Home » Horizons » Irishmen at sea: Dicuil, St. Brendan and the pilgrim saints


Among the greatest navigators of Late Antiquity and Early Medieval Europe were the Irish. Already by the end of the Roman occupation of neighbouring Britain, the Irish were raiding and settling the western coasts, prompting a number of responses, military campaigns against them and making use of Irish mercenary muscle foremost among them. This period also saw the Christianisation of Ireland, in no small part thanks to the tireless endeavours of a Briton, St. Patrick, with the pious Irish hermits seeking solitude at sea.


Ireland also became a land of renown due to the high calibre of its scholars. One of these was Dicuil, a monk who was active in the 8th and 9th centuries, who produced a learned treatise on geography, the Liber de mensura orbis terrae, which built upon the works of the classical geographers and the Spanish St. Isidore. Dicuil's section on the northern sea furnishes posterity with one of the most significant notices of pre-Viking Irish settlement in the northern islands [7.2.6-3], foremost among which was the Thule, first known to the Classical world through the journeys of Pytheas of Massila, and most probably (in Dicuil's account) identified with Iceland, whose lengthy summer days is cause for comment:-

It is now thirty years since certain priests, who had been on [Thule] from the 1st of February to the 1st of August, told that not only at the time of the summer solstice, but also during the days before and after, the setting sun at evening conceals itself as it were behind a little mound, so that it does not grow dark even for the shortest space of time, but whatsoever work a man will do, even picking the lice out of his shirt, he may do it just as though the sun were there, and if they had been upon the high mountains of the island perhaps the sun would never be concealed by them.

Though the priests were only there during the period between February and August, Dicuil correctly reasons that, come winter time, the opposite situation would prevail:-

In the middle of this very short time it is midnight in the middle of the earth, and on the other hand I suppose in the same way that at the winter solstice and for a few days on either side of it the dawn is seen for a very short time in Thule, when it is midday in the middle of the earth.

Dicuil, from his countrymen's observations, corrects the errors of previous authorities with regards to the freezing of the sea, the Irish monks travelling as far north as that point:-

Consequently I believe that they lie and are in error who wrote that there was a stiffened sea around it, and likewise those who said that there was continuous day without night from the vernal equinox till the autumnal equinox, and conversely continuous night from the autumnal equinox till the vernal, since those who sailed thither reached it in the natural time for great cold, and while they were there always had day and night alternately except at the time of the summer solstice; but a day's sail northward from it they found the frozen sea.

As a footnote, Dicuil also mentions other islands north of Britain and Ireland which had formerly been populated by Irish monks, according to Dicuil from shortly before AD 700:-

There are many more islands in the ocean north of Britain, which can be reached from the northern British Isles in two days' and two nights' direct sailing with full sail and a favorable wind. A trustworthy priest told me that he had sailed for two summer days and an intervening night in a little boat with two thwarts, and landed on one of these islands. These islands are for the most part small; nearly all are divided from one another by narrow sounds, and upon them anchorites, who proceeded from [Ireland], have lived for about a hundred years. But as since the beginning of the world they had always been deserted, so are they now by reason of the Northman pirates emptied of anchorites, but full of innumerable sheep and a great number of different kinds of sea birds. We have never found these islands spoken of in the books of authors.

The archipelagos in the account above are likely the Shetlands and especially the Faroes.


The Norsemen who supplanted the Irish in the Northern Isles remembered them. Their presence is substantiated both archaeologically and in the Norse toponyms mentioning Papar or Westmen. The prologue of the Icelandic Landnámabók remembers them thus: -

But before Iceland was colonized by the Northmen, the men were there whom the Northmen called Papas; they were Christians, and people think that they came from the west over the sea, for there was found after them Irish books, and bells, and croziers, and many more things from which it could be seen that they were Westmen; such were found eastwards in Papey, and Papyli; it is also mentioned in English books that in that time, was intercourse between the countries.

The same source also refers to Irish founders of settlements on numerous occasions, including the offspring of rulers, though it is unclear what relationship these people may have had, if any, to the monks: it is just as feasible to suggest that they were brought to Iceland as slaves, as Irish slaves are also mentioned. Irish-derived names do appear in the records, however, with the most significant being that of Grímur Kamban, identified as the first Norse settler in the Faroe Islands in sources such as the Flateyjarbók and Saga of Óláfr Tryggvason. His surname likely derives from Old Irish camb, meaning crooked. Also of significance is the Gaelic name of Kormákr Ögmundarson, a 10th century skald and eponymous hero of a saga.

