Today, at least in the US, it’s Columbus Day. While I won’t pretend that the claims by the famous Italian are somewhat up for debate, and certainly with their share of controversy, I’d rather offer someone else for your consideration for the discovery of this hemisphere: the 6th century Irish monk known as St. Brendan.
What, you expected Leif Erikson?
You see, nearly a millennium before Christopher Columbus’s famed trip on the Niña, the Pinta, and the Santa-Maria, St. Brendan got the moniker “Brendan the Voyager” for completing a rather impressive journey that took seven years. According to the extant sources, St. Brendan went looking for the Garden of Eden, but may well have stumbled across the New World in little more than a leather-clad boat sometime between 513-530 CE. In fact, some even claim that Christopher Columbus himself was inspired by the monk’s journey, and is reported to have written in his travel log before leaving on his historic trip, “I am convinced that the terrestrial paradise is in the Island of Saint Brendan, which none can reach save by the Will of God.”
I first came across St. Brendan during a seminar in medieval history in my senior year of college. At the time I was rather intrigued with hagiography, the study of saint’s lives, and admittedly St. Brendan’s voyage was much eclipsed by my interest in St. Columba (not to be confused with Columbus) who recounted, it is said, one of the first sightings of the Loch Ness Monster. But what always stuck with me regarding St. Brendan was how unusual his story was (though, in all fairness, Brendan encountered his own sea monster, as well). While much hagiography is ascribed to the rather colorful imagination of medieval minds, in the 20th century many began to speculate about St. Brendan’s, and a rather intriguing amount of evidence pertaining to his trip emerged.
In the late 1970s, a man named Tim Severin decided to put the story to the test, seeing if he could navigate his way from Scotland to Nova Scotia using what he believed were St. Brendan’s “stepping stones”–Scotland, the Hebrides, the Faroes, Iceland, Greenland, Newfoundland, and Nova Scotia–in a boat modeled after vessels St. Brendan could have used. It was successful, if not hard-won. From Severin’s account:
Brendan [Severin's boat] touched the New World at 8:00 p.m. on June 26, 1977, on the shore of Peckford Island in the Outer Wadham Group some 150 miles northwest of St. John’s, Newfoundland. She had been at sea for fifty days. The exact spot of her landfall has no particular significance to the story of the early Irish voyages into the Atlantic. It was merely the place where the wind and current had brought a twentieth-century replica of the original Irish skin vessels….
And while other theories have surfaced, including speculation on supposed ogham (Old Irish alphabet) in West Virginia, the jury is not yet out on the Columbus vs. Brendan debate. What do you think? Plausible? Poppycock? At very least, I love that this particular theory inspired such a geeky–and heroic–endeavor. That, if anything, should be celebrated.