This is the story of Saint Brendan the Navigator, whose legendary quest to find the Isle of the Blessed is one of the most remarkable and enduring early Christian tales.
Among Irish saints, Brendan the Navigator is second only to Patrick. Founder of several monasteries, he most famously guided a group of monks on a dangerous journey into the unknown vastness of the ocean on a search for Paradise. Based on the medieval "Life of St Brendan," Morgan Llywelyn's imaginative retelling of the Christian legend of this most remarkable man is a lyrical and surprising feast for the mind and heart. It is a story of truth and transcendence, and inner strength and daily discipline, a story of love and longing, and a story of towering faith. And of course, miracles.
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About the Author
Since 1980 Morgan Llywelyn has created an entire body of work chronicling the Celts and Ireland, from the earliest times to the present day. her critically acclaimed novels, both of history and of mythology, have been translated into many languages. She is an Irish citizen and lives in Dublin.
Since 1980, Morgan Llywelyn has created an entire body of work chronicling the Celts and Ireland, from the earliest times to the present day. Her critically acclaimed novels, both of history and of mythology, have been translated into many languages. Her books include 1916 and Bard: The Odyssey of the Irish. She is an Irish citizen and lives in Dublin.
Read an Excerpt
By Morgan Llywelyn
Tom Doherty AssociatesCopyright © 2010 Morgan Llywelyn
All rights reserved.
Within a vault of bone the Navigator was thinking.
Not much else to do in your head when your eyes are closed.
He could hear, of course: the manic clamour of seagulls wheeling over the waves. Smell, most certainly: the pungent odour of seaweed rotting on the strand. Feel the unyielding boulder beneath his buttocks and the unstable sand beneath his feet.
Mostly, he was thinking.
Yesterday a god spoke to me on the mountain.
Yesterday the god spoke to me on the mountain.
Yesterday God spoke to me on the mountain.
Brendán gave a bemused shake of his head. Begin at the beginning, old fool, he admonished himself.
The boulder on which he sat was one of many littering the beach, detritus left by the receding ice nine thousand years earlier. The glaciers were long gone but the sea continued to arrive. With every tide it stole more of the land, gnawing a wide circle of limestone out of the bay of Tra Lí. "Tralee" referred to the shore of a small river which ran into the sea at that point. A sparkling, laughing river, hurrying home.
Brendán rarely thought of himself as old; hardly thought of himself at all. He was unaware that his thick black hair had long since turned white. His leathery face was spiderwebbed with lines, but the muscular forearms resting on his sturdy thighs would have done credit to a much younger man. Within their frame of black lashes his eyes were still the blue of deep ocean.
Today those eyes were looking inwards. Brendán was preparing to write a journal — iris in the Irish language — a word which also could mean faith or belief. Over the years a number of people had urged him to make a record of his extraordinary adventures. He had always declined. Until yesterday. When the project became a compulsion.
The Will of God, that's what Íta would call it. Íta. He smiled to himself. She is with me still, safe in my memory. Strolling beside a moss-embroidered stream, teaching a small boy the names of the birds and flowers.
"Sister Íta, why is a rainbow?"
"Because God is laughing, dear heart."
My memory is a jackdaw's nest of trivia and treasures. Breathtaking adventures and the first drink of foaming milk still warm from the cow; awesome discoveries and the song of a bird on an ice-spangled morning; beauty and horror, grief and ecstasy. Ah yes, the ecstasy that seizes a man and lifts him like a hare in the talons of an eagle.
A large bird angled down from the sky, passing so close to Brendán's head that he felt the turbulence of wings in the air. There you are! he thought with joy.
He opened his eyes.
And slumped in disappointment.
A cormorant had landed on a nearby boulder. The large seabird was standing upright with wings outstretched, balancing on stone as it had balanced on air. After a leisurely survey of its surroundings — and judging the man to be an object of no consequence — the cormorant settled down and began preening its dark feathers. Arranging each quill according to a precise pattern.