Of particular interest given the foregoing interest in Irish monastic and non-monastic settlements to the west are the Norse descriptions of a land in that direction, named as Írland hið mikla ("Great Ireland") or Hvítramannaland ("White Men's Land"), which feature in a number of notices: -

  • The Landnámabók
  • An account of the Voyage of Bjorn Asbrandson, AD 999
  • The Eyrbyggja Saga

These descriptions have inevitably led to suggestions of a pre-Columbian Irish presence somewhere in the Americas, though it seems more likely that all of these descriptions in fact come from the interplay of Irish and Norse stories, particularly during the 10th and 11th centuries, which would themselves have a basis in the Papar and their naval exploits (which may indeed have got them as far as Greenland). Nonetheless, the notion does appear to have had some form of an afterlife: in the latter half of the 16th century, the Venetian nobleman Nicolò Zen claimed to have written an account of the voyages of his prestigious forebears Nicolò and Antonio in the northern seas, during which the latter encounted a fisherman who spoke of a western land named Estotiland, in the name of which we may have a corrupt version of something along the lines of Escotiland, which would then refer to the Scots (the country of Scotland takes its name from an Irish people thus referred to by the Romans). White people in today's Canada also appear in the account of Jacques Cartier's second expedition: -

Donnacona had told us, that he had bene in the Countrey of Saguenay, in which are infinite Rubies, Gold, and other riches, and that there are white men, who clothe themselves with woollen cloth even as we doe in France.


Among the earliest of the Irish monks to seek solitude in the bosom of the ocean was Cormac, grandson of Lethan, who appears in Adomnán of Iona's Vita Columbae in scenes which edify his main subject, St. Columba. Cormac is described as "a truly pious man, who not less than three times went in search of a desert in the ocean, but did not find it," and of whose first effort St. Columba was reported as uttering the prophecy [1.6]: -

In his desire to find a desert, Cormac is this day, for the second time, now embarking from that district which lies at the other side of the river Moda, and is called Eirros, Domno; nor even this time shall he find what he seeks, and that for no other fault than that he has irregularly allowed to accompany him in the voyage a monk who is going away from his own proper abbot without obtaining his consent.

This trope of the ill-omened late arrival appears in the tales of St. Brendan and of the hero Máel Dúin. The other expeditions necessitate the intervention of St. Columba in an endeavour to ensure their success, or, at the very least, freedom from harassment [2.43]: -

At another time a soldier of Christ, named Cormac, about whom we have related a few brief particulars in the first part of this book, made even a second attempt to discover a desert in the ocean. After he had gone far from the land over the boundless ocean at full sail, St. Columba, who was then staying beyond the Dorsal Ridge of Britain (Drumalban), recommended him in the following terms to King Brude, in the presence of the ruler of the Orcades: "Some of our brethren have lately set sail, and are anxious to discover a desert in the pathless sea; should they happen, after many wanderings, to come to the Orcadian islands, do thou carefully instruct this chief, whose hostages are in thy hand, that no evil befall them within his dominions." The saint took care to give this direction, because he knew that after a few months Cormac would arrive at the Orcades. So it afterwards came to pass, and to this advice of the holy man Cormac owed his escape from impending death.

The Orcades - the Orkney Isles - apparently under the suzerainty of the Pictish king Brude, were seemingly as far as this soldier of Christ got at that juncture: he returned to Iona after a few months. Cormac's third attempt was fraught by many more difficulties [ibid.]: -

When Cormac was laboriously engaged in his third voyage over the ocean, he was exposed to the most imminent danger of death. For, when for fourteen days in summer, and as many nights, his vessel sailed with full sails before a south wind, in a straight course from land, into the northern regions, his voyage seemed to be extended beyond the limits of human wanderings, and return to be impossible.
Accordingly, after the tenth hour of the fourteenth day, certain dangers of a most formidable and almost insurmountable kind presented themselves. A multitude of loathsome and annoying insects, such as had never been seen before, covered the sea in swarms, and struck the keel and sides, the prow, and stern of the vessel, so very violently, that it seemed as if they would wholly penetrate the leathern covering of the ship. According to the accounts afterwards-given by those who were there, they were about the size of frogs; they could swim, but were not able to fly; their sting was extremely painful, and they crowded upon the handles of the oars.

They return safely thanks to St. Columba's timely intervention, and Cormac is last encountered visiting St. Columba at Hinba in the Hebrides from Ireland with three other distinguished churchmen [3.18].

The Remains of St Ronan's Church, Rona, by Peter Strugnell via Geograph.co.uk.

Beyond the Hebrides, north west of Cape Wrath, lie the remote islands of (North) Rona and its rocky counterpart Sula Sgeir. The former, it is said, takes its name from a certain St. Ronan who sought solitude there and is regarded as the builder of an ancient Christian chapel, the ruins of which may still be seen. He died in 737 (or perhaps 678). St. Ronan had a sister with the Germanic name Brenhilda, who sought to outdo her sibling by ekeing out an existence on Sula Sgeir. This tragic woman soon perished, and "was found dead with a seabird's nest built inside her ribcage."


