Book of Saints and Heroes - Andrew Lang

Brendan the Sailor

In reading the lives of the Irish saints we are amazed and almost confused at the number of wonderful things told about them. The Irish are always fond of marvels and of turning every-day events into a story, and when they began to tell about their holy men and women, they were not contented unless they surrounded them with strange signs, and gave them gifts and powers beyond those of common people. This is the reason that every Irish saint is a worker of miracles from his cradle, and that prophecies showing his future greatness attend his birth. A saint would not have been a saint at all in their eyes, if he had been a baby like other babies, so his father and his mother and even friends at a distance see visions concerning him, and one person repeats the tale to another and, like most tales, it grows with the telling.

Now the morning after Brendan was born, somewhere about 490, a rich man, who lived a long way off, arrived at the house of Finnlog, father of Brendan, driving thirty cows and thirty calves before him.

'These are for the baby who will be a great saint,' he said, kneeling before the cradle. 'For thus it was made known to me last night in a dream.' Then Finnlog feasted him and bade him rest awhile, but Airde, the giver of the cows, would not listen to him.

'I have far to travel,' he answered, 'and many rivers to cross. I must begone in haste lest night fall and the waters drown me.' So he took farewell of them.

Hardly was he out of sight when Finnlog beheld some one else climbing the hill to his dwelling.

'It is the holy Bishop Eirc,' he thought, 'and great honour it is that he does me.' Then Finnlog went to meet him and bowed low before the Bishop.

'O Finnlog!' said the Bishop, 'last night as I slept I beheld a wood in the midst of fire, and in the fire angels in bright and white garments passing up and down. Such a sight I have never seen, no, nor heard of, and a voice within me told me to arise and come to you, for in your house I should find the infant who some day will be the glory of Ireland.'

'Enter then,' answered Finnlog, 'for the voice spoke truly,' and the Bishop entered and did homage to the baby.

'I will baptise him,' he said, and Finnlog and his wife gladly consented thereto, and when that was done the Bishop returned whence he had come.

For a year Brendan remained with his mother who nursed him and watched over him. But at the end of that time she delivered him up with many tears to Bishop Eirc, and Ita, who herself had watched over the childhood of Eirc, tended Brendan also. Greatly she loved him and often she saw him surrounded by angels which no other could see, and Brendan himself did not know it. 'For five years Ita took care of him, and weary seemed the hours to her when he had left her side and was in the house of Bishop Eirc, reading the Psalms and learning about holy things.

'I am thirsty,' said Brendan one morning, for the sun was hot and the walk from Ita's house felt longer than usual.

'By the grace of God you shall quench your thirst, my son,' answered the Bishop, and on looking up Brendan beheld a hind approaching, with a little fawn trotting behind her. At a sign from the Bishop a woman came near and milked the hind, and gave Brendan to drink of the milk. And every day the hind appeared with the fawn trotting after her, and when Brendan had drunk as much milk as he wanted they returned to the mountains, whence they had come.

'I would learn to write,' said Brendan, another day when he was older. So the Bishop taught him, and after he could write quickly and well Eirc sent him away, first to this person and then to that, teachers of the rules of the church, which every man had to know if, like Brendan, he wished to become a priest. And when he knew them, he returned to Eirc who received him into the priesthood.

For a while he stayed quietly with Bishop Eirc, till on a Sunday a sermon was preached in the place where he was, and this was the text:

'Everyone that hath forsaken father or mother or sister or lands for my sake shall receive a hundredfold in the present, and shall possess everlasting life.' As he listened the will grew strong in Brendan to gain that which was promised, and in his prayers he begged to have a land given him where he might dwell apart from men, at peace, and hidden. As he slept a voice came to him and said: 'Arise, O Brendan! your prayers are heard, and the Lord has granted what you have asked, even the Land of Promise.' Then Brendan arose, as he was bidden, and, with the holy voice still sounding in his ears, went up a high mountain from which he beheld the sea, and in the midst of the sea, hanging like a cloud, an island like a pearl, and from the island angels flew up and down to heaven. During three days he stayed on the mountains, and most of the time he slept. And again an angel spoke to him and said: 'I will go beside you for evermore and will guide you to the island.'

