especially pertinent example is the way the Irish treated a genre of literature known as the ‘Writing of the Desert Fathers’. These Desert Fathers were the early Christians, who wandered off into the deserts of North Africa in search of quiet places to live and pray.

Irish monks were enthralled by the Desert Fathers and longed for a similar wilderness where they could give themselves over to God. A less original people would have been immediately defeated by the lack of desert in their own land, but the resourceful Irish came up with two clever ways around the problem. The first was to reserve certain boglands in their native island for the pursuit of prayer – to this day there are many place-names in Ireland with the element dísert in them. The second – an inspired piece of lateral thinking – was to turn to one wilderness that the Irish had in abundance, the Atlantic Ocean. Setting off in native curragh – Irish boats made of a wickerwork shell and a leather skin – monks went in search of ‘the desert in the ocean’. The custom was already underway in the mid-sixth century when our records begin. And it was to continue at least until the late ninth century. In that time hundreds, and perhaps thousands, of Irish monks sailed deep into the Atlantic.

When the Irish wrote of a ‘desert in the ocean’ what they actually meant was a suitable island with food, fresh water and no one to disturb their religious devotions. But Irish navigational skills were poor prior to the ninth century, so how did the monks find these islands? The answer is horribly simple; they made no effort to navigate. They took themselves out a suitable distance from shore, raised their sails and let God (ie. the wind) decide. A classic example of this is the three Irish men who in 891 AD, were blown onto the coast of Cornwall, and who told how they had left Ireland in their small boats determined to go “wherever God wished”.

It is perhaps best not to dwell on the fate of most of those Irish monks, who in their small leather boats – part hermits, part explorers, part kamikaze pilots – gave themselves up to the wind. The Atlantic is not forgiving and many would have been overturned far from home in waves several times larger than their vessels. However, some, inevitably, were blown to land, like the three that made it to Britain. Others went even further afield; there is archæological and historical evidence for Irish monks turning up in the Orkneys and Shetlands, Spain, France, the Faroes, Iceland and perhaps Greenland.

So, could a party of Irish monks, blown by easterlies, have blundered into North America as well? Given the numbers involved there would be nothing extraordinary about a boatload of Irish monks being carried by winds for 40 or 50 days and arriving half-starved on the coast of Canada or the United States. (Set off a thousand helium filled balloons from Donegal and a couple will get to America.) But, of course, there is a strong distinction between arriving in America and discovering America. There have been ‘finds’ of Ogam – a mediæval Irish script – in America, though these are of dubious value.2 However, discovering America involves two further achievements; first, you have to get back home; and second, you have to be able to convince your fellow-countrymen that what you have found deserves to be put on a map.

A good example of an Irish discovery – as opposed to arrival – is Iceland. Contrary to what most encyclopædias tell us, the Irish, not the Vikings, were the first historical people to settle Iceland. An Irish writer Dicuil (c 825) described how, in the late eighth century, a group of Irish priests spent most of the year on the island and had been able to pick lice from their clothes at night thanks to the ‘midnight sun’. In Summer, explains Dicuil, “it does not grow dark even for the shortest space of time”. 3 And in case there could be even a shadow of doubt that there were Irish religious communities in the island prior to the Vikings, a mediæval Norse text tells us that “before Iceland was peopled from Norway there were in it the men whom the Norse call the Papae: they were Christians… they left behind Irish books, bells, and crosiers…” There were, it is true, classical rumours of an island in the far north called Thule; a Carthaginian explorer Pytheas may have got there. But it was Irish monks in search of their ‘desert in the ocean’ who put Iceland firmly on the map, arriving there and bringing back concrete accounts that fed into the European geographical tradition.

However, with the exception of the Voyage of St Brendan there is no similar evidence for America. Dicuil claims that Iceland is the “last” island. While another source, written a good hundred years before, is even more emphatic: Adomnán’s Life of St Columba (written c 700) describes a sea voyage made by an Irish monk named Cormac who sailed on “the ocean that cannot be crossed” in search of a “desert”…“[Cormac’s] ship blown by the south wind drove with full sails in a straight course from land towards the region of the northern sky, for 14 summer days and as many nights. Such a voyage appeared to be beyond the range of human exploration and one from which there could be no return. And so it happened, after the 10th hour of the 14th day, that there arose all around them [..] exceedingly dangerous small creatures covering the sea, such as had never been seen before that time; and these struck with terrible impact the bottom and sides, the stern and prow, with so strong a thrust that they were thought able to pierce and penetrate the skin-covering of the ship. As those that were present there related afterwards, these creatures were about the size of frogs, very injurious by reason of their stings, but they did not fly, they swam.” 4

What these animals were is a mystery: Greenland mosquitoes and flying fish have both been suggested – further ideas would be gratefully received. But most important for our purposes is Adomnán’s assertion that Cormac had gone “far beyond the range of human exploration”, something that is reiterated later in the Life, when Saint Columba tells his monks that Cormac’s voyage “has far exceeded the bounds of human travel”. On a voyage that may have taken him half-way to America, Cormac was judged to have passed out of known waters.

