The Mystical Voyage of St. Brendan – Part 4.
The word suspended in slow-motion, which came from the lips of St. Enda like the blue smoke of frankincense, was his benediction on Brendan’s voyage to find the island of the Promised Land of the Saints. The navigator-abbot and his 14 companions now set out to a place called Brendan’s Seat, which is identified with the Brandon Head on the Dingle Peninsula in County Kerry.
According to the Voyage, this place had just enough room for one boat to be launched, with a towering mountain on the sea, which is appropriately one of the western-most places in all Europe. Here, Brendan and his followers pitched their tents and got down to the project of building a vessel to take them on their maritime pilgrimage.
Curiously, the chroniclers of the Voyage noted that although Brendan’s parents lived nearby, he did not visit them. There could be several interpretations of that little piece of information, but it seems logical to assume that Brendan and his companions had more than enough work cut out for them in the coming days and possibly months, without breaking the spiritual rhythm that had been swelling within their hearts into a crescendo of dedication.
If we look soberly to the task that awaited these iron-age monks, we would immediately see it as a formidable undertaking even today, let alone for 6th century clerics. For starters, there is a special way to make leather able to withstand saltwater. The method is mentioned in the original Latin text as rubricatis in roborina cortice – hides that are seasoned in oak bark. They had to gather or make iron tools, hew lumber for the frame, tan or purchase 147 ox hides (enough for 3 boats and repairs), render hundreds of gallons of fat for waterproofing, secure food and other provisions enough to last–you guessed it–40 days, and cut or purchase rawhide to stitch two miles-worth of leather through the hides with 1,600 knots fastened to the frame of their currach, the traditional leather boat of that region. I don’t know about you, but I’m exhausted just writing about it.
We know all these little details about the building of a currach from the adventurer Tim Severin who became something of a minor celebrity for reconstructing St. Brendan’s voyage when I was a little boy. You can imagine the excitement his work inspired in North Atlantic ports such as Boston, which is home to millions of proud Irish immigrants. It will not give inordinate surprise to my readers when I confess not to being given to the flamboyant, fame-seeking Lord Flashhearts of the world, but Severin is cut from a different cloth altogether. His sense of duty to explore history and make it accessible to those of us who wish to learn from the great works of our ancestors, was decidedly not done for his unique fame or pecuniary aggrandizement.
Thirty-nine years ago this very week, on 24 January 1976, Severin and his crew launched the 36- foot-long, 8 foot-beam, two-masted , ox hide currach, an exact replica of the vessel described in the Voyage. For over nearly a year, Severin and his crew journeyed over 4,500 miles (7,200 km) from the site of St. Brendan’s launch in Ireland to Peckford Island, in what is now Newfoundland, with many stops in between.
The monks finished their project and readied to sail on the summer solstice. In simple, pious style, even after so much work, St. Brendan called his brothers near, put the currach in the water, and in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, asked them to enter the boat.
Through perseverance, their labor of love had come to fruition.