After that Brendan came down from the mountain, and went back to Finnlog's house. Long it was since his mother had seen him, but he told her that he could not abide with her, for he was going far out into the ocean if only his father would build for him three large ships with sails made of skins, and three rows of oars, with ten men to each row. This Finnlog did gladly, and the men to row the ships were found, and some were monks and some were not.

For five years Brendan sailed the 'awful bitter ocean,' and they passed many islands, fair and green, but Brendan would not suffer his men to land. Strange wonders they saw as they rode over the sea, great whales tossing pillars of water into the air, porpoises tumbling and vanishing under the waves, red-mouthed monsters hideous to look upon. As they went the skies grew clearer and the air warmer, and by and bye Easter was at hand.

'Where are we to keep our Easter?' asked the monks, and Brendan made answer, as the angel had bidden him: 'Yonder, on the island that lies there.' Now he knew, for the angel had told him, that it was no island, but the back of a huge whale but the men did not know it. So they landed and heard mass, and then they made a fire and put on a pot to boil that they might roast a lamb for their Passover. But when the fire began to blaze the island began to move under them, till their hearts grew frightened and they ran, every man as fast as he could, down to the water. And scarcely had they got on board their ships again when the island vanished in the sea. But still they knew not that it was a whale, but thought it was enchantment. Then Brendan told them it was no island, but so large was that whale that its head and tail could never meet, though it often tried to make them do so. From this time they returned to that place every year at Easter for seven years, and always the whale was awaiting them.

Many were the wonders that Brendan and his men beheld while they sailed over those seas, and often they thought that the ship would be sucked down in the black whirlpools or driven on the bare, sharp rocks, but in the end they always escaped. Once they beheld a thick cloud hanging before them, and when they drew nearer they saw through the cloud a man sitting on a rock. Before him hung a cloth which flapped in the wind on his face, while icy waves broke over his head.

'Who are you?' asked Brendan, marvelling at the sight; 'and what do you here?'

And the man answered: 'I am that most wretched Judas who made the worst of all bargains, and once in seven days grace is given me to escape from the fires of hell and cool my burning soul in the sea.'

St. Brendan and Judas


As they listened awe and pity fell upon the men, and they rowed away in silence.

After they had left the rock of Judas behind them, they passed an island whose cliffs were bright with flowers and whose waters were blue and sparkling. But there was no place for them to land between the cliffs, though for twelve days they rowed round searching for one. Only men's voices were heard singing praises to God, and at the sound a deep sleep fell upon Brendan and his companions. When they awoke a tablet of wax was lying in their ship, and on it was written: 'Waste not time in trying to enter this island, for that you will never do. Return now to your country, for there is work for you there, and in the end you shall come to the land you are seeking.' And when Brendan had read the words he commanded the men to row back to Ireland.

Seven years had now passed since Brendan sailed away, and glad were the people to see him once more. They pressed round him, eager to hear all that he had seen and done, and they brought him gifts and besought him for help in their troubles. He stayed with them for awhile, and then he left them and went to Eirc, the Bishop, and to Ita, his foster-mother. And Ita bade him go into Connaught and build a ship, large enough to withstand the waves of the ocean and to carry him to the Land of Promise.

A long time that ship took in building, but when it was finished he placed in it his monks and his servants who had voyaged with him, and not knowing whither they might be going, he ordered them to take seeds of corn to sow and plants which they might put in the earth, while some carpenters and blacksmiths came and begged that they might sail in that ship also. At length all was ready, everyone had gone on board and Brendan was about to follow them, when the king's fool was seen hurrying down the hill, and he made signs to Brendan to stop.

'What is it, my son?' asked Brendan, when the fool drew near, and the man fell on his knees and answered:

'O Brendan! have pity on my misery and take me also, for I am weary of my life at the king's Court.'

'Come then,' said Brendan, and the man climbed over the ship's side and made one with the rest. Now there were sixty men on board that vessel.

First they sailed north, towards the Isle of Arran, and then the tiller was put about, and they sailed west. Soon they reached a lofty island down whose sides the rushing streams made music, but they could not land by reason of the sea-cats which sat in crowds on the rocks, waiting to devour them if they should go on shore, or to swarm on the ship if it approached near enough.

