Saint Brendan the Navigator (AD 484—577) was an Irish monk, abbot, and priest. He was born in Fenit near the seaside port of Tralee on the southwest coast of Ireland. Also known as “Brendan the Voyager” and “Brendan of Clonfert,” his heroic story of exploring the Atlantic Ocean and founding monasteries in Ireland and Scotland is one of the most famous legends of the Middle Ages.
According to Catholic history, Brendan (initially named Mobhi) was baptized by Bishop Erc of Slane, who christened him with the name Brendan, meaning “fair-drop.” For five years, Brendan was raised and educated by an Irish nun, St. Ite of Killeedy, and then sent to study under Abbot St. Jarlath of Tuam. In AD 512, he was ordained to the priesthood by Bishop Erc. From this point until AD 530, Brendan the Navigator’s life is immortalized in Navigate Sancti Brendani Abbatis (The Voyages of St. Brendan the Abbot), a legendary narrative of his travels and monastic accomplishments recorded about three hundred years after his death.
Unsurprisingly, the Celts of Ireland—bounded as they are by the sea—are notorious for their mythical stories of seafaring saints. In one such legend, “Brendan the Navigator celebrated Mass on the back of a whale, which he thought was a small island until it swam away” (Christian History Magazine, Issue 60: How the Irish Were Saved, 1998).
It is difficult to decipher fact from fiction in the accounts of Brendan the Navigator. After his ordination, Brendan was said to be inspired by Luke 18:29–30 to forsake his country, brethren, and family in search of an earthly paradise where its inhabitants embrace the true Christian faith (Jackson, S. M., ed., The New Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge: Embracing Biblical, Historical, Doctrinal, and Practical Theology and Biblical, Theological, and Ecclesiastical Biography from the Earliest Times to the Present Day, Funk & Wagnalls, 1908—1914, Vol. 2, p. 259).
The legend of Brendan the Navigator begins with Brendan encountering his relative, Saint Barinthus, who describes his own fantastic voyage and discovery of a mysterious “Promised Land of the Saints.” Brendan selects a group of monks who pray with him and then accompany him on a seven-year voyage that was rumored to include lands as far off as the Canary Islands and even the Americas (Davies, O., trans., Celtic Spirituality Paulist Press, 1999, p. 34). Some historians believe St. Brendan’s travel journals may have influenced Christopher Columbus to set sail for the West (https://www.irishamerica.com/2021/05/goodbye-columbushello-st-brendan/, accessed 4/25/23).
The most reliable information extracted from historical evidence of Brendan the Navigator’s life includes the establishment of several monasteries in Ireland and Scotland. According to St. Adamnan’s Life of Abbot St. Columba of Iona, the adventurous monk sailed to the Hebrides, Western Scotland, Wales, and Brittany. In approximately AD 557, Brendan the Navigator founded the religious community he is most known for: the monastery of Clonfert in County Galway in western Ireland. Brendan led this monastery for two decades, during which it became a renowned monastic school. His fame drew monks and students by the thousands to this center of sacredness and learning.
Brendan the Navigator also founded a monastery in Annaghdown and a convent, where his sister Briga ruled and where he died in AD 577 at the age of 93. Before his death, Brendan arranged for his remains to be returned to Clonfert. Today, his gravesite can be found just outside the twelfth-century Clonfert Cathedral.
The Catholic Church recognizes Brendan the Navigator as a saint. His feast day is observed on May 16. He is considered the patron saint of sailors, mariners, navigators, and travelers.