For those who are set on having the Irish as the discoverers of North America, neither Dicuil’s claim that Iceland was the last island, nor Adomnán’s various assertions about “uncrossable oceans” and the “limits of human exploration” are insuperable. Dicuil was based on the Continent and may not have wanted to have been ridiculed by writers there for strange Irish claims about unknown lands. Adomnán lived most of his life on the Scottish island of Iona, the other end of the Gaelic world from Brendan’s base in Munster; perhaps he had not heard anything of the Brendan legend or had not, at any rate, taken it seriously. However, Adomnán, writing 150 years after Brendan’s alleged voyage, and Dicuil, 250 years, seemed to know nothing about a land to the west.

Geoffrey Ashe did not deal with these objections. For Ashe, the Voyage of Saint Brendan was not necessarily a historical description of Brendan’s travels. He considered that it might have been, instead, a scrap heap of Irish knowledge about the Atlantic welded together into a tale. The important question was, therefore, not when Brendan travelled, but when the Voyage was written. In Ashe’s day this was easily answered; scholars in the early 1960s believed that the Voyage had been penned in the ninth or the 10th century as the first surviving manuscripts date from the end of the 10th century. In other words, the Voyage was probably composed after Dicuil and could have benefited from subsequent knowledge, perhaps even Viking lore (Vikings settled in Ireland in the ninth century). However, in 1988, a paper was published that changed all this; writing in an Italian mediæval studies journal, a British academic overturned the old dating of the Voyage. 5 He showed that the text was probably written as early as the seventh or eighth centuries and that it was unlikely to have been written in the ninth or 10th centuries. So the text and the body of knowledge that it seems to represent was very likely in Irish libraries before Dicuil and quite possibly before Adomnán too.

How can we reconcile this seeming contradiction? On the one hand we have Irish writers of the eighth and ninth centuries – Adomnán (c 700) and Dicuil (c 825) – refusing to acknowledge Irish discoveries beyond Iceland. On the other we have a probably seventh or eighth-century Irish text, the Voyage, that seems to be describing coral seas and the North American mainland. If we accept Ashe’s arguments, we have, also, an approximate itinerary.

The easiest solution is to put the ‘American’ references in the Voyage down to chance – and this may, in fact, be the answer to the mystery. However, Irish tradition offers another solution that is also worth examining; one that depends on the way that the mediæval Irish perceived the world. In the early Middle Ages, many Irish intellectuals believed that the Earth was spherical with other continents lying far away in the ocean. An especially striking testimony is provided by an eighth-century Irish priest, Virgil, who preached to his congregation that not only was the world a globe with continents on the other side, but that people lived in these distant lands. 6 (Forteans may be interested to know that Virgil also claimed that people lived on the moon and in the sun.)

The Irish were not responsible for the idea of a spherical globe and continents lying away from Europe, Africa and Asia. Many classical thinkers had believed in both, though most insisted that these other continents – they called them the antipodes – were unreachable, lying across impossibly wide oceans and boiling tropics. However, the Irish were unusual in two respects. First, Christianity found the idea of these other continents offensive and had it outlawed but the Irish continued to believe in the antipodes. Second, they identified these ‘antipodes’ with their fairyland or Otherworld. So, for example, the above-mentioned Virgil, seems to have been suggesting to his congregation that ancestral spirits resided there, while Irish tradition talked of “one hundred and fifty distant islands in the ocean to the west of us, all two or three times the size of Ireland” with fabulous inhabitants and creatures. 7

This Irish belief in an Otherworld or mystical realm in the ocean might be the key to the disparity between the Voyage and the works of Dicuil and Adomnán. Let us, for the sake of argument, allow that Irish monks did arrive in America and that they managed to return home, bringing with them knowledge that would later be used in writing the Voyage. Perhaps Dicuil and Adomnán, and perhaps the sailors themselves, did as Irish tradition had taught them, and treated the new land not as a concrete geographical entity but as a mystical realm. We have already seen that Brendan’s travels through the ocean are described as a kind of odyssey in search of “the land of saints” or the “Promised Land”. When Brendan finally gets to this island, something that is seen as a favour from God after years of effort, it is described in a way that makes us think of Celtic legend: apple trees, perpetual light…

I wrote earlier that discovery depends on three points. Arrival, return and a geographical tradition prepared to put what you have found on a map. If the solution tentatively given here is correct then the Irish failed only at that last hurdle. The audience at home, hearing accounts of incredible voyages in the Western Ocean, reasoned that what was being described was a miraculous journey. This is not to say that the accounts were not believed, but rather that they were thought to have as little to do with geography as those other famous Welsh and Irish journeys to fairyland through caves or rivers – trips that were also, in their day, treated as ‘real’ experiences.

This theory has the virtue of accounting for some American features in the Voyage, while, at the same time, explaining Dicuil’s silence and Adomnán’s reference to an “uncrossable ocean”. It also leaves us with a provoking conclusion; historians of the Middle Ages usually fall over themselves to praise early Irish culture for its innovative combination of classical and native learning, and there need be no argument with this. But is it also possible that, in the case of the ‘antipodes’, just such an original combination – sober Classical geography with a Celtic fairy-world – cheated the Irish of one of the greatest discoveries of all time… America.

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St Brendan from a 14th century map
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Author Biography
Simon Young is a free-lance writer specialising in Mediæval history, currently researching Britonia, a colony set up by British Celts in fifth-century Spain. Living in Santiago de Compostela, Spain, he is also interested in pilgrimage and ancient trade routes. In 1995, he published The Celtic Sources for the Arthurian Legend (Llanerch) with Jon Coe. His new book is The Wars for Prydein: the End of Celtic Britain.
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