Introduction By Breandán O'Cíobháin


Brendan Voyage (Breandán Ó Cíobhain, 2.5.2011)


This is a voyage, planned by Paddy Barry, skipper of the 45’sailing vessel, Ar Seachrán, and Breandán Ó Cíobháin, researcher, with the aim of revealing the spiritual thassalocracy of Irish monks in the North Atlantic from the sixth century onwards. The crew includes mariners, poets and musicians – saints and sinners !  Various experts on different aspects of the subject being researched will join us at different stages. We are happy to acknowledge the offers of assistance by various individuals and groups along our route. The voyage begins on Lá ‘le Bréanainn / St Brendan’s Day, May 16, advancing from Sceilg Mhichíl / Skellig Michael in SW Ireland, up the west coasts of Ireland and Scotland, by Orkneys, Shetland, Faroes to Iceland, and returning by the Outer Hebrides. Iomramh is the term employed in early Irish to describe voyages in the ocean in both the secular and religious spheres.

The most famous of these early voyagers was Bréanainn / Brendan (486-578 ?), whose fame depends on the Navigatio Sancti Brendani and Vita Sancti Brendani, both composed about 800 AD, and for this reason his name has been adopted in the title of the voyage. However, it is clear that the theme of the voyage ‘in search of the desert in the ocean’ was an established reality long before these texts were composed. This is clear from one of the most authentic records from the early period, Adomnan’s Vita Columbae, written towards the end of the 7th century, the earliest manuscript of which was written by Dorbéne (+713), and preserved in the monastery of Reichenau on Lake Constance in S Germany.

This work makes reference to voyages ‘in search of a desert in the ocean’ made in the second half of the 6th century by Baethán, who returned to Ireland, and by Cormac Ua Liatháin, who made three such voyages, and also eventually settled in Ireland. Columba or Colum Cille (+597) sought the protection of the king of the Orkneys in the presence of the Pictish overking Brude, for Cormac on his second voyage. It is clear that Bréanainn also had voyaged in the direction of Iona, as he and Cormac, in the company of saints Comhghall and Cainneach are represented as visiting Columba on the island of Hinba, still unidentified but clearly not too far from Iona. Bréanainn is represented in his Vita as visiting the monk Gildas in South Wales, and subsequently sailing on to the island of Aileach in Britain (sometimes interpreted as ‘Brittany’), where he intended to remain, but ultimately returned to Ireland, having founded a monastery named Bledach / Bledua in the region of Heth (Tiree ?).

Bréanainn was of the Alltraighe, a people located in the region of Tralee in modern County Kerry, but his main monastic foundation was Cluain Fearta, in the SE of modern County Galway, with lesser foundations in NW Connaught. It may be that Bréanainn’s rise to eminence in relation to the theme of voyaging was due to Cuimín Fada, an influential abbot of Cluain Fearta in the second half of the 7th century, and the subsequent adoption of this prestigious Bréanainn as their patron by the people known as Ciarraighe, before 800 AD.  The latter had by then subdued Alltraighe, and established themselves at the head of an alliance in opposition to the overlordship of Eoghanacht Locha Léin. However, Ard Fhearta, the local monastic foundation ascribed to Bréanainn does not feature in the annalistic record until the 11th century, becoming an episcopal see in the 12th.

The curious displacement of the departure point for the Navigatio apparently from Sliabh Liag in SW Donegal, to NW Clare, and then to the vicinity of Cnoc Bréanainn / Mount Brandon in Kerry may reflect the gradual aggrandisement of Bréanainn, and his adoption by the Ciarraighe as their patron. With the first departure point is associated Bairrinn who tells him of Tearnóg / Mearnóg’s visit to the promised land, and with the second Ailbhe, who has also been there, and whose island in the ocean, occupied by his community, Bréanainn meets on his voyage.

Confirmation of the presence of Irish monks on the islands north of Britain, subsequent to Cormac’s visit to Orkney, come from the Irish geographer, Dicuil, whose De Mensura Orbis Terrae was published in the Carolingian court c. 825. Briefly, he describes islands inhabited by anchorites for about 100 years prior to his writing but now abandoned, in the face of Viking attacks, to many sheep and sea-birds. These seem to be the Faroes (literally ‘sheep-islands’). Dicuil says that he lived in some of the northern islands, and gives a description supplied to him c. 795 of Irish clerics, who 30 years previously had spent from February to July in Thule (Iceland), and observed the summer solstice there with the sun circling just beneath the horizon for 24 hours, and the frozen sea to the north.

Irish monks, referred to as papar  in Norse texts of the 12th and later centuries, have left their mark through the incorporation of the term in dozens of toponyms all the way from Man to Iceland, documented in various publications and online by the authors involved in The Papar Project. A number of these will be visited on Iomramh Bréanainn, as will other sites where survey and excavation have indicated the presence of Irish monks, particularly on the Faroes and Iceland.

Sites associated with the early Irish church through iconography, building techniques, and textual evidence will be visited – Columba’s Iona, Donnan’s Eigg, where he and 150 companions were slaughtered by pirates in c. 617, and Maol Rubha’s foundation (673) of Aporcrosan / Applecross on the mainland. Of particular interest will be the island of Eileach an Naoimh (= Aileach of the Vita) at the mouth of the Firth of Lorne, where two toponyms preserve the association with Bréanainn --  Dún Bhréanainn and Cúil Bhréanainn. There are several churches dedicated to Bréanainn in the Highlands, usually styled Cill Bhréanainn, and the one on Hiort / St Kilda will be our focus on the return journey from Iceland. The unascribed ecclesiastical site on the tiny island of N Rona, 50 miles NW of Cape Wrath, may be fitted into this return journey also.


This spiritual thassalocracy of the Irish is almost completely ignored in Ireland, and the message it has for a generation mesmerised by the allure of material wealth and gratification, is lost. Indeed the political thassalocracy of the same centuries, when the Irish, who had first  plundered Roman Britain, established colonies all along the west coast of Britain, is equally unknown. The much vaunted Irish diaspora is associated only with starving Irish poor who committed themselves to coffin ships in a frantic effort to escape a terrible fate in the 19th century. The earlier diaspora has left its mark around the littoral of the N. Atlantic. It is estimated that 1/3 of the early settlers of Iceland had an Irish background, and they had a profound influence on its literature. The last of the Irish dynasties in S. Wales died out only in the 8th century. Gaelic Scotland and Ireland shared a similar culture until the 17th century. Much research has been devoted in recent years to the significant contribution which Irish clerics and scholars made to the creation of the Europe which slowly emerged from the fall of the Roman Empire, but its results are largely confined to the academic sphere.

Iomramh Bréanainn is the effort of a group of individuals, without sponsorship from any quarter, to comprehend the world-view of an extraordinary group of Irishmen, and to gain some appreciation of their spiritual values. Nowhere is their unique implementation of Christianity so tangible as in their remote ‘desert in the ocean’ of Sceilg Mhichíl / Skellig Michael off the Kerry coast, founded in the 6th century. This is an appropriate starting point for a voyage whose ambition goes beyond the mere traversing of the ocean, and it so happens that the most southerly dedication in Ireland to Bréanainn is on the nearby shore of Dairbhre/ Valentia Island. This is Tobar Ula Bhréanainn ‘Well of the Shrine of Brendan’.

May we have the spiritual sense and humility to recognise Tír Tairngire / ‘Land of Promise’ if we meet it, and to bring back with us its reputed craobh chumhra / ‘fragrant branch’.