It's not you, of course. I should have known better. Brendán began arranging his thoughts into a pattern, which he then spoke aloud. "Life is a voyage from launching to beaching," he declaimed. His voice was hoarse from years of shouting into the wind.
The cormorant raised its head, revealing the cruel downward hook of its beak. Glittering eyes fixed on the man.
Brendán stood up slowly to avoid frightening the bird. "Our immortal souls are deposited in frail vessels of flesh that carry them for an indefinite amount of time. We passengers have no choice in the matter. We are taken wherever the unseen Commander sends us until we are forced to disembark."
The cormorant made a clucking noise.
I agree with you, bird. The whole thing does seem rather arbitrary. "Mine is that branch of the Celtic race known as the Gael. I was born in Kerry, the kingdom of Ciar, where the many of the Gael still held to the old faith. However my parents had been converted to Christianity. At my christening I was given the name Braon-finn, which means 'bright drop.'
Íta always called me "Braon-finn."
"My father was a grandson of Alta, of the kingly line of Fergus Mac Roy. I stress this for a reason. My calling demands humility, but anyone can make an earthworm abase itself. Great effort is required to persuade an eagle to acknowledge a higher authority."
Abruptly lifting his arms towards Heaven, Brendán exulted, "I have been persuaded! I have seen things few men have ever seen and learned that the limits of being are not what we thought they were!"
The cormorant gave a raucous screech and flew away.
Brendán sank back onto his boulder. Was that a bad omen? He could smell rain on the wind. And he was tired. His whole body ached, bone and muscle.
Don't give in to superstition or it will swallow you. Who said that? I'm not sure; time passes and faces blur into other faces and only the words remain.
In the beginning there was the Word ...
"In infancy I was put out to fosterage," he said aloud, even though he had lost his audience. "My parents sent me to Íta, a devout Christian and the favourite daughter of a chieftain of the Déisi tribe. Íta had founded a small nunnery on the Meadow of Deep Soil and established a school for boys. In time the nunnery grew into an abbey of renown, but it is still known as Cill Íde — Íta's Church.
"One of my earliest memories is of the clear voices of women singing the praises of God in his house. The tiny chapel of the nunnery was built with smooth oak planks tightly fitted together and roofed with shingles of yew wood. The wood absorbed the music, resonating with it long afterwards." Whenever I entered the chapel I could hear the walls singing.
"Cill Íde was an island of stability in a sea of waving grass. Five round, timber-and-wattle huts were grouped around the chapel, like chicks around a hen. Íta and three more nuns slept in the largest hut; we boys occupied the others. Nearby was a rectangular structure that served both as our refectory and a guesting house for travellers. Food was prepared in a lean-to some distance from the chapel, and the clay ovens were even farther away, in case of fire." I shall never forget the fragrance of baking bread.
"A drystone wall protected the precincts of the nunnery from roaming cattle. The grassland beyond the wall was watered by countless streams which sought the River Shannon — 'As our souls seek God,' according to Sister Fithir. South of the meadow, the knees of the distant mountains were blanketed with oak forest. When we were naughty Sister Fithir would point to those mountains and warn, 'God watches you from his high seat.'
"God so permeated the atmosphere of Cill Íde that I never thought to question his existence, but I was curious about everything else. While she was mending my sandals I once asked Sister Muirne, 'What is the sky?'
"Sister Muirne had long, graceful fingers. In the refectory she played the harp, music to make us feel hungry. She could also play music to put us to sleep. Hers was a wonderful gift. When rowdy boys listened to the voice of the harp they forgot their quarrels.
"In answer to my question Sister Muirne said, 'The sky is the roof God spreads over the world.'
"After pondering this from Terce to Sext, I sought out Sister Lerben, whom I found sweeping the earthen floor in God's house. Sister Lerben's red-knuckled hands were never idle. If there was no one to talk to she talked to herself in a rambling monotone.