Especially popular in the medieval period and beyond, there are many different accounts purporting to provide an accurate reminiscence of the feats of the great Irish seafarer saint Brendan of Clonfert. These range from the "standard" Latin text, known as the Navigatio Sancti Brendani abbatis and numerous native Irish accounts to material in English, Dutch, German, Venetian, Occitan, Catalan and even Icelandic. Most concern St. Brendan's search for the Terra Repromissionis Sanctorum, the "Promised Land of the Saints," an earthly paradise described as being preternaturally beautiful and divided by a great river, across which no living being is allowed to tread. Along the way, the saint and his crew meet with a whole variety of wonders, some glorious, others terrifying, in an Irish Odyssey which would influence many subsequent writers, from the producers of the immrama to C.S. Lewis' The Voyage of the Dawn Treader.

In terms of its association with the historical travels of Irish monks as outlined by Dicuil, one notes that the latter's "innumerable sheep" and "different kinds of sea birds" become the near neighbours the Island of Sheep and the Paradise of Birds, while the partially-frozen northern ocean is evidenced by a sea "like a thick curdled mass." The hellish portent of the flaming mountain seen by St. Brendan and his men may represent a didactic take on eyewitness testimony of a volcano in or around Iceland.


The most common account of St. Brendan's longing for the ocean comes from early Irish material, and concerns tidings of the Terra Repromissionis Sanctorum which the saint recieves from one St. Barind or Barinthus. St. Barind describes his adventures with his associate Mernoc as follows: -

"When we entered the boat and set sail, clouds overshadowed us on every side, so dense that we could scarcely see the prow or the stern of the boat. After the lapse of an hour or so, a great light shone around us, and land appeared, spacious and grassy, and bearing all manner of fruits. And when the boat touched the shore; we landed, and walked round about the island for fifteen days, yet could not reach the limits thereof. No plant saw we there without its flower; no tree without its fruit; and all the stones thereon were precious gems. But on the fifteenth day we discovered a river flowing from the west towards the east, when, being at a loss what to do, though we wished to cross over the river, we awaited the direction of the Lord. While we thus considered the matter, there appeared suddenly before us a certain man, shining with a great light, who, calling us by our names, addressed us thus:
"'Welcome, worthy brothers, for the Lord has revealed to yon the land He will grant unto His saints. There is one-half of the island up to this river, which you are not permitted to pass over; return, therefore, whence you came.'"

Another early precursor of St. Brendan is St. Ailbe, who also set to sea with a community of monks eight decades prior to St. Brendan's journey: -

"Here we are twenty-four brothers, having each day twelve loaves for our support, one loaf for two brothers; but on Sundays and great festivals the Lord allows us a full loaf for each brother, so that of what remains we may have a supper; and now, on your advent, we have a double supply; thus it is that from the days of St. Patrick and St. Ailbe, our patriarchs, for eighty years until now, Christ provides us with sustenance. Moreover, neither old age nor bodily infirmities increase upon us here, neither do we need cooked food, nor are we oppressed with heat or distressed with cold; but we live here, as it were, in the paradise of God."

These ageless monks provide yearly ministrations to St. Brendan and his crew during the seven or so years of their search for the Terra Repromissionis Sanctorum. Other regular stops include the Island of Sheep, Paradise of Birds and the back of the vast sea creature Iasconius or Jasconius (iasc being, in Modern Irish, a "fish").


The Latin archetype of the tale features a seven-year search for the level of spiritual perfection required to access the Terra Repromissionis Sanctorum, which is required due to the late addition of three members of the crew, which ruins the original numerology associated with a crew of fourteen. Needless to say, these three are shed during the journey (as is also the case for Máel Dúin's royal foster-brothers).

The itinerary of their journey is as follows: -

[...] a dense cloud overshadowed them, so dark that they could scarce see one another.
When they had disembarked, they saw a land, extensive and thickly set with trees, laden with fruits, as in the autumn season. All the time they were traversing that land, during their stay in it, no night was there, but a light always shone, like the light of the sun in the meridian, and for the forty days they viewed the land in various directions, they could not find the limits thereof.
One day, however, they came to a large river flowing towards the middle of the land, which they could not by any means cross over.
St. Brendan then said to the brethren: "We cannot cross over this river, and we must therefore remain ignorant of the size of this country."
"This is the land you have sought after for so long a time; but you could not hitherto find it, because Christ our Lord wished first to display to you His divers mysteries in this immense ocean.
"Return now to the land of your birth, bearing with you as much of those fruits and of those precious stones, as your boat can carry; for the days of your earthly pilgrimage must draw to a close, when you may rest in peace among your saintly brethren. After many years this land will be made manifest to those who come after you, when days of tribulation may come upon the people of Christ.
"The great river you see here divides this land into two parts; and just as it appears now, teeming with ripe fruits, so does it ever remain, without any blight or shadow whatever, for light unfailing shines thereon."