'What do these sea-cats want?' said one to another, and Brendan answered, 'To eat us have they come.' Then he spoke to the fool, saying:

'I hear the angels calling to you to go and enter into eternal life,' and Brendan's words seemed good to the fool, and he stood on the prow of the ship and leaped ashore, his face shining with gladness at the thought of giving his life to save his friends, and the sea-cats rushed at him and devoured him, while the ship rowed away and the men were unharmed.

Westward they went again, till they beheld another island and on it was a church, and by the church an old man praying. Now the old man was so thin that he seemed to have nothing over his bones. He rose from his knees at the sight of the ship, and hastened to the shore and called loudly to Brendan: 'Flee swiftly or evil will overtake you. Know that in this island is a great sea-cat, tall as a young ox or a three-year-old horse, for it has grown a monstrous size from feeding on the fish, which, as you may behold, abound in these waters; and the sea is as much its home as the land.' With that they quickly took their seats and grasped their oars and rowed away as fast as they could into the broad ocean, but in the distance behind them they saw a speck, and the speck grew larger and larger as it swiftly drew nearer.

'It is the sea-cat,' said they, and the sea-cat it was, with a boar's tusks in its head and its eyes bright as a brazen pot; and its strength was the strength of a lion, and its appetite that of a hound. As they looked the men's hearts melted with fear and even Brendan shrank at the sight of it, so they all prayed that they might be delivered from that monster; and while they prayed there appeared a huge whale right between them and the sea-cat. Then a fight began, such as never before had been seen in that ocean, and sometimes one got the better and sometimes the other. But at length the teeth of the sea-cat were so firmly fixed in the body of the whale, and the whale's tail so tightly wrapped round the legs of the sea-cat that neither could swim any more, and they both sank to the bottom and were made fast in the crack of a rock, so that they died.

When Brendan and his men beheld that, they gave thanks and rowed back to the island, where the old man stood on the shore. He wept tears of joy at the sight of them, for he had watched the sea-cat start in pursuit of the ship and knew not what the end would be. So he made them welcome, and sitting beside them on the rocks, he told them how he had come there.

'There were twelve of us,' he said, 'and we set out from Ireland to sail on a pilgrimage, and we brought that monstrous sea-cat with us, for it was then small as a little bird and very dear to us. After that it ate of the fish that lie under the cliffs and grew large and strong as you beheld it, but never did it harm any of us. One by one, eleven of us died, and now that you have come to listen to my confession, I can die also.'

Then he made his confession, but first he showed them how they should come to the Land of Promise which they were seeking, and after that he died, and they buried him with his brethren.

In those seas the islands are many, and often did Brendan cause the anchor of the ship to be dropped, so that he might land, lest anyone should be living in that place, needing help or counsel. Sometimes he would sail across the ocean so far that not so much as a bare rock could he behold, nothing but water around him and the sky above, unless indeed the prow of the vessel was set northward, when wonderful pillars of glittering ice would float towards them, showing colours of red and green in the sunlight, and blue in the shadows as the night came on. But well the helmsman knew that he must keep far away from those mountains of ice, or they would break his ship in pieces and drown all that were therein.

'Set the ship's course to the southward, for the holy St. Gildas has summoned me in a dream and we must needs go to him,' said Brendan. For many days they sailed, till at length a rough wild coast appeared before them.

'To-morrow we shall be there,' said he, 'if the wind is behind us.'

And the men were glad, for they had come from far and were weary. That night Gildas in his monastery had a dream also, and he saw in his dream Brendan and his companions drawing near the shore. Then he bade much food to be prepared, and ordered the porter to shut fast the great door with iron bars and bolts that none might enter. When Brendan and his monks stepped on land it was all covered with snow, and thick soft flakes were falling still, but none fell upon Brendan and his friends. Greatly were they amazed to find the door bolted and barred instead of standing wide, so that all who would might enter. From within the porter heard their voices and cried to them, 'I may not let you in, but at the word of so holy a man the door will open.' At that Brendan bade Talmach, his follower, to stretch forth his hand to the door, and as he did so the bolts withdrew of themselves and they all passed into the monastery.