"'When will the sun and moon fall on us?' I asked the nun.
"'They can't fall on us,' she assured me, without interrupting her sweeping. 'They'll be up there forever.'
"At Nones I approached Sister Íta, whom I considered the final authority on everything. In my earliest years I thought God must look like Sister Íta. She had square, competent hands, very clean in spite of all the work she did. I loved to watch those hands.
"'The thatch roofing on the huts is full of insects that fall down on us,' I said. 'Sister Muirne told me the sky is the roof of the world, so is the sun a bee? Is the moon a beetle? Sister Lerben says they can't fall on us, but why not?'
"Laughter bubbled up in Sister Íta. 'Dear heart! What amazing notions you have. The sun and moon aren't insects, they're your Father's jewels.'
"'God,' she replied. Still laughing, she scooped me into her arms and hugged me tight."
I was pressed against a full bosom and softly yielding body. A heart overflowing with love beat close to my cheek, sharing the rhythm of life.
I assumed everyone was like Íta.
"In this happy nursery I grew from babe to boy, together with ten or twelve other lads of the warrior class. I did not know I was Sister Íta's foster child; I simply assumed she was my mother. Small children do not question the circumstances of their life, they accept them. Theirs is the earliest and purest faith.
Purity was important to Sister Íta; it was one of the virtues she urged us to cultivate. She did not explain what purity was, not to a crowd of scruffy little boys no higher than her hip. But if she loved purity, so did I.
I was not the best-behaved boy at Cill Íde, however. Should I mention that? Perhaps not. My tendency to act on intuition instead of obeying instructions will become apparent later.
"No wine would ever taste as sweet as the water from the nunnery's well. We ate chewy black bread and soft cheese made by the nuns' own hands, and imbibed their faith in a gentle Christ, the Lamb of God, along with our buttermilk. Before every meal we prayed to Our Father as Christ had taught. After every meal Sister Íta reminded us, 'God most loves a pure heart, a simple life, and open-handed charity.'
"Secure amidst all three, we fell asleep on pallets stuffed with fragrant grasses and awoke in the morning to the song of the lark. Looms humming and cattle lowing. Dust motes dancing in slanting sunlight. Order and calm and continuity.
I assumed the rest of the world was the same.
Fool that I was.
"The nuns, who referred to themselves as Brides of Christ, were all young women, and for a good reason. Establishing a nunnery demanded physical strength as well as moral conviction.
Íta was a true daughter of warriors, a strong, courageous woman. And a wise one. The older boys teased me about the dark until I developed a terror of it. Sister Íta told me, "There is nothing in the dark that isn't there in the light," and gave me a candle to put beside my bed. We lit it together from one of the candles in the chapel. "When you are ready, you can blow this out," Íta said. Not 'if,' but 'when.'
To justify her faith in me, one night I blew out my candle. Afterward I got up and felt my way around the hut, stumbling over my sleeping comrades. I found nothing that wasn't there in the light.
I never asked for the candle again.
"A local chieftain had been so impressed by Íta that he offered her a vast amount of land to use as she willed. She had accepted only enough for a vegetable garden and a field of grain. The nuns maintained their community without any outside help. They made the clothes and raised the food, ploughing the earth with a blind ox Sister Fithir had rescued from slaughter. On the open meadow they grazed a few cows for milk, and a flock of sheep. If the nuns were not at prayer or busy with the school they were collecting firewood or churning butter or spinning wool." I learned to count by numbering the strands that made a bindle.
Far out to sea the cormorant changed direction, circled back. Rode the wind until it hovered above the stony beach where the Navigator was composing aloud.
"The boys at Cill Íde were like the sons of privilege everywhere, bold by nature and unruly by preference. Sister Íta tamed us with gentleness. 'Always be courteous,' she insisted. 'Courtesy is the fat that flavours the meat of life.'
