Many centuries before the Spanish and Dutch explorers were settling and trading in the New World, a humble Irish monk was making the voyage across the wild Atlantic seas in a tiny currach. In this letter we recount how a modern Irish sailor attempted a similar voyage in the duplicate craft, following the path of Saint Brendan the Navigator.
Céad Míle Fáilte – and welcome to this week’s Letter from Ireland! It’s a cool, crisp and sunny morning here in Skibbereen – with the sort of light that allows you to see for miles. How are things in your part of the world today?
I’m settling into a cup of Badger and Dodo coffee as I write (sometimes the name of a coffee matters as much as it’s taste). I do hope you will join me now with a cup of whatever you fancy yourself as we start into today’s letter.
I was inside O’Flynn’s butcher shop yesterday, and something happened to trigger a memory long forgotten – three memories in fact. It seems they’re a bit like busses – they often come in groups of three!
The first of those memories brought me all the way back to my early school days in the seaside town of Crosshaven in County Cork.
Word had just come into our classroom that something unusual was going on across the water in the boatyard – apparently they were building an old Irish boat from ash framing and tarred cow-hide. Our teacher explained that a local explorer – a man by the name of Tim Severin – was aiming to prove that one Saint Brendan managed to make his way to the Americas many centuries before the first Vikings. And using this little sailing currach being put together not a mile from our school. Now, that got the attention more than Irish grammar!
Saint Brendan was born about 480 AD, near what is now the town of Tralee in County Kerry. He was born into the Ciarrage Luachra tribe (later surnames that came out of this group include O’Connor, Scanlan, Lawlor, Flaherty, Ferris, Moran, Murtagh, Brosnan and many more). At the age of twenty-six, he was ordained and went on to found a number of monasteries around Ireland. Sometime in his later years, he went on a seven year voyage/pilgrimage – accompanied by a group of his monks in a simple two-masted currach.
The story of their exploits was captured two hundred years later in a latin text: “The Voyage of Saint Brendan the Navigator”. His tale was quite a big hit across Europe back in the day, and talks of the group coming upon lands full of magic, devils and fantastical animals. They eventually find the “Paradise of the Saints” – after which Brendan returns home and dies. A right set of tales of derring-do!
Severin and his group (not a monk amongst them) set out from Brandon creek in Kerry in May, 1976. They, too, were in a two-masted currach – built using the designs and materials available to Saint Brendan and his followers. Over the course of eleven months, they sailed and rowed first to the Hebrides in Scotland, then onto Iceland before landing in Newfoundland – with plenty of adventure and luck along the way, but not too much in the way of magic.
He had shown it was possible to travel to the Americas from Europe back in Saint Brendan’s day – and all using the navigation techniques and materials of the time. Some feat indeed. Severin wrote a book of his Brendan exploits which became a best seller and was translated into 16 languages. Maybe you have read it already?
The second memory triggered for me on that morning cast me back to the evolving music scene of Ireland in the early 1980s. I was always a fan of traditional Irish music, but it seemed that with each passing year, more and more interesting things were happening with the genre.
In 1980, Shaun Davey was inspired by Tim Severin’s voyage to compose a work that would combine Irish traditional music and a full orchestra. He called his work: “The Brendan Voyage Suite”. I remember seeing it for the first time, and something shifted as we saw how a Irish Uilleann pipe could soar and swoop through the supportive framework of a classic orchestra. I think it was the start of a new era of Irish music and dance.
Ah – I must sit down and listen to the entire suite in the near future.
My final memory from a time twenty-five years later – and as part of a trip to County Clare for a Green Room member.
In early 2014, Carina and myself arrived one morning at Craggaunowen Park – a wonderful place in County Clare that presents itself as an outdoor museum. The tracks take us through Castles, ancient Irish settlements – letting us see and touch the life of our early Irish ancestors.
Near the end, we came across a glass pyramid – and inside was a replica of a currach boat. Except, this was no replica. This was the actual boat that Tim Severin and his crew used to travel all the way from Kerry to Newfoundland back in 1976. And, here it sat, retired in dry-dock, for all to see and enjoy at close quarters.
As I ran my hand over the dry-hide of the hull – the smell of the boat in close-quarters conveyed a story that is hard to capture in any words. To look at the slender lines of the craft, her delicate sail and compact size – it was a wonder it was ever let onto the sea in the first place. Not only that, but to travel those thousands of miles both intact and in a safe manner – that was just too much to take in. And this was the same boat that was being constructed all those years ago just a short distance from our classroom in a small Irish seaside village.
If you ever get a chance, do visit this beautiful part of County Clare – and run your own hands over the hull of this miracle boat for one perfect and immersive history lesson.
So, they were my three memories – all connected through a personal experience of Irish history. And, the event that triggered them in O’Flynn’s butcher shop yesterday?
Well, I was chatting with Simon O’Flynn, and in walked Tim Severin himself – now a sprightly seventy-something – and still sprinkling the words “boat” and “sea” through his energetic conversation.
I think a good place to finish is with the following from the “Prayer of Saint Brendan”:
Help me to journey beyond the familiar
And into the unknown.
Give me the faith to leave old ways
And break fresh ground with You.
After all, we all need a little adventure in our lives. What do you think? That’s it for today – as always, do feel free to share any questions or stories you might have yourself below.
We’ll see you next week! : )
Slán, Mike and Carina
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