Three days Brendan spent in that place, and then Gildas, the wise, spoke to him, and this is what he said: 'In the wilderness near by dwell a number of fierce wild beasts, which are dreaded by all the people, and are so bold that they even venture up the gates of the monastery itself. No man has been able to slay them, though many have sought to do so, so now help us, and by the power given you subdue those beasts so that they do no more hurt.' Then Brendan, with Talmach, his follower, went into the wilderness, and men on horses rode after them, to see what would happen.

After walking for awhile over the wide moor, with gorse and heather about them, they reached a cluster of rocks, and beheld a lioness asleep in the sun, with her cubs about her.

'Go and arouse her, O Talmach!' said Brendan, and Talmach went. Softly though his feet sounded on the grass the lioness heard him and sprang up with a roar, which was echoed from the throats of the other beasts who rushed to the spot where the man stood. But as they came Brendan looked at them and said:

'Follow us now quietly, and let the cubs follow also,' and in this manner they returned to the town which lay outside the monastery. At the gates Brendan stopped and spoke to the wild beasts again, saying: 'From henceforth you will guard the sheep and the cows when they go out to feed, and will watch that no wolves come near them.' And this the beasts did for evermore.

After this it was time for Brendan to sail northwards again, and he took farewell of Gildas and entered his ship. And near the Irish shore he stopped at a little island, where an old man dwelt alone, and right glad was the old man to see Brendan.

'How came you here?' asked the saint. 'You are so old that many years must have passed since you quitted your country.'

'You say truly,' answered the hermit; 'and now you have come to give me your blessing, I shall be suffered to depart in peace, for I am tired of this life and would fain be finished with it.'

'Have you always been alone?' asked Brendan.

'No, verily,' answered the hermit. 'Once we were three—young men all—who set out on a pilgrimage. A cake for each was all the food we brought, but I took my little cat also. For awhile after we left the shore we rowed our boat, but then we cast away our oars and let it drift as it would, knowing that the Lord would guide us; and the waves rocked us till we found ourselves in a harbour where green slopes ran down to the sea. There we landed and looked about to choose a spot in which we could build a church, and at last we found one in the midst of the island. Then I looked round for my cat, which I had forgotten, but it was nowhere to be seen, which grieved me sorely, for much I loved it. In the evening, when the sun was sinking over the sea, I beheld a strange beast approaching from afar, but of a shape that I knew not.

'What beast is that?' I said to my companions, and the one whose eyes could reach beyond those of common men answered me:

'It is your little cat, and in its mouth it bears a salmon twice its own size.' 'And my heart rejoiced to know my little cat was coming back to me. And thrice each day the little cat brought us a salmon in his mouth. But at length the thought entered our minds that it was not the duty of a pilgrim to let himself be fed by a cat, although in our setting out we knew not that so it would be. And one said: "Though we brought no food with us, yet in bringing our cat we brought plenty. We will therefore eat no more of the cat's providing, but he shall eat of the salmon himself. Yet, because he has been kind to us, we will be kind to him all the days of his life." So we fasted for twenty-four hours, and then it was made known to us that on the altar of the church we would find every day a wheaten cake and a piece of fish for each man.

'Since that, many years have passed. My friends have died and my cat, and now give me your blessing, that I may die also.'

Then Brendan blessed him, and he died as he had wished.

The ship sailed away till it reached an island known as the Paradise of Birds, for snow-white birds covered it from end to end, as many and as bright as the angels of Heaven. Thence they set the helm westwards, and, when forty days were over, a thick cloud wrapped the vessel, so that the men could scarce see each other. But after an hour the cloud vanished; a great light shone round about them, and there lay before them the island they had sought for seven years.

'Rest here awhile, O weary ones!' said a voice, 'for this is the Land of Promise.' So they rested and ate of the fruits, and listened to heavenly music and gazed at the flowers which were brighter far than those of earth. And when they were rested an angel came to them and bade them return home, for their wanderings were done and the work of Brendan lay in his monastery among his own people.

But fruits and precious stones they were to bear with them, so that all might know whither they had come.

This is the story of Brendan.