"The older lads were expected to learn Latin, the language of the Church; a discipline they resisted at first. But Sister Íta convinced them. 'Learning is the game we play for pleasure,' she said with a wink as if divulging a secret.
"Another of her sayings was: 'Jesus is the lord we follow for joy.' We boys exemplified the precept. Our days were spent running and laughing, hiding and seeking, pummelling one another indiscriminately, falling asleep on the grass, jumping up to start a new game. And I always in the heart of the pack. Or was I? Even then, did I not tend to go my own way and think my own thoughts?
"Herding mice in a meadow would have been easier than controlling us. The nuns did not interfere unless our rough-and-tumble antics turned serious. Then it was always Sister Íta who came at the run to wipe a bloody nose or dry furious tears. She never apportioned blame, but distracted us with a song or story until the quarrel was forgotten. Thus we were defended from one another. And from ourselves. Never again have I felt as safe as I did on the Meadow of Deep Soil.
"To each boy Sister Íta imparted the conviction that no matter his faults, he was loved deeply, permanently, and without qualification, by herself and God. She gave us a rock to stand on. My feet are planted there yet."
Brendán closed his eyes for a moment. Alas, one cannot remain a child any more than the blackbird can remain in the egg.
"In high summer men from Sister Íta's clan came galloping over the grassland to make any necessary repairs to the structure of the nunnery. Some were mounted on small horses whose tails had been dyed bright red or vivid blue. Those of higher rank drove wickerwork chariots decorated with plumes. A good chariot was worth twelve cows.
"The men's hair either streamed to their shoulders or was plaited into complex patterns and dyed like their horses' tails. Faces were clean shaven except for flowing moustaches, the emblem of the warrior class. Beneath their sleeveless coats they wore knee-length linen tunics dyed with saffron. Gold brooches fastened the mantles on their shoulders. More gold adorned their necks and arms, fingers and ears, until they gleamed like the sun. Gorgeous and gaudy and proud; warriors of the Gael.
"By contrast the nuns clothed themselves in grey wool, finely woven but absolutely plain. Their gowns hung straight from neck to feet. They possessed no gold or treasure of any kind. The priest who visited us to say Mass in the chapel even brought his own chalice and paten. Cill Íde was simplicity itself. Nothing in excess. The nuns spoke in low voices. In the presence of men they spoke more softly still.
"The other boys admired the warriors and followed them everywhere, imitating their bold swagger and brandishing spears made from branches. I was more intrigued by the foreign traders who occasionally visited Cill Íde. Ireland was the last port of call for men who plied the world's trade routes. They described the Irish as 'World Enders,' because there was nothing beyond us but the Great Abyss: the Western Sea that ran to the edge of the world and beyond. When the traders brought their exotic merchandise to our gates I was always wildly excited.
Sharp eyed, oily tongued men with wide smiles and extravagant gestures, they spoke with enviable familiarity of sunblessed Egypt and subtle Persia. I listened to them with my mouth hanging open like a gate.
"The traders exchanged worked iron and woven flax for the nuns' herbal medicaments and fine wool. They displayed jewels of jet and amber and malachite, and tiny sheets of gold leaf as thin as fish skin, but the nuns were not tempted. 'Desire only what you need,' was the rule at Cill Íde.
It's still a good rule.
"When she was with the traders Sister Íta's demeanour changed. She became the warrior she might have been; standing taller, shoulders back and chin lifted. She spoke in a firm voice and drove a hard bargain. The traders admired her for it. They called her 'The White Sun.'
At twilight other visitors — either three or five in number — occasionally approached the nunnery. Yet they never came as far as the wall. They stood off at a distance, silent within hooded robes. We boys could never get a close look at them. If we tried they melted away into the trees. When I asked Sister Íta about them she replied with a single word: 'Druids.'
Excerpted from Brendán by Morgan Llywelyn. Copyright © 2010 Morgan Llywelyn. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
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