[Editor’s Note: As part of the release of our first issue, folktale editor Katherine Langrish presents the Voyage of St Brendan, in Lady Gregory's translation. Below she gives us the background to the tale. The story of the wonder voyage itself will be serialised over subsequent Tuesdays.]
There are a number of the traditional Old Irish voyage tales known as immrama. Most involve voyages towards the west, the traditional European direction for the Otherworld, where the sun sets into the sea. The immrama hark back to older pre-Christian Celtic voyage tales; some involve Irish heroes such as Bran and Mael Duin.
The Voyage of Saint Brendan is a Christian narrative, however, and Saint Brendan was a real person, born near Tralee in Ireland in AD 484 and baptised and ordained by Saint Erc. He is said to have built monastic cells at Ardfert, and at the foot of Brandon Hill, Shanakeel— Seana Cill, usually translated as ‘the old church’— also called Baalynevinoorach. Brendan’s missionary voyages took him to Wales and the Scottish island of Iona, as well as to France and other parts of mainland Europe; he founded monasteries near Oban and Kilbrennan Sound in Scotland. After a three year mission in Britain he returned to Ireland, where he started to move further north from his home county of Kerry.
His fame as a missionary and a voyager spread, and his monastery in Ardfert became a place of pilgrimage. So it’s perhaps unsurprising Brendan became the subject of a Wonder Voyage narrative. The earliest extant version of The Voyage of Saint Brendan was written down around AD 900. It tells how, after dreaming of ‘a beautiful island with angels serving upon it’, the Saint puts out in a hide boat called a curragh, with twelve companions (some versions say ninety), in search of Paradise, the Land of the Blessed, and spends seven years wandering the Atlantic Ocean from one fantastic island to another: the island of the ‘Comely Hound’ (a dog which leads them to a hall with a table spread with food); the Island of Sheep, ‘every sheep the size of an ox’; ‘The Paradise of Birds’, on which can be found some of the angels who fell with Lucifer living in the shape of small birds all rejoicing and singing the matins and the verses of the psalms.
The Irish immrama clearly influenced not only C. S. Lewis, whose Voyage of the Dawn Treader is almost a modern version of such a tale, echoing events from the voyages of Mael Duin and St Brendan, but also J. R. R.Tolkien, whose elves take ship for the numinous and deathless lands of the uttermost west.
The Voyage of St Brendan is a narrative full of delight in God and his world. I particularly like the amiable sea monster, Jasconye the Fish, whom the monks mistake for an island and who – after a startled first occasion when he swims off, bearing away the fire the monks have lighted upon him – allows Brendan and his companions to celebrate Easter upon his back as an annual occurrence.
Brendan seems to know all about this beast, explaining to his companions that Jasconye is forever vainly trying to swallow his own tail. Is this an echo of the Northern Midgard Serpent, or simply a bit of early medieval natural science? Here he is anyway, on a map of 1621, obligingly stretched out between the east coast of Africa and ‘the Fortunate Isles’, with ‘St Brendan’s Isle’ to the north.
Tolkien amused himself with a poem based on the monster: ‘Fastitocalon’, in The Adventures of Tom Bombadil:
Look, there is Fastitocalon!
An island good to land upon,
Although ’tis rather bare.
If you light a fire on Fastitocalon, however, then – less amiable in nature than Jasconye – he will turn upside down and dive, leaving you to drown…
Brendan’s voyage takes him to the borders of hell, and then to the shores of Paradise. The immram that bears his name tells how at last he returns to Ireland, where in fact he died in AD 577, at the convent of his sister Briga at Enachduin, now Annaghdown. He is said to be buried in a grave facing the front door of Clonfert Cathedral, but perhaps in spirit he took to the ocean again and returned to the lands of the blessed.