It should be noted that rivers often feature as boundaries between the realms of the living and dead, and many people who experience near-death experiences report seeing a river they are forbidden to cross.


The St. Brendan legend also appears in a number of Irish languages sources, often telling very different versions of the tale and adding new locations to what become several voyages. A Life of St. Brendan from the Book of Lismore features two journeys, the first leading the saint to a terrifying encounter with the devil at the Gate of Hell, while a longer Irish Life combines material from a variety of sources and even features St. Brendan having dealings in Britain with the famous St. Gildas. A third version, much briefer, appears in the Da Apostl. Decc na hÉrenn and suggests a new reason for the saint's journey: during the casting of lots, to see who will venture forth, the older namesake of the saint, St. Brendan of Birr, is nominated, with St. Brendan of Clonfert (our hero) volunteering to take his place.

Additional destinations and encounters are as follows: -


As noted above, the legend also appears in many other literatures, with the most notably divergent being that which originated in the Rhine Valley and survives in Dutch and German recensions. This tale features a number of tropes from the folklore and mythology of that region, and adds a number of other notable encounters to the hero's endeavours. This material (and the linked translations) derive from W.R.J. Barron & Glynn S. Burgess' The Voyage of St. Brendan: Representative Versions of the Legend in English Translation with Indexes of Themes and Motifs from the Stories (mine is the 2005 version). In it, the authors note a divergent version of the legend, based on a document originally written in the Rhineland, which has surviving daughter stories in Middle Dutch & Middle High German, the comparative structure of which can be seen in the chart below: -

The Dutch versionThe German version
(1) Prologue(1) ...
(2) The burning of the book and its consequences(2) The burning of the book and its consequences
(3) The building of the ship(3) The building of the ship. Departure
(4) Brendan finds a giant's skull washed ashore(4) ...
(5) A sea-dragon is overcome by a flying stag(5) A sea dragon is defeated by a flying stag
(6) Landfall on the back of a fish(6) Landing on the back of a fish
(7) The ship is threatened by a horrible mermaid(7) The ship is threatened by a horrible mermaid
(8) Encounter with the ghosts of dishonest servants(8) Encounter with the ghosts of dishonest servants
(9) The Liver Sea and the submerged magnet(9) The Liver Sea and the submerged magnet
(10) Visit to a monastery situated on a rock(10) Visit to a monastery situated on a rock
(11) Meeting with a recluse, once King of Pamphilia and Cappadocia(11) Encounter with a recluse, a former king
(12) Burning souls in the mouth of a volcano(12) ...
(13) The first Paradise castle; a monk steals a precious bridle(13) The first Paradise castle; a monk steals a precious bridle
(14) Visit to the second castle: the Earthly Paradise(14) Visit to the second castle: the Earthly Paradise
(15) The thieving monk is abducted by devils and returned(15) The thievish monk abducted and returned
(16) ...(16) The Liver Sea again
(17) The crew is put to sleep by a siren(17) The crew is put to sleep by a siren
(18) The devils' island(18) The devils' island
(19) ...(19) Brendan loses his cowl and retrieves it
(20) Brendan's vision of Heaven(20) ...
(21) The ship is surrounded by shoals of fish(21) ...
(22) Encounter with a hermit floating on a clod of earth(22) Encounter with a hermit floating on a small clod of earth
(23) Encounter with Judas(23) Encounter with Judas
(24) The burning birds(24) The burning birds
(251) Multum bona terra(251) Multum bona terra
(252) Discussion with the Walserands(252) Discussion with the Walserands
(26) The ship is surrounded by a sea serpent(26) The ship is surrounded by a sea serpent
(27) Contact with a human world below the sea surface(27) Contact with a human world below the surface of the sea
(281) ...(281) The dwarf Bettewart and the hermit
(282) ...(282) ...
(29) Encounter with a dwarf man floating on a leaf(29) ...
(30) ...(30) Heilteran (in MS g after 31a/b)
(311) The book is full(311) Brendan records the marvels he has seen
(312) The lost anchor(312) The anchor is cut away. Bettewart tows the ship
(32) ...(32) ...
(33) Homeward journey and Brendan's death(33) Homeward journey and Brendan's death
(34) Epilogue(34) Epilogue
